Henry Cow - Biography

By J Poet


Henry Cow was labeled a progressive rock band, but their complex and often totally improvised music doesn’t fit easily into a single category. They played long suites of carefully composed music in complex time signatures but were more often dedicated to free improvisations that blended jazz, rock, classical music and avant-garde 20th century styles. Critics labeled their sound impenetrable and self-conscious at the time, but the music they made – especially live – thrilled their fans and still sounds fresh and challenging today. Everyone in the band, and many of their collaborators, went on to long glorious careers. In 2006, Recommended Records, the label founded by Cow drummer Chris Cutler released Henry Cow Box, their six original Virgin albums from the 70s with a live concert they played in 1977 as The Orckestra. In 2008, The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set (Recommended) appeared, a nine CD, one DVD collection of live recordings that capture the band in all its glory.


Henry Cow conceived as a live band, with a firm social, political, artistic, and musical agenda. There were as many women in the band as men - road crew as well as performers – an anomaly at the time, but part of their progressive political agenda. They never made much money, and what they did make they put back into he band, paying roadies and sound people well, something not often done, even today.


In 1970 Chris Cutler started placing musicians anted ads in the Melody Maker, a weekly British music paper. He was finally contacted by Frith, Hodgkinson, and Greaves, Cambridge University students, who had been playing as Henry Cow since 1968, but had only played a few concerts. After Frith, Hodgkinson, and Greaves graduated the quartet moved to London to take a shot a musical career. They lived together and rehearsed nine hours a day, six days a week, playing the odd concert, but mostly rehearsing and formulating their musical and political agenda.


The band composed music for a production of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a ballet for the Cambridge Contemporary Dance Group performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and music for their own concerts. They organized two concert series in London – the first one called The Cabaret Voltaire, which included performance art and theatre, the second was The Explorers Club with collaborators Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, Ivor Cutler, Ron Geesin, The Scratch Orchestra, David Toop, Paul Burwell, Christine Jeffries, D.J. Perry and Ray Smith. During this time Geoff Leigh briefly joined the band on woodwinds. Virgin Records, a new label at the time, signed them. Their first album was Leg End (1973 Virgin, 2000 East Side Digital). The album cover was the photo of a sock painted red, white and blue. The album’s centerpiece is Firth’s “Nirvana For Mice,” a prog rock milestone, complimented by “Nine Funerals of the Citizen King,” an anti-capitalist dirge that caught everybody’s attention with its sharp political commentary.


They went on tour with Faust, Geoff Leigh left the band, and just before they recorded Unrest (1974 Virgin, 2000 East Side Digital) they signed up Lindsay Cooper who played oboe and bassoon in an attempt to break away from the standard guitar/bass/drums/keyboard rock band lineup. Side A was music composed mostly by Firth, including “Bittern Storm Over Elm” which was based on The Yardbirds’ tune “Got to Hurry” and Greaves’ “Half Asleep Half Awake” one of their more melodic outings. The six pieces on the B-side were improvised in the studio. Another sock graced the cover. After a tour with Captain Beefheart they fired Cooper and temporarily stopped touring.


Slapp Happy, a quirky avant garde pop band, asked Henry Cow to back them on their Virgin debut. The Cows had worked with the members of Slapp Happy – German folk singer Dagmar Krause, British keyboard player, composer and future Pink Floyd lyricist Anthony Moore and American guitarist Peter Blegvad – before, and agreed. The result, Desperate Straights (1974 Virgin, 2004 Vivid Sound), is one of the oddest, most endearing pop albums of the 70s. The collaboration worked so well, The Cows invited Slapp Happy to join them on their next album. In Praise of Learning (1975 Virgin, 2000 East Side Digital) includes two more political masterpieces “Beautiful As The Moon; Terrible As An Army With Banners” and the 15 minute epic “Living in the Heart of the Beast,” full of experimental musical interludes and stirring revolutionary lyrics. Krause’s vocals bring a new depth of emotion to the music and after the recording, Krause stayed with the band. They rehired Lindsay Cooper and went back on the road for two years of continuous shows throughout Europe. During that time the personnel went through many shifts, but the core, with long time collaborators Dagmar Krause, Lindsay Cooper, Geoff Leigh and Robert Wyatt did manage to wax the double LP set Concerts (1976 Virgin) available again in The Henry Cow Box (2006 Recommended). It shows the band at its live best, completely reinventing the older stuff and debuting several new compositions that still sound stunning today.


In 1977 they joined with the Mike Westbrook Brass Band and folk singer Frankie Armstrong as The Orckestra. They continued playing throughout Europe and tried to break their Virgin contract. Virgin didn’t distribute albums to Europe at the time, and that was where the band played most. After hostile negotiations, the label agreed to drop them. While they were in the process of recording what was to be their last album, the band broke up. Some tracks they’d been working on became the first Art Bears (Firth, Cutler and Krause) album Hopes and Fears (1978 Cuneiform, 1999 Re Records), another progressive rock milestone.


Despite being officially broken up, Henry Cow continued touring and organized the 1978 the Rock in Opposition Festival in London, a protest against the narrow constrictions of the music business. Out of it came Cutler’s Recommended global distribution network and mail-order house and the label Re Records. In late 1979 they actually did disband, after cutting one last album Western Culture (1979 Broadcast, 1995 East Side Digital), with a group that included Frith, Hodgkinson, Cutler, and Cooper, with Yochko Seffer on sax, Henry Kaiser III on guitar and Anne-Marie Roelof on trombone and violin. One side of the original LP was a three-part more or less rock suite by Hodgkinson, “History and Prospects”, while the second side was Cooper’s four part, almost classical piece “Day by Day.” It was first released on the band’s own Broadcast label, a magnificent coda to a remarkable career. 

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