The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set
Volume 1: Beginnings
Extracts from rehearsal and other tapes from 1971-73.
02. "Pre-Teenbeat II" (Frith) – 1:28
03. "Rapt in a Blanket" (Frith) – 5:06
04. "Came to See You" (Frith) – 6:43
05. "Amygdala extract (pre-Legend demo)" (Hodgkinson) – 3:35
06. "Teenbeat" (Frith) – 10:19
07. "Citizen King" (Hodgkinson) – 5:21
08. "Nirvana for Moles" (Frith) – 4:09
"With the Yellow Half Moon and Blue Star" (Frith)
09. "Introduction" – 0:46
10. "Invocation" – 2:08
11. "Demi-Lune Jaune" – 2:10
12. "Three Little Steps" – 2:13
13. "Red Riff" – 1:50
14. "Chorale Flautando" – 1:51
15. "Cycling Over the Cliff" – 4:08
16. "First Light" – 0:51
"Guider Tells of Silent Airborne Machine"
17. "Olwyn Grainger" (Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson) – 2:24
18. "Betty McGowan" (Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Leigh) – 6:12
19. "Lottie Hare" (Greaves) – 1:24
* Chris Cutler – drums, piano (start of track 18)
* Fred Frith – guitar, violin, voice (tracks 3,4)
* John Greaves – bass guitar, piano (end of tracks 18,19), voice (tracks 7,18)
* Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone, melodica, clarinet, voice (track 7)
* Geoff Leigh – tenor saxophone (tracks 1,2,5-19), flute (tracks 1,2,5-19), voice (tracks 7,9,16)
* Amanda Parsons – conversation (track 6)
* Ann Rosenthal – conversation (track 6)
* D.J. Perry – spoken passage (tracks 9,16)
* Dave Stewart – celeste (track 6), conversation (track 6)
* Tracks 1,2,5 are from rehearsal tapes, recorded by Jack Balchin before Legend
* Other tracks are from various unmarked tapes, 1971-3
Volume 2: 1974-5
A collection of live performances from 1974 and 1975.
2. "Ruins I" (Frith) – 6:35
3. "Half Asleep, Half Awake" (Greaves) – 4:11
4. "Ruins II" (Frith) – 0:59
5. "Heron Shower over Hamburg" (Frith) – 2:29
6. "Nix" – 0:06
"Halsteren" (Hodgkinson, Frith, Greaves, Cutler on themes by Hodgkinson)
7. "Halsteren 1" – 1:08
8. "Solo 1" (Hodgkinson) – 1:08
9. "Solo Extension 1" – 2:21
10. "Halsteren 2" – 1:24
11. "Extension 1" – 0:17
12. "Halsteren 3" – 0:52
13. "First Suspension" – 4:24
14. "Extension 2" – 2:58
15. "Extension 3" – 1:19
16. "Solo 2" (Frith) – 1:20
17. "Solo Extension 2" – 2:32
18. "Halsteren 4" – 0:17
19. "Second Suspension" – 2:34
20. "Extension 4" – 1:58
21. "Solo 3" (Greaves) – 0:49
22. "Solo Extension 3" – 3:17
23. "Halsteren 5" – 1:21
"Living in the Heart of the Beast" (Hodgkinson)
24-32. parts 1-9 – 13:46
* Lindsay Cooper – oboe (tracks 1-5,24-32), bassoon (tracks 1-5,24-32), piano (tracks 24-32)
* Chris Cutler – drums, glass bowls and clatter (tracks 7-23)
* Fred Frith – guitar (tracks 1-5,24-32), viola (tracks 1-5,24-32), piano (track 1), electric and acoustic guitars (tracks 7-23), prism (tracks 7-23), xylophone (tracks 24-32)
* John Greaves – bass guitar, piano (track 3), clothes pegs (tracks 7-23)
* Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone, clarinet (tracks 7-23)
* Dagmar Krause – voice (tracks 24-32)
* Robert Wyatt – voice (tracks 29,32)
* Tracks 1-5 are from an unmarked tape, 1974
* Tracks 7-23 are from a concert at the Verenigingsgebouw in Halsteren, 26 September 1974, recorded by Jan Smagge on a stereo reel-to-reel
* Tracks 24-32 are from a concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 8 May 1975, with live mix by Sarah Greaves
Volume 3: Hamburg
Recordings from the March 1976 Hamburg, Germany
1. "Fair as the Moon" (Cutler, Frith) – 6:01
2. "Nirvana for Rabbits" (Frith) – 4:48
3. "Ottawa Song" (Cutler, Frith) – 3:41
4. "Twilight Bridge" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 2:04
5. "Gloria Gloom" (Wyatt, McCormick) – 2:17
6. "Hamburg 1" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 4:15
7. "Hamburg 2" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 3:27
8. "Red Noise 10" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 3:16
9. "Hamburg 3" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 5:30
10. "Hamburg 4" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 2:40
11. "Hamburg 5" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 5:25
12. "Terrible As an Army with Banners" (Cutler, Frith) – 3:34
13. "A Heart" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 9:03
14. "Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road" (Wyatt) – 5:12
15. "We Did It Again" (Ayers) – 6:31
* Chris Cutler – drums
* Lindsay Cooper – obeo, bassoon, piano (tracks 8-11)
* Fred Frith – guitar, piano (tracks 1,4,12,13)
* John Greaves – bass guitar, voice (track 3)
* Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone
* Dagmar Krause – voice
* Robert Wyatt – voice (tracks 14,15)
* Tracks 1-13 are from a public concert recorded for the NDR Jazz Workshop, Hamburg, 26 March 1976
* Track 14 are from a concert at the Piazza Navona, Rome, 27 June 1975, mixed by Sarah Greaves
* Track 15 are from a concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 8 May 1975, with live mix by Sarah Greaves
Volume 4-5: Trondheim
A double CD of a complete concert recorded in Trondheim, Norway in May 1976.
01-10. "Trondheim I" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson) – 48:25
01-6. "Trondheim II" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson) – 31:54
07. "The March" (Frith arr. Henry Cow) – 6:25
* Lindsay Cooper – oboe, bassoon, tapes, voice, flute (CD 1), recorder (CD 1), piano (CD 1, tracks 7-9), jaw harp (CD 2)
* Chris Cutler – drums, telephone mouthpieces, amplification, flotsam (CD 1), voice (CD 1), jetsam (CD 2), piano (CD 2)
* Fred Frith – guitar, 6-string bass guitar, xylophone, tapes, violin (CD 1), tubular bells (CD 1),
* Tim Hodgkinson – organ, clarinet, voice, tapes, alto saxophone (CD 2), mbira (CD 2)
* All tracks from a cassette recording made by Henry Cow at the mixing desk at a concert at Studentersamfundet, Trondheim, 26 May 1976, mixed by Joel Schwartz
Volume 6: Stockholm & Göteborg
Swedish Radio recordings of concerts performed in May 1976 in Gothenburg and May 1977 in Stockholm.
1. "Stockholm 1" (Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson) – 6:38
2-6. "Erk Gah" (aka "Hold to the Zero Burn") (Hodgkinson) – 16:46
7. "A Bridge to Ruins" (Hodgkinson) – 5:08
8. "Ottawa Song" (Cutler, ) – 3:27
9-11. "Göteborg 1" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson) – 16:53
12. "No More Songs" (Ochs arr. Frith) – 3:35
13. "Stockholm 2" (Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 6:13
14. "March" (Frith) – 4:15
* Georgie Born – bass guitar, cello (tracks 1-7,12-14)
* Lindsay Cooper – bassoon, flute, recorder, piano (tracks 1-2), tapes (tracks 9-11)
* Chris Cutler – drums, electrification, piano (track 10)
* Fred Frith – guitar, xylophone, tapes (tracks 9-11), piano (tracks 13-14)
* Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone, clarinet, voice (tracks 9-11), tapes (tracks 9-11)
* Dagmar Krause – singing (tracks 1-7,12-14)
* John Greaves – bass guitar (track 8), voice (track 8)
* Tracks 1-7 and 12-14 were recorded for Tonkraft by Sveriges Radio at a concert in Stockholm on 9 May 1977 and broadcast on 8 June and 11 June 1977; the programme producer was S. Vermalin
* Track 8 was recorded for the NDR Jazz Workshop in Hamburg on 26 March 1976
* Tracks 9-11 were recorded for Tonkraft by Sveriges Radio at a concert in Gothenburg on 28 May 1976 and broadcast on 14 July and 17 July 1976; the programme producer was Christer Eklund
Volume 7: Later and Post-Virgin
A collection of live performances from late 1976 and 1977.
2. "Teenbeat 2" (Frith) – 8:05
3. "Would You Prefer Us to Lie?" (Cutler, Greaves) – 4:28
4. "Untitled Piece" (Cooper) – 11:31
5. "Chaumont 1" (Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson) – 9:01
6. "Chaumont 2" (Cooper, Hodgkinson) – 2:14
7. "March" (Frith) – 7:00
8. "Brain Storm Over Barnsley" (Frith) – 3:23
9. "Teenbeat 3" (Frith) – 6:45
10. "Post-Teen Auditorium Invasion" (Cooper, Hodgkinson, Geoff Leigh, Roelofs) – 3:56
11. "Bucket Waltz" (Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson, Geoff Leigh, Roelofs) – 4:26
12. "On Suicide" (Brecht, Eisler) – 3:42
* Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone, clarinet (track 12), voice (track 5), tapes
* Fred Frith – guitar, xylophone, tubular bells, violin, piano (track 7)
* Lindsay Cooper – bassoon, oboe, jaw harp, flute, piano (tracks 3-5), accordion (track 5)
* Georgie Born – bass guitar, cello
* Dagmar Krause – voice (track 1,3,7)
* Chris Cutler – drums, contact microphone amplification (tracks 5-7)
* Geoff Leigh – tenor saxophone (tracks 10-11)
* Annemarie Roelofs – trombone (tracks 10-11)
* Tracks 1-3 were recorded on cassette from the audience at Wandsworth Town Hall, London, 13 February 1977, live mix by Jack Balchin
* Track 4 was recorded on cassette from the audience at De Plek, Vlissingen, 22 May 1977, live mix by Jack Balchin
* Tracks 5-7 were recorded on cassette from the audience at Salle des Fetes, Chaumont, Paris 25 November 1976, live mix by Jack Balchin
* Tracks 8-11 were recorded on cassette from the audience at Melkweg, Amsterdam, 16 December 1977, live mix by Jack Balchin
* Track 12 was from an unidentified cassette recording, probably Italy, May/June 1977
Volume 8: Bremen
Extracts from a Radio Bremen radio broadcast in March 1978.
2. "Van Fleet" (Frith) – 1:49
3. "Viva Pa Ubu instrumental extract" (Hodgkinson) – 4:35
4. "The Big Tune Begins" (Frith) – 0:45
5. "The Big Tune Continues" (Frith) – 2:11
6. "The Big Tune Ends" (Frith) – 1:30
7. "March" (Frith) – 3:46
"Die Kunst Der Orgel"
8-12. "Bremen" (Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson) – 34:25
13-14. "Erk Gah instrumental extract" (Hodgkinson) – 13:04
* Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone, clarinet, mbira, voice (track 9)
* Fred Frith – guitar, tubular bells, marimba (track 8), xylophone (track 14), violin, piano (track 7)
* Lindsay Cooper – bassoon, oboe, sopranino saxophone, recorder, piano (tracks 9-11,14), accordion, egg-slicer
* Georgie Born – bass guitar, cello
* Chris Cutler – drums, marimba (tracks 9-10), piano (tracks 1,14)
* Recorded for New Jazz Live at a public concert at Sendesall, Studio F, Radio Bremen, 22 March 1978, produced by Bernd Meier, concert mix by Jack Balchin
Volume 9: Late
A collection of performances from June and July 1978, plus Henry Cow's set at the inaugural Rock in Opposition Festival in March 1978.
2. "Jackie-ing" (Monk arr. Westbrook) – 1:15
3. "Untitled 2" (Cooper) – 1:32
4. "The Herring People" (Frith) – 2:07
5-8. "RIO" (Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson) – 17:09
9. "Half the Sky" (Cooper) – 5:05
10. "Virgins of Illinois" (trad.) – 2:13
11. "Viva Pa Ubu" (Hodgkinson) – 2:18
* Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone, clarinet, voice (track 7)
* Fred Frith – guitar, violin, xylophone
* Lindsay Cooper – bassoon, oboe, recorder, sopranino saxophone
* Georgie Born – bass guitar, cello
* Chris Cutler – drums
* Annemarie Roelofs – trombone (tracks 4,10)
* Dave Chambers – saxophone (tracks 1,2)
* Tracks 1-4,10 are from a source unknown, probably outdoors in Italy, June or July 1978, live concert mix by E. M. Thomas
* Tracks 5-9 are from the Rock in Opposition Festival at New London Theatre, Drury Lane, London, 12 March 1978, recorded by Hasse Bruniusson of Samla Mammas Manna, live concert mix by Jack Balchin
* Track 11 was recorded on cassette from the audience at Cervia, 23 July 1978, live concert mix by E. . Thomas
Volume 10: Vevey (Audio)
A rare 75-minute video recording of Henry Cow performing in Vevey, Switzerland in August 1976.
2. "Vevey 1" (Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 8:49
3. "Terrible As ..." (Cutler, Frith) – 2:19
4. Tim speaks – 1:04
5. "No More Songs" (Ochs arr. Frith) – 3:48
6. "Living in the Heart of the Beast" (Hodgkinson) – 16:57
7. "Vevey 2" (Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 13:51
8. "March" (Frith) – 2:42
9. "Erk Gah" (Hodgkinson) – 18:28
* Georgie Born – bass guitar, cello
* Lindsay Cooper – bassoon, oboe, recorder, sopranino saxophone, piccolo, piano
* Chris Cutler – drums
* Fred Frith – guitar, violin, xylophone, piano, tubular bells
* Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone, clarinet
* Dagmar Krause – voice
* Recorded 25 August 1976, Vevey, Switzerland, concert mixed by Joel Schwartz
Bonus CD: A Cow Cabinet of Curiosities
A limited edition CD given to subscribers of the box set. The title alludes to the name of Bob Drake's band, Cabinet of Curiosities.
2. "Pre Virgin Demo 2" (mostly Hodgkinson) – 1:02
3. "Unidentified Improvisation 1" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson) – 1:30
4. "Unidentified Improvisation 2" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 5:37
5. "Unidentified late composition" (probably Cooper) – 2:04
6. "Exploded Amygdala/Teen Introduction" (Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Leigh) – 3:37
7. "Lovers of Gold" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 6:29
8. "Hamburg 6" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 5:33
9. "Ruins extract" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 8:24
10. "Hamburg 7" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson, Krause) – 9:44
11. "Half the Sky" (Cooper) – 5:03
12. "Extract from The Glove" (Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Greaves, Hodgkinson) – 2:19
* Chris Cutler – all tracks, piano (track 10), voice (track 12)
* Fred Frith – all tracks, voice (track 12)
* Tim Hodgkinson – all tracks, voice (track 12)
* John Greaves – tracks 1-10,12, voice (track 12)
* Geoff Leigh – tracks 1,2,6, voice (track 1)
* Lindsay Cooper – tracks 3-5,7-12, voice (track 12)
* Dagmar Krause – tracks 4,8-10
* Peter Blegvad – clarinet (track 7)
* Anthony Moore – mounted and amplified tuning forks (track 7)
* Tracks 1,2 were recorded in Henry Cow's rehearsal space by Jack Balchin, probably 1972
* Tracks 3-6 were extracted from a forgotten tape from 1978 which surfaced while this box set was being compiled
* Track 7 is an out-take from In Praise of Learning mixed by Tim Hodgkinson at Cold Storage in 1984
* Tracks 8-10 were recorded at a pubic concert for NDR Jazz Workshop, Hamburg, 26 March 1976
* Track 11 recorded at a pubic concert at Sendesaal, Studio F, Radio Bremen, 22 March 1978, produced by Bernd Meier
* Track 12 is an extract from an Unrest out-take mixed by Tim Hodgkinson at Cold Storage in 1984
There are bands whose finest work allows its roots full exposure while burying them. Henry Cow was one of these, emerging at a time of widespread upheaval and making bold new statements and fashioning order of the resultant chaos. Yet, the full scope of this 1970s group’s accomplishments is only now being celebrated, thanks to the 40th anniversary box set from ReR Megacorp. The label has a history of producing similarly fine compendiums, most notably from groups such as Faust, Art Bears and This Heat, but the Cow set is a more ambitious project, befitting the band’s complex style and legacy. With roots deep in the multi-hued music of the late 1960s that it would be a misleading oversimplification to call progressive rock, Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, Tim Hodgkinson and Cow’s less permanent membership crafted an all-inclusive music that managed to remain its own, stubbornly refusing to allow fickle taste and industry standards to dictate their choices; this set is the most complete documentation of their journey. Its three-volume layout encompasses nine discs and one DVD of live material. The first two (The Road Vols. 1-5 from 1971-1976 and The Road Vols. 5-10 1976-1978, respectively) present a chronological live survey, while the third, Studio, contains remastered versions of Henry Cow’s studio catalog. The set can be seen as a series of aural snapshots, sometimes out of strict chronological order. As with their Concerts album but on a much larger scale, the collection documents the band’s revised and reestablished identity.
Henry Cow’s 10-year existence and that of its various offshoots are well documented and won’t be rehashed here (a fine chronology is available in John Kellman’s All About Jazz review of this set). What follows is not directed at the new listener, though I hope it raises interest. I will focus on the sound of these recordings, both as historical and stylistic landmarks and as presented in their newly refurbished guises.
The music is taken from many disparate sound sources. Concerts exemplifies only one portion of what was a monumental decade-long development, a winding path with sudden twists and turns as diverse as the set’s accompanying written narratives. Certain phases and facets of the group’s career are only documented by audience recordings, others by the BBC and by similarly enterprising broadcasters; some weren’t documented at all. Long-time fans and seasoned Henry Cow collectors, for whom this set is most certainly assembled, will have heard the lion’s share of this material on bootlegs. Here, they’ve been edited and restored by sonic wizard Bob Drake, whose excellent remastering work can be heard on the Art Bears and Faust boxes. He worked on the project for over four years, as many of the sources were in an alarming state of decay. Pitch and noise adjustments were often necessary, and in some instances, judicious remixing was used, so long as it did not interfere with the character of the source. The results of his labors allow fresh insight into the band’s innovative working habits, in both improvised and composed contexts.
The first box is full of such revelations. A case in point involves the BBC sessions of 1972 and 1973, which predate the release of Leg End, the band’s debut album. It was always apparent that the attention to timbre, arrangement and fractured time that would come to define the band’s improvised and compositional aesthetic are present, and now they can be heard in near-perfect detail, unlike the hissy and muffled bootleg versions. The interplay of Frith’s guitar and John Greeves’ rhythmically snapped bass in the introduction to “Rapt in a Blanket” now come off as almost orchestral, where before they exuded a rather bland and pedestrian air. “Rapped” is certainly a pop tune, one of several that Frith wrote when, he states in the liners, he was attempting to emulate Robert Wyatt in Soft Machine. Indeed, the keyboards that quietly inform the second verse do conjure shades of Mike Ratledge, as does Tim Hodgkinson’s ripping organ solo as “Came to See You” jumps into high gear. Cutler’s drumming drives each time shift and extended section forward with fairly traditional trapswork that nevertheless demonstrates his now-customary timbral invention. His unique approach is most evident in the cymbals, which can now be heard clearly. There is still some distortion, but the improvements are miraculous.
A similar makeover is given to the March 1976 Hamburg radio broadcast that marked bassist John Greeve’s final appearance with the band. Incorporating a very similar setlist to the roughly contemporaneous BBC session released on Concerts, the band leaves room for some extended and multifarious improvisations between each of the pieces; the rep includes Henry Cow and Matching Mole tunes, and everything is book-ended by iterations of the heart-wrenching “Beautiful as the Moon, Terrible as an Army with Banners.” This take on “Nirvana for Mice” complements the more deliberate version from the first disc, recorded for the BBC three years earlier. “Moles” and “rabbits” are used in the titles here, and “Fair as the Moon” is the band staple’s moniker in this set. Again, the sound is crystal clear, the pitch correct, and the noise all but absent.
Most shocking, though, is a May 1976 concert recorded in Trondheim Norway, when Henry Cow was a quartet, Greeves having left and singer Dagmar Krauss suffering illness. As their earlier material could not be performed, and as re-invention was their M.O., they decided to perform an entirely improvised set, in the dark and with liberal use of prerecorded tapes. Unlike many of the shows featured in the collection, Trondheim is presented in its entirety, clocking in at a little over 90 minutes. The music is some of the group’s most adventurous, ranging from stereotypically European pointillism to keyboard-driven proto-industrial densities of overwhelming magnitude. Cutler’s notes state that it is a desk recording, though my illicit copy has what seems to be an announcer’s voice introducing the group followed by applause. There is very limited dynamic range on the bootleg, all of the textures forming a huge muddle that renders it almost unlistenable. Thanks to Drake’s careful restoration, the music gains a sense of distance and of perspective, each instrument inhabiting its own space. The stereo spectrum and dynamic range are also expanded exponentially, the music ebbing and flowing in the concentric waves that must have filled the room during its performance. The final section, the slowly building Frith composition “March,” makes dynamic sense, both relieving and heightening tension, thanks to the improved soundstage on which it is allowed to breathe.
The second box completes 1976 and sees the band through to its final performances in 1978, demonstrating the way Henry Cow material was revised and reused in the process. The group sound changed when Georgie Born entered, her cello affording an additional measure of contemporary classicality. We are treated to extracts from a March 1978 Bremen radio Broadcast in which portions of Tim Hodgkinson’s composition “Erk Gah”—correctly named “Hold to the Zero Burn, Imagine”—allow comparison to the version with lyrics from the Stockholm concert of May 9, 1977. The Bremen reading emerges from a lengthy improvisation, entirely recontextualized when compared to Stockholm and to the version Hodgkinson recorded in the 1990s. The sound on both broadcasts was always quite good, but some careful noise reduction and what I take to be some added reverb has allowed each instrument to bloom, certainly a boon as the band was exploring even more intricate timbral relationships than before. The bassoon work of Lindsay Cooper takes on a new level of clarity in this remix. Early versions of Art Bears songs are also present, such as “Joan” and “On Suicide,” the latter coming from an unidentified cassette believed to be from May or June of 1977.
A fascinating sequence of events, allowing a different view of Henry Cow, comes courtesy of a show from the Melkweg, Amsterdam in December 1977. “Teenbeat” reaches the boiling point as trombonist Annemarie Roelofs and former Cow member Geoff Leigh come to the fore (Roelofs had been in the audience, and Leigh’s band Red Balune had been playing the same evening). Then, Leigh heats things up with some of his customarily anarchic tenor work, reminiscent of the 1960s New Thing that influenced him in his formative years. He’s underrepresented in the box, his brief but exciting tenure with the band yielding admittedly poor concert recordings, but this audience tape demonstrates the freewheeling excitement he generated in performance.
For these ears though, the biggest surprise on the second box is Henry Cow’s set at the first Rock in Opposition festival, which took place in London in March 1978. Cow’s opening improvisation is one of their most cacophonous and cataclysmic, a vibe continued as the quintet launches into an especially gritty version of Cooper’s “Half the Sky,” released later on the group’s final album, Western Culture. Pervasive guitar distortion throughout is enhanced by a bass-heavy recording, giving the whole weight without clarity being sacrificed.
Such a mammoth project cannot be encapsulated in a single review, so let’s move into rapid-fire mode. In the first box, you can find a late 1974 proto-rendering of the Hodgkinson-penned “Living In the Heart of the Beast,” and though heavily edited, it demonstrates the band’s interesting and very different conception of that long-form work in its earliest stages. You’re also treated to a complete version of the music accompanying the ballet “With the Yellow Half-moon and Blue Star,” a piece based on a Paul Klee painting of which only a fragment appeared on Leg End. There’s also a BBC version of “Guider Tells of Silent Airborne Machine,” a track that never appeared on any album and whose concluding melodic figures would be incorporated into the title track of Peter Blegvad’s enigmatic and whimsical Kew Rone.
The set fills in many missing historical and compositional links, and though hard-core collectors will have much of this material, the refurbished sound alone makes the set indispensable for fans. Additionally, we now have the only video of a Henry Cow performance on DVD, an outdoor show in Vevey, Switzerland from August 1976. Altogether, and taken with the subscriber bonus disc containing more rehearsals and additional concert fragments, this is a fitting monument to one of the most interesting and eclectic groups to come out of the 1970s. Though a long time in the works, this 40th Anniversary was well worth the wait.
By Marc Medwin
While modern recording technology and fast improving online distribution capability are making it easier to appreciate the full extent of today's artists' work, the same cannot be said about relatively short-lived groups from the 1970s. This is especially true of groups that, despite being in some cases remarkably influential, remain cult favorites with a relatively small but intensely dedicated fan base.
A case in point is Henry Cow, a British group that began life in 1968 but didn't release its first music until 1973. Cow created some highly innovative and joyous noise throughout its 10 year run. It was also responsible for the creation of Rock in Opposition (RIO)—a loose collective of progressive-thinking bands that initially included Italy's Stormy Six, Sweden's Samla Mammas Manna, Belgium's Univers Zero and France's Etron Fou Leloublan—which has remained in philosophical opposition to the inequities of the record industry.
Cow's relatively diminutive discography—Legend (Virgin, 1973), Unrest (Virgin, 1974), In Praise of Learning (Virgin, 1975), Concerts (Caroline, 1976) and Western Culture (Broadcast, 1979), along with the peripheral Desperate Straights (Virgin, 1975), a reciprocal collaboration with Slapp Happy in return for that group's participation on In Praise (a brief merger of the two groups, in fact)—provided plenty of fine evidence of an intrepid and experimental (albeit constantly shifting) group that emerged out of the nascent Canterbury scene which also included groups like Soft Machine and Egg.
But while Legend possesses some markers to link it to the Canterbury scene, the group's three constants—guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith, percussionist Chris Cutler and keyboardist/saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson—quickly transcended even that broad musical categorization to become an entity that embraced, certainly more than most, author William S. Burroughs' iconic statement, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."
The music ranged from detailed composition—approaching, at times, contemporary classical music in its rich layers and contrapuntal complexity—to flat-out free improvisation which utilized pre-recorded tapes and a wealth of instruments and sundry items that made the Henry Cow stage look more like a musical instrument yard sale.
Henry Cow 1973: Geoff Leigh, Tim Hodgkinson, Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, John Greaves
But as extreme as Cow could be—existing, at the same time, at both ends of the composition-to-free improv continuum and everywhere in-between—it left a wealth of memorable material, including Frith's knotty "Nirvana for Mice" from Legend, his epic "Ruins," from Unrest, Hodgkinson's idiosyncratic and long-form "Living in the Heart of the Beast" and the Frith/Cutler collaboration "Beautiful as the Moon—Terrible as an Army with Banners." The latter two came from In Praise and featured, for the first time, the group's politics made literal through the introduction of lyrical content, sung by newcomer/Slapp Happy singer Dagmar Krause.
As rich and varied as Cow's recorded music is, it can't possibly tell the whole story about the group, with no shortage of composed material and alternate arrangements either unrecorded or left on the cutting room floor. The studio was an early tool for experimentation, with a myriad of overdubbing and other techniques allowing the group to create soundscapes that, at the time, couldn't be recreated live. And Cow was, indeed, a band to be experienced live—a different beast entirely that, with the exception of Concerts, went woefully undocumented. The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set, promised by Cutler for well over a decade and now finally delivered, goes a long way towards filling in various gaps in the group's musical history and painting a more complete picture of Henry Cow by sourcing material from demos, rehearsal tapes and a variety of live performances. The quality varies, but Cutler and Bob Drake's editing and mastering work is superb, making even the poorest of sound sources—some coming from audience cassette recordings—surprisingly clear and full.
The box is divided into two five-disc sets, each available separately or together—if bought together, a bonus third box is provided to house the existing Cow studio discography. The first box covers the group's earliest recordings from 1971 through to the 1976 Hamburg, Germany radio recording that was bassist John Greaves' final performance with the group. It also includes the Trondheim, Norway performance from the tour that immediately followed Greaves' departure, with the group pared down by necessity to a quartet that also included bassoonist/oboist Lindsay Cooper, who had joined the group for Unrest, replacing founding member/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Geoff Leigh.
The second box contains four CDs that follow the group through to its end in 1978, also including what is, perhaps, the gem of the entire set—a DVD of a 1976 performance in Vevey, Switzerland. Featuring Krause and newcomer Georgie Born on bass and cello in addition to Frith, Hodgkinson, Cutler and Cooper, the sextet performs material from In Praise and more, including Hodgkinson's "Erk Gah"—also known as "Hold to the Zero Burn, Imagine," later released on Hodgkinson's Each In Our Own Thoughts (Megaphone, 1994). There are more surprises still, but the bottom line is: The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set offers, for the first time, a comprehensive account of Henry Cow's breadth and depth.
Henry Cow - Teenbeat
For those familiar with Cow's existing discography, hearing early versions of Frith's "Teenbeat" and Hodgkinson's "Amygdala" reveal just how far the group would evolve by the time it laid these tracks down for Legend. "Pre-Teenbeat I" and "Pre-Teenbeat II," which open up the first disc (Beginnings) contain many of the markers that would end up on the finished version, but here they're sparer, germinal ideas, as is the case with an extract from Hodgkinson's "Amygdala." The 10-minute version of Frith's "Teenbeat," on the other hand, expands upon the album version with a lengthy solo from Frith and entirely new sections that embed free improvisation and odd conversational snippets, courtesy of Egg's Dave Stewart and vocalists Amanda Parsons and Ann Rosenthal—members of The Ottawa Music Company, a collective ("Rock Composer's Orchestra," according to Cutler) formed by Cutler and Stewart in 1970 that never recorded but performed with an ever-growing group of musicians from (or soon to be in) Henry Cow, Egg, Khan and Hatfield and the North. Frith's "With the Yellow Half Moon and Blue Star" was only represented by a three-and-a-half minute excerpt on Legend; here it's reproduced in its entirety, its nearly 12 minutes featuring a wild, overdriven organ solo by Hodgkinson redolent of Soft Machine's Mike Ratledge.
Beginnings also includes three previously unheard tracks—the brief but knottily arranged "Olwyn Grainger," the freely improvised "Betty McGowan" and Greaves' "Lottie Hare," a neo-classical miniature that's in sharp contrast to his more jazz-inflected "Half Asleep, Half Awake," that would appear on Unrest and also on disc two of the box (Early 2). Two unexpected vocal tracks from Frith reveal a nascent songwriter long before he began exploring shorter song-form with Art Bears and on solo albums including Gravity (Fred/ReR, 1980) and Cheap at Half the Price (Fred/ReR, 1983). Still, these were no straightforward three-chord tunes, with "Rapt in a Blanket" dabbling in irregular meters and "Came to See You" experimenting with episodic shifts in feel and complex arrangements. Both songs show the influence of Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt and, with another overdriven organ solo from Hodgkinson, Mike Ratledge.
Henry Cow - Ruins I
Early 2 opens with a series of well-recorded tracks from an unknown source, largely culled from Unrest but demonstrating Cow's penchant for mixing things up in performance so that, while all the signposts of Frith's "Ruins" are there, the complexion is changed by inserting "Half Asleep" smack dab in the middle. Frith doesn't reproduce the razor's edge tone of his solo on the studio version of "Ruins," but his immense, soundscape-like replacement provides an alternate approach that's perhaps even more powerful, before dissolving into a free improv section where the guitarist's innovative approach to prepared guitar techniques are on full display—concepts that he'd mine and evolve further over the years, in ways that would position him alongside Derek Bailey for sheer audacity and textural unpredictability.
Cow's ability to combine complex composition with improvisation of reckless abandon can be heard on the 30-minute excerpt from a 1974 Halsteren, Holland show. Presaging the more concise, 13-minute vocal version of Hodgkinson's "Living in the Heart of the Beast" that immediately follows on the disc (from a 1975 performance in Paris, France that also features Krause's first appearance), in Halsteren the group—at this point a quartet, with Cutler, Frith, Greaves and Hodgkinson—intersperses individual and collective soloing with composed segments from Hodgkinson's epic piece.
The books that accompany each box represent some of the most thorough and complete start-to-finish documentation of a group ever presented in a collection of this nature. A combination of oral history, recollections (fond and otherwise) and musical references, it also provides a detailed and chronological list of gigs and recording sessions so extensive that they shine a bright light on the difference between groups today and those of decades past. Faced with the harsh reality that, today, an extensive tour is rarely more than a couple of weeks in length, modern groups often have to splinter so that individual musicians can work in enough contexts to make a living. Not that living was by any means easy (Cutler's documentation clearly lays out the expenses of running a band), but as was the case with groups like Egg (documented in Uriel and Egg: The Road to Hatfield and Beyond), for the majority of Henry Cow's existence, it was an all-consuming affair where its members focused on nothing else but the group.
The group makes wordplay out of a number of known compositions from its studio discography, nodding perhaps to the sometimes significant alterations that were made to them for a specific performance or tour. Frith's "Bittern Storm Over Ulm," from Unrest, becomes "Heron Shower Over Hamburg," while the Frith/Cutler collaboration, "Beautiful As the Moon—Terrible As an Army With Banners," from In Praise, becomes "Fair as the Moon," in the 1976 Hamburg, Germany performance that opens disc three (Hamburg). Mirroring the BBC session that opens Concerts, the tune segues into Frith's "Nirvana for Mice" (from Legend), this time "Nirvana for Rabbits," gradually descending into crazed freedom despite Cutler largely managing to keep time moving forward. A brief drum solo and bassoon intro from Cooper turn stark for "Ottawa Song" and "Gloria Gloom," the latter a song by Robert Wyatt and bassist Bill MacCormick from their Matching Mole album, Matching Mole's Little Red Record (Columbia, 1972).
Unlike Concerts, however, the group then veers off into nearly 25 minutes of largely dark-hued free improvisation that's closer to contemporary classicism than it is to free jazz. It's a lengthy ride of abstruse harmony and unpredictable textures running the gamut from no time/no changes to time and, if not exactly changes, harmonic shifts that at least provide a core, before finding their way back to the irregular-metered vamp of "Beautiful As the Moon" for an end to the 47-minute continuous set, followed by another lengthy free improvised piece, "A Heart." The disc closes with two tracks culled from 1975 audience recordings in Rome and Paris, both featuring guest Robert Wyatt singing his own "Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road," from Rock Bottom (Virgin, 1974) and a surprising and wackily absurdist take of "We Did It Again," the iconic and repetitive Kevin Ayers song from Soft Machine's 1968 debut, Volume One (Probe).
The final two discs of the first box (Trondheim 1 and Trondheim 2) document a complete concert recorded in Trondheim, Norway on May 26, 1976. With Greaves' departure and Krause ill in Hamburg, the group had committed to a nine-city Norwegian tour. And so, rather than looking for replacements the group continued on as a four-piece—Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson and Cooper—putting on a series of entirely improvised concerts performed largely in the dark (lit only, if at all, by candlelight). The quartet had already been experimenting with taped sounds, and here it augments the landscape with various prepared materials on tape—one tape for each musician—that, while running continuously throughout the two-hour shows, were activated at will by each player with a foot pedal, creating unexpected interjections that could drive the group in entirely different directions.
Other than a few very sketchy markers and Frith's "The March"—a two-chord, 3/4 time vamp with a quirky yet still lyrical melody that gave each concert's end greater definition—this was about as unapproachable as Henry Cow ever got, and yet amongst the densities and at times harsh realms are moments of profound beauty. The 80-minute improvisation, spread over two discs, demonstrates the kind of intuitive push-and-pull that could only come from musicians not just spending a great deal of time playing together, but also living together, with a potent ability to sometimes shift ambience and color at the drop of a dime (even if, on a practical level, that dime was hard to come by).
There are those who question the purpose of extended forays into freely improvised territory, and Henry Cow's roughly equal allegiance to spontaneity and through-composition created an at times unfathomable blend of unheard beauty and catharsis. The sheer fearlessness with which Henry Cow approached its music—whether it was the extended liberation of unfettered improvisation or the seemingly impossible challenge of learning impenetrable material like "Erk Gah"—heard performed by the group for the first time on disc six (Stockholm & Goteborg)—made it a group that, four decades on, has never been even remotely imitated, even though there are many who cite Cow as a seminal influence. Cutler's notes on the subject of improvisation are a revelation—some of the best words ever written to try to explain the hows and whys of the process:
Improvisation is not a style; it's a way of being. And although it has to be learned—like speaking a language or driving a car—it can't help you with what to say or where to go: it's more a case of learning how, not learning what. I could describe my own state of mind when improvising as a kind of forgetful attentiveness. I'm certainly not listening minutely to what anyone else is doing; I don't routinely make decisions about my own interventions and I never express myself.
In other circles, sensitivity in improvisers is praised and appreciated, but I suspect Henry Cow would—had we ever discussed the question—have dismissed that kind of sensitivity as a euphemism for Bourgeois good manners—or fear. Harmonious agreement was never our way. Where composition superimposes a past onto a present, improvisation—when it works—is pure, unencumbered, present—a vehicle for the transfiguration of time. We would leap from the struggle with our pasts into these pools of forgetting. By not looking where we were going—and not trying to go anywhere in particular—we collectively stumbled, throughout our career, into impossible, beautiful and unrepeatable music, unaccountably conjured out of the space between ourselves and our contingent public. And although we increasingly argued about our compositions and their direction of travel, our improvisations evolved wordlessly and without conflict—as if they belonged to another version of ourselves, more harmonious in spirit.
Taken from radio recordings in March, 1976 and May, 1977, Cutler and Drake fashion a "performance that could have been" on Stockholm & Goteborg, culled from a series of free improvisations, "Erk Gah," "Ottawa Song," "March," Hodgkinson's bleak and curious "A Bridge to Ruins" (a coda to "Erk Gah") and another surprise—Phil Ochs' "No More Songs." The Ochs tune is about as direct and traditional, in terms of song form, as Henry Cow ever got and was performed as a tribute to the legendary songwriter, who had died the previous year (1976). That the personnel vary throughout the disc—from the same quartet that recorded Trondheim on the Goteborg date to the sextet with Greaves on "Ottawa Song" and with newcomer Georgie Born at the Stockholm show—is irrelevant. The entire 63-minute disc feels of a oneness, as if it came from a single performance.
With the exception of "Ottawa Song," taken from the same March, 1976 show as Hamburg with John Greaves, the rest of Stockholm & Goteborg also features Georgie Born on bass and cello. While still capable of the kind of timekeeping necessary on tunes like "March" (here receiving a far clearer and definitive treatment than on Trondheim), Born's approach was often more orchestral—a contrapuntal partner to those around her in the same way that Cutler, an equally potent groove-meister (though, at times, almost impossibly so given the group's penchant for mind-boggling metric shifts), was an intrepid and imaginative colorist.
Cow continued to be extremely active following the release of 1975's In Praise of Learning, but as 1977 approached they'd not released or recorded an album of new material and, despite the evidence of evolution heard on these discs, there was considerable disagreement as to the direction in which the group was heading. There was no shortage of material—the group had yet to record "Erk Gah," and Cooper was also contributing more. However, when Cutler was asked to come up with new text for "Erk Gah" in the week before the first studio session for what would become Western Culture, it proved an impossible task and, instead, he wrote a series of shorter song texts, proposing the group record them instead. The ultimate disagreement about what Henry Cow should be resulted in those songs being collected, along with four more composed and performed solely by Frith, Cutler and Krause, as Art Bears' debut, Hopes and Fears (ReR, 1978). Meanwhile, Cooper and Hodgkinson wrote (separately and collaboratively) the material that would appear on Western Culture, with "Viva Pa Ubu" and "Slice" first appearing on the 1982 double LP, The Recommended Records Sampler, and later showing up as bonus tracks on East Side Digital's 2001 CD issue of Western Culture.
The group had, by this time, left Virgin Records, with Concerts being released by Caroline. Like Stockholm & Goteborg, disc seven (Later and Post-Virgin) again creates the semblance of what a 1977 performance might have sounded like. The inclusion of two tunes that would ultimately be associated with Art Bears—the plodding and melodically abstruse "Joan" and appropriately funereal "On Suicide," with words by Berthold Brecht put to music by Hans Eisler—show that, while Cow would ultimately dissolve over artistic differences, those differences weren't at all visible to the public. Like Soft Machine—whose best music was often driven to greater places by a tension resulting from four musicians with different musical goals—Henry Cow may well have been experiencing internal difficulties, but the music was still as compelling as ever, perhaps even more so.
The group returned to composed material from early albums, including a particularly vicious "Teenbeat 2," with some of Frith's most searing guitar playing of the box; an even more idiosyncratic "Brain Storm Over Barnsley"; and another kick at "Teenbeat 3," this time with Hodgkinson's saxophone at its most visceral. Greaves and Cutler's "Would You Prefer Us to Lie?" looks back to the group's Canterbury roots with a fuzz-drenched solo by Frith, while Cooper's episodic "Untitled Piece" challenges Hodgkinson and Frith in its complexity, foreshadowing some of the contemporary writing that would ultimately appear on her A View From The Bridge: Composed Works (Impetus, 1998). A defining characteristic of Henry Cow was its textural breadth, the result of most members being multi-instrumentalists. Frith, in addition to guitar, also played bass, violin, xylophone, piano and other percussion; Hodgkinson added clarinet and voice to his organ and alto saxophone; Cooper's jaw's harp, flute, piano and accordion augmented her more regular work on bassoon and oboe; and Cutler had already begun an early experimentation into electronics that would be more fully realized on later works including Solo: A Descent into the Maelstrom (ReR, 2001), in addition to considerable and distinctive piano work throughout the group's history.
With the group's use of tapes still a defining characteristic of its live improvisations, some of the free playing on Later and Post-Virgin is its most extreme. Repetition and the combination of piano and xylophone give a Steve Reich-like feel to the spontaneous "Chaumont 1," while Cooper and Hodgkinson join forces for "Chaumont 2," a duet that gradually finds its way to a piano-heavy take on Frith's "March" where Krause doubles the melody with Cooper's bassoon.
Disc eight (Bremen), another live performance, begins with a lengthy improvisation that, in ambience, references contemporary classical composers Krzysztof Penderecki and, at times, Gyorgy Ligeti. Henry Cow was often considered, by those trying desperately to find a label with which to pigeon-hole the group, more related to jazz because of its penchant for free improvisation. Electricity and Cutler's sometimes backbeat-driven playing also associated the group with rock—as was equally the case with fellow Rock in Opposition groups Univers Zero and Art Zoyd. But if anything, Henry Cow represented a new kind of classical chamber music; one where spontaneity was a partial component, and the instrumentation used created textures that defied those looking for tradition and convention.
While every Henry Cow studio release represented a clear evolution, Western Culture remains, in many ways, the polarizing album of the group's decade-long career. Unlike its predecessors—even In Praise, where the merger with Slapp Happy created a substantially different sound that remained recognizably Henry Cow—Western Culture's near-exclusive emphasis on composition ultimately dissolved the group. Still, while Frith would go on to pursue more song-based writing with Cutler and Krause, he was still (and remains) a distinctive writer of more complicated through-composition. He was also, despite his being categorized in the experimental and the avant-garde, a writer for whom the beauty of a strong melody was never lost—a penchant that can be heard on The Happy End Problem (Fred/ReR, 2006). As oblique as some of Bremen's "New Suite" is, with its inclusion of an extract from Hodgkinson's "Viva Pa Ubu," there's also some of Frith's most lyrical writing as well.
On the other hand, the group continued to explore the most extreme boundaries of improvisation, with the 35-minute "Die Kunste Der Orgel" as jagged as ever, and the group at this point no longer with a singer—Krause's ill health, exacerbated at times by the rancor within the group, had forced her to leave the group. Hodgkinson's description is, like Cutler's earlier writing on the nature of improvisation, eye- and ear-opening:
Henry Cow's improvisations seem to have not been about each player responding instantly to the others, but a more autonomous improvising mentality that owes something to free jazz, but transposed into an electro-acoustic sound world. Each player seems to develop their own statement in its own layer, allowing things to extend and grow alongside other things. Henry Cow improvisations are usually 'impure' in the sense that they draw on recognizable idioms; however, they often combine these in non-idiomatic and unpredictable ways. A slow melody from somewhere might be heard at the same time as a percussive line that sounds like African folk music, but there's also a piano from a contemporary chamber ensemble and some surrealist groaning filtered through a lot of distortion and reverb.
Where it works best, I feel we are drawing on our studio work in the way that we build, combine and oppose sound layers. The material is not so much treated as thematic but as sonorous; its musical content is there as a manifestation or unveiling of a sound-shape. Composing on the basis of recorded improvisation in the studio taught us to place sound material into a space of frequencies and timbres—a space also suggested by indicators like reverbs and differences of level and definition. In other words there was a certain melting together of the notion of composing with the notion of mixing.
The final audio CD (Late) is collected from performances towards the very end of Henry Cow's existence (largely from June and July, 1978, with the exception of the freely improvised "RIO," recorded at the Rock in Opposition Festival in March, 1978), and demonstrate, perhaps, where the group might have gone had it continued along the same path. "Joy of Sax" is a saxophone trio—featuring Cooper on sopranino, Hodgkinson on alto and (probably, the liners say) David Chambers—that segues into another unexpected: a brief version of Thelonious Monk's "Jackie-ing," played with a martial rhythm from Cutler that segues into another brief untitled piece by Cooper. Newcomer/trombonist Annemarie Roelofs makes this the most horn-driven disc of the box, and of Henry Cow's career. Frith's "The Herring People" is a quirky instrumental that presages Frith's early solo discs including Gravity and Speechless (ReR, 1981).
But it's another lengthy improvisation, the four-part "RIO," that is the centerpiece and cornerstone of Late. Frith's guitar playing had never sounded this jagged; the presence of three horns and Cutler's percussive maelstrom creating a feeling of chaos and, at times, impending doom. But in keeping with the heavily composed approach of Western Culture, the inclusion of both the initially rhythm-heavy but ultimately sustained beauty of "Half the Sky" and angular "Viva Pa Ubu" are fitting closers to The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set's audio discs. Still, there's another surprise in the traditional "Virgins of Illinois," placed between "Half the Sky" and "Viva Pa Ubu"—a brief piece driven by Cutler and Born but equally hovering around anarchy with Cooper's recorder, Hodgkinson's clarinet and Roelofs' trombone.
With the advent of YouTube, there seems to be no end to footage available of legacy groups. And yet, curiously, there's literally nothing to be found of Henry Cow, which makes the tenth disc in The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set—an 80-minute, professionally shot DVD of Henry Cow from an August, 1976 performance in Vevey, Switzerland—all the more of a find, and the gem amongst gems in this box set. With a representative set list from the time—"Beautiful As the Moon—Terrible As an Army With Banner," divided by a free improv, "Living in the Heart of the Beast," "No More Songs," "March" and "Erk Gah," along with another lengthy improvisation—it's shot with the group live outdoors, literally playing on the grass, with so much instrumentation that even the camera's wide angle can't capture the entire group in one shot.
While the cameras do capture everyone in the group—Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson and Krause—Cutler's the one who commands the most attention, which will come as no surprise to anyone in attendance at his Art Bears Songbook performance with Frith, Carla Kihlstedt, Zeena Parkins, Jewlia Eisenberg and Kristin Slipp at the 2008 Festival International de Musique Actuelle Victoriaville. It's almost unbelievable to watch Cutler navigate the staggering complexities of "Living in the Heart of the Beast" and "Erk Gah" with such apparent ease. That there's no music onstage, that the players move around their respective instruments so seamlessly, and that they manage to improvise together with such abandon while, at the same time, hitting every single cue without a misstep, hammers home what the music can only but suggest when listening to it.
While Krause would go onto Art Bears with Cutler and Frith, as well as News from Babel with Lindsay Cooper, Chris Cutler and Zeena Parkins in the mid-1980s, her emergence with Henry Cow as a singer who could effortlessly sing the most oblique melodies (she first came to attention with Slapp Happy, but it was with Cow that she cemented her reputation) was of great significance. Krause's voice has always been something of an acquired taste—one which has rarely evoked ambivalence but, instead, is one that's either loved or hated. Watching her perform live, with no affectation or posing, it becomes easier to appreciate just how remarkable a singer she was with this group. These are melodies that are challenging enough to play on instruments; but the kinds of intervallic leaps and harmonic sophistication required of a singer make Krauss an undervalued and underrated singer in this history of modern music.
As is the case with Henry Cow as a whole. While the group has long been influential and retained a loyal cult following despite there being nothing new from them, other than CD reissues of their original discography, a much-maligned remix with additional instrumentation of Legend and a 2006 box set that reissued the existing discography along with a three-inch CD single featuring 12 minutes of previously unreleased live music by The Orckestra—a 12-piece group that lasted for but a brief moment in time—there's been nothing to perpetuate the group's reputation or paint a bigger picture.
If ever there were a group with a wrong to be righted, it would have to be Henry Cow. With a wellspring of unreleased material, an impressive editing and mastering job that's made even audience cassette recordings sound crystal clear, and detailed writing from every member of the group but, in particular, Cutler (who spearheaded the box set's release), The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set is the set die-hard fans have been waiting for, and a collection that, for those unfamiliar with this remarkable group, is a definitive entry point. Cutler's writing—which not only details, down to the smallest minutiae, the group's chronology, but provides one of the clearest arguments for artistic independence that's ever been published about a musical group—is just as compelling as the music. It's rare that the liner notes to a box set are so good that they beg to be read again and again because, just like the music, they reveal more each and every time. The time and effort that Cutler has clearly devoted to putting together this box set (resulting in numerous delays, but they're all worth it) pays off by making it truly one of the best collections ever released about a group that most people have never heard.