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Music / Henry Cow

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From left to right: Lindsay Cooper, Robert Wyatt, Dagmar Krause, Chris Cutlernote 

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 was close to the ideal image of an avant-garde rock group.
Trond Einar Garmo

Tell of the birth
Tell how war appeared on earth
Thunder and herbs
Conjugated sacred verbs
Musicians with gongs
Fertilised an egg with song
Asleep in the sphere
Her foetus was a knot of fear
She butted with her horn
Split an egg and war was born
A miracle of hate
She banged her spoon against her plate
Upon her spoon this motto
Wonderfully designed
'Violence completes the partial mind'
Henry Cow, "War"

Henry Cow were an influential, experimental, avant-garde British rock group, which 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, but their influences and aspirations went beyond the usual extended songs and romantic classical music influences that were associated with the more popular progressive rock acts, as they freely incorporated atonality, free improvisation and the influence of 20th century classical composers such as Olivier Messiaen.

The band's membership changed a good deal over the years, but the two founding members remained constant: Fred Frith (guitar, violin, occasional keyboards and much of the composing), and Tim Hodgkinson (organ, saxophone, clarinet). Later long-standing members included drummer Chris Cutler, who joined in 1969 and stayed until the end; vocalist Dagmar Krause; bassist John Greaves, and classically-trained flautist/bassoonist Lindsay Cooper. The musicians shared an attitude of seeing Henry Cow as a project to push their own abilities: there were no slackers in this band. (One of Hodgkinson's more challenging tunes, "Erk Gah", was titled after Fred Frith's exclamation on seeing the sheet music for the first time.)

The band was associated with the acronym "RIO", which stands for "Rock in Opposition", the name for a series of music festivals Henry Cow 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, but in spite of their friendly and inclusive performance style, their experimental attitude also prevented them from ever winning a very large audience and being a commercial success. The band's influences ranged from the experimental work of Frank Zappa to 20th century modern classical music and free jazz. Equal emphasis was put on collective free improvisation, and capabilities to play from sheet music, highly arranged and thought out complicated passages.

They did get some attention in England when they signed with Virgin Records, 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. The "Happy Cow" lineup also gave them one of their most prominent members who shaped the sound of the latter half of their discography: Dagmar Krause, a German singer whose extraordinary voice could be either sweet and pretty or astoundingly harsh and caustic. Until Krause became the singer the group had mostly played instrumental music, but they began to focus on songs with lyrics. The lyrics were generally written by Cutler and often espoused a leftist worldview, critical of commercialism and western society. (Notable examples are "Living in the Heart of the Beast", which was actually written by Hodgkinson, and "Beautiful as the Moon -– Terrible as an Army with Banners").

As the 70s went on and Virgin began to shed its less commercial acts, the band shifted the focus of its activity to the European continent. They found it harder to gain an audience in their home country, which also contributed to their anti-capitalist stance. Krause's recurring ill health also inhibited their activity, but what really broke their back was the increasing creative differences within the band. Frith and Cutler wanted to write songs, but the others wanted to go on making the extended instrumental numbers that had always been the band's core repertoire. Since the band was famously democratic, with everything (down to details of song arrangements) being decided by committee, they decided to split up: Frith, Cutler and Krause formed the trio Art Bears, whose first album was largely recorded in the same studio, with the same personnel, and at the same time, as Henry Cow's final album Western Culture.

Frith, Hodgkinson, Cutler and Krause have all had remarkable solo careers and side projects, the most well-known being Naked City, which was John Zorn's band and had Frith as the bassist. Georgina “Georgie” Born, the band's youngest member and bassist from 1976—78, became a distinguished anthropologist, publishing in 2004 a major ethnographical study of The BBC.

Lindsay Cooper was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late 70s, and although she made a number of memorable albums in the 80s and 90s, her progressive illness eventually curtailed her musical career. She died in 2013. The following year, Henry Cow briefly reformed for a short series of concerts in her memory.

Henry Cow's music was epic, 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 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. It also includes a DVD with high-quality footage of a complete concert. It's since been superseded by the even more complete Henry Cow Box Redux.


  • Action Girl: Lindsay Cooper, the band's bassoonist. She was onstage in Italy once when a random guy climbed onto the stage and sat next to her, then tried to grope her. She finished the phrase she was playing, punched him, then went back to playing without missing a beat. This went down extremely well with the women in the audience.
    • Bassist John Greaves recalled an incident where the social secretary at some university gig referred to Cooper and band roadie Sula Goschen as “the chicks in the band”. Greaves said that the young man was “lucky to get away with his balls intact”.
  • Boxed Set: The Cow got one of these with the 2009 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Boxed Set, which presented several discs of previously unreleased live recordings and rarities, a DVD of their only filmed live performance, and detailed booklets full of reminiscences and notes by band members. Subscribers also got an empty box which was designed to house all their studio albums. This was later superseded by the even more complete 2019 Henry Cow Box Redux, released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the band's founding, which contained 17 CDs, the DVD and the booklets, therefore comprising all the band's extant recordings (except for some bootlegs which are said to be so poor quality as to be unlistenable.)
  • The Bus Came Back: Lindsay Cooper joined the band for their second album Unrest and toured with them before being asked to leave. Two albums later, they asked her to rejoin again and she stayed till the end.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: When their songs have lyrics at all, which is the case with slightly less than half of them, this will often be one of the themes.note  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.
    • They used to lampshade this by covering Matching Mole's "Gloria Gloom", which is a song partly about whether or not it made any sense to sing songs about capitalism being bad.
  • Cover Version: The first song from Unrest, "Bittern 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". One of the boxed set live albums has them doing a very funny version of Soft Machine's "We Did It Again", and they also covered Matching Mole's "Gloria Gloom".
    • The Concerts album features a live version of Robert Wyatt's "Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road", with Wyatt on guest vocal.
  • Darker and Edgier: The latter albums get more so, arguably, as they add lyrics criticizing capitalism.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: The cover of Concerts, an insanely detailed pen-and-ink drawing of an apocalyptic war (on the front) which fades gradually into a sunny day in the countryside (on the back). It was done by their roadie, Maggie Thomas.
  • 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.
  • Gender-Equal Ensemble: They were this for a while, with three male members (Frith, Cutler and Hodgkinson) and three female ones (Krause, Cooper and Born.) Very rare in 70s rock.
  • Genre Mashup: 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.
  • Harsh Vocals: My god Dagmar, that voice.
  • The Heart: The consensus among former members seems to be that the late Lindsay Cooper was this: the one member that all the other members adored.
  • Iconic Item: The woven sock that decorates three of their five album covers. The design of the sock changed from album to album. Its designer, Ray Smith, made it by literally weaving strands of dried paint.
  • Improv: A lot of their live work and some of their studio work consisted of this. The live album Trondheim from the Henry Cow Box is entirely improvised.
  • 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").
  • Live Album: They had one in their own lifetime, Concerts, although since some of it was recorded at a Peel session in a BBC studio, it's arguably not live since the only audience was the producers and engineer. The boxed sets contain live discs recorded in Hamburg, Bremen, Stockholm, Goteborg and Trondheim.
  • Lonely Piano Piece: The title track of Desperate Straights. After a long day's recording, Anthony Moore came into the studio and started to play the piano. He was joined by Chris Cutler on discreet drums and they rolled the tape.
  • Mind Screw: A lot of their work.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: Almost all the albums.
  • Motor Mouth: "Linguaphonie"
  • New Sound Album: Definitely after merging with Slapp Happy.
  • Non-Appearing Title: Not least because a lot of their songs are instrumental. "Erk Gah" is an unusual case: it was named after Fred Frith's exclamation of dismay on first looking at the sheet music.
  • 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...
    • Desperate Straights also qualifies, being a pun on "desperate straits".
  • Revolving Door Band: The line-up on the first album was Geoff Leigh, Fred Frith, Tim Hodgkinson, John Greaves and Chris Cutler. On the second album, Lindsay Cooper replaced Geoff Leigh. After the second album, Cooper was fired. By the third album, the band had merged with Slapp Happy so the line up was Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad, Anthony Moore, Frith, Hodgkinson, Greaves and Cutler, but Cooper appeared as a session musician. After that album, Blegvad and Moore were fired and Cooper came back as a full member, but then Greaves left, then Georgina Born joined, and then Krause left. By the time they made their last album, the band had basically broken up, but the official lineup was Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson and Annemarie Roelofs, with Born guesting on bass on a few tracks.
  • Scatting: Robert Wyatt does this at the end of their live version of his song "Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road".
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Viva Pa Ubu" is one to Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi, also the source of Pere Ubu's name. Coincidentally, Chris Cutler was a member of Pere Ubu for a while.
    • "Beautiful as the Moon—Terrible as an Army with Banners" is one to The Bible, namely Song of Songs 6:10.
    • The title of "Erk Gah" was something Fred Frith said on first looking at the score, but he got it from Don Martin's cartoons in MAD magazine.
    • Averted with the band's name, which many people over the years have assumed is this to 20th century composer Henry Cowell, although the band claims it's no such thing.
  • Sixth Ranger: Their roadies/sound mixers/general dogsbodies Jack Balchin and Maggie Thomas. Thomas also designed the cover of Concerts, reusing some flyer artwork she'd done.
  • Soprano and Gravel: Dagmar Krause did both.
  • Special Guest: Robert Wyatt sang with them on a number of occasions, trumpeter Mongezi Feza played on In Praise of Learning and Swiss jazz/improvisation pianist Irène Schweizer is on Western Culture.
  • 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, but Henry Cow really ran with it. The band/fan favourite track "Ruins" has a compound time signature that consists of a cycle of measures in, successively, 6/4, 5/3, 3/2, 7/3, 7/3 and 4/8. The beginning of "Beautiful as the Moon" is in measures of, successively, 4/4, 3/8, 9/8, 4/4, 6/8, 4/4, 4/4 and 3/8. After that it gets complicated.