Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Henry Cow and Other Hybrids

I have just completed the initial chapter of a new book on English seventies rock ‘eggheads’ Henry Cow, published by the highbrow Duke University Press and written by the equally highbrow (but very friendly) Benjamin Piekut. Reviewed in this month’s Wire, Phil England had this to say about the chapter in question: “Perhaps unnecessarily. two theoretical chapters bookend the main narrative, aiming to provide an academic contextualisation in terrains of activity that Piekut terms “feral experimentalism” and “the vernacular avant garde”. Now, I’m not sure if ‘experimentalism’ is an actual word, and ‘feral’ is the last one that I would associate with Henry Cow, to be frank (”like being savaged by a sheep”, as I believe someone once said in n entirely different context), but I found the chapter very rewarding as it impacts on ideas that have developed in my own writing. I have briefly discussed the convergence of the experimental and the ‘vernacular’ (I prefer the word ‘popular’) in both my last blog on these pages, and within my two books on English free improvisation. Piekut and I operate in different worlds, but there are many points of contact. We both love improv and we both love decent rock, and both feel that the two can interact successfully.. 

Piekut and I are fascinated by a particular time (late 60s/early 70s) and particular places (London, Chicago) and the way that rock music opened up to the influence of more experimental/avant garde forms post- ‘Revolver’ (or thereabouts). Furthermore, several of these years also dovetail with perhaps those most influential and formative years of age, 16 to 19, which in my case cover 1971-4. Rock was at its most malleable, mimetic and permeable  at that time, and Piekut mentions many of the acts that I was listening to intently to a late teenager. Rock music is now 64 years old (isn’t there a song in there somewhere?), so it’s not really surprising that the flexibility and sheer muscle that it (and I!) had as a teenager is no longer a feature. Piekut’s chapter bought to mind many of the band recordings that age does not seem to have withered. Henry Cow was certainly one of the groups concerned, and what is particularly notable is that most of the records involved from that time managed to be both transgressive and on major record labels. Lots of people actually bought the things, amazingly (maybe not so many shelled out for Henry Cow, thinking about it!!!)

So here are just a few of the recording artists whose hybrid works I was devouring in my last two years of school and the year after (no ‘gap years’ then, just a gap!) - to start with, the first two records by the Cow themselves (on Virgin Records, which performed a great service over the seventies, whatever one now thinks of it’s founder), Unrest (1974)in particular; The Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa (up to, and obviously including, Hot Rats);; anything pre-Virgin Records (ironically) by Captain Beefheart and ‘his’ Magic Band(s); Pink Floyd (up to ‘Dark Side of the Moon); Soft Machine, up to the utterly peerless Third, which still sounds incredibly advanced in concept up to this day; anything by Miles Davis (1986-74); Can (up to and including Soon Over Babaluma); the early Faust albums, especially the eponymous first from 1971. 

It’s an incredible list and merely skims the surface of what was around, so I’ll certainly be reading the rest of Piekut’s book with considerable interest, which is titled “Henry Cow: the World is a Problem”. Some would say that the band itself was the problem, po-faced, dogmatic and knotty in the extreme, but what do they know? ‘Sense of humour’ is for another time.

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