Henry Cow
Henry Cow
Henry Cow
Henry Cow
Henry Cow

Henry Cow

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“Joy for one person is a nightmare for another one” - Brecht

Henry Cow started as an unruly seven-piece blues band. Three years after they were formed their playing became carefully structured and often very complex; nevertheless they retained their early humor and excitement. Although such diverse influences as Messiaen, Barre Philipz, Zappa and Chico Hamilton made themselves felt, the striking characteristic of Henry Cow’s music is its originality. 

Henry Cow operated in the vernacular. They learned through doing, toured on the rock circuit, and published their music with Virgin records. They reached a mixed audience of non-specialists and connoisseurs through radio, LP sales, and concerts in town halls, clubs, community centers, and outdoor municipal festivals (especially in Italy). The discourse about their music was found in mass-market periodicals and newspapers. They worked collaboratively.

Time Out Article 1976
Musicians of the world Unite, here is your starter for ten: How do you play music that gives people the idea there’s a revolution coming without boring the arses off them all? Only the very fervent could raise much of a cheer for revolutionary music up to now, a good deal of it has the sort of Onward and Upward manner that makes you think of Baden Powell more than Marx. The doubtful assumption behind it appears to be the lower the sales pitch the more people will buy, sadly, it's not just capitalist consumerism that wants to insult the people’s intelligence.

Getting into Henry Cow’s records eventually made it plain that underestimating them was easy. The sources they draw on go much wider than avant-garde jazz, though it’s there all the same (more obtrusively in their earlier albums). Henry Cow’s writing is the most sophisticated infusion of new directions into rock that’s currently to be heard. But it’s head-rock, a compositional device (though a helpful and diplomatic one), not an invitation to ignore everything else but the feel.

“As you examine the moment of playing,” drummer Chris Cutler observes, “there’s a very high emotional content in it. One’s not being clinical about or coldly considering it. But nevertheless when you subsequently look at a stretch of our music you can see structure in it, because unlike a lot of the improvising musicians, we’re a regular group. So a vocabulary and a language builds up.”

“But there’s no magical telepathy” (Chris, as you would suppose, reacts to the approach of anything that sounds like metaphysics by hanging out the depth charges) “the thing is very practical in that one is responding every second to the material situation being created by everyone else. So if there comes a point where there are two very definite strands pulling in opposite directions, the thing will have to settle in one way or another. And when the contradictions remain unresolved, then that’s when we get a piece of poor music, at least as far as we’re concerned.” 

If you had never appreciated what Hegel might have made of himself as a rock critic, bite on that. In fact, it’s a very accurate picture of what happens in collective playing—or what, quite frequently, doesn’t happen. Some ‘modern’ tendencies appear to have rejected the need to resolve the contradictions at all. This kind of random doodling around isn’t popular with Henry Cow. They’re not fond of devoting their musical lives to pursuit of Great Mysteries. There are people to be reached, and the audience is never out of the band’s mind. Attitude to the punter is the principle divide between Henry Cow and the free-jazz players with whom they’ve often worked.

Tim Hodgkinson pronounces the philosophical coda: ‘The free players’ model is an ideal of themselves, and ultimately of society, which is why they attach great significance to the act of playing, whether the audience likes it or not. It’s a very anarchistic view, an individualism which to me is suspect.’ The interplay is fierce, and it appears to be shorn of every external reference it just is. Far from art for art’s sake, it can invite you to challenge yourself. 

“We could easily go about making speeches to people,” acknowledged Tim Hodgkinson, “but the essence of the problem of form and content is that you don’t use a form that negates the content. If you do that, you make a statement in a way that denies the praxis of the audience.” I said “Suppose the praxis of an audience invites directions you don’t welcome?” Tim continued, “We don’t take audience reactions at their face value .. . (‘any more than Coltrane did when people told him he couldn’t play’ —this unassailable observation came from Chris Cutler) . . . we don’t say ‘we’d better not play that again because they don’t seem to like it’. These things naturally do determine our next move, but not in a one to one way. It might be for instance that we decide we must do whatever it is more strongly in order to overcome that resistance.” Fred Frith: “Exactly. If we fail, we have to work out why, in terms of communication. But there’s no way you could do a really wonderful gig from your own point of view and the audience not respond—because doing a really wonderful gig is part and parcel of the audience being there in the first place. And that’s something that’s often destroyed when musicians are turned into superstars by the rock business. At the moment, people who come and listen to us are still exercising their critical faculties—this would be less and less the case if we became great successes.”

“That critical element is lost when you stop connecting theory to practise,” adds Chris Cutler, “like Zappa has done lately. He was criticizing things in the early days in a form which was itself constructive. This is no longer the case with him.” “Obviously,” adds Chris Cutler, “a melody isn’t going to stir people to the barricades, or even to read Brecht or whatever. But the fact that a group of people are behaving in a manner that requires you to be involved in a particular way in order not to slip off it altogether, the act of generating that kind of concentration is itself a beginning.”

It’s a beginning represented by ‘In Praise of Learning’, a massive summation of the past five years’ work for which the only overweight feature is the title. Gone are the Moore/Blegvad idiosyncrasies (though they were involved in the record) and most of the improvising is gone too. The style of the composition is suddenly more stable, making everything sound recognisable but displaced, like a dream. It exactly embodies Chris Cutler’s notion of music that generates the kind of concentration that you don’t usually exercise. The album sleeve quotes the documentary filmmaker John Grierson: ‘Art is not a mirror—it is a hammer.’

Chris Cutler observed: So much art has been based on the romantic picture of the individual against the society. But to suggest that man is born free is a total lie; everything that man is, rests on his social evolution, his language, his institutions. Creative activity is a collective thing, you’re drawing on the community even if you work alone. And there isn’t going to be a revolution without a revolutionary party with revolutionary leadership and revolutionary theory. It isn’t going to happen that suddenly people get up one morning and think they’ll have a revolution. So, there’s been a lot of important pre-revolutionary art undoubtedly, that more or less describes how things are. But I think now there’s a responsibility to go further than that, to a description of the solution.’

Time Out 1976

The album cover artwork was by artist Ray Smith and was the first of three of his "paint socks" to feature on Henry Cow's albums. Smith had appeared with the band at several of their early 1970s concerts, performing a variety of activities, including ironing, reading text and miming with glove puppets. He suggested a woven sock on Legend's front cover, and insisted that the band's name should not appear there. Chris Cutler said in a 2011 interview that Smith continued the theme on Henry Cow's next two albums, with the sock changing "to suit the temper of the music".

In his book Prog Rock FAQ, Will Romano wrote that Legend "might have the most unusual and slightly amusing cover featuring a sock." Smith created it with a pastry bag that he used to squeeze out long strips of acrylic paint, which, once dry, he wove together to produce the sock. He explained that the sock has no connection to the music, "It's an independent object". Smith described the picture of the sock on the album cover as "clear, fresh and optimistic" which "suggests something electrical". Smith also produced a cover for Henry Cow's final album, Western Culture, but it was not used. The design illustrated an industrial city viewed from above with the text "Henry Cow" appearing in its streets.

Nine Funerals of the Citizen King
Matthew Martens wrote in Perfect Sound Forever that "Nine Funerals of the Citizen King" was Henry Cow's first political statement, and they sing "dourly (and cryptically) of the gulf separating democracy's pomp and spectacle from the real-life horrors of consumer capitalism." Piekut stated that Hodgkinson's "lyrical reference to Gertrude Stein in the arresting 'chorus' section" was a turning point in Henry Cow's approach when they moved from "a zany fascination with the historical avant-garde of Dada and surrealism" to "a more sober, Marxist analysis of contemporary society and a Brechtian relationship to artistic production." Paul Stump suggested in The Music's All that Matters: A History of Progressive Rock that Dadaism is still at the heart of the song: "Down beneath the spectacle of free" refers to Debord, and "Said the Mama of Dada as long ago as 1919" alludes to the year the movement was born in Zürich.

Hodgkinson wrote "Nine Funerals of the Citizen King" in early 1972. He said he composed the piece on a keyboard while he sang. He drew on several sources for the song texts, including Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle ("Down beneath the spectacle of free"), Gertrude Stein's "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" from her poem Sacred Emily, and Lewis Carroll's nonsense verse, The Hunting of the Snark ("That the Snark was a Boojum all can tell"). Hodgkinson had been reading material on situationism at the time, including works by Debord, Raoul Vaneigem and issues of the journal, Internationale Situationniste.

Benjamin Piekut wrote in Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem that in contrast to Hodgkinson's previous compositions, the song-structure of "Nine Funerals of the Citizen King" introduces repetition, which prevents the music from "wandering without aim". Piekut said the song's texture is well defined: vocals accompanied by "simple chords" on an organ, with the addition later of violin, bass guitar, saxophone and drums.

Piekut described "Nine Funerals of the Citizen King" as a blend of Béla Bartók and Richard Wagner, and felt that the eight-measure "chorus", the "But a rose is a rose is a rose" refrain, has "some of the sweetest harmonic writing in the Henry Cow repertoire":

In Praise of Learning
A review at AllMusic called In Praise of Learning, the result of Henry Cow and Slapp Happy's brief merger, "stunning" and "bracing", and said "No one has ever, before or since, sounded like this incarnation of Henry Cow". The reviewer described the Moore/Blegvad composition "War" as "enormous in proportion and power" that would not have succeeded in the hands of the "relatively quiet trio". Music journalist Robert Christgau described the album's lyrics as "literary if not pompous in print", but said Krause's "abrasively arty, Weill-derived" singing "manages to find a context for the words". Christgau complimented Frith's atonal piano, but felt that the musique concrète on side two of the LP is "less than winning".

In another review of the album in Let It Rock, Dave Laing said that Krause's vocals have the same "brittle style" that American singer and songwriter Judy Collins used in "Pirate Jenny" and the Marat/Sade. He was impressed with Hodgkinson's "Living in the Heart of the Beast", its "long controlled lyric" and its "determined fermenting movement to its climax". Laing noted, however, that the political themes of the album are damped a little by Blegvad and Moore's "War", which he felt is "musically limp and politically liberal", and by the presence of the two "experimental" instrumentals. But Laing concluded that it is still "an unexpectedly fine album, pointing a way forward for both avant-garde and 'committed' music in Britain".

Reviewing the album in Melody Maker, Steve Lake called In Praise of Learning "the album of the year". He said it is "revolutionary" in the sense that it is both "innovatory" and promoting "a revolution in government". With quotes from Mao Zedong, "no punches are pulled ... all the cards are on the table", although Lake did feel that Henry Cow tend to be "over-scholarly" at times. He described the music on the album as "nothing less than staggering", and called "Living in the Heart of the Beast" the LP's "tour-de-force". Lake said the 15-minute song is "threatening and propulsive", and culminates in an "almost majestic theme". Finally, Lake described the instrumental, "Beginning: The Long March" as "the finest use made by any rock band of electronics and free form."

Music critic Ian MacDonald wrote in New Musical Express, that In Praise of Learning "manages to be simultaneously the group's most extreme and most accessible album so far". He called it "a demonstrative, theatrical, and didactic record" that blends ideology with art. MacDonald described "War" as "downbeat mythologising and exploding musique concrete" that "heaves and thrashes like an octopus caught in a ship's propellor". "Beautiful as the Moon – Terrible as an Army with Banners" starts off well, but is let down later by pretentious lyrics. "Living in the Heart of the Beast" also begins well, but despite "a remarkable instrumental interlude", it "sinks awkwardly to earth beneath the would-be climactic exhortations of the finale". MacDonald said "In Praise of Learning is, like all efforts by compulsive perfectionists, imperfect – but aimed high". He praised the group for their "risk-taking" and added that "we should be thankful for the commitment that leads a group like Henry Cow to pursue so single-mindedly the limits of the feasible in our music".

The album's title was taken from "In Praise of Learning", a poem by Bertolt Brecht, which is one of several "In Praise of ..." poems he wrote.

Bertolt Brecht
In Praise of Learning

(from his play “The Mother”)
Study from bottom up,
for you who will take the leadership,
it is not too late!
Study the ABC; it is not enough.
but study it!
Do not become discouraged, begin! You must know everything!
You must prepare to take command,now!
Study, man in exile!
Study. man in the prison!
Study, wife in your kitchen!
Study, old-age pensioner!
You must prepare to take command now!
Locate yourself a school, homeless folk!
Go search some knowledge, you who freeze!
You who starve, reach for a book: it will be a weapon.
You must prepare to take command now.
Don’t be afraid to question, comrades!
Never believe on faith.
see for yourself!
What you yourself don’t learn
you don’t know.
Question the reckoning
you yourself must pay it
Set down your finger on each small item. asking:
where do you get this?
You must prepare to take command now!

Bertolt Brecht
In Praise of Doubt

Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
Cheerfully and with respect the man
Who tests your word like a bad penny.
I'd like you to be wise and not to give
Your word with too much assurance.

Read history and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered.

Thus one day a man stood on the unattainable summit
And a ship reached the end of
The endless sea.

O Beautiful the shaking of heads
Over the indisputable truth!
O brave the doctor's cure
Of the incurable patient!

But the most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent
Raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength
Of their oppressors.

Various Album Reviews:
“This LP was my introduction to Cow when I chanced upon it in a used record store nearly thirty years ago. A highly convoluted, thoroughly unclassifiable album that is deftly composed and skillfully executed by an adventurous group of like-minded musicians. At times an utterly ethereal concoction, this is their most jazzy, Canterbury-inflected release. Peerless in terms of sophistication, Legend is one of the preeminent pieces of music of all time that holds a special place in my collection for both sentimental AND musical reasons. Henry Cow was clearly a band that had digested their myriad, wide-ranging influences and coalesced them into a completely original amalgam. Their sound would change with each successive release, reaching their peak, some would argue, with 1975's overtly political "In Praise Of Learning" and culminating with the apocalyptic and revelatory "Western Culture." One of the best bands there ever was.”

“Henry Cow are what happens when you let a bunch of incredibly talented '70s British nerds just do whatever with no rules. That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on who you ask. You can guess what I think about it. Side note: the tones of all the instruments are all so rich and crisp in my ears it makes me happy.”

“A radical intellectual's favorite. A group of Oxbridge graduates with a rather natural anticapitalist bend created this virtuoso, uncompromising, highly literate work. It is unsettling by design, like a Joyce novel, and like a Joyce novel, form a strong acquired taste. Dagmar Krause's unique vocals add to the drama.”

“Zappa-esque schizophrenic vignettes through the uncanny valley. The music contained herein is neither terrestrial or traditional. Combine jazz, classical, and rock n' roll from their purest primordial forms, and send this concoction off to Venus; let it cultivate for a few million years and listen to the result: alien music. Eschew conventional melody or song structure. The only source of familiarity is the sound palette, composed entirely of human instruments-- brass, percussion, strings, keys, guitar, bass, and the human voice. Punk music wishes it could throw off its listener like this record does ... a complete offense to the music establishment, post-intellectualism. If you fail to see rock as a capable art, you may be overwhelmed at the cacophony featured here, may it satisfy your snobbish mind. Prag for the punks. Or it's just commie art school drivel. Very entertaining drivel, if that's the case though.”

Rock in Opposition

Rock in Opposition or RIO was a movement representing a collective of progressive bands in the late 1970s united in their opposition to the music industry that refused to recognize their music. It was initiated by Henry Cow in March 1978 when they invited four mainland European groups to come to London and perform in a festival called "Rock in Opposition".

Practically ignored in their own country, Henry Cow spent most of their last five years touring mainland Europe. There they encountered many innovative groups who were virtually unknown outside their own countries. What Henry Cow had in common with these groups was that record companies were not interested in their music. (Henry Cow's contract with Virgin Records was cancelled when Virgin found that they were not making money for them.)

RIO's primary aim was to represent and promote its members. It was decided that membership should remain closed and small, although new members would be welcome provided they (i) adhered to "musical excellence" (as evaluated by the collective); (ii) worked actively "outside the music business"; and (iii) had a "social commitment to Rock"

Marshall McLuhan predicted the creation of mass media manipulation in his 1964 book Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man & 1967s The Medium is the Massage, An Inventory of Effects, offers fair advanced warning. In 1966, he talked of the creation of the Internet and its lifestyle changes, the concept of a global village, later twitter & more, envisioning its substance and impact:

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The Medium is the Massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty, psychic or physical.

The nine bands, which made up the original RIO collective, came from five different countries and were among some of the many great bands of that golden age. They were part of a time when music and culture literally expanded and exploded. As Plato had postulated, everything changed. Musical codes carried on the wind, spread to all corners of the world, creating an International language that inspired everyone.