Music / Henry Cow

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From left to right: Lindsay Cooper, Robert Wyatt, Dagmar Krause, Chris Cutler
"Henry Cow represented a new kind of classical chamber music; one where spontaneity was a partial component, and the instrumentation used created textures that defied those looking for tradition and convention"
—John Kelman

Henry Cow were a very influential experimental, avant-garde rock group hailing from Britain and formed in Cambridge University in 1968. They are often categorized under the Progressive Rock movement that coincided with their active years in the The '70s, however their influences and aspirations went far beyond the usual extended songs and romantic classical music influences that generally can be attributed to the more popular progressive rock acts, as they freely incorporated atonality and modern sounds. Generally these days they are remembered by the moniker "RIO" which stands for "Rock in Opposition" and was actually a name for a series of music festivals which Henry Cow themselves organized to unite like-minded non-commercial creative bands. These days RIO is also known as the type of music these festivals espoused. This separation from the music industry made sure that they could experiment at will on the one hand but also prevented them from ever garnering a very large audience and being a commercial success. Their influences ranged from the experimental work of Frank Zappa to 20th century modern classical music and free jazz. An equally important amount of emphasis was put on collective free improvisation and capabilities to play from sheet music, highly arranged and thought out complicated passages.

The bands members fluctuated a big deal over the years, but some of the more important members included the founders: Fred Firth, who played guitars and keyboards and handled a lot of the composing, and Tim Hodgkinson (organ, saxophone, clarinet), and later, vocalist Dagmar Krause, bassist John Greaves, drummer Chris Cutler, and classically trained bassoonist Lindsay Cooper. A lot of the musicians continued with solo projects in music after the band; some became music teachers. A unique attitude of seeing Henry Cow as a project to push their own abilities as musicians was also notable.

They did get some attention in England as they got signed with the record label Virgin, with whom they released their first albums Legend and Unrest. They also worked and toured with a number of notable bands including Faust and Captain Beefheart; they recorded the live studio version of Tubular Bells with Mike Oldfield, and later merged with another Virgin avant-pop trio, Slapp Happy, with whom they recorded two albums, and from which they got one of their most prominent members who shaped thee sound of the latter half of their discography: Dagmar Krause, a classically trained singer who could do a variety of vocal styles but was most known for her "armageddon" style violent vocals which really have to be heard to be believed. With her included the group now had more focus on songs with lyrics, compared to the mainly instrumental style they previously had. The lyrics often espoused a leftist worldview, critical of commercialism and the western society. (Particularly egregious examples are "Living in the Heart of the Beast" and ""Beautiful as the Moon – Terrible as an Army with Banners").

They started shifting more and more to the European continent, as Virgin started dropping less commercial acts and they found it harder to gain an audience in their home country, which also contributed to their anti-capitalist stance. This led to the RIO festivals in mainland Europe, to connect with like-minded bands. Krause's deteriorating health led to the demise of the band however, as they released their final album Western Culture as an instrumental. But the band's legacy was a number of other projects taken on by the members (Such as Art Bears, which had Frith and Krause in it).

In summary, their music was viciously anti-commercial, boldly experimental, and relied on both free improvisation and formal composition with a varied and wide range of influences. They remain one of the most influential avant-garde "rock" groups to date.

The Discography:
  • Legend (1973)
  • Unrest (1974)
  • Desperate Straights (with Slapp Happy) (1974)
  • In Praise of Learning (with Slappy Happy) (1975)
  • Henry Cow Concerts (1976)
  • Western Culture (1979)

The box set: The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set is a marvel in its own right, containing all of the aforementioned albums and including all of the unreleased studio recordings and live material that accumulated during their career, from the very early compositions to the free improvisations they included heavily in later concerts.

They have an extensive article on The Other Wiki.

This band contains examples of the following tropes

  • Capitalism Is Bad: When they have lyrics, this will usually be one of the themes. It's also implicit in their artistic stances such as forming the Rock in Opposition festival, which is a pretty literal example of Music Is Politics.
  • Cover Version: The first song from Unrest, "Bitter Storm over Ulm", is a "perversion" of The Yardbirds song "Got to Hurry"; in live concerts they also covered the Phil Ochs song "No More Songs"
  • Darker and Edgier: The latter albums get more-so, arguably, as they add lyrics criticizing capitalism.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: In this case some of the first songs feature a male singer and are surprisingly soft. Also the band was a lot more jazzy in the early days.
  • Epic Instrumental Opener
  • Epic Rocking: Well... they're Progressive Rock. Some of the longest songs include "Erk Gah" (around eighteen minutes depending on the performance), "Living in the Heart of the Beast" (around sixteen to seventeen minutes), "With the Yellow Half Moon and Blue Star" (around sixteen minutes), and so on. Also, the two LP sides of Western Culture can each be thought of as a single composition (although they're divided into multiple tracks) and if that's the case then each of them is about eighteen minutes long. Finally, they were known to delve into Improvs live that could really get long.
  • Harsh Vocals: My god Dagmar, that voice.
  • Improv: A lot of their live work and some of their studio work consisted of this.
  • Instrumentals: Almost the entirety of the albums before Dagmar Krause and also the final album consists wholly of these (with the exception, on some releases, of the bonus track "Viva Pa Ubu").
  • Mind Screw: A lot of their work.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: Almost all the albums.
  • Motor Mouth: "Linguaphonie"
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: Like many prog bands, they incorporate influence from a wildly disparate range of genres, such as Avant-garde Music, free jazz, and modern classical music.
  • New Sound Album: Definitely after merging with Slapp Happy.
  • Non-Appearing Title: Not least because a lot of their songs are instrumental.
  • Pun-Based Title: The first album "Legend" can also be understood as "Leg End" because the cover of the album is an image of a sock...
  • Shout-Out: "Viva Pa Ubu" is one to Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi (also the source of Pere Ubu's name).
  • Surprisingly Gentle Song: "Rapt in a Blanket" from the early years box set.
  • Textless Album Cover: The famous "sock" album covers. The first one is textless, the others have the name of the band on them.
  • Uncommon Time: Again, comes with the territory of being a Progressive Rock band.
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