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Henry Cow

The progressive rock genre spawned many groups that became top-grossing arena acts -- Pink Floyd and Genesis are two -- as well as many who progressed right into obscurity. Henry Cow were one of the best known and most widely traveled English bands of the progressive era (though only a cult favorite in the U.S. and actually more popular in Continental Europe than in their home country), and their music has aged amazingly well over the ensuing decades due to the group's diverse influences (Oliver Messiaen, Kurt Weill, Frank Zappa, and Soft Machine were a few) and uncompromising creativity. Henry Cow functioned more or less as a collective, with a true group identity that changed from album to album as members came and went. This turnover was one factor in their consistent vitality; another was the dedicated core of the band, a serious, politicized trio whose interest in improvisation served to leaven the complexity they supplied as primary writers.

Tim Hodgkinson played keyboards and reeds, Chris Cutler played drums, and Fred Frith provided a variety of instruments, most notably guitar. The three appear on all of the Henry Cow albums recorded between 1973 and 1978. Other important members included double reedist Lindsay Cooper, bassist John Greaves, bassist/cellist Georgie Born, and German singer Dagmar Krause. Krause, a member of Slapp Happy (also featuring Anthony Moore and Peter Blegvad), first appeared on record with Henry Cow on 1975's Henry Cow/Slapp Happy collaboration In Praise of Learning -- the third (after 1973's Leg End and 1974's Unrest) of Cow's Virgin Records era "sock cover" albums, and also the band's most overt alignment with the political left -- as well as that year's Desperate Straights, credited in reverse order to Slapp Happy/Henry Cow. Krause also worked with Frith and Cutler in the spinoff Art Bears band and later recorded bilingual renditions of songs by Brecht and Weill. Together, these musicians' sound in the Henry Cow collective 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. Henry Cow also played an important role in spearheading an aggregation of likeminded groups (originally including Etron Fou Leloublan from France, Samla Mammas Manna from Sweden, Stormy Six from Italy, and Univers Zero from Belgium -- the latter still going strong as of 2010) under the Rock in Opposition umbrella in 1978; while far from well-known, RIO groups and practitioners of a certain "RIO sound" created sonic ripples that have persisted well into the 21st century avant rock world.

Since the demise of Henry Cow, the group's members have continued in various creative directions, with Cutler joining Pere Ubu in the late '80s, working in Europe with rock-based or improvising ensembles, and also performing solo on his electrified drum set; Hodgkinson joining post-punk outfit the Work, focusing on avant-garde contemporary composition, and improvising on clarinet, tabletop guitar, and electronics in various aggregations including the Konk Pack trio with Thomas Lehn and Roger Turner; and Frith becoming a valued contributor to the New York downtown music scene (including a stint as bassist in John Zorn's Naked City downtown supergroup between 1988 and 1993) before entering the world of academia as a Professor of Composition at Mills College in Oakland, CA, while also composing, recording, and performing in a spectrum ranging from Tzadik label soundtracks to an improvising duo with Zorn to the rockish song-based Cosa Brava quintet, also featuring Zeena Parkins and Carla Kihlstedt. While exploring such diverse musical territories over the years, Cutler, Hodgkinson, and Frith have not reunited as a performing unit, an exception being a December 2006 appearance at the Stone in New York City.

Among other former Cow members, John Greaves has maintained a musical career as solo artist, bandmember, and collaborator in the decades following the band's breakup, performing and recording with Peter Blegvad (including the 1977 cult favorite album Kew. Rhone.) and National Health (1979's Of Queues & Cures and 1982's D.S. al Coda), and releasing a number of song-oriented albums that have seen perhaps their strongest reception in France, where he has lived since the mid-'80s. Lindsay Cooper -- whose bassoon gave the group a singular character when she joined the lineup upon the departure of original reedman Geoff Leigh prior to the recording of Unrest, and who composed the side-two suite "Day by Day" on 1979's Western Culture -- went on to record a number of politically and socially conscious albums (often displaying a strong feminist orientation) including the film scores Rags (1981) and The Gold Diggers (1983), the latter film featuring Julie Christie and noteworthy as the feature-length directorial debut of Sally Potter (Orlando); the live Oh Moscow (1991); and Sahara Dust (1992), a reflection on the 1990-1991 Gulf War in collaboration with Australian singer/writer Robyn Archer. Cooper also performed and/or recorded with diverse ensembles including the Mike Westbrook Orchestra, David Thomas & the Pedestrians, and News from Babel. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and continued performing for years without divulging her condition; by the late '90s, however, Cooper was forced to retire from music and by the close of the 2000s her symptoms had seriously worsened. Sadly, she died from complications of the disease in September 2013.

Many recordings by former Henry Cow members and their RIO ilk have been distributed worldwide through the Recommended Records network spearheaded by Cutler. For Cow enthusiasts, the Holy Grail of archival sets appeared in January 2009 with the release on ReR of The Road, Vols. 1-5 and Vols. 6-10, two box sets commemorating the 40th anniversary of the band's original formation. Consisting in total of nine CDs, a DVD, and two 60-page booklets, The Road features concert recordings and other archival material spanning Henry Cow's career from 1972 to 1978. ~ Myles Boisen & Dave Lynch, Rovi
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Comments

FANTASTIC to hear Henry Cow again. Pandora has rekindled my utter admiration for this unique group. In a just world Henry Cow would be admired and enjoyed every home, and bogus nincompoops like Queen or Kanye West (two divergent example- there are thousands or possibles) would be washing dishes to pay for their shampoo bills.
Brush with fame: I had the opportunity to have a short jam with Chris Cutler at a house concert several years ago.. He was playing various percussive and electronic noise devices.
I love Henry Cow. I first heard Western Culture in 1990. They just combine the right amount of neoclassical , rock and Zappa-ish meter changes.
Bonzey! I have always thought of myself as a reasonable connesour of prog rock. However, today is my first encounter with Henry Cow. What an encounter it is. Yeah!
A place to place a marker for a little of what I have learned thanks to the infernal P, and for the pleasure of what HC has given me...
Absolute favorite band ever. What a sound.
A couple more comments on the writeup by Myles:

A primary influence (which several band members attested to specifically and repeatedly) was Captain Beefheart.

"All of them sang" - meaning Frith, Cutler, Hodgkinson - only on "Nine Funerals of the Citizen King" on the first album, mainly because there was no one else to do the job. I don't think any of them have done any significant singing since, nor would you want them to.


downhamb
what a great band they make all of todays bands look like little babies with guitar center credit cards
Nice writeup; thanks, Myles Boisen. All I would add is that no other prog rock band achieved the kind of compositiona l scope that Henry Cow did, I think. What Myles describes as "intricate structures" really demonstrate a profound grasp of tonality. Scholars will study this stuff someday.
Fans of Henry Cow would naturally be fans of Hatfield & The North, National Health, David Stewart & Barbara Gaskin, Bill Bruford Bands (of many incarnations ) , Chad Wackerman, Soft Machine and Frank Zappa, just to name a few.
"Unrest" is now present in Pandora. Thanks, folks.

Yes, Art Bears is good stuff also - the natural continuation of Henry Cow being the nucleus of Frith, Cutler and Dagmar. But a lot more heavy-handed lyrically in the Praise of Learning mode, so has not worn well unless you're an unrepentant leftist.
In Praise of Learning is a must! Also, anyone heard Art Bears? Lindsay Cooper was also in News From Babel. Great Stuff, I was amazed to find any of it here!
rob.zebeck
A crime that this seminal group, so far ahead of thier time (and really, ahead of everything until about ten years ago) is so underreprese n t e d .

Henry Cow should be on everybody essential listening list

"Unrest" and "In Praise of Learning" are both amazing.
Yes, In Praise of Learning is sublime. Please add.
Should also add "Unrest" (arguably their best album) and their 2 collaboratio n s with Slapp Happy: Desperate Straights and In Praise of Learning.
Such a CLASSIC GROUP! These guys have produced some great bands/music

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