ROCK IN OPPOSITION
Henry Cow toured on the mainland of Europe for 5 years; we were constantly meeting innovative and remarkable musicians whose names were virtually unknown outside their own neighbourhoods. Put simply, the economic power of a few American and British record companies had ensured that only British and American bands and styles got any exposure - and that only their version of rock was thought of as authentic. Nothing else could be important (so-called Krautrock is the only exception I can think of).
Although, by 1977, Henry Cow was no longer on a major label, we continued to benefit from that short period when we had been. Bottom line; we were British and had had records released on a Virgin; that was enough for us to get us invited to other countries to do concerts. Yet we had much more in common with the European bands we met than with anyone in the anglophone world. So we decided at least to organise a festival in London to introduce a few of these groups to a British audience. We called it Rock In Opposition just to give it a name - and added the slogan 'The music the record companies don't want you to hear'. Not impressive, I agree, but effective. We got a lot of coverage, and a good turn out. I suppose our point was: that there was plenty of interesting music around and you couldn't depend on the music press or the record companies to find it for you - time had come to start looking for yourself in not so obvious places. I suppose our point was, do something about it. At the time, we didn't set out to start a formal organisation, just to do a concert, but immediately after the festival the organisation just fell into place. It was inevitable. All the groups wanted it.
For that first festival we invited: Univers Zero (Belgium), Etron Fou Leloublan (France), Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden) and Stormy Six (Italy). It was held over one long evening at the New London Theatre, on March12th, 1978 and about 450 people turned out for it. We still lost money. In every other respect, however, the whole thing was an immediate success. There was a lot of press around the world and we started making plans.
On Dec 8th, at Sunrise Studio in Switzerland, we all met to discuss our constitution and plans. By this time, Henry Cow was no longer in existence and RIO reconstituted itself as a collective. The meeting was called to decide what kind of official status we should have and whether membership should be open or closed. If closed, what should the criteria be for joining?
...... much of the next section is quoted directly from an article I wrote at the time, so it also gives some idea of how things were, and how we were thinking, then....-
- 'We decided to remain closed but to welcome new members under the following criteria:
A) That of musical excellence. This depending on our collective evaluation of same - a source of much fruitful discussion.
B) That of working actively outside the music business.
C) That of having 'a social commitment to Rock'
Groups who only record or only perform could qualify but they should have a permanent continuity of existence. The total number of members should remain small.
Further, in relation to C, we thought that Rock was characterised by:
1) Its particular engagement with modern communicative technology; electronic instruments and amplification, the studio, record and tape, Radio, mass production, &c.
2) The collective process of the music, both in the sense of group work and in the sense that recording and playing by ear allows us to dispense with the score as the authoritative version of a piece, so that people constantly re-originate one another's music.
3) It's low cultural status, which liberates it from the historical connotations and expectations of 'aesthetic' experience and allows it to draw on skills and resources not considered ''musical''
4) (added by Tim) Its specific historical meaning and origin as the music of an oppressed people, made universal and appropriated for a mass audience.
Much of the meeting was taken up with broader discussions - about the role of music, what constituted Rock music in particular, with aesthetic and economic oppositions, the place and theory of improvisation, the relevance of music to political struggle, and so on. Though no conclusions were reached, the subjects were recognised and broached. We then turned to more practical matters:
The compilation of a RIO yearbook with sources and information on recording, record manufacture, distribution, concerts, printing, travel, access to media &c.
Another festival, this time over a whole week, for all 7 groups in Milan (organised by Stormy Six) and further festivals in Uppsala (Sammlas), Bruxelles (Univers Zero) and Paris (Etron Fou) - (all but the Paris festival happened).
We next met in Milan at the Teatro D'Ell Elfo during the 2nd RIO Festival in April. There was some dissonance as uncomfortable questions arose. Franco Fabbri argued that if we wanted to be effective, we needed to become part of a social movement and not just be a kind of self-protecting club. He proposed that we expand into a broader cultural organisation with actors, other musicians, other types of music, writers, painters and so on. This seemed to some to spell the end of RIO - which would become a kind of 'Cultural workers in Opposition', rather than Rock in Opposition. However, nothing was resolved, no decisions taken and for future festivals we invited guests, rather than expanding our core membership. The organisation quietly slipped away." .......
Festivals in Sweden and Belgium followed, but no more meetings. Practical planning became de-centred: the groups continued to help each other out and set up tours, but the project of pursuing a formal structure, or of answering any of the political and theoretical issues earlier raised just fell away. I don't know if anyone mourned their passing.
As the actual organisation fell into desuetude, RIO, as a name, or a term, or a concept shifted into the public domain, where it was taken up by all sorts of people to cover all sorts of things for long as it seemed meaningful or useful. It is still in use in many places. That was it. RIO became a category or a tendency and ceased to be an organisation.
In its ten minutes of fame, RIO reified something, it set a ball rolling, it made things happen that made other things happen. In that sense, it was a success. Without it, someone else would have had to have invented it. Of course, the more complex issues were abandoned. Perhaps they could not really have been faced. We raised them though; they are still in the file labelled: Unfinshed Business.
In 1979, Henry Cow was planning to make its first independent record at Sunrise Studio in Switzerland. Dagmar had left the group but agreed to record Tim's long piece (then called Erk Gah) which we had already performed a lot. A week before we left for the studio, a major problem arose: Fred and Lindsay called a meeting to take serious issue with the Erk Gah lyrics. The meeting ended with me being asked to try to produce alternative texts by the time we arrived at Sunrise. It was a 20 minute work, and I could see no realistic possibility of producing anything adequate in the time (I did spend 3 days getting nowhere)*. Instead, I prepared a number of shorter texts and proposed we do an album of songs, something Fred and I had been interested in for a while (and which, of course, the group had already essayed in its work with Slapp Happy). The group agreed. A couple of songs already existed, although we weren't performing them (Joan and The Pirate Song), the rest we set about writing en route to Switzerland and during a short period of rehearsal before we hit the studio - completing the work as the recording progressed ('The Dividing Line', for instance, grew out of a half speed playback of the basic track to 'The Riddle'). We came out of Sunrise with ten songs and two instrumental pieces: Lindsay's 'Half the Sky' and 'Slice'). Once we had arrived back in London, however, a second meeting was convened, this time by Tim and Georgie Born. They thought the record we had made was not really a Henry Cow record, neither representative of the group, nor of the way the group should develop (curiously, these recordings turned out to be the only record of Georgie's 2 years with the band. She appears on no Henry Cow records, since by the time of 'Western Culture' she had left). We reached general agreement on this proposition too, so I proposed that Fred and I pay the studio time and release the material under our own names. The band agreed, but proposed the instrumental pieces and Tim's Viva Pa Ubu should be retained by Henry Cow ('Half The Sky' subsequently appeared on Western Culture, 'Slice' and 'Viva Pa Ubu' on the Recommended Records Sampler). This left Fred and I short on time. I wrote four more texts and a few weeks later Fred, Dagmar and I went into David Vorhaus' Kaleidophon Studio in Camden to record them. They were: The Tube, Terrain (which Lindsay also played on), Piers and The Dance. These pieces were recorded track by track, starting with a click and the essential bass or chord parts and then adding vocals and filling in the other parts - using the studio itself as a generative medium. In general, drums were added last. This was to be the method we adopted for all future Art Bears projects. Eventually, the record appeared as Hopes and Fears under the name Art Bears. I set up the Re Records label for it and for subsequent projects in which I was directly involved. A year later, the Bears decided to do another record (Winter Songs) and for this one all the texts were written first and sent to Fred who then did the basic settings (impressively quickly). We met in the studio - with Dagmar. Fred sat at the piano and introduced us to the songs. From there on, the whole record was recorded and mixed in a single breath: 14 days from start to finish. After our committee experiences with Henry Cow, Fred and I derived a couple of basic rules. The first was - no discussion; if someone had an idea, they put it to tape. Then we'd listen and it would be immediately clear if it worked, didn't work or could work if pursued. The second rule was to get the sound first and then play to tape instead of leaving (as had become usual by then) the detail of the sound to post-production mixing. By designing the sound first, the parts played would grow with and be inseparable from it. This method depended upon the skill and imagination of studio boss and engineer Etienne Conod - in this regard an indispensable member of the group. Art Bears made one more record: The World as it is Today' and one tour before we closed the project down. To perform (1978) we added Peter Blegvad (Guitar, Bass, Voice) and Marc Hollander (Keyboards, Clarinet) to the line-up. We rehearsed for a week for it at This Heat's Cold Storage.
* Erk gah was not recorded, it waited 20 years until Tim finally committed it to tape - with the original text - as 'Hold to the Zero Burn' on his CD 'each in our own thoughts'.WHAT'S IN A NAME -
I took the name Art Bears from a sentence in Jane Harrison's 'Art and Ritual' (now lost so I can't verify the actual sentence) where she says that art bears (carries) something or other - I no longer remember what. The thought - and the ambiguity of bears as both a verb and a noun - stuck. The image of an Art Bear, dangerous but cuddly, likewise.ON RECORD
Hopes and Fears. LP Re 2188 CD: ReR ABCD2 (Also released by L'Orchestra in Italy)
Winter Songs. LP Re 0618 CD: Rer ABCD
The World as it is Today. LP Re 6622. CD: ReR ABCD
Coda to Man and Boy 7"
Rats and Monkeys/Collapse RR7904 (Ralph records who also released Winter Songs, as did L'Orchestra)
[News item: I am currently assembling a double CD of Art Bears remixes, plunderphones, reworkings and new pieces made from fragments of the old by a large assortment of collaborators and old friends, to be released, hopefully, early in 2001.]
Where to start with Fred? I met him when I joined Henry Cow, in 1971. We were in that group together for eight years, full time. Toward the end, Fred and I did our first duo performance at Reading University, involving a large number of radios and portable record players. When Henry Cow broke up, Fred and I continued to work together, both in Art Bears - a song project with singer Dagmar Krause - and as an improvising duo. Art Bears stopped after 3 LP's but the duo has continued to this day. In 1979, we both joined Marc Hollander's Aqsak Maboul, and invited him in turn to join the performing version of the Art Bears, along with Peter Belgvad. The two of us also made up the rhythm section for the Victoriaville version of Heiner Goebbels' The Man in the Elevator. In between, I invited Fred to play on my Domestic Stories and Science Group projects, while he invited me to play in his Graphic Scores Orchestra and the group Tense Serenity. Meantime, there were also occasional trio concerts - with Henry Kaiser, Tim Hodgkinson, Phil Minton, Jon Rose, Tom Dimuzio, Otomo Yoshihide, Keiji Heino, Haco, Rene Lussier, Michiyo Yagi, and a couple of memorable quartets- one with Henry Kaiser and John (Drumbo) French, the other with Peter Belgvad and John Greaves. What else? We recorded with the Residents, exhibited our snaps together at Boston and ate many good meals.ON RECORD
- HENRY COW
Legend. Reissued on CD. ReR HC1
Unrest. Reissued on CD. ReR HC2
In Praise of Learning. Reissued on CD. ReR HC3
Concerts. Reissueed on CD. ESD 8082
Western Culture. Reissued on CD ReR HC4
Desperate Straights. Reissued on CD0Vd 441
- ART BEARS
Hopes and Fears. LP Re 2188 CD: ReR ABCD2
Winter songs. LP Re 0618 CD: Rer ABCD
The World as it is Today. LP Re 6622. CD: ReR ABCD
Coda to Man and Boy 7"
Rats and Monkeys/Collapse RR7904
- IN DUO
Live in Prague and Washington. LP Re 1729
Live in Prague, Moscow and Washington. ReR CCFF1
Live in Trondheim, Berlin and Limoges. ReR CCFF2
Two Gentlemen in Verona. ReR CCFF3
- in AQSAK MABOUL
Un Peu de l'ame des Bandits LP reissued as CD on Cram 002
- in DUCK AND COVER CD ReR QCD1
- on DOMESTIC STORIES ReR LSM
- with THE SCIENCE GROUP ReR SCIENCE1
- on STONE, BRICK, GLASS, WOOD, WIRE. IDA 014
- on GRAVITY. CD RecDec 901
- on RENE LUSSIER/FRED FRITH Nous Autres VICTO CD01
Fred Frith website
text and images chris cutler; site squidco 2007