a henry cow biography
by Steve Ashworth

this article first appeared in issue 12 in August 1994

Before this piece commences, I must stress that it deals with the works of Henry Cow only. The multitude of solo and guest performances of the exmembers in other projects is daunting beyond my scope or knowledge and readers who wish this information are best directed toward Manfred Bress' `Canterbury Nachrichten' publications or Chris Cutler's ReR network.

Henry Cow ... apparently it means something, but the band never let on what. Their music however meant a great deal to listeners within and beyond the Canterbury scene and still does.

A 'good' name to drop for rock press writers? A row? A bunch of Marxist pedants? The most sincere, radical and interesting group to emerge from the British rock era? Opinions on Henry Cow vary wildly, so what was it all about ...?
Henry Cow began in the autumn of 1968 with Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson (both of whom stayed with the band until the end) on violin and alto sax respectively, accompanied by several passing musicians between then and 1970. Initially playing blues standards, the music eventually evolved into more self-composed, progressive material as time passed by and the influence of the Soft Machine (to name but one source) took hold.

By 1970, John Greaves was on bass, with Chris Cutler joining on drums in 1971 and Geoff Leigh (saxes) joining in 1971 also, leaving and rejoining in 1973. By 1971/2, the music was anything but the blues. The old tape of a Peel session of this time, that does the rounds of the tape trading network, contains two lovely, typically Canterbury sounding songs, along with a furious Soft Machine styled instrumental and a version of 'Teenbeat', later amended somewhat for its appearance on the 'Legend' LP.

Apart from the usual round of small concerts, Henry Cow embarked on numerous collective projects, such as composing music for a performance of Euripides "The Bacchae' in 1972 and in 1973 the Explorers Club, along with performers such as Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, Ivor Cutler, Ron Geesin and David Toop. Between 1970 and 1972, Chris Cutler was involved in setting up The Ottawa Music Company, with many others, including Dave Stewart, the remainder of Egg, Jeremy Baines, Steve Hillage and the then un-named Northettes. Collective work like this was a profound influence on their approach to work in later years. (Any knowledge of this project would be welcomed by Facelift for a future retro feature).
Following interest from the embryonic Virgin label, Henry Cow decided to risk its total independence in order to get its music across to a larger audience. After more work for Peel, 1973 saw the release of their first LP `Legend'. By this time, the musicians were performing on a much wider range of instruments.

For openers, we have `Nirvana For Mice', a joyous, charged piece, featuring some skilled improvisation and the almost trademarked complexity of time signatures and syncopation. Collectors may wish to know that the `Sweet Mysteries of Life' segment at the end plays differently on the US and UK versions of the LP.Next, `Amygdala', with its delicious melody lines and rapid yet fluent changes of direction.

`Teenbeat Introduction' squeaks and rumbles its way into `Teenbeat' itself. Always popular live, Teenbeat works up to an odd, angular core, based upon apparently disparate drums-bass-guitar themes which in fact fit together quite easily, forming a base for a sax solo, leading to an amusing quirky conclusion.
The guitar only 'Nirvana reprise' leads into an extract from 'With the Yellow Halfmoon and Blue Star', developed during a ballet performed at the Edinburgh fringe and performed on their fourth Peel session (tape anybody?). Again, lots of unique composing and playing - such uplifting stuff! `Teenbeat reprise' is a mainly improvised rock piece, as opposed to a free improvisation - Soft Machine or Egg jamming rather than AMM or Company's squeak and scrape sessions seems a fair description. 'The Tenth Chaffinch' follows the latter improvisational route, the LP concluding with 'Nine Funerals of the Citizen King', a song somewhat more melancholic than the generally upbeat, humorous atmosphere of this LP. A quite amazing melange of styles, packed with ideas, and great playing created a debut album of considerable adventure.

The Virgin marketing machine got Henry Cow on a tour with Faust to promote their new signings. The group then worked on a musical backing for `The Tempest'. As part of the `Greasy Truckers' live LP series, they were due to record a live side at Dingwall's along with Camel, Gong, and the Global Village Trucking Company, but time ran out on the night - their live side being recorded later at the Manor on 4th November 1973. Almost all of this work was avant garde styled improvisation, the four pieces entitled `Off The Map', `Cafe Royal', 'Keeping Warm in Winter' and 'Sweetheart of Mine'.

1974 saw the departure (again) of Geoff Leigh and the arrival of Lindsay Cooper, playing oboe, bassoon and recorder. Henry Cow's second and arguably most successful LP was recorded this year. 'Unrest' (the title possibly a reflection of conflicts within the band at the time) was the result of another venture into the Manor studios. Fred Frith's `Bittern Storm Over Ulm', cheerful and bouncy, introduces side one, followed by John Greaves' beautiful 'Half Asleep; Half Awake'. A tranquil piano solo leads into some classic composition and performance with its rich melodies, adventurous changes of time, atmosphere and direction, with a thoughtfully improvised mid-section, ending with a different but equally appealing piano statement.

`Ruins' is an astonishingly rich and varied composition. Twelve minutes long and not a second wasted, and even a snatch from `Teenbeat' for good measure. A prolonged, flowing but strenuous riff provides a basis for some suitable improvisation, leading into a quieter section, similar in feel to, possibly, Egg's Wind Quartets. The `Ruins' riff then re-appears in a more grinding form, which moves into a stunning finale composition before fading into a one note guitar sustain, backed by lovely wind chords. `Solemn Music' is all that has survived on record from 'The Tempest', similarities again with Egg's Wind Quartets. When the group arrived at the Manor, these were the only composed pieces available, so a series of pieces were developed from improvisations using a new 'instrument', the recording studio. `Linguaphonie', 'Upon Entering the Hotel Aldon', `Deluge' and `Arcades' were created by various methods.

The selection, editing and moulding of improvisations, the use of tape loops, layering and on `Deluge', a slowed down version of the final tune of 'Ruins' were utilised, all without the addition of synthesiser or electronic trickery of any kind. When in the hands of those capable and willing to use the studio as an instrument (hear some of the earlier works of Faust or The Residents for example), the creation of new works from old gives excellent results. Such methods are not to be confused with the current commercial fad for sampling and re-mixing which are vacuous in comparison. Overall not an easy record to pick up on first time, but it wholeheartedly rewards the listeners' efforts as familiarity and understanding develop.

After `Unrest' came a tour of Europe and England, supporting Captain Beefheart and what can only be described as his tragic band, this being the time of the Good Captain's two awfully manipulated Virgin LPs, anathema to all Beefheart fans.

Apart from watching the mighty fall (he did rise again later), the whole rock business tour set up affected Henry Cow's genuine wish to stay sharp musically, but the whole process stultifying them and leaving them concerned about playing the same way each night. They did not wish to be prisoners of an `industry' which at the time was promoting glam and glitter and pushing with all its might to present the lamentable Springsteen as the future of rock 'n' roll. With Henry Cow, the music was always their first concern and the music was not best served by a business whose motivations were financial, not artistic.

Some live material from this period appears on the 'Groningen' section of their `Concerts' double LP. More unique riffing, excellent solos and mood changes from the loud and crazed, to the soft and sublime. 'Concerts' was released in 1976, but more of this later.

The year 1974 was a year of more development for Henry Cow. After meeting Virgin group Slapp Happy, due to record a second LP at the Manor, the two seemingly opposite groups merged. Slapp Happy were basically a smarter than average art/pop group, but it was a case of opposites attracting each other, allowing Henry Cow to move into the production of songs, which they would have had difficulty in doing alone. A Peel session was broadcast on 16th July 1974, featuring Anthony Moore, Peter Blegvad and Dagmar Krause from Slapp Happy, Fred Frith and Lindsay Cooper from Henry Cow and guests Geoff Leigh and Robert Wyatt, with Jeff Clyne on bass. Some interesting self-composed items were performed, a thoughtful utilisation of the song format with a nod towards the manner of Brecht and Eisler.

1975 saw the 'marriage' produce its 'offspring', the Slapp Happy/Henry Cow LP `Desperate Straights'. The new group formed around the core of Dagmar, Blegvad, Moore, Greaves, Cutler, Hodgkinson and Frith, with guests Geoff Leigh, Lindsay Cooper (removed from Henry Cow earlier in the year), Pierre Moerlen, Mont Campbell, Mongezi Feza and Nick Evans. This, bar the instrumental title track and 'Caucasian Lullaby', is an album of songs. From the pop of `Strayed', the surreal `A Worm is at Work', the desperate `In the Sickbay' and many points in between, this collection is never dull and most varied. Peter Blegvad's strange, highly articulate lyrics are superbly appropriate.

Such an odd coalition was never destined to last, splitting up almost as soon as it formed, but credit must be given to those involved for seizing the moment and using it so well. Two tracks from this LP will be well known to readers for their appearance on the `V' compilation. Also note the tragically ignored Blegvad/ Greaves' `Kew Rhone' LP, a work that showed what could have happened had this merger continued.

Following the `Divorce', Dagmar Krause stayed with Henry Cow as vocalist. Live work from 1975 can be sampled on `Concerts'. On 18th May that year Henry Cow performed with Robert Wyatt at the New London Theatre. The songs released from this concert: 'Bad Alchemy' from Desperate Straights', Robert's `Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road', and Henry Cow's `Ruins'. Also included from a BBC recording from 5th August 1975 are `Nirvana For Mice', Fred Frith's 'Ottawa Song', and a performance of Matching Mole's `Gloria Gloom'. A live piece from Italy, `Udine', in a similar vein to `Groningen' is included here and collectors, featured on a flexidisc that came with the Italian 'Gong' magazine. Again from 1975, 'Concerts' features a sidelong and, to these ears, boring improvisation recorded in Norway.

Their next LP, credited to Henry Cow alone, but still featuring Slapp Happy members Moore and Blegvad; and Dagmar who had joined full time, was 'In Praise of Learning', released by Virgin in 1975. It opens with 'War', which was heard on the 16/07/74 Peel session. This song decries the evils of war and bounces along in seven time in the angular Henry Cow manner. Next, Tim Hodgkinson's 'Living In The Heart of the Beast'. This piece deals with oppression and revolution lyrically, whilst the music has a revolutionary theme with its powerful, challenging and constantly changing stances. They had now matured their radical thoughts and turned them into a musical form that could be used to assist the achievement of those beliefs without being merely propagandist. The finale is spine chilling.

Side Two starts with `Beginning: The Long March", another high calibre, studio manipulated improvisation. Next, `Beautiful as the Moon - Terrible as an Army With Banners'. Lyrically, this is quite obscure and less intense than 'Beast', musically avoiding concessions to the ordinary with its ordinary with its haunting melody and structure, aided by Dagmar's unique vocal work. The final piece, 'Morning Star', is an improvised piece which sounds to have less studio tinkering on it than 'The Long March' and doesn't work as well, but in total, another bold, creative LP.

For a good introduction to this LP (and the others mentioned so far, excepting `Concerts'), look out on the tape network for a fascinating interview of Chris Cutler by the late Derek Jewell, broadcast for BBC Radio 3's 'Sounds Interesting' series on 31/08/75.

1976 saw Henry Cow active in concert on the European mainland, an area which provided them with larger audiences and greater sustenance than they were able to achieve in the UK. In March of this year, John Greaves left, cutting the group down to a quartet of Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson and Cooper, Dagmar being unwell. Whilst in Scandinavia at this time, they abandoned composed material in concert and improvised, almost a back-to-basics' re-assessment of their music. The band thrived on the abandonment of compositional restraint, who knows what the audience made of it. Later that year, Henry Cow recruited Georgie Born on bass.

The following year. 1977, saw the fulfillment of another collaborative project, this time with Mike Westbrook's Brass Band. A result of occasional meetings, acquaintances and working arrangements, they eventually came together for a series of concerts under the banner of 'The Orckestra', aided by vocalist Frankie Armstrong. This grouping played a wide variety of music - Henry Cow and Westbrook material, folk songs and jazz pieces, fascinating events for those lucky enough to see them. It is sad that these concerts have not been released officially, only dodgy audience recordings do the usual rounds.

October 19th 1977 saw Henry Cow and Virgin end their contract. Virgin wanted a fast buck out of the new wave, Henry Cow wanted more control and better distribution of their recordings, and following some irritating negotiations, the two parties separated. Virgin ditched their roots, Henry Cow held stoically on to theirs. Sadly, Dagmar's health deteriorated, causing her to leave the group, who in turn found her irreplaceable and continued instrumentally. This having been said, Frankie Armstrong guested occasionally with them for a song segment in some concerts, one of which I saw - a memorable night too.
1978 saw a final spurt of activity. Early that year, they recorded what became the Art Bears' `Hopes and Fears' LP, with a rejuvenated Dagmar. In February, Henry Cow were able to undertake a British tour with Arts Council support. I remember vividly their concert at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, particularly the start where they walked, unseen, around the suspended seating, improvising into the echoing walls of the outer building - a most effective use of this hall and proving that they still wanted to innovate with whatever was to hand. March saw the fruition in the UK of the `Rock In Opposition' project. This involved normally unheard groups (in this country at least) whom Henry Cow had met on their travels around Europe. The various groups played numerous concerts around the country, culminating in the R.I.O festival in London on March 12th 1978. Apart from Henry Cow, Etron Fou (France), Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden), Stormy Six (Italy) and Univers Zero (Belgium) all played on this bill, probably one of the most varied and challenging concerts this country has seen.

To aid the distribution of this music and much else in a similar experimental vein, Chris Cutler had set up Recommended Records. The legacy of this action still exists and our ears are grateful for it. R.I.O has almost become a generic term for rock music that seeks to advance with independence, musically and businesswise. Long may the spirit of RIO continue.

Following this event, Henry Cow yet again analysed their position and felt that although the musical work had to continue, the Henry Cow format was no longer the best format in which to pursue it. Henry Cow was to disband after several `farewell' concerts in Europe and recording of its final LP, 'Western Culture'. This LP shows why the decision to split was made.

The Art Bears LP recorded earlier was far more successful in its endeavours. Released on their own Broadcast label, the musicians were Hodgkinson, Frith, Cutler and Cooper, with assistance from Anne-Marie Roelofs (trombone and violin), Irene Schwiezer (piano) and Georgie Born (bass).

Side One features Tim Hodgkinson's `History and Prospects', a (pardon the pun) three piece suite. 'Industry' opens with awesome intensity, an overpowering melange of heavy bass, dissonant melody and grinding accompaniment, a style Tim was later to pursue with his band 'The Work'. Part Two, `The Decay of Cities', is sparse with the familiar shifts and changes, but it doesn't really go anywhere. `On the Raft' suggests the influence of working with The Orckestra with its full wind arrangements, almost 'pleasant' within the Henry Cow realm.

Side Two is Lindsay Cooper's four part 'Day by Day'. This is well suited to the group as it stood, but not as poignant as it used to be. 'Falling Away' introduces this side - some typical themes, but marred to these ears with Fred using some Steve Hackett style guitar sustain and a tad of similarity to the falling Genesis of the time, although I'm sure it wasn't intended to be so. `Gretels Tale' is the best of this side, particularly when Irene Schweizer lets rip on the piano. 'Look Back' is short and staid, before the '1l2 the Sky' booms in, only to lead into some more Genesis similarities, given the Henry Cow treatment, with improvised sax. It ends well enough with typical Henry Cow rock motifs.

Henry Cow clearly stilll had much to offer, but lacked the cohesion and dynamic that made them such a forceful group. The spirit lived, but the body had gone as far as it could. Two tracks from this period, 'Slice' - and the wonderful singalong `Viva pa Ubu' were eventually released on the Recommended Records sampler in 1981.

Apart from the extra tracks reviewed in Facelift 7 as released on the 'Henry Cow - The Virgin Years' 3 CD box set, and a reworking of 'Bittern Storm' from `Unrest' released on `The Last Nightingale' fundraising LP for the 1984/5 miners strike, this is what is available. There is no doubt plenty more in the vaults somewhere, and I for one would love to hear it.

In conclusion, Henry Cow were undeniably original and unique and any of their recordings are worth provoking your ears with. Perhaps some of the internal philosophising caused it to box itself into an inescapable corner, but without its self-analysis the considered musical and political stance it took, and some groundbreaking projects on the way, it would not have had the impact it did. It opened a lot of doors and a few minds too. Put simply, they made some great albums, played some fine gigs and were worth the effort.