To paraphrase filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, there's a fine line between making political music and making music politically. The members of Henry Cow understood the difference, and that's why their work has aged more gracefully than the once-revolutionary rants of so much "protest" rock.
Cow was first linked to the Canterbury Scene and later to the variegated Rock in Opposition circle. Their albums strongly resemble the more serious-minded efforts of Frank Zappa, specifically the cut-and-paste mélange of garage rock and woodwind-heavy chamber music on Uncle Meat (1969). However, unlike Zappa, who viewed the money-driven recording industry as fodder for decidedly marketable satire, Henry Cow's founders were explicitly anti-capitalist.
A vehement espousal of solidarity could not preclude an ever-fluctuating lineup: at various points, the core unit of Fred Frith (guitar), Tim Hodgkinson (keyboards and reeds), Chris Cutler (drums) and John Greaves (bass) was joined by Geoff Leigh (sax) and Lindsay Cooper (reeds). A collaboration with the avant-rock trio Slapp Happy yielded the assimilation of vocalist Dagmar Krause.
Having signed to Virgin in the early 1970s, the band was admittedly no cash cow for the label, which dropped them after releasing the 1976 double LP Concerts. Culled from a variety of performances, the album captures Henry Cow in its totality, as a radical collective that wrote and performed demanding pieces while flirting with pop music of a twisted ilk.
Alternating between tightly structured compositions and freeform extemporization, Concerts finds Cow grazing through a medley from a John Peel session, teaming with Robert Wyatt for a beautifully hypnotic version of his "Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road," and extracting all manner of bizarre sounds from their instruments on improvisations like "Oslo." Frith in particular justifies his status as experimental rock royalty.
The voice of Dagmar Krause can be majestic or terrifying, and she manages both on Cutler and Frith's "Beautiful as the Moon, Terrible as an Army with Banners." Her presence is so engaging that the cringeworthy lyrics about "workmen seizing the future" can be forgiven.
The live renditions of album cuts have an unbridled looseness that was absent in the original studio versions; the sound quality ranges from excellent to very good, a testament to Bob Drake's impeccable remastering job. A Swedish interview and journal excerpt included in the liner notes provide some valuable historical context.
Concerts is a welcome reissue from ReR Megacorp, which began life as Cutler's own label in the aftermath of the band's dissolution. The album may not be an ideal taster for Henry Cow neophytes, but casual and committed fans alike are advised to milk it for all it's worth.
Track Listing: CD1: Beautiful As The Moon, Terrible As An Army With Banners; Nirvana For Mice; The Ottawa
Song; Gloria Gloom; Beautiful As The Moon (Reprise); Bad Alchemy; Little Red Riding Hood
Hits The Road; Ruins; Groningen; Groningen Again. CD2: Oslo (Tracks 1-8); Off The Map;
Cafť Royal; Keeping Warm In Winter/Sweet Heart Of Mine; Udine.
Personnel: Lindsay Cooper: bassoon, flute, oboe, piano, recorder; Chris Cutler: drums, piano; Dagmar Krause: voice, piano; Fred Frith: guitar, piano, violin, xylophone; John Greaves: bass, celeste, voice, piano; Tim Hodgkinson: organ, piano, clarinet, alto saxophone. Geoff Leigh: tenor and soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet, recorder (CD2:9-11) Robert Wyatt: voice (CD1:6,7).