Henry Cow – in session for Sveriges Radio, Stockholm – September 6, 1977 – Sveriges Radio –
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Henry Cow to end out the week. I will let you know right now this isn’t music for casual listening or for finding tunes or for dancing – in short, it’s not for everyone – and that’s okay, because if we all liked the same things for the same reasons that would be unbelievably dull.
Henry Cow is a lifeform unto itself – and has been since 1968. Generally acknowledged as an avant-rock group, founded at Cambridge University in 1968 by multi-instrumentalists Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson. Henry Cow’s personnel fluctuated over their decade together, but drummer Chris Cutler, bassist John Greaves, and bassoonist/oboist Lindsay Cooper were important long-term members alongside Frith and Hodgkinson.
An inherent anti-commercial attitude kept them at arm’s length from the mainstream music business, enabling them to experiment at will. Critic Myles Boisen writes, “[their sound] was so mercurial and daring that they had few imitators, even though they inspired many on both sides of the Atlantic with a blend of spontaneity, intricate structures, philosophy, and humor that has endured and transcended the ‘progressive’ tag.” Their influence and place in the Progressive Rock idiom can’t be stressed enough.
While it was generally thought that Henry Cow took their name from 20th-century American composer Henry Cowell, this has been repeatedly denied by band members. According to Hodgkinson, the name “Henry Cow” was “in the air” in 1968, and it seemed like a good name for the band. It had no connection to anything. In a 1974 interview, Cutler said the name was chosen because “[i]t’s silly. What could be sillier than Henry Cow?”
Henry Cow’s music was challenging and uncompromising and this often led to them being accused of deliberately making their music inaccessible. As a result, they were virtually ignored in their own country. Even Virgin Records, who had started dropping experimental groups in favour of commercial ones, was now showing little to no interest in Henry Cow. This led to the group having to continuously make decisions as to whether to continue or not (there certainly were no economic inducements). Cutler said, “We had to make what amounted to political decisions about the organization of the group and its relation to the commercial structures, and this was bound to be reflected in the music too.” Henry Cow’s anti-capitalist stance was brought on partly out of necessity rather than choice. They began working outside the music industry and doing everything for themselves. They abandoned agencies and managers and stopped looking for approval from the music press. Henry Cow quickly became self-sufficient and self-reliant.
Virtual exiles from their own country, they made mainland Europe their second home where they (and their music) were well received. After a concert in Rome in July 1975, Henry Cow remained behind with their truck/bus/mobile home and began meeting local musicians, including progressive rock band Stormy Six, and the PCI (Italian Communist Party). The PCI offered them concerts at Festa de L’Unità (large open-air fairs that run every summer all over Italy), and they joined Stormy Six’s L’Orchestra, a musicians’ co-operative in Milan. Each contact they made led to more contacts and soon doors opened for Henry Cow all over Europe.
If you aren’t familiar, by all means, take the plunge – if this isn’t your cup of tea, I would skip this post altogether and come back tomorrow. If you aren’t sure – hit the play button and take a seat, or a floor.