Interview: Henry Cow

We weren’t messing about and we did operate collectively. That is to say, there was no leader or main composer: Henry Cow wasn’t somebody’s group. In addition, we controlled our own affairs: we had no management or concert agency to answer to and we were wholly self-sufficient,...Gender balance was pretty equal; we had female drivers, sound engineers and technicians as well as musicians.

One of the most innovative and visionary bands of the 70s Henry Cow are almost as renowned for their politics and practice as their extraordinary music! Henry Cow pushed the boundaries of what was possible within a European musical framework between ‘68 and ‘79 with a collection of albums that experimented with form and sound. Their Marxist informed, truly progressive, process of egalitarian, democratic musical production still stands as a benchmark for bands seeking to break free of the myth of neoliberal individualism.

The embryonic Henry Cow emerged from Cambridge University life in 1968 around founding members Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson. After various personnel changes a settled line up took shape when bass guitarist John Greaves joined in 1969, with drummer Chris Cutler joining a couple of years later. In ‘72 they recruited Geoff Leigh on woodwind and in 1973 released their first album Legend on Virgin. In 1974 Lindsay Cooper replaced the departed Leigh and they started work on Unrest. The same year Henry Cow and Slapp Happy started work together on Slapp Happy’s second album (Desperate Straights) and the following year on Henry Cow’s third, In Praise of Learning, which featured the Slapp Happy-soon to be Henry Cow-vocalist Dagmar Krause.

Too complex for Britain and not commercial enough to sustain Virgin’s interest, Henry Cow found their musical home in Europe where their music and politics found an enthusiastic response. With similar bands they went on to form Rock In Opposition, a collaboration of groups who operated outside the mainstream music industry. In 1976 they released live album Concerts, and were joined by cellist Georgie Born who replaced Greaves on bass. Their final album Western Culture was released in 1979, the band having announced their decision to bring things to a close the previous year.

With a belief that ’radical politics demand radical music’ and that “Art is not a mirror – It is a hammer”(John Grierson quote on the cover of In Praise of Learning), forty years later Henry Cow’s music still sounds like messages from another place; reminding us what could be, what should be, of lost futures and still existent possibilities.

Post Henry Cow the various members have gone on to have long and respected careers as musicians working with a variety of bands and other musicians and in new configurations of erstwhile Henry Cow members. In addition, Georgie Born, Tim Hodgkinson and Chris Cutler have also authored books, with Chris Cutler also running Recommended Records.

In 2014 members of Henry Cow regrouped for several concerts to celebrate the life of Lindsay Cooper, who had died the previous year.

This September sees the release of The World is a Problem a book on Henry Cow by Benjamin Piekut with a book launch at Cafe Oto, London on October 13th. To accompany the book release ReR is releasing the complete works of Henry Cow: 18 CDs, a DVD and 250 pages of recollections, commentaries, documentation, unpublished photographs and substantial notes written by members of the band (due Oct).

I can still recall the first time I heard Henry Cow as a teenager, when a friend put on Concerts, and can still remember the realisation that I had never heard anything like it before, and very little like it since! So I was extremely excited when Henry Cow’s drummer Chris Cutler agreed to an interview for Echoes And Dust on all things Henry Cow!

(((o))): In the book Future Days it comments that the German bands that became collectively known as Krautrock were unable to draw on their cultural history, unwilling to draw on American musical history and therefore had to innovate and experiment to find new forms and styles (1). Was that something that Henry Cow very much related to at the time?

Chris Cutler: Well, I’m not sure I agree with David Stubbs about that. After the nazi period of course German folk music had to be avoided, but still, the so-called Krautrock bands took as their jumping-off point something equally ‘German’: electronic music, which they fused with the vocabulary of… American rock. What we related to most, I think, was this bricolage of different musical languages; that and the casual disregard for distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art – which I’d say, all the rock experimentalists at this time held in common.

(((o))): As a working definition ‘A grass roots DIY artistic expression of progressive politics’ seems to sum up all that is good about punk. Does that make Henry Cow the first punk band?!

CC: These are troublesome definitions. Some punk bands did-it-themselves, and some were politically progressive – but all were musically mono-cultural, rejecting not only jazz, classical and contemporary music, but also the catholic experiments of their immediate predecessors; such as us. Punk was arguably more about attitude than culture – in which it differed markedly from the more ambiguous New Wave bands that rode in on its coat-tails. So I think it would be a hard sell to pitch Henry Cow as proto-punks. While Punk rejected mainstream culture – until it became mainstream itself – Henry Cow embraced capital C culture with both hands and tried to integrate its fringes into a new mainstream. We didn’t just want to speak to our peers or our own generation. We were inclusive and directed our music at anyone prepared to listen; Punk, on the other hand, was culturally very tunnel-visioned.

(((o))): There were five studio albums between 1973 and ‘79, one a collaboration with Slapp Happy, looking back is there a sense of the releases having a continuity, being a body of work or are they more a series of stand alone artefacts, documenting your responses to certain sets of circumstances?

CC: Continuity. Our musical language evolved in a pretty linear way. The snapshots taken on that road – the studio albums – were different from one another because we constantly found new problems to solve or new questions to ask (and sometimes, new technologies to explore). But you are right, our circumstances changed, global politics changed and the problems we faced – both artistic and professional – changed; we were just trying to keep up. So, where Legend was cheery and Dadaistic, Unrest was pessimistic, dark and deliberately experimental. In Praise of Learning was optimistic – and in-your-face political, while Western Culture swayed between precision and organicism, and was steeped in narrative. I think it would be easy to make the case that they track the political events of their time – as well as the evolution of our own aesthetic thinking. Desperate Straights and Hopes and Fears, in their different ways, explored our roots in pop, and short song form, which was, in a way, our natural language. But, of course, everything we did precipitated out of the interplay of our world and the world, and I don’t think it’s hard to follow the threads that bind them. It’s the story of a time, and a collective mind at work.

(((o))): I’ve read a couple of books recently about the Russian Constructivists (2) and Post-Punk (3) and both groups explored cultural production and form around the question of ‘What does a socialist process of production look like?’ Egalitarian democracy? The evidencing of production as a socially dynamic process? What did the process of production look like in Henry Cow?

CC: We weren’t messing about and we did operate collectively. That is to say, there was no leader or main composer: Henry Cow wasn’t somebody’s group. In addition, we controlled our own affairs: we had no management or concert agency to answer to and we were wholly self-sufficient, with our own lorry, bus, PA system and lights – usually around 10 of us on the road: 6 in the band and four road-crew. Gender balance was pretty equal; we had female drivers, sound engineers and technicians as well as musicians. And all decisions were made at minuted weekly meetings at which a no-majority rule was imposed: that is to say, nothing could be done until everyone agreed to it. A majority couldn’t override a dissident voice. So we talked until we found a better solution. That could be grueling, but we did that all the way through. It’s why we ended so positively.

(((o))): The associated question was/is ‘What form and content does the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for socialism look/sound like and how should it affect the individual and society? Was that a question you were exploring with Henry Cow’s music?

CC: Well, top line; we were musicians. We were concerned with the music. But, as political people working in a highly politicized environment we could hardly – nor did we wish to – separate our musical lives from their social and political contexts. Mostly, our politics were practical: for example, as I said, all the other bands we knew were dependent on managers, concert agents and record companies; we controlled all these functions ourselves – as well as how, where, for whom and in what context, we played. That gave us a freedom more or less none of our peers had. Overt politics only came into the music after Dagmar joined and we had to write texts.

(((o))): Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain (3), Resilience and Melancholy (4) and File Under Popular (5) all explore the importance of musical form and the concept that certain musical forms can convey particular ideologies (values and worldviews) due to either the structure mirroring political values or via socialised associations. Did those sorts of ideas feed into Henry Cow’s practice at the time?

CC: We constantly discussed these sorts of issues but I don’t think we believed that certain musical forms could convey particular ideologies. Plato believed that; we were more Aristotelian – more of the opinion that ‘progressive’ meant things like stimulating thought, not acting in bad faith, addressing our public honestly, trying not to propagate oppressive social relations, discouraging the unquestioned acceptance of dominant narratives….

(((o))): And did you therefore seek to create music that would disrupt and challenge that hegemonic representation of society, be an artform that gives dissident expression, pointed to what could be rather than reproducing what ‘was’?

CC: Yes, I think we would have agreed with that.

(((o))): In 1977 you set up Music for Socialism (6), could you tell us a little more about that, what it involved, what it’s aims were?

CC: We were partners in the setting up; it wasn’t our project. Its aims were, like R.I.O.’s, to put up a flag and bring the question of the relation between music and socialist politics into a public forum; to share proposals about what a Socialist music might sound like in the form of debates and concerts. We didn’t come to any conclusions, but we did manage to instantiate a climate of comradely tolerance, more or less. Some experiments – the women-only music room, for instance – were more interesting: that was a room full of instruments and amplifiers closed to men. That caused controversy. But, in the end, like the festival as a whole, although it made a brave attempt to face up to a difficult question, it came to no useful conclusion; probably because the premiss itself – that there might be some kind of music that is intrinsically Socialistic – was just wrong.

(((o))): You were also involved with the Italian Communist Party for a while (6), did the members of the band have a similar politics at the time?

CC: We worked a lot in Italy when it was hard for outside bands to go there – largely because the PCI adopted us as comrades. After our free concert in Rome with Robert Wyatt and Gong, we parked our bus in the Piazza Farnese and just hung around. After a day or so, someone from the PCI found us and asked if we were free to play the next day at one of their Festa d‘Unita – huge free fairs they ran all over Italy throughout the Summer. That concert led to five or six more and by the end of the week we had become politically persona grata in Italy. We were invited back every year after that; not only by the PCI but also by the Partito Radicale and other left groups. I can say we felt very at home in the Italian left of that time.

(((o))): In 1984 you initiated a benefit EP, The Last Nightingale, involving several members of Henry Cow to raise money for the striking miners (7), which is a good example of the John Grierson quote on the back cover of In Praise of Learning ‘Art is not a mirror – it is a hammer’. How did that idea play out in Henry Cow and has it continued to inform your own practice?

CC: Since I had a record company, releasing a record to raise money for the miners was just an obvious thing to do. Although Henry Cow had broken up four years earlier, we were all still in touch and most of us were still working together, on and off, in different combinations. The Grierson quote was something I added to the cover of In Praise of Learning to tie the whole thing together, though I think it’s a sentiment we all agreed with. It’s certainly what we tried to do in our lives: to be active not passive; positive not neutral.

(((o))): In Lipstick Traces Marcus connects Dadaism, the Situationists and early Punk as movements that creatively disrupted and exposed society as construct (8). Would Henry Cow be happy with being included in that lineage?

CC: I don’t think so. We weren’t alienated from ‘society as a construct’ and we weren’t trying to make any such point, although it was fashionable then. Marcus is someone, I think, constantly carried away by his own rhetoric. Of course, there’s a whisper of truth in his analyses – because he’s no fool – but he seems incapable of contextualizing. For him everything is hyperbolic. Yes, in a tiny fringe of punk – the bit run by poser Svengalis like Malcom McCLaren – a vulgar form of Situationism was played out. But on the ground…? Punk was a money-spinner for the record industry and for most of its constituency a way to avoid facing the problems of Thatcherism. Of course, there were genuine actors mixed in, but they were overwhelmed by the commercial machine and its consumer constituency – which was, as ever, the dominant constituency. Grassroots stayed at grassroots. Breaking things is easy but building something that can resist the power of a dominant ideology is hard. Punk totally failed on that score. So, no.

(((o))): Towards the end of File Under Popular you run through the history of innovation and progressive practice in modern music. The book was written in the mid eighties I think, and I wondered if there have been any movements that you would now include in that history? Post-punk? Early Rave?

CC: That’s a very interesting question. There was certainly innovation after 1978, some in the so-called New Wave, some in Techno, some in Hip Hop, mostly in the new category of bands that sprung up between the genres (like the Necks, Ground Zero, Biota, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, areas of metal, etc.), but I’m not sure any of that counts as a ’movement’? We’re still waiting for the next movement, going round in circles in a fog of revivals and imitations. One is coming. It always does, eventually. Rave was certainly political, but hardly musically innovative. There’s no space to develop this here, but there’s a very dangerous aspect to the replacement of human entrainment with machine entrainment that has characterized much of music in the last 40 years and which is the very opposite of politically progressive.

(((o))): Henry Cow’s cultural legacy can be seen in the continual re-emergence of similarly independent, collectivist, politicised art practice in music with bands like Crass, Test Dept, Gnod. Have there been any bands post Henry Cow that have particularly excited you? Any contemporary bands?

CC: That’s always a hard question, not least because I have a terrible memory and it doesn’t work that way. Also, much recent innovation hasn’t come from bands but composers, individuals, mavericks… but there are still bands I like and admire because, at a certain level, there are always great musicians around with great ideas. Sometimes they become visible and audible; sometimes they are lost in the noise and disappear. It’s a lottery, especially when nobody very much cares. Innovation was looked for and rewarded fifty years ago because music was important to my generation as an alternative mythology – more than just a commodity in a box. Now music is on tap and the industry is firmly in control, and what’s alternative is no longer mainstream but hidden on the internet or at small local concerts that are hard to find. The present climate is not conducive to innovation, which is neither recognized nor supported. But it exists. The way tigers exist, as an endangered species.

(((o))): In 1978 Henry Cow set up Rock In Opposition which had its tenth festival in France a couple of years ago. Could you tell us some more about the organisation and the ideas behind it?

CC: First. I should say that there were five Rock In Opposition festivals, run by members in the UK, Italy, Sweden, Belgium and France, which all took place in the first two years. After that RIO quietly ceased to operate. The new festivals that use the name have nothing to do with the original bands or their ideals.

(((o))): As well as being perpetually relevant musically Henry Cow can also be a resource in contemporary political and cultural struggles. What specific aspects of Henry Cow do you think we should be re-examining and learning from?

CC: Self sufficiency. That’s what protected us and enabled us to pursue the music that interested us. Eclecticism. That’s what made our music unusual: we mashed together whatever interested us from all available forms of music, thereby expanding the vocabulary and the range of possible hybrids. A dialectic of improvisation and through-composition. That’s what constantly pushed us into new ideas and the evolution of new techniques, radically altering our relations of production and expanding our available models of musical thinking.

(((o))): Are there any Henry Cow plans for the future? There is a book out in September, isn’t there? Anything else planned at all?

CC: There are no plans. Henry Cow broke up in 1978 and never reformed. Nor did it wish to – although we did all come together to organize a memorial concert for Lindsay Cooper, at the Barbican in 2014, where we played her compositions. Otherwise, ReR has kept the records in print and, in 2009, released a 9 CD and 1 DVD box of previously unreleased material. The book you mention is not a Henry Cow project, it’s the work of an American academic. Otherwise, we all keep in touch – and as individuals continue to work with one another. But there’s no desire to turn back the clock. Henry Cow belonged to its time and that time has passed. We moved on.

Much thanks to Chris for time and answers.


(1)Stubbs, D. (2014) ‘Future Days; Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany’, Faber and Faber, London.

(2)Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’ The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

(3)Wilkinson, D. (2016) ‘Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain’, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

(4)James, R. (2014) ‘Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism’, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington, USA.

(5)Cutler, C. (1985) ‘File Under Popular:Theoretical and Critical Writings on Music’, RER Megacorp, London and Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia, New York.

(6)‘Henry Cow’

(7)‘The Last Nightingale’

(8)Marcus, G. (2011) ‘Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century’, Faber and Faber, London.

’Henry Cow’,
‘Tim Hodgkinson’ and
Martens, M. (1996) ‘Henry Cow’ Perfect Sounds Forever at referenced for Intro.

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