A Brief History Of... Headless Chickens

On A Fry-Day A Brief History Of… Headless Chickens

After footage emerges of an early version of ‘High And Dry’, Will Richards profiles Thom Yorke’s pre-Radiohead uni band.

The dislike Thom Yorke and the rest of Radiohead have for possibly their most accessible hit, ‘High And Dry’, is well documented, and the band haven’t played the song live since before the turn of the millennium.

Although the track didn’t appear on a Radiohead album until it found its way onto 1995 classic ‘The Bends’, footage has recently made its way online of Yorke performing a version of the song with one of his pre-Radiohead projects, Exeter-based Headless Chickens, some time before 1990. With very few shows and even less music available to dissect, here’s what we do know about Headless Chickens, and about how Thom Yorke’s time at University in Exeter informed the earliest years of Radiohead:

After meeting Jonny and Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway at Abingdon School in Oxford, Thom Yorke headed down to Exeter University in 1988 to study English and Fine Art. With their band On A Friday - later to become Radiohead - taking a break to accommodate Yorke’s studies, the soon-to-be star started playing house parties and student union gigs with Headless Chickens, as well as regularly DJ’ing at the university. Yorke and the band are said to have been regarded as one of the most promising acts to have risen through the Exeter scene in the late 1980s, and even opened for De La Soul in that time. They are also reported to have been involved with the establishment of Hometown Atrocities, an anarchist collective started in the city.

The recording of ‘High And Dry’ that has recently surfaced was shot at Exeter’s student venue, the Lemon Grove, in what is believed to be the very late 1980s. Being played over five years before it became a Radiohead smash, the Headless Chickens’ version of the track is quicker, snappier and more electrified than the song that became one of the most heartfelt moments on ‘The Bends’. Probably the funniest part of the video is the bassist’s exaggerated (read: seemingly sarcastic) singing at the beginning of the clip, which probably had him staring sheepishly at his shoes once Yorke brought the track to the table for ‘The Bends’ .

The only song the band fully released, and the only one available to hear online, is ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Woodstock’, a poppy, grunge number with Yorke on guitar and backing vocals, and more than a little hint of Pixies. The track was first released on a Hometown Atrocities EP in 1989, then appeared on a compilation album entitled ‘Year Zero’, which profiled the Exeter punk scene from 1977-2000.

As well as the Headless Chicken days spawning one of Radiohead’s biggest hits, Thom Yorke’s time with the band and in Exeter forged other friendships and connections that would also go on to be integral to Radiohead’s development. Yorke met Stanley Donwood, creator of all of Radiohead’s artwork and promotional material since 1994, in his time at Exeter, and continued their friendship when Headless Chickens disbanded and Yorke moved back to Exeter to reignite On A Friday - many of the seeds of the future were being sown down in Exeter with the Headless Chickens, from hit singles to artistic partners.

Headless Chickens only lasted for a year, left behind one song, and played twenty or so gigs, but ‘High and Dry’ alone is enough reason to be glad for their existence, and maybe the video is just one of many hidden away somewhere with more indication of Headless Chickens’ influence in being one of the many roads that eventually led to the best British band of the past twenty years.

Tags: Radiohead, Features

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