Rock in Opposition

A new book on the experimental group Henry Cow concentrates on their attempts to combine socialist politics and avant-garde music.

From early performance experiments in the afterglow of the British counter-culture of 1968 to efforts to galvanise experimental rock culture for the purposes of left politics (Music For Socialism, Rock In Opposition), Henry Cow occupied a rare and often contradictory position within British popular culture. Written by Benjamin Piekut, an associate professor of Music at Cornell University, and editor of the experimental music journal Tomorrow Is The Question, The World Is A Problem is a meticulously researched intellectual biography of the group. Peppered with close musicological analysis, the book is at its most fascinating when delving into the contested discourses around 1970s experimental music culture, as well as articulating a compelling story of the ways and means that Henry Cow negotiated the intensely difficult task of generating explicitly socialist experimental music.

Henry Cow took an approach that — by contrast with a looser, more casual countercultural attachment to the avowedly ‘anti-establishment’ potential of rock — was heavily informed by a critique of the alienating effects of mass culture derived from Adorno. Compositionally, the band sought to move away from individualised and Romantic conceptions of the composer/songwriter, and towards a collective form of musical authorship. In doing so, Henry Cow were a polarising presence: too experimental/fragmented for the rock crowd, whilst lacking either a traditional basis or an expressivity that might appeal to jazz heads.

Drummer Chris Cutler — a college dropout from an intellectual background — brought the hitherto Cambridge-based Henry Cow into the Bohemian counterculture of early 1970s London, inviting the band into a communal residence/practice space on Walmer Road on Cutler’s invitation in late 1971. Joining the existing trio of John Greaves (bass), Fred Frith (guitar/violin) and Tim Hodgkinson (keyboards), the band rehearsed continuously and obsessively. Influenced by Cutler’s musical experience with the freeform collective Ottawa Music Company, Henry Cow began to book their own shows and curated their own line-ups, cultivating connections with Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, Glaswegian absurdist performance poet and composer Ivor Cutler, and experimental guitar pioneer Derek Bailey.

On the strength of their fourth session for John Peel, Henry Cow were signed to the ascendant independent label, Virgin, in 1973. Shaped by the A & R skills of Simon Draper and bankrolled by the proto-mogul Richard Branson, Virgin’s initial niche was exploiting a market demand for far-out sounds (primarily from mainland Europe), whilst appearing to be a more ‘authentic’ and progressive label by comparison with more fusty contemporaries. (This, incidentally, was belied by the rather stringent conditions of Henry Cow’s 2 album a year contract with the label and recoupable advance.)

Henry Cow’s first albums on the label — Leg End (1973) and Unrest (1974) — were both accompanied by tumultuous touring experiences, particularly a gruelling European trip in the summer of 1974 featuring Captain Beefheart and the spare remnants of his ‘Magic Band’. The experience profoundly drained their energies, often playing to unenthusiastic and hostile audiences. In the aftermath, Henry Cow entered their most musically interesting period: their ‘merger’ with fellow Virgin Records act Slapp Happy, a German avant-pop group. Consisting of charismatic vocalist Dagmar Krause, self-taught electroacoustic composer Anthony Moore and singer-songwriter Peter Blegvad, members of Henry Cow had acted as session players on their self-titled debut. Due to evident mutual appreciation, the two bands came together (Piekut’s book shows that the specific circumstances are/were up for debate), leading to two key albums in 1975: Desperate Straights and In Praise of Learning. Far from a simple streamlining operation, the members of Henry Cow particularly wished to clearly delineate the intellectual justification for the bands’ coming together. As a result, Desperate Straights was released with a 20-page accompanying booklet, including incendiary rhetoric from Chris Cutler: “Death to the individual! There must be more communal projects, more interpenetration, & sharing of knowledge & experience”.

Nonetheless, the artistically productive synthesis of out-there pop and experimental rock was abandoned, with Blegvad and Moore were rapidly jettisoned in the aftermath of In Praise of Learning. In 1976, Virgin realised that Henry Cow didn’t turn a profit, and began a protracted process to drop the band. Prompted by their former label’s intransigence, they turned towards more organised means in an effort at formulating a coherently socialist experimental music.

Inspired by left-wing counter-cultural music they encountered on tour in Sweden and Italy, Henry Cow were, primarily at the pushing of Cutler and their ‘administrator’ Nick Hobbs, a key member of the nascent group Music For Socialism. Their first event – a two day festival at the Battersea Arts Centre in July 1977 July – sought to represent a broad front in a similar manner to the SWP-centred Rock against Racism, but framed as a positive affirmation rather than solely a struggle against the fascist National Front. Featuring a combination of folk, jazz, and experimental music along with discussion groups with artists and critics, it was in practice a fraught affair, dominated by left factionalism.

Subsequently, Music for Socialism put together Summer in the City (a series of films centred on popular culture more widely, including screenings of works on the history of jazz alongside Godard’s Rolling Stones film Sympathy for the Devil) and Words and Music (discussion seminars focusing on a variety of issues in the popular music world, such as ‘Composition’, ‘Virtuosity’ and ‘Voice Styles’) in 1977, publishing a manifesto of sorts, as well as a conference on alternative record/tape distribution networks. Whilst far ahead of its time, the ideas discussed point the way forward to many of the more progressive, anti-capitalist strands of DIY culture that would coalesce strongly in the late 1970s/early 1980s, including advocacy of musical co-operatives and the promotion of “an independent touring network”. Yet Music for Socialism (and its successor Rock In Opposition), for all their ambitious scope, fell short in engaging with youth culture of the time. By contrast, the populist RAR, though less interested in reflexive debate and critique, was far more successful in tapping into mainstream consciousness, through its association with punk and reggae acts, and the popularity of its Temporary Hoarding zine.

Piekut’s discussion of the fraught histories of these efforts is one of the book’s strongest features. However, whilst strong on the intellectual currents within the group, the book slightly neglects the band’s humour — particularly evident in their song/album titles and accompanying designs. Here you find an absurdist structure of feeling that can be similarly traced in the Anglo-psychedelia of Robert Wyatt and the Canterbury Scene and the Oxbridge surrealism of early Monty Python. The experimentalism of British contemporaries COUM Transmissions/Throbbing Gristle – art school educated, Dada inspired, non-Marxist but critical of the commodity form, with an eye towards consciously shocking transgression — might serve as an interesting contrast with Henry Cow’s approach.

Ultimately however, Piekut’s highlighting of the importance of ‘instantaneousness’ and the ‘casual voracious nowness’ of the Beatles in the introduction — drawing on Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head — show that experimentations in form, from the chanson excursions on Rubber Soul to the tape experiments of The White Album, are just one strategy amongst many. This is, to my mind, was the missed possibility of Henry Cow: away from a stringent and somewhat austere tendency towards control, and towards articulating what Mark Fisher might have termed ‘popular modernism’ — what Piekut terms a ‘vernacular avant-garde’.