Henry Cow
Vol. 6 Stockholm & Göteborg


"(...) and as soon as what had originally appeared as a kind of critical judgment (though a very superficial one) turned into a kind of "background knowledge" - one that's "self-evident" by definition - King Crimson found themselves being thrown into the same cauldron labeled "Prog", and a target of scorn and ridicule, just like rock groups such as Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, or so-unoriginal Genesis. But one fine day in 1992 a 4-CD box set appeared: titled The Great Deceiver - Live 1973 - '74, with a booklet full of pictures and exhaustive liner notes by no less than Robert Fripp himself, it worked wonders towards a reevaluation of that lazy prejudice by highlighting the daring improvisational attitude of the quartet, so different from the scorned precision of the group's studio albums. And so, a new generation of young listeners, too young to even know about those scratchy bootlegs, listened to that music with fresh ears. And it was probably starting from that moment that this approach to rock music started being incorporated into those new, modern languages that at that time were being formulated in the United States, so giving King Crimson a chance to a new lease on life."

I have to confess that it was this old tale that I thought about, one afternoon in July, when I found in my e-mail in-box a message announcing the "imminent" release of the "Henry Cow 40th Anniversary Box Set Volumes 1 & 2 - 9 CDs and 1 DVD with 2 substantial books - in two solid Boxes." (Announced release date: round about Christmas, ReR being the undisputed "King of Timing".)

"Assembled over 15 years, this collection gives for the first time some idea of the breadth and depth of Henry Cow’s work". (...) "Always very much a live band, performance was their métier, and a concert might range far - always driven by an intense dialogue between tightly knit compositions and radically open improvisation. The officially released LPs tell at best only half this story".

I have to admit that I found these news quite perplexing. Henry Cow's first three studio albums are without a doubt milestones of modern "rock" music, and the obvious starting point for those who have never listened to the group. But there's also the fine double album titled Concerts - re-released in a definitive edition just two years ago, by the way - to tell with a certain degree of accuracy "the other half of the story". So it goes without saying that target #1 for this box is the "hardcore fan", with potential involvement of new music listeners in the coming years. But would hardcore fans - who obviously, in this day and age, thanks to the Net, already own everything - accept forking their money to get what could very well be cleaned-up copies? (The material featured in the DVD-V is obviously of the "never seen before" type - and so will remain until a "friend of humanity" will upload it on the Web.)

Present times being what they are, i.e., obviously not the most favourable for this kind of courageous operations, and even more so when compared to those times when The Great Deceiver was released. It goes without saying that Henry Cow's music can't aspire to ever become an "inspiration" to imitate and emulate in the same (quantitative) way of the music performed by King Crimson in that box. In a word, total darkness. So I immediately called to subscribe to the box.

I'll openly say this: given the fact that it can be reasonably assumed for the music featured in the box to be of a very high quality, even if the recorded sound is fatally destined to be variable, one's decision to order this box is in part dictated by an ideological position, i.e.: do we want to "reward" those efforts that at that time made it possible for this group of people to create this music? Do we want to do what's possible for us to do to keep this very bizarre label afloat? But it's obvious that it's only by using his/her credit card that a critic has to operate to reach this goal. Critical analysis must be kept objective.

The CD titled Stockholm & Göteborg is the "Vol. 6", being part of Box 2, covering the years 1976 - 1978. The music featured here has been assembled in a coherent program that presents, side by side, (very) long and brief tracks, complex scored compositions and free improvisation, songs which are sung and instrumental pieces, the majority being unreleased on album. I wish I could say that both bass players who were part of this group are featured, but for a long series of factors I won't even start talking about this is not true (I have the feeling that the "errata" portion of the box will be quite dense). The music on this CD was edited, re-mixed or re-mastered. On the cover we find the indication "non invasively re-mixed", which at first I found absurd; but I'll talk later of the (quite successful) way this remix process was used.

The album's opener is a medium-length improvisation, Stockholm 1, dense, quite good. As a part of the fabric, we have Tim Hodgkinson's organ, Fred Frith's guitar, and Georgie Born's bass and cello, while I found Chris Cutler's drums and Lindsay Cooper's piano to be particularly impressive, the latter carrying the weight of the long-distance travel better than I expected.

The presence of Erk Gah - the very long Tim Hodgkinson composition that the group often performed live, but never released on an album - will of course be one of the CD best selling points. Here, after starting on piano, Lindsay Cooper, is back to her usual oboe and bassoon, Hodgkinson being featured on organ, alto sax, and (uncredited) clarinet, Frith adds a xylophone, Georgie Born is here again, Dagmar Krause sings. As we all know, "one man's food is another man's poison": those who like Dagmar Krause's voice and vocal attitude will find much to like on this track (which also features quite a few instrumental moments). For this writer, the piece sounded a bit too much "like" Living In The Heart Of The Beast, another composition by the same author. Which, in a literal sense, it does not (maybe). But thirty years after the fact, what at the time I would have probably investigated at length, exploring their respective similarities and differences, now sounds to me like a big snoozefest, thanks also to Krause's vocals: which I liked at the time of the first Slapp Happy (Virgin) album, and also in the brevity of the songs of their follow-up, but which I find quite heavy, and bordering on kitsch in its emphasis, in a track that's quite emphatic on its own.

But: There's a very beautiful almost completely instrumental moment which is part of Erk Gah, here indicated as track 5. Here the re-mix work has worked wonders in presenting at their best all the compositional elements according to their role in the whole. And here I have to say that, having extrapolated this track from the composition, I found myself listening to it over and over, well beyond the call of duty.

A Bridge To Ruins is a track for organ solo, with a nice counterpoint and an ending where one can hear what (to me) sounds like the noise from a tape echo (a Binson Echorec?) briefly becoming the co-protagonist.

The brief Ottawa Song has Greaves on bass and second vocals. It works well if one listens to the CD as a whole, but by itself it's quite inferior to the version that's featured on Concerts.

The three moments collectively indicated as Goteborg 1 at first had me quite disappointed: I could not figure out why Greaves was so absent from the proceedings, up to a point where he starts playing exactly the same notes (and they're really the same ones!) he plays in the studio version of Deluge. The reason: Greaves is not here, and what we hear - in the background, coming off a tape - is really Deluge. It's a rare "no more Greaves, not yet Born" quartet line-up. Strangely modal-sounding, with ample use of tapes (human voices, and so on), with Hodgkinson at the organ and (again, uncredited) clarinet, and Cutler also on piano. For this writer these are the most interesting and beautiful moments on the album, especially those strange "Pigmy ceremony" arias on 9 and those dense and mysterious textures on 10.

What follows is a brief version of No More Songs by Phil Ochs, that the group often played in concert. Opinions will differ. I've always considered Henry Cow "in rock" to be rigid and stiff, absolutely out of their depth, like classical musicians doing their best. Krause completes the picture.

Stockholm 2 is a brief, good improvisation featuring Frith (uncredited) on piano, the instrument that takes the group (and also the listener) to the well-known (but never officially) March, whose melody indicates that Frith's affinity for certain climates pre-dated Gravity. Cutler's floor tom (I think!) ends the record.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2008

CloudsandClocks.net | Oct. 16, 2008