Henry Cow was an English avant-jazz/rock band from Cambridge that was active under assorted iterations during a 10-year period, starting in 1968. Between 1973 and 1975, the band released four albums on Virgin, including two in partnership with the multinational art-pop trio Slapp Happy. In 1978, the band recorded their fifth and final studio album, plus an intended album that ultimately appeared under the splinter-moniker Art Bears. Each member of the band’s classic 1973–75 lineups had prolific solo and collaborative careers during the 1980s and ’90s.
Members: Fred Frith (guitar, violin, bass, piano, xylophone), Tim Hodgkinson (keyboards, woodwinds), David Attwooll (drums, 1968), Rob Brooks (rhythm guitar, 1968), Joss Grahame (bass, 1968), Andy Spooner (harmonica, 1968), Andrew Powell (bass, drums, 1968-69), John Greaves (bass, piano, vocals, 1969-76), Sean Jenkins (drums, 1969-71), Martin Ditcham (drums, 1971), Chris Cutler (drums, percussion, 1971-78), Geoff Leigh (saxophone, flute, 1972-73), Lindsay Cooper (oboe, bassoon, recorder, piano, 1973-78), Dagmar Krause (vocals, 1975-77), Georgie Born (bass, cello, 1976-78), Annemarie Roelofs (trombone, violin, 1978)
Henry Cow formed as a duo in May 1968 when guitarist/violinist Fred Frith met reedist/organist Tim Hodgkinson at Cambridge University. The pair initially purveyed a free-form style of blues-rock and performed select college events that summer, including an Architects’ Ball headed by Pink Floyd at Homerton College. Despite Hodgkinson’s later claim that “Henry Cow” was chosen at whim for its silliness, the name is assumed to be a modification of American composer Henry Cowell.
In October 1968, the pair was joined by then-bassist Andrew Powell and drummer David Attwooll. After two months of gigging the college circuit, Attwooll left music to go into publishing at Oxford University Press.
Henry Cow spent the first quarter of 1969 performing as a trio. Concurrently, Powell partook in an electronic music combo, Intermodulation, with Roger Smalley and Tim Souster. Smalley, the Composer in Residence at King’s College, exposed Cow to avant-garde music and methods of composition. This prompted the band to write pieces that challenged their playing abilities.
Powell left Henry Cow in April 1969. He eventually became a conductor and arranger, adding orchestration to albums by Cliff Richard, Kate Bush, Chris de Burgh, The Alan Parsons Project, and numerous Parsons-produced acts (Cockney Rebel, John Miles, Pilot, Al Stewart, Ambrosia).
Henry Cow continued as a duo until October 1969 when they added bassist John Greaves, then attending Pembroke College, Cambridge. A sequence of drummers preceded the eight-month stint of Sean Jenkins, formerly of Welsh psych-rockers The Elastic Band. In the summer of 1971, the drum seat was briefly filled by Martin Ditcham, who performed with Cow at the second Glastonbury Festival. (Other acts featured at the June ’71 event included Quintessence, Stackridge, Amazing Blondel, Roy Harper, Fairport Convention, Help Yourself, Quiver, Terry Reid, Gong, Traffic, Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, Arthur Brown, Family, and David Bowie.)
In July 1971, Ditcham left Henry Cow. He later became a prolific sessionist with credits on 1980s albums by Eye to Eye, The Belle Stars, Marc Almond, Nik Kershaw, Sade, Chas Jankel, Masayoshi Takanaka, Working Week, China Crisis, and Everything But the Girl.
Henry Cow found a permanent drummer that September when they answered a Melody Maker ad placed by Chris Cutler, who’d recently co-assembled the Ottawa Music Company, a rock composer’s orchestra formed in partnership with Egg keyboardist Dave Stewart. Several years beforehand, Cutler played in psych-rockers Louise with a pre-Fuchsia Tony Durant.
In February 1972, Henry Cow recorded their first of two sessions that year for DJ John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show. Two months later, reedist Geoff Leigh expanded Cow to a quintet. He arrived just as the band got commissioned to score a local production of Euripides’ The Bacchae. That summer, they performed at several events in Edinburgh and London with mime artist Ray Smith, who later did the sock art on Cow’s first three albums.
In October 1972, Henry Cow held a series of concert events dubbed Cabaret Voltaire (with Kevin Ayers at Kensington Town Hall) and Explorers’ Club (London School of Economics). These shows were attended by some of the UK’s reigning avant-garde figures, including poet Ivor Cutler, painter Lady June, composer Ron Geesin, and free-jazz musicians Lol Coxhill and Derek Bailey. The ensuing press attention and a third Peel broadcast (4/24/73) netted the band a contract with the newly formed Virgin Records in May 1973.
- The Henry Cow Legend (1973)
- Unrest (1974)
- Desperate Straights (1975 • Slapp Happy / Henry Cow)
- In Praise of Learning (1975)
- Concerts (live 2LP, 1976)
- Western Culture (1979)
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