Henry Cow was a British progressive rock group during the late 1960s and the 1970s. Their experimental and avant garde music largely influenced the progressive rock scene of the era.
The original band was formed by musicians Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson whilst attending the University of Cambridge in England. Soon afterward they were joined by John Greaves and percussionist Chris Cutler. After leaving university, the group advanced seriously and began intense practice. They became involved with the local music community, participating in numerous theatrical productions, music festivals, and other events. Through the community the band met up with Geoff Leigh, a wind player, who would later join the group.
Henry Cow's performance style was developed primarily through collaborative artistic endeavors. As explained by the percussionist Chris Cutler, the band was "first and foremost a performing group." Concerts displayed their music at its finest, full of expressive energy and vibrant improvisation. The group had several successful tours, often teaming up with well known acts, such as Faust and Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet).
Listening to Henry Cow for the first time is like diving headlong into an ocean. Each piece is a vast conglomeration of different themes and musical ideas that meld together as the song progresses. The depth of the music can make it seem rather overwhelming initially. Traditional styles and techniques are abandoned, leaving the new listener grasping for some form of familiarity.
Experimental music often is very difficult to make sense of logically. It speaks at deeper, almost subconscious, level. The slightest sound can have tremendous effect and meaning. Henry Cow songs frequently turn in unexpected directions, charting new and sometimes bizarre expressive territory.
In 1973, their first album, Leg End (also known as Legend), was released through Virgin Records. The cover art displayed one lone multicolor sock, painted by Ray Smith, an artist friend. This ubiquitous sock, along with its compatriots used on later Henry Cow albums, quickly became a symbol for the band. Leg End was a moderate success, selling well within the experimental music community. It was followed by 5 other albums: Unrest (1974), Desperate Straights (1974), In Praise of Learning (1975), Concerts (1977), and Western Culture (1978).
Albums Desperate Straights and In Praise of Learning were done in collaboration with the band Slap Happy. Singer Dagmar Krause from Slap Happy later joined Henry Cow and became one of the lead vocalists. Her fascinating style of singing appears on several of the later albums.
As a group, Henry Cow was well known for having strongly leftist political views. Many songs express frustration with commercialism and the capitalist way of life. Though few of their songs have continuous lyrics, those that do are about topics close to the group's collective heart.
"We exchange words, coins, movements - paralyzed in loops
of care that we hoped could knot a world still."
-Tim Hodgkinson, Living in the Heart of the Beast
The band Henry Cow was one of the original founders of Rock in Opposition, a progressive group composed of several different experimental bands. RIO was created in 1977 to connect non-mainstream musicians and assist them in finding performance opportunities. Henry Cow split up a year later, but band members stayed active in RIO and related cultural movements. Frith, Krause, and Cutler later went on to form the Art Bears, another experimental rock group.
Cutler, Chris. Groups and Affiliations. <http://www.ccutler.com/>
Crossen, Dave. Ruins/Unofficial Henry Cow WWW Server <http://www.scms.rgu.ac.uk/staff/dc/hcow/cow.html>
Leroy, Aymeric. Calyx, The Canterbury Website: Lyrics. <http://perso.club-internet.fr/calyx/lyrics/henrycow/01.html>
Stitzel, Joel. Prog Rock Corner--Henry Cow. <http://www.stitzel.com/slop/prq/henrycow.html>. Cosmic Slop.