Perfect Sound Forever

Henry Cow

Henry Cow

by Matthew Martens (October 1996)

British progressive pioneers Henry Cow (who actually didn't take their name from early Twentieth-Century American composer Henry Cowell) gave birth to a whole school of bands whose uncompromisingly anti-commercial musical stance had less to do with punk's DIY ethic than with Theodore Adorno's argument that radical ideas require radical forms of expression. Like Robert Wyatt, the members of Henry Cow were openly communist, but they partook of a somewhat academic, insular communism, whereby mainstream bourgeois culture - perceived as an essential foundation for unfair economic practices - comes under attack despite the potential such a strategy has for alienating those in the lower and middle classes who enjoy this same culture being rejected. As so often occurs with self-conscious experimentalists, Henry Cow's version of radical music-making placed them in the vanguard not of the culture at large but of a vibrant artistic sub-culture.

Although the Rock-In-Opposition "collective" wasn't formed until 1977, it has become so inextricably linked with Henry Cow in the public-consciousness that it deserves early mention. Basically a loose confederation of musically and politically like-minded (but by no means uniform) bands from all over Europe, R.I.O. was perhaps principally intended to facilitate the organization of gigs and collaborative efforts for the artists involved (among them Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Stormy Six, Zamla Mammaz Manna, Aksaq Maboul, and Etron Fou), but it soon came to signify at least three other things. (ED NOTE: see the end of this article for more about RIO)

To the extent that R.I.O. remains a living part of the critical vocabulary in 1996, it refers first to a sound and a style that thears pick up quickly and identify easily. The musical blueprint for R.I.O. can be found on side one of 1974's Unrest, Henry Cow's second album. It is here that H.C. not only synthesize all of their influences - which include Zappa circa Uncle Meat, Soft Machine, Bartok, Weil, maybe Antheil and Milhaud - but transcend them by constucting remarkable themes and submitting them to a gruelling regimen of studio manipulations and instrumental convolutions. Drummer Chris Cutler's patently weird technique is a model of enigmatic power and subtlety, while Fred Frith's guitar work manages to be searingly raw, dazzlingly precise, and no-nonsense virtuosic, all at the same time.

While it's not easy to encapsulate exactly what R.I.O. "sounds like," one might say that it bears about the same relation to symphonic progressive rock that much post-WWII classical music bears to Romantic 19th Century symphonism: although both champion large-scale works, complexity of composition, and accomplished musicianship, the latter favors sentiment, beauty, expansive melody and sumptuous harmonies, whereas the former tends toward angularity, the use of dissonance, a cetain seriousness and darkness of tone, and a more confrontational stance vis-a-vis the "audience."

Secondly, Chris Cutler's 1978 launching of the Recommended label and distribution service made explicit R.I.O.'s alternative to the official channels for producing, promoting, and selling recordings. Cutler explains "Recommended- it is a positive idea. I recommened things in a positive way. It was a positive initiative of enablement instead of complaining or being against the record industry. I just ignored it and tried to set up a system to bypass it." Previously Henry Cow had been on the Virgin roster, but their last album, Western Culture, came out on the Broadcast label (which run by Henry Cow itself, formed specifically to get away from the ridiculousness of Virgin Records, a one-time independent turned commercially huge), and many future works by band members were released by Recommended (ReR). Recommended was, and is, one of the finest labels in the world dedicated to the idea of small, independent, artist-run enterprise.

Finally, Rock-In-Opposition is also a vague but highly evocative slogan for Cow's leftist politics. It really just sounds like a good, angry thing to be. Cutler, when asked by AUDION's Alan Freeman (in issue #33) what the idea behind R.I.O. was, said "I can't really remember what we were thinking at the time. [...] we were independents. But what else we were in opposition to, I don't know." Nevertheless, R.I.O. is one tenacious tag - and it remains useful, even if only as another way of saying "sounds like Henry Cow."

By way of skimpy background info, Henry Cow was founded in 1968 by then-students Tim Hodgkinson (organ, piano, clarinet, etc.) and Fred Frith (guitar and sundry noisemakers). It was soon joined by bassist John Greaves, saxophonist and flutist Geoff Leigh, and drummer Chris Cutler. After LegEnd, Leigh was replaced by bassoonist and oboe player Lindsay Cooper, and former Slapp Happy singer Dagmar Krause was in the band during 1975-76. There is a lot of historical, biographical, and discographical information on Henry Cow and its offshoots (Art Bears, News From Babel, The Work, etc.) to be found at Aymeric Leroy's wonderful Canterbury music site, Calyx, but for the benefit of curious newcomers, I humbly offer these capsule descriptions/reviews of the Cow catalogue. These are all available on CD, but the first and fourth have been remixed to somewhat ill-effect, so the LPs are worth seeking out.

LegEnd (1973)

Features the first of the infamous sock covers, this one in glorious red, white, and blue. Henry Cow kick off their career on record with a full-on blower, the Frith-penned, Leigh-dominated "Nirvana For Mice." From then on the style is a singular and sensational variation on the instrumental Canterbury sound of Hatfield & The North, Matching Mole, and (some) Caravan. Constructed much more loosely than later albums, LegEnd balances Cow's gift for musical tension and drama with a freewheeling charm and off-the-cuff sophistication. An early-King Crimson influence is undeniable, as well. The band's political concerns don't emerge unitl the final track, Hodgkinson's "Nine Funerals of the Citizen King," on which the whole band sings dourly (and cryptically) of the gulf separating democracy's pomp and spectacle from the real-life horrors of consumer capitalism.

Unrest (1974)

Installment number two in the footwear triptych, this cover's sock sports an elegant grey, black, white, and beige weave. Unrest presents two sides of the Cow character: side A contains through-composed pieces of fantastically trenchant, moving, and occasionally morbid chamber-rock, while side B presents a series of experiments in studio sound manipulation and free improvisation, generally dismissed as a failed exercise in avant-garde extremism, but not without its compelling passages. The three side A compositions show the band moving away from LegEnd's Canterbury-fusion, and toward a hyper-complex amalgam of spiky classicism and strident progressive rock. John Greaves' "Half Asleep;Half Awake" boasts a great melody and some beautiful piano work, giving the lie to the charge that H.C. were too dry and cold to produce emotionally affecting music.

Desperate Straits (1975)

Like In Praise of Learning, this was a collaboration with Slapp Happy, which featured Krause, Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore. Unlike that album, this one is essentially S.H. with some help from H.C., and thus is only included here for the sake of completeness. Usually described as being self-consciously derived from the Brecht/Weill art-song style, Slapp Happy had an enjoyably inter-war Berlin feel to them, and are worth checking out. However, they sound nothing like Henry Cow.

In Praise of Learning (1975)

Something else altogether. Not only is this a full-fledged Cowdisc (with significant Slapp Happy contributions), it also completes the trinity of eye-catching art-sock covers, this time going for a monochrome in red. Slapp's Dagmar Krause graces most of IPoL with her utterly unique and blood-curdling declamatory howl. It is an acquired taste that you are almost certain to acquire if you like Cow's experimental rock. "Living in the Heart of the Beast," written by Hodgkinson, is the definitive Henry Cow statement, both politically and musically. Its fifteen episodic minutes cover a lot of ground , all the while relating a narrative of working-class oppression that climaxes with a stirringly anthemic call for action. Time to sweep capital's kings from power, indeed. Elsewhere can be found another epic ("Beautiful As The Moon Terrible As An Army With Banners- Though The Spanners Might Come In Handy Later"), a concise song ("War"), and a couple of meandering, druggily free pieces that I like.

Concerts (1976)

In 1976 Henry Cow toured Europe with Robert Wyatt and Dagmar Krause (whom they'd smuggled out of Slapp Happy), and this double-LP documents that tour's performances of both composed pieces and the lengthy improvs on which Cow would embark at every show. Concerts is now available on a two-CD set that tacks on Cow's *very* far-out (and twenty-miunte long) contribution to the Greasy Truckers compilation. This release is a must for the true Cow-head, as it illustrates the flexibility with which the band approached its own works, constantly re-arranging, writing new bridges, and otherwise re-inventing the material. Robert Wyatt's presence is another boon, as is the extraordinary version of his "Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road." More recordings from this tour and others are said to exist, and Cutler has mentioned possibly putting out "two or three CDs" of this stuff at some point. Commence holding of breath.

Western Culture (1978)

Though HC seemed to not exist for a while, they acutally were touring heavily over Europe from '76 to '78. The Cow then recorded this, their swan song. The band members had regrettably matured enough by this point to no longer care much for putting socks on their album covers. Whatever disappointment this may have engendered in long-time fans was quickly forgotten once they heard the music, which is surely the most advanced and consistently rewarding that Cow ever put to tape. Consisting of two entirely instrumental side-long suites, composed by Hodgkinson ("History and Prospects") and Cooper ("Day by Day"), respectively, Western Culture is possibly the finest, most persuasive argument available for the desirability and feasability of a rock/classical fusion. By turns menacing and melancholy, intricately contapuntal and rhythmically elastic, aggressively propulsive and mournfully dirge-like, Western Culture is a work of total focus and group cohesion - and is all the more remarkable an accomplishment for being achieved just before Henry Cow's dissolution.

* EDITOR'S NOTE: Phil Zampino (who runs a great Recommended Records site) adds this: "You may be getting into dangerous territories talking about the RIO sound; one of the complaints from Chris Cutler is, I believe, that there was no cohesive sound or approach to the music these bands were making, which is probably why it fell apart as quickly as it did. Check out the ill-formed pages I've put together for some information taken from various articles and magazines, particularly the bits titled "Post-RIO" which reprints the 'rules' for membership in the RIO organization (though they never really came to be)."

Also, don't forget to check out our CHRIS CUTLER INTERVIEW and our interview with Geoff Leigh/P>