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Headless Chickens criticised after scattering ashes of dead bandmate on awards stage

By | Published on Thursday 19 April 2018

Headless Chickens

Accepting a prize at the Taite Music Awards in New Zealand, the band Headless Chickens ensured that their full line-up was there to accept it by scattering the ashes of late bassist Grant Fell on the stage.

As the band were presented with the Classic Record Award for their 1987 album ‘Stunt Clown’, the band’s Chris Matthews held up a small vial. “I think Grant probably always wanted to play on this stage”, he said, before tipping Fell’s ashes out onto the stage. And drummer Bevan Sweeney.

Fell died in January this year, three years after being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour. Although he was given the all-clear in September last year, the cancer quickly returned.

The Taite Music Prize is basically the New Zealand version of the Mercury, a panel of judges choosing the best album released by an artist from the country in the previous year. However, since it was launched in 2010, other awards have been added to the ceremony. The Classic Album Award was first presented in 2013, and last year the event saw the introduction of an Independent Debut Award too.

Headless Chickens’ tribute to their late bandmate has divided opinion. There was particular criticism that the scattering of the ashes was not in line with traditional Maori culture and its treatment of the dead.

One of the artists up for the main award, Maori musician Teeks, tweeted: “First time I’m glad I didn’t win an award. Wouldn’t have gotten on stage with those ashes under my feet … Still extremely humbled to have been nominated, don’t get me wrong, but I was raised in a culture where that shit isn’t OK”.

He later added: “I’m sure no offence was intended, totally understand the sentiment behind it and why they thought it might have been a good idea. I guess the thing we need to realise is that we live in two different worlds”.

Organisers of the awards, Independent Music New Zealand, said that they had been unaware of plans to scatter the ashes. Although the organisation refused to say what had happened to the ashes following the ceremony, a spokesperson told Radio New Zealand that a Maori blessing would be carried out at the Wintergarden venue in Auckland, where the ceremony took place.

Fell’s widow Rachael Churchward defended the band’s actions in a statement, stating: “We were not setting out to shock or offend anyone, but Grant wanted his ashes scattered in places he loved – and he loved being on stage playing music. I understand it’s not in line with tikanga [Maori customs], but we all come from different places and we don’t adhere to every tradition. Music is a big part of our identity too”.

The main Taite Music Prize was handed to Aldous Harding for her excellent ‘Party’ album. Preparing to record the follow-up in London, she wasn’t at the ceremony and therefore didn’t have to make any moral judgement about standing on the ashes-covered stage.

Referencing the NZ$10,000 prize money, she said in a video message: “We start recording the new album in the next couple of days, so I’ll put the money towards making the same mistake”.