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There are a million ways to tell this story: through the music, the social arrangements, politically, artistically, subjectively. Certainly every member of the group would have a very different version. I'll just try to give some bones, some significant events, a little background and say, now and then, how, I felt about some of it. Memory is treacherous, so I write this referring as much as possible to contemporary documents and notes. Most what follows is adapted loosely from something I wrote for Andy Ortmann soon after the band broke up. Which explains why the style is sometimes a little odd.

A couple of other preliminaries:

Henry Cow was first and foremost a performing group; none of the records get near to what we were like on stage, and of course, there is a mass of music that we never even tried to record.

For the bulk of our touring life, there were as many women in the band as men - road crew as well as performers.

Henry Cow was a full time project and we pretty much lived on top of each other for about 5 years, either on tour or rehearsing. We lived frugally - all the money we earned went into a kitty to pay for equipment, vehicles, repairs, and travel. Only in the last three-and-a-half years were we finally able to pay ourselves anything (£10, £15, £20 and in the last six months £25 a week). The band fed us - that was my job, with Maggie Thomas, who came on most of the tours with us and ended up being our sound engineer. John's wife Sarah was also our sound engineer for a long time, and their tiny son Ben travelled with us a lot, as did Dagmar and Anthony's son Max.

The group was run through a combination of meetings - formal, weekly, minuted meetings - and personal zones of responsibility (for accounts, catering, route planning, administration, maintenance and so on). We wound up in a lot of bizarre places and did some things which, looking back, might appear extremely eccentric - noble - ridiculous - stupid - idealistic but which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. There was hardly any outside - so where would perspective come from? I just mention it, since there's no space for any of that in here. Your cue, then, to dip what you read below into a pot seething with failure and achievement, art and psychology, agape, confusion, suffering - and moments nothing could improve upon. And hormones. Lots of hormones. You talk about a revolution? We 'eel.. someone else already had the last word on that:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

HENRY COW

Around 1970, I put an advert in the Melody maker. Through this I met many of the people who formed the first The Ottawa Company but no permanent group until Henry Cow got in touch. Founded at Cambridge University in 1968 by Tim Hodgkinson and Fred Frith, the band had gone through a succession of styles and extra members until, by the time I joined in 1971, it had settled into the permanent core of Fred, Tim and John Greaves - all of whom were still at Cambridge finishing their degrees. For a while, I commuted, rehearsing and doing the occasional concert. Then university ended and there was some serious thinking about careers and music. Music won. The band relocated to London and we started to rehearse in the house I then rented (an old shop with a covered outside yard that had been used as a sculpture studio). We rehearsed every day from 0900 to 1800, six days a week, slipping away occasionally for a concert somewhere, usually out of London. The band as a whole also joined the Ottawa Music Company, a 22 piece Rock Composers Orchestra I had set up with Egg's Dave Stewart a year or so before, and performed at its last series of concerts. It was in Ottawa that Henry Cow met Geoff Leigh (he and I had been at school together) and invited him to play on our second John Peel show. After that, we asked him to join us permanently. He declined, and went to live instead in Holland.

When he came back about a year later, we were busy with a production of Euripides' The Bacchae (at the Palace Theatre, Watford). This involved commuting from London - we had to arrive by half past eight, to prepare new music and rehearse before the actors arrived - working all day with the cast and director and then staying on afterwards to rewrite and rehearse until about 22.00. Then we drove home to sleep. This was our itinerary seven days a week for three weeks - and it changed us. The director, Robert Walker, was treating the production as a collective process, meaning that we were also involved in endless discussions and struggles over the direction and interpretation of the play, necessitating continual rewriting of the music all the way through to the opening night. (The music Robert Wyatt eventually recorded as XXXX was in fact the music Fred wrote for the scene where maddened Corybantes tear Pentheus to pieces. Bob had asked for 'hot Bacchic music' here, but our alternative reading eventually prevailed). In all, it was an intense, demanding and concentrated period of work, and after it,we became a qualitatively different band. This band Geoff Leigh did want to join. So Henry Cow became a quintet.

 

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That summer, we were in Edinburgh for a series of repertory concerts at the Traverse Theatre, followed almost immediately by writing and performing music for a ballet with artist Ray Smith and the Cambridge Contemporary Dance Group at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The music for this constituted our fourth John Peel broadcast and part of it survives on Leg End (With the Yellow Half Moon and Blue Star), for which Ray did the cover - the first of his three paint socks). But that came later...

Back in London, we started to organise our own concerts under the name of The Cabaret Voltaire, which involved - as well as music - performance art, cookery and a little theatre. The ubiquitous Ray Smith was a regular there, as was writer DJ Perry. Henry Cow played at each concert (varying its programme) followed by our invited guests. We generally ended up all playing together. Printed programmes and refreshments were free.

In early 1973, we started a second series, this time under the name The Explorers Club with invitees Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, Ivor Cutler, Ron Geesin, The Scratch Orchestra, David Toop, Paul Burwell, and Christine Jeffries, as well as regulars D.J. Perry and Ray Smith. During this series, Simon Draper of the then incubating Virgin Records showed up and after many negotiations offered us a contract. We deliberated, but signed it.

Within two weeks, we were at the Manor recording Leg End. It took three weeks and seemed like hard work. Though we were lucky with engineer Tom Newman, who not only remained cheerful and patient but also taught us how to handle the studio ourselves.

 

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Within two months, we were on tour, co-billed with Faust - which both helped confirm us as a Rock Group (until then much of our work had been in arts centres, theatres and university jazz societies) and marked the beginning of our association with the Virgin concert agency, with it's attendant diminishment of our former self-sufficiency - at least in the field of providing ourselves with work. During this tour, we were simultaneously preparing music for a second play, Shakespeare's The Tempest, for which we nominated our own director, John Chadwick. The play was a success I think: it was certainly quite unorthodox and provocative - a strong alternative reading of the text. Our musical contribution, though, seemed not really to do it justice. That was my feeling anyway. Perhaps we were over-confident, or just over-stretched? Whatever the reason, we ended up with too little time to do the job thoroughly. Fred's Solemn Music is the only music that survived from this (on side two of Unrest).

In the middle of a Dutch tour, Geoff decided to leave. We didn't want to replace him but we did want an extra voice, so we started to look round for someone to invite. We were also thinking about finding a more unusual instrument to draw us further away from the standard rock and jazz sonorities. At which point enter Lindsay Cooper (I had seen her some time before in Comus and soon after Geoff's departure, Fred and I went to see her playing with old Cow and Ottawa associate Clive Bell in Ritual Theatre). With hardly any time to rehearse - and Lindsay still bleeding from the extraction of four wisdom teeth - we all went into the Manor to record Unrest.

The music we had managed to prepare for this record was too little and appallingly under-rehearsed (it's all on Side 1). As it turned out, this lack was probably a blessing, since it forced us to invest a good deal of time developing the studio composition process that filled Side 2. It was another intense experience, and the strongest period of collective learning since The Bacchae. We needed it too; the group was flying apart at the seams - half of us hardly on speaking terms with the other half, John contemplating leaving and life with Virgin already problematical. (I think Deluge, on side 2 of that record can be heard both as an exquisite encapsulation of the existential state of the group and the extraordinarily productive potential of the studio composition method which we evolved - under duress). Anyway, we all came out of the studio happy, thinking we had achieved something. I remember, we even organised a special staff listening for Virgin - as if we were all really a big, interested, family. Virgin seemed.... non-plussed, not to say unimpressed. But I think it helped to bring the rest of us back into focus.

Almost at once, we were on tour again - with Capt. Beefheart this time - for five weeks around England and Europe. Somewhere along the way, something snapped and we all woke up with a start. Was this it? Locked into the rock circus, staying at Holiday Inns, watching the way Beefheart's managers behaved, doing our 30 gigs in 34 days? We watched Don come off stage and say "that was the worst gig I ever did in the whole of my life - and they loved it". It seemed to be a warning: we were getting lazy. Until now, we had tried to change our programme from concert to concert, write new bridges, vary the material, change things around, now, suddenly, we were just playing the same thing night after night.

We decided to come off the road to regroup and rethink. After three months we reconvened, asked Lindsay to leave and toured Holland as a quartet. In the absence of all our learned material (which we couldn't play without Lindsay), we took ourselves to Yorkshire for 10 days, rehearsing in a rented village hall and emerging with a 50 minute piece derived entirely from the first three minutes of an unfinished composition of Tim's (Living In The Heart Of The Beast). At the concerts we'd perform the piece, take a break, and then perform it again.

After this, we came back off the road - this time indefinitely.

 

 

Months passed. SlappHappy called to arrange a meeting. They were about to make their second LP for Virgin and wanted to meet us and talk about it. A couple of days later they arrived - armed with a great deal of alcohol - and invited us to be their band for the session. We agreed. It wasn't a hard decision. The two groups had already become entangled: we had met Peter Belgvad playing with Faust on the tour we did together; I had worked on the SlappHappy single Casablanca Moon around the time of TheTempest (another version was released with a more competent percussionist); Lindsay, Fred and John had all worked on the single Europa (not released) and Geoff, Fred and John had been on the famous Slapp Happy John Peel broadcast (with Robert Wyatt and Geoff Clyne)

Working on Desperate Straights was eye-opening. By the end of it we had decided to merge the two groups and integrate Slapphappy into our next record for Virgin. So, in the dead of winter, we took ourselves off to a freezing gymnasium at St. Christopher's school to rehearse.

At the same time, we were planning a third series of Explorer's Clubs - this time over 7 consecutive nights at the ICA. It never happened: we felt that, now we were signed to Virgin we couldn't in all conscience ask guests to perform with us for nothing, and Virgin - believe it or not - refused to underwrite even basic travelling expenses (to a total of £150) in spite of the fact that half our invitees were also on the label (e.g. Robert Wyatt, Slapphappy, Daevid Allen, Gylli Smythe, Lol Coxhill and Ivor Cutler).

We almost froze to death in that gym. The heating was off and playing was hard. By the end of the week, we realised that the merged band wouldn't work. Apart from anything else, I think we all had very different ideas about what conditions we would be willing to work under. And, as it turned out, those conditions would be stringent and extremely demanding. However, we still went to The Manor and made In Praise of Learning together. Afterward, Dagmar stayed with Henry Cow. We had already invited Lindsay back to do the recording (in her absence we realised how indispensable she was) so now we became a sextet and began to prepare for what would become the most sustained and rigorous working schedule of our career - about two solid years of virtually continuous touring in Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Spain and Finland.

This would be the place to mention Jack Balchin, Phil Clarke, Sarah Greaves and Sula Goshen, the longest serving other members of the group who were with us over that period (driving, road managing, mixing, administrating) whose contribution was critical, but has disappeared - if it was ever on - the record (ref. Who built the seven gates of Thebes?).

 

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In April that year (1975) before embarking on our new life, we rehearsed with Robert Wyatt for a concert in Paris to promote his and our new records. It was a wild success - the public applauded for about 15 minutes, forcing Richard Branson to come back and beg us to do something more. Since we didn't know anything else, we went out and played the old Soft Machine song We did it Again. Soon after, we repeated this programme in London and were then invited, with Gong on board, to a giant open-air festival/demonstration in Rome.

Italy was a closed territory at that time - because of a famous Lou Reed concert at which an enraged audience had trashed thousands of pounds worth of equipment. They wanted to show that they disapproved of high ticket prices and what they saw as an American/English entertainment Mafia (young Italians had a far more robust idea of politics than the British at the time). The result was that promoters refused to send artists to Italy any more. However, our concert was not show business but a manifestation organised by La Stampa Alternativa, (an alternative newspaper). And it was free. 20,000 people showed up.

After the concert, while the others took planes home, Henry Cow stayed on. We parked our truck - and our office/mobile home/ bus, in the Piazza Farnese and started to meet people, notably organisers from the Partito Radicale and the PCI (the Italian Communist Party). The PCI immediately offered us concerts at Festa D'Unita (massive open-air fairs they run every summer all over Italy). We accepted everything; drove and played, drove back and drove and played again. Soon we were making plans for the following year. Out of this single action - made possible in the main by the recent acquisition of our bus/kitchen/home - we returned at least twice a year to Italy from then until the band broke up (indeed, we did our last concert there). We were probably the only non-Italian group able to do this. On this first visit, we also met Stormy Six, joined L'Orchestra (a musicians' co-operative in Milan) and found Nick Hobbs (then working in an Italian pump factory) who eventually became our administrator.

In March 1976, while we were rehearsing for a tour in Scandinavia, John Greaves said he wanted to leave. He did his last concert with us on March 26th for Radio Hamburg. Uli Trepte came to this concert (he had been in Faust when we had toured together) and returned to England with us. We rehearsed with him for a while, and with Steve Beresford too, but neither worked out. In the meantime, we were committed to a tour of Scandinavia and decided, again, to do it as a quartet (Tim, Fred, Lindsay and me this time - Dagmar was ill in Hamburg). Again, we took the radical option. Each of us prepared materials on tape (with different but chronological content: the history of Henry Cow (Fred), the music of youth through old age (Lindsay), ethnic to late C20 contemporary (Tim). Each tape was 2 hours long and ran continuously through the piece, silent until one of us made it audible (using a foot pedal). You couldn't know, therefore, where exactly in the tape you might be or what you would get if you let it sound. Sometimes the tapes would hardly be used, but they were always running. Each concert had the following structure: we would improvise for an unbroken 2 hour stretch in the dark (or in candlelight) under a broad but muted linking concept which had something to do with the genesis of music, ritual and western culture. Each concert started with a drum and a flute and each ended with a march written by Fred - and there was always a kind of musical wedding theme (played on tubular bells) somewhere about a third of the way in. Otherwise, we just made it all up as we went along. It was a risk, and it probably cost us some popularity in Scandinavia. But it kept us awake.

Just before we left for this tour, we compiled a double LP (Concerts) for a new Norwegian label: Compendium. For the first time, we did everything ourselves: mastering, cover design, cutting, pressing, manufacture - and found out how easy it was.

Back from Scandinavia, we continued to audition bass-players until we found Georgie Born - also a classically trained cellist, and an improviser. The compositions grew more complex. We continued to tour, rehearse and tour some more.

 

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Early in l977, it was time to merge again, this time with the entire Mike Westbrook Brass Band and folk singer Frankie Armstrong (as The Orckestra). We played our first (3 hour) concert at the Moving Left Review at the Roundhouse in London and then in an open-air theatre in Hyde Park. After that, we went on to tour together in France, Italy and Scandinavia.

At more or less the same time, we were involved in setting up Music for Socialism (also in London) and its May Festival (at which we played and disputed vigorously with Peoples Liberation Music). With all this activity in London (it had been 3 years since we had done more than one concert a year in our own country) we thought we should try to break the curious ring of apathy that seemed to be discouraging anyone from wanting to put us on. So, we tried to organise a small alternative tour ourselves, the first half with Red Balune (Geoff Leigh's group at that time) and the second with Etron Fou Leloublan, whom we invited over from France. After 11 concerts, we ended up with a loss, and no progress at home.

By now, we had been negotiating with Virgin for about a year to end our contract. It had become a millstone around both our necks: theirs because they weren't making any money out of us - and anyway had long since dropped the experimental groups in favour of the commercial ones - ours because none of our records was licensed or distributed in the countries in which we spent all our time playing. So long as we were contracted to Virgin, we had no other options - and by now we wanted to record again while Virgin preferred, understandably, not to waste their money. Stuck at this impasse, it occurred to us that insisting on the fulfilment of our contract might be the easiest way to terminate it. So we went to Virgin and told them we were ready to make our next LP, as per our agreement, and please to book us a month at The Manor. They refused. We pointed to the contract (they wrote it: one month at a first class studio) and after a short negotiation, they agreed to let us go.

By September, Dagmar's health, which had been getting poorer and poorer, was in such a weakened state that touring became impossible. Two months later, she decided to leave. She wanted, however, to sing on our new record - which we had already booked to record at the beginning of 1978 at Sunrise (in Switzerland).

Just days before we left, there were serious disagreements about the material we were about to record - leaving us with a studio booking and no music. I was deputised to try to produce new texts for Tim's piece (which eventually appeared 19 years later in its original form as Hold to the Zero Burn on his CD each in their own thoughts). New texts were, of course, impossible in the week or so in which they would have to be done. So I wrote some short song texts instead and proposed that we make a song CD. In the absence of anything else, this is what we did, working on the material en route to Switzerland and then in a rehearsal room when we arrived - and on throughout the recording process itself. However, when we returned to London, Henry Cow decided that this work was not what Henry Cow should be doing - and therefore that we should not release the record. Fred and I offered to pay the studio costs for the songs and release them under our own names. The Henry Cow tracks: Viva Pa Ubu, Slice and Half the Sky were retained by the group and the rest, plus four extra songs (recorded a few months later at Kaleidophon), appeared as the first Art Bears LP: Hopes and Fears (also the first release on my own Re Records). At the same meeting, we agreed to disband Henry Cow as a permanent group - and not to announce the fact but to continue for another six months with a complete set of new material to revisit for the last time, all the places that had supported us over the years. In a way, it was the last crucial point in our collective development, from which the material for Western Culture emerged.

Chronologically, these were the last days of Henry Cow:

First, and against all the odds, came a short tour of theatres and art centres in England, organised and paid for by the Arts Council. Nick Hobbs miraculously mediated this, as well as a moderate grant to cover some of our accumulated debts.

Then, in March we organised and played at the first Rock in Opposition Festival in London, inviting four European groups: Univers Zero (Belgium), Etron Fou Leloublan (France), Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden) and Stormy Six (Italy) to play at it. We had already known them all for along time, and had worked with each of them individually before. It seemed ridiculous to us that they were unknown outside their own countries and that their records were not distributed or reviewed anywhere but in local outlets (not being American or English meant not being for the English speaking world). This festival was intended as a graphic counter to British rock chauvinism - and as a move toward recognising a de facto international community of experimental musicians. It ended up grounding a temporary organisation whose aim was to represent and promote its members on a European scale, an organisation which, although short-lived, did help to identify and cohere a general tendency in music. Once done, it could never be undone.

This was also when Recommended and Re Records were born - the first a global distribution network and mail-order, the second my own label.

After the RIO festival, Henry Cow left to tour Scandinavia with the Orckestra - and immediately afterward down to Spain for a series of concerts on our own. Phil Minton (from the Westbrook Brass band) decided to come with us to Paris. Half way there, the bus broke down and Fred detoured to take it back to England on a boat from Bremenhaven. Arranging to meet him in Barcelona, the rest of us took trains to Paris. When we arrived, Georgie Born and our sound engineer, Jack Balchin bailed out, both never to return. Lindsay went back with them to England - in her case for domestic reasons (she rejoined us two weeks later) and the rest of us were left somehow to honour the group's engagements. Rapid conferences. Phil Minton agreed to play with the remaining trio, and while we tried to contact Fred to tell him what was going on, the truck and all our equipment hit the motorway for Barcelona. Tim, Maggie Thomas and I took a night train. Once there, we set the PA up as usual, and in the absence of Jack, Maggie, took over as sound engineer, a job she continued to do until the end. Fred arrived shortly before the concert, still pretty much in the dark about what was going on and we put a set together in the dressing room half an hour before the show (a bit of Cow, a bit of Westbrook, a lot of extemporising). It went fine. Why not? So did the rest of that short tour, in which we became, for a.week or so, The Lions of Desire.

Back in England we regrouped without Georgie and Jack - and with more new music, much of it written by Lindsay for the new line-up, headed off to Paris for a week-long residency with The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Fred was playing bass now as well as guitar and we finished our engagements in France and Italy as a quartet - again (Fred Tim Lindsay, me) - and occasional invitees: Yochko Seffer (saxes), Henry Kalser III (guitar) and Anne-Marie Roelof (trombone and violin). We had met Anne-Marie the Xmas before in Amsterdam at a gig shared with Red Balune; now we asked her to do all the remaining concerts and to play on the record we had booked to make at Sunrise when it ended. That was Western Culture.

Our last concert was in the Piazza del Duomo, Milan on July 25th, 1978.

 

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