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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.

continued...


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text and images chris cutler; site squidco 1946