HENRY COW (continued)
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?).
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.
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.
text and images chris cutler; site squidco 7018