Lumpy Gravy-era Zappa, free jazz, early King Crimson, serial music — Henry Cow (the group’s name is a truncation of American composer Henry Cowell) brought all of these influences to bear on its early music. Coming together at Cambridge University, these talented British composers/multi-instrumentalists (foremost among them guitarist/violinist Fred Frith, who has since become a new music capo in New York, and drummer/noisemaker Chris Cutler, who has a sound like no other percussionist in rock) could seem at times less a rock band than a contemporary chamber ensemble.
The group’s first album, known as Legend (or, with a punny nod to the cover’s sock, Leg End) in the UK and just Henry Cow in the States, is an admirable if somewhat impersonal and occasionally thin statement of purpose. Skillfully arranged and very well played, it nevertheless at times displays an awkward rigidity when it means to be bitingly austere. Humor, such as it is, shows up only in the titles (“Teenbeat” and “Nirvana for Mice”). And Geoff Leigh’s anemic sax playing — when he tries to really “blow,” you feel like calling an ambulance — gives the record an overly attenuated feel. (The ESD CD of Legend has two extra tracks.)
The first side of Unrest, on which Leigh was replaced by bassoon/oboe player Lindsay Cooper, is a substantial improvement, and contains some of the most full-bodied music Cow ever put on record. Cooper’s sound steers the group away from the American jazz influence and grounds it more solidly in European art music, where a better time is had by all. The band’s unique wit and invention are on full display here, from the audacious Yardbirds deconstruction (“Bittern Storm Over Ulm”) to the somber starkness of “Ruins.” Side Two presents the band’s first (unfortunate) foray into the realm of musique concrète and, while not entirely worthless, isn’t nearly as compelling as the three superior compositions that comprise Side One. (The ESD CD adds two bonus outtakes from the same sessions.)
While Henry Cow really had nothing in common with Slapp Happy (other than an utter lack of commercial recognition and some related hipness in certain circles), the two bands — both then signed to Virgin — joined forces. Dialectical Marxists that they were, the Cow people figured that a merger with their dissimilar labelmates would create a unique synthesis. (Or so they told the music press at the time — insiders suggest that the band really just wanted to poach vocalist Dagmar Krause). The union’s first fruit, the predominantly Happy Desperate Straights, is a hit-and-miss affair that boasts some really stunning high points, including the brooding “Bad Alchemy” (the first collaboration between Slapp Happy guitarist Peter Blegvad and then-Cow bassist John Greaves; their subsequent work together has also been outstanding).
Cow dominated In Praise of Learning, which initially seems like another great A-side/lousy B-side deal, but proves far more problematic than that. The first side contains just two cuts: Anthony Moore/Peter Blegvad’s “War,” which melds music worthy of Kurt Weill to some witty, bitter Blegvad mythologizing, and Cow keyboardist Tim Hodgkinson’s “Living in the Heart of the Beast,” a musical magnificence nearly sunk by its lyrics. It’s not that the political analysis is way off base, but concepts this cerebral defy the anthemic spirit the band so clearly wants to evoke. Nice try, but basically a longwinded preach to the most likely converted. The otherwise excellent “Beautiful as the Moon — Terrible as an Army with Banners” (sandwiched between two dull “free” pieces) suffers from pretty much the same problem. (The ESD CD has an added track.)
That much-vaunted Marxist synthesis failed to materialize; instead, the tensions among the various players broke up Slapp Happy, and Henry Cow ended up with Krause after all. This Cow lineup would not endure, but survived long enough to perform the gigs that make up the Concerts double LP. Side One is a beautifully rendered song cycle, framed by “Beautiful as the Moon” and featuring a couple of previously unrecorded numbers; Side Two features Robert Wyatt dueting with Krause on “Bad Alchemy” and his own “Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road,” as well as an unessential rendition of Unrest‘s “Ruins”; the second disc contains group improvs of varying success. This was effectively the last of Henry Cow; while the band regrouped (sans Dagmar) in Switzerland in 1978 to record the superb Western Culture — its most chamber-like effort ever, comprising two side-long instrumental compositions by Cooper and Hodgkinson — the band’s days as a performing unit were through.
Cutler, Frith and Krause continued to record as the Art Bears. More song-based than Henry Cow ever was, the Art Bears melded Cow’s leftist politics with a personal sense of despair that deepened over the span of three albums — pretty impressive considering that Hopes and Fears‘ first song is Brecht/Eisler’s “On Suicide.” All three records are bracing, involving, original works; Frith’s composing is trenchant in any number of song idioms, and lyricist Cutler is equally effective at oblique poeticizing (many of Winter Songs‘ lyrics are allegories based on friezes in the Amiens Cathedral) and direct observation (The World as It Is Today is a plainspoken depiction of the nightmare of capitalism). The instrumentation and production — often involving backwards and off-speed recording, both Frith and Cutler intent on exploiting the possibilities of the studio as a compositional tool — are first rate.
When Frith (by this point residing in New York) decided to concentrate on his Stateside musical activities, Cutler and Krause enlisted two instrumentalists — Lindsay Cooper (who also took over composing chores) and harpist/accordionist Zeena Parkins — to form News From Babel. Even more introspective than the Art Bears, News From Babel’s songs tackled modern alienation from a dour, skewed angle but occasionally let in a glimmer of hope; witness Work Resumed on the Tower‘s “Anno Mirabilis.” Robert Wyatt’s vocals dominate the band’s second album, Letters Home. Both records are worthy efforts, but since Cooper isn’t as much of a sonic adventurer as Frith, they lack the edgy daring of the Art Bears’ best.
In the mid-to-late ’80s, Krause recorded albums of songs by two composers some believe she was born to sing — Brecht/Weill (Supply & Demand) and Hanns Eisler (Tank Battles). Hodgkinson and Cooper released solo LPs (much of the latter’s work has been in film soundtracks), and Cooper and Cutler spent time in David Thomas’ band. The seemingly inexhaustible Cutler has also been running the exemplary, adventurous Recommended label (which put out a nifty, noisy set of Frith/Cutler improvs in 1983, later reissuing it on CD with a lengthy 1989 performance recorded in the Soviet Union) since the late ’70s; he wound up in Pere Ubu when that band relaunched itself in 1987.