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Henry Cow: Concerts

by Henry Cow
ReR MEGACORP, Thornton Heath, Surrey, UK, 2006
2 Audio CDs, 18.75
ReR HC5, LC-02677

Distributor’s website: http://www.rermegacorp.com/.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


If the names of Chris Cutler, Tim Hodgkinson, Fred Frith and Lindsay Cooper mean anything at all to you, you will not be surprised that this is no ordinary rock concert recording. The line-up of the band for most of the concerts on this release included John Greaves, Geoff Leigh, Dagmar Krause and Robert Wyatt as well, which means that most of the important artists who ever joined the band during its turbulent ten-year history are present.

The first disk has recordings from four concerts from 1974-1975 in Italy, Holland and the UK. The second disk contains material from an Oxford concert in 1973 and a 1975 memorable gig at the Hovikodden Arts center in Oslo, Norway.

The history of the band is too complicated to tell in just a few words (look at Wikipedia for a fine and extensive overview) but its main concern has always been to keep away from commercial rock and to spread its message of anti-capitalist protest. (They stood in close contact with the Italian Communist Party and were regular guests at the yearly Fête de l’Humanité in Paris). After all, Cutler, Frith and Hodgkinson started working together in the ominous year 1968, when The Soft Machine had just started (with Robert Wyatt), when the cobblestones of Paris were turned over to show the sand below and when the protest against the Viet Nam war was at its height. Pop was hot, dresses flowery and rock was a vehicle for the expression of the anti-establishment feelings of an angry generation. At the same time, musicians with a classical training started to become interested in the more experimental margins of the rock scene, and they brought with them all kinds of compositorial concepts from the classical avant-garde. Song structure (composed or improvised) became an issue, as well as new timbres (recorders, hoboes, bassoons!) and harmonic freedom.

Of course, after some years, the established music industry was no longer interested in distributing and promoting the experiments of Henry Cow, and they organized their tours themselves——the band was always more successful on the Continent than at home. A Norwegian label started promoting and distributing their records instead of their former label Virgin.

So what about the music? There’s nothing like at. At least, not if you take into consideration that it was 1973-1975. Henry Cow’s sound is a perfect mixture of free jazz, classical instruments, rock and pop with a touch of chanson to top it off. Pure avant-garde. No concessions to any tradition whatsoever, but always aware of (western) musical heritage. It is always surprising, emotional, expressive, melancholy and aggressive, polished in its roughness and very, very clever. Praise ReR for re-releasing these recordings.



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