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"
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 Seventies
, however their influences and aspirations went far beyond the usual extended songs and romantic classical music influences that generally can be attributed the more popular progressive rock acts, freely incorporating atonality and modern sounds. Generally these days they are remembered by the monicker "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 bassist John Greaves and 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. An 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
. They also worked and toured with a number of notable bands including Faust, 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 were often espousing 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 bands 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 varied and wide range of influences. They remain one of the most influential avant-garde "rock" groups to date.
- 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