Henry Cow

Henry Cow were an English avant-rock group, founded at Cambridge University in 1968 by multi-instrumentalists Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson. Although Henry Cow’s personnel changed over the decade, drummer Chris Cutler was and bassoonist/oboist Lindsay Cooper remained important members. They were able to explore their creativity and remain unaffected by the commercial music industry because of their anti-commercial nature. Myles Boisen, a critic, writes that their sound was so daring and mercurial that there were few imitations. However, they still inspired many people on both sides of the Atlantic. Their mix of spontaneity and intricate structures, philosophy and humor has survived and transcended the “progressive” label. Although it was widely believed that Henry Cow got their name from the 20th-century American composer Henry Cowell (which has repeatedly been denied by members of the band), this is not true. Hodgkinson claims that the name Henry Cow was “in the air” 1968 and seemed like a good choice for the band. It was not related to anyone. Fred Frith met Tim Hodgkinson in a Cambridge University blues club in May 1968. They began to perform together after they realized their common open-minded approach to music. Henry Cow was first to perform as Pink Floyd’s support act at the Architects Ball at Homerton College in Cambridge, 12 June 1968. Henry Cow expanded in October 1968 when they were joined Dave Atwood (drums), Andy Powell (bass guitar) and Rob Brooks(rhythm guitar). This trio performed together until December 1968, when Frith Hodgkinson, Powell and Atwood split from the rest of their group. Powell was at King’s College studying music under Roger Smalley. Smalley was the resident composer. Henry Cow was influenced by Smalley’s early development. He introduced them to new music by musicians such as Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa. Smalley introduced them to the concept of writing complex and long musical pieces for rock bands. Henry Cow started writing music at this point to challenge their collective abilities to play and then use it to improve themselves. Henry Cow was a trio with Frith playing bass guitar, Powell playing drums, and Hodgkinson on organ. Powell and Frith had convinced him to learn the organ. Henry Cow also performed at a variety of university events, including the annual Midsummer Common Festival, the Architects Ball, and the Rooftop Concert on a 14-storey Cambridge building. The band became a duo in April 1969, with Powell playing bass guitar and Frith playing violin. Hodgkinson played keyboards and reeds. Galen Strawson, a philosopher, auditioned to join the band in October 1969. Frith and Hodgkinson later convinced John Greaves, a bassist, to join the band. With the help of two temporary drummers, then Sean Jenkins, Henry Cow was able to perform as a quartet for eight months. Martin Ditcham took over Jenkins’ drums in May 1971. They played several events with this line-up, including the Glastonbury Festival, June 1971, alongside Gong. Ditcham left in July 1971, and Chris Cutler took over the drums. Cutler responded to an advertisement in Melody Maker and the band invited Cutler to a rehearsal. It was only after Cutler joined that Henry Cow became a core group of Frith, Hodgkinson and Cutler. After a successful rehearsal schedule, the band moved to London. Henry Cow recorded a John Peel session in February 1972, after having participated in John Peel’s 1971 “Rockortunity Knocks” contest. Later, they recorded another session in October 1971 and three more sessions between 1973-1975. Henry Cow composed and performed the music in Robert Walker’s production Euripides’ The Bacchae in April 1972. It was a three-week long period of intense work, which changed the band forever. Geoff Leigh joined the band on woodwinds, and Henry Cow was formed. The band performed at Edinburgh Festival in July 1972. They also wrote music and performed a ballet together with Ray Smith and the Cambridge Contemporary Dance Group at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Smith later created the “paint socks” artwork on three Henry Cow’s album covers. They started to organize concerts and events in London under Cabaret Voltaire, Explorers’ Club at Kensington Town Hall, with invited guests including Lol Coxhill and Ray Smith. Coxhill and Bailey, both musicians, became “enthusiastic fans” of Henry Cow. They attended many of their concerts. Frith later said that he was “strongly influenced by their critical engagements and encouragement.” Henry Cow began to get some attention from the rock media and the newly formed Virgin Records label. After much deliberation and negotiation, Henry Cow signed a contract in May 1973 with Virgin. Henry Cow recorded their debut album Legend, also known as Leg End, within two weeks of signing the agreement at Virgin’s Manor Studios. Although it took them three weeks to complete the project, they were able to manage the studio by themselves, which proved to be a valuable asset later in their careers. Henry Cow made his first political statement with the song “Nine Funerals of the Citizen King”, which was sung by the entire group. Virgin organized a tour of the UK for Henry Cow and Faust to promote their new signing. Henry Cow started preparing music for a provocative and unconventional play that was based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Some of the music from this session was used in their next album, Unrest. The band performed Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells live for the BBC in November 1973. It can be found on Oldfield’s Elements DVD. Geoff Leigh quit the group during a December 1973 tour through the Netherlands. Henry Cow was looking for unusual instruments to help them move away from jazz and standard rock, so he asked Lindsay Cooper, a classically trained Lindsay Cooper (oboe/bassoon), to join the group. They had little time to practice and Cooper just had his wisdom teeth removed, so they returned to The Manor to record Unrest in 1974. They met Slapp Happy, an avant-pop trio consisting of Peter Blegvad (guitar), Anthony Moore on keyboards and Dagmar Krause on vocals. This was just after they had completed their first album for Virgin. Recording Unrest was an intense experience and was the most productive period of collective learning they had ever experienced since The Bacchae. The band only had enough material for one side of the album, so they spent a lot of time creating the studio composition process that produced the Side 2. They had to deal with a lot of tensions during the recording session, which was reflected in their music. But they were ultimately happy with the final product and the group was reunited. They were back on tour in May 1974, this time with Captain Beefheart. Henry Cow realized what was happening during this tour. They were turning into a rock band and doing the same thing every night. They were no longer facing challenges and had become complacent. After much thought, they decided Lindsay Cooper would leave to fulfill their last concert obligations (a tour through the Netherlands as a quartet). They were forced to give up much of their learning material and created a piece that was 35-40 minutes long. This later became “Living in the Heart of the Beast” (which is now available on In Praise of Learning). Slapp Happy invited Henry Cow as their band to their second album for Virgin in November 1974. Desperate Straights was the result. It was almost entirely composed by Slapp Happy and it surprised everyone considering how different they were. Due to the success of this venture, the two bands were merged. In Praise of Learning was the first group to begin rehearsals in a frozen gymnasium. It was a difficult and demanding time that Slapp Happy weren’t prepared for. Soon, it became clear that the merger might not be able to work. They went to The Manor together and performed In Praise of Learning. It was only when they began rehearsing together with the intention of performing live together, that it became apparent that their methods were not compatible. In April 1975, Anthony Moore quit and Peter Blegvad was invited to leave. Dagmar Krause decided to stay, as his contribution to Henry Cow’s music was invaluable. This effectively ended the existence of SlappHappy. Lindsay Cooper, who had made guest appearances on the Henry Cow/SlappHappy albums, rejoined Henry Cow in April 1975. Henry Cow was now a sextet. They embarked on a short concert tour in May 1975 with Robert Wyatt to promote In Praise of Learning. Wyatt’s new album Ruth Is Stranger than Richard was also launched. The next step was two years of nearly continuous touring across Western Europe, which became Henry Cow’s most demanding work schedule. Henry Cow’s music was uncompromising and challenging, which often led to them being accused in some cases of making their music difficult to access. They were almost ignored in their country as a result. Virgin Records, which had dropped experimental groups in favor of commercial ones, now showed little or no interest in Henry Cow. The group had to make constant decisions about whether or not to continue (certainly there were no economic incentives). Cutler stated, “We had the to make what amounted a political decision about the organization and its relationship to the commercial structures. This was bound to be reflected also in the music.” Henry Cow’s anticapitalist stance was partly a result of necessity and not choice. They started working outside of the music industry, and did everything themselves. They quit looking for approval from music journalists and agencies. Henry Cow became independent and self-sufficient quickly. They became exiles from their home country and made mainland Europe their second home. Their music was well-received. Henry Cow, their truck/bus/mobile house, stayed behind after a July 1975 concert in Rome and started meeting local musicians including Stormy Six and the PCI (Italian Communist Party). They were offered concerts at Festa dell’Unita by the PCI, which are large open-air fairs held every summer in Italy. In addition, they were invited to join Stormy Six’s L’Orchestra (a musician’s cooperative in Milan). Every contact they made led them to make more contacts, and doors soon opened up for Henry Cow across Europe. John Greaves, while rehearsing in preparation for a tour of Scandinavia in March 1976 left the band to work on the Kew. Rhone. Rhone. Henry Cow, a committed tour participant, had to perform as a four-piece (Hodgkinson Frith Cooper, Cutler, and Cooper) and adapt their music accordingly. They chose to abandon all composed material in favor of pure improvisation. Henry Cow composed a double-LP Henry Cow Concerts in May 1976 for a Norwegian underground label Compendium. This was later re-released on Virgin’s sub-label Caroline. They did everything from the mastering to the cover design and printing, as well as the cutting, pressing, and pressing. An excerpt was taken from a concert with Robert Wyatt, a guest artist in 1975. Henry Cow started auditioning for a player as a bassist. Georgie Born was a classically-trained cellist and improviser. Although she had never been to the bass guitar, she joined the band in June 1976. She tuned her bass in 5ths just like a cello, with a lower C, and the band’s compositions, which included a Hodgkinson epic called “Erk Gah”, became more complicated. Henry Cow and Frankie Armstrong returned to London in 1977 to join the Mike Westbrook Brass Band to create The Orckestra. Their first concert was at The Roundhouse in London, followed by the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park. Later, the Orckestra toured in France and Italy as well as Scandinavia. Extracts from some performances were included in the Henry Cow Box in 2006. They also created Music for Socialism and its May festival. Three years had passed since Henry Cow performed more than one concert per year in their country. They tried to organize a smaller alternative tour to try to overcome the apathy that was discouraging people from wanting them to perform. But after eleven concerts, it became clear that nothing had changed. Both Henry Cow and Virgin were now burdened by their contract with Virgin Records. None of Henry Cow’s records could be licensed or distributed in any of the countries where they had spent most of their time playing and Henry Cow weren’t making any money for Virgin. Henry Cow wanted to record again, but Virgin wouldn’t allow them to use The Manor studio space. Virgin Records agreed to cancel the contract in October 1977 after Henry Cow mentioned it (“one month at first class studio”). Krause’s health was so bad that it was impossible to tour anymore. She decided to quit the group and sing on Henry Cows’ next album. In January 1978, the recording of this album began at Sunrise Studios in Kirchberg (Switzerland). A group meeting a week earlier questioned the material, and the “Erk Gah” specifically. Cutler and Frith quickly wrote a collection of songs, which was recorded along with some of their planned material. A second meeting was held when Cutler and Frith returned to London to discuss the issue of the songs dominating the album. Cutler and Frith would release the songs separately, while Henry Cow would release the instrumentals later. The band was dissolved by this decision. Cutler, Frith, and Krause released the songs. Four additional tracks were also recorded at David Vorhaus’s Kaleidophon Studio, London, under the title Hopes and Fears. Henry Cow was also credited as guests. Henry Cow recorded their final album, Western Culture, later that year at Sunrise. Georgie Born and Dagmar Krause were not with them. Henry Cow decided to end the band as a permanent unit, but didn’t announce it immediately. They continued to record new material for six more months. This was later recorded in Western Culture. Finally, they visited all of the places that had helped them throughout the years. Henry Cow invited four European bands, Stormy Six (Italy), Samla Mammas Manna(Sweden), Univers Zero [Belgium] and Etron Fou Leloublan to perform in a festival called Rock in Opposition (RIO) that Henry Cow had organized in March 1978. Henry Cow encountered many progressive groups throughout Europe who refused to conform to American and British rock music. They instead tapped into non-American sources of music, including local folk music and 20th-century “classical” and “art music. Many sang in their native languages. These groups, like Henry Cow, struggled to survive because record companies weren’t interested in their music. These groups and Henry Cow were musically different, but they shared two things: (1) independence from the established Rock business and (2) the determination to continue their work. RIO was officially established as an organization with a charter that was intended to promote and represent its members. RIO was formed as a group of bands that stood against the music industry and its pressures to compromise their music. Henry Cow performed his last concert in Milan on the 25th of July 1978. The final performance at the Annual World Youth Festival in Cuba was not scheduled. After competing Western Culture in August, the band announced that “… had ended their existence. The group stated that …” would release the work of the group’s members on Henry Cow’s Broadcast label. Chris Cutler soon after launched Recommended Records, an independent label and noncommercial record distribution network. From Wikipedia

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