Dec. 18, 2008
As I wrote in my review of Vol.
6 - Stockholm & Göteborg, my first reaction upon learning
of a soon-to-be-released mammoth box set (9 CDs, 1 DVD-V, with 2 substantial
books) featuring only live material by the glorious, impossible-to-forget,
UK band Henry Cow in the year marking the 40th Anniversary of the group's
start, was one of total disbelief: All this stuff? Just like my second
reaction: Who is gonna buy this one?
Meanwhile, throwing all caution to the winds,
ReR - the perennial "King of Timing" - announced December as
the box set's release date. But ReR being also the perennial "Champion
of Poor Efficiency", the box (as it was to be expected) is not ready
A time of extreme measures? Well, on one
hand it's true that the music performed by this group still sounds great
(we can discuss whether this is due to their own merits, or to the low
quality of what came after them, at a later date), and I'm quite certain
that Chris Cutler (the former Henry Cow drummer who owns ReR, the label
behind the box) did all it could be done in order to make everything interesting
and worthwhile, the music sounding from merely good to excellent, according
to the available source material.
On the other hand, it was a long time ago,
in many ways. What about the group's old fans - are they still interested?
are they still there? And what about newcomers? - who in my opinion should
really get the first three studio album, and the live album Concerts, first.
But it's the "pointillistic" model of consumption that's so typical
of this day and age that's the real enemy of a careful exploration of an "object" 10
A dangerous situation, then, to which Fate
added a new "unknown quantity": While the box set is quite reasonably
priced, the recent devaluation of the UK Pound Sterling compared to the
US Dollar, not to mention (shame...) the Euro have made the profit margins
of the whole endeavor, already quite minimal to start with, almost non-existent
(all ReR material being pressed abroad).
Adding a new paradox, the box set's Vol. 6, titled Stockholm & Göteborg, released as a stand-alone CD like a "sampler" to the box, had everybody puzzled, sporting
a so-so sound, and presenting so many mistakes in the
So all that was left for me was to talk to
I'm pretty sure that by now those who
subscribed to the Henry Cow box set are anxiously keeping an eye on their
mailboxes, waiting for it to appear... soon. But we know better, right?,
the box set not really being expected to ship before... mid-January?
Would you mind elaborating on this?
You are right of course. We found some extra material
late in the day and it seemed crazy not to include it in the box - which
meant changing things around and doing re-design work. Since we'll only
do this once, we might as well do as best we can. Happily, people who know
us seem to have exemplary patience and understanding, so no angry letters
so far. And the box will be better for the improvements.
those who subscribed to the box set are just a tiny minority, when compared
to those who don't even know about it, or don't really care. What would
you tell these people, what made Henry Cow so special?
Of all the English bands of the '70s, we went furthest
in bringing elements from rock, free improvisation and highly scored contemporary
music together into an integrated and coherent aesthetic whole
– though, because of our infidelity to any segregated musical style,
we wound up in a strange position, socially - not belonging to any generic
community of musicians, but accepted by all kinds of audiences (we were invited
to play at jazz festivals, rock festivals and new music festivals as if we
belonged in each world). Our compositions could be extremely complex, I dare
say more complex than any other European band at the time - or since - and
our improvisations (which accounted for maybe 40% of any concert) were extremely
radical and non-generic. In addition, we were overtly political without compromising
our musical aesthetics to dogmas; and we ploughed our own furrow regardless
of consequences. Unusually for the time we were constituted equally of male
and female members (including road crew). In a way were a dead end since
we pushed out to a new musical amalgam that no one wanted build on (or which
history left behind). You can judge for yourself as soon as the box is out.
first Henry Cow LP appeared in 1973, the oldest material in the box set
appears to date back to 1971, so what is this "40th Anniversary" about?
Looks like a suspiciously round figure to me...
suspicious about it: Henry Cow was formed in Cambridge in 1968. That's
40 years ago. Admittedly there weren't so many concerts in the beginning
(this is detailed in the accompanying book to volume 1) and it took a while
to find a language of our own - so we didn't become professional musicians
until 1971 - however, the band was formed
press release I have here it says: "(...) this collection gives
for the first time some idea of the breadth and depth of Henry Cow's
work". So, why did you wait this long, given the fact that the number
of those who are interested in this kind of "difficult" stuff
decreases with each passing year?
have happened since we disbanded 30 years ago and, perhaps a little unusually,
every ex-member of Henry Cow has gone on to a rich variety of other musical
work, both of their own, and as participants in other projects. For many
years we were all too busy to look backwards; and some of us felt the need
to escape the legacy of Henry Cow - and the past -
in order that the work we were doing in the present might be taken seriously.
There were various requests for the band to reform during this time, which
were all rejected. Time passed. We settled into the present. Now we can
look back and see that what we did in those early days is still of value;
subsequent developments have not rendered it obsolete. Indeed, far from
being left behind, our work seems to have gained coherence in the new,
experimentally more arid and mechanized environment. It seemed a good time
to take stock. And a lot of what we did had never formally been documented
so, at 40, it seemed as good a time as any to tie up the loose ends and
prepare a comprehensive document of our working life. That's why it's 10
CDs. As for the public: well, publics and fashions come and go, and what's
visible is always a distortion: you can't be guided by popularity in assessments
of significance. Essentially, this box is exists because it's what artists
do: produce work – of course to entertain whoever might be interested,
but equally to launch suggestions and artefacts into the world. That's
all: we aren't trying to meet some imagined or real demand, or to have
a second chance at popularity, we just want to enable our work to continue
working, because it's not yet exhausted.
press release again: "The officially released LPs tell at best only
half this story, and one purpose of this definitive collection is to
set the work back into its broader context", which sounds more or
less what Robert Fripp had in mind at the time of the release of King
Crimson's live box set The Great Deceiver, back in 1992. Do you think
- or hope - that the release of the Henry Cow box set will be granted
the same amount of attention?
I'm afraid I totally missed the King Crimson box, so
there's not a lot I can say about it. How much attention did it get? In
any case I wouldn't want to measure Henry Cow
talking about King Crimson, I seem to remember (but I could be wrong)
that at least some members of the group were not really happy about the
press lauding King Crimson for introducing live improvisation in rock,
without even bothering to mention Henry Cow.
At the time we despaired of journalists who just repeated
what bands' managers wrote in press releases. Crimson's sudden discovery
of free improvisation was much publicized as something unheard of for a
rock band. Since Henry Cow had been at it for years, we were unimpressed.
Journalists have no excuse for being so lazy and ignorant, nor bands to
know so little about their own field, or to let publicists write nonsense
- that's what Sartre would call bad faith.
sure you've heard those rumours about Neil Young being unsure whether
in today's market his planned box set collection will have many takers.
The press release for the Henry Cow box set says: "It's all a million
times better than the terrible bootlegs that are swimming around",
to which one could reply that those bootlegs are free for all to download,
prefer free downloads and bad quality to regular price and high quality,
then you probably don't really care too much for the music anyway, so you
won't appreciate it; then this box is not for you. Apart from that, and
the moral issues, such equations seem to show that the Regan/Thatcher idea
that ME is the only intelligible concept has now become an orthodoxy, along
with 'money talks' and 'quality is for the birds'. I'll buy the Neil
Young box. We can go down together.
I expect the booklets to the box to have at least a few pictures of the
famous group van, an unsung hero of the Henry Cow story. Speaking of
which: Do you think that in today's climate - economic, and cultural
in general - something like Henry Cow would be a viable proposition?
No. Even when I look at the fees we earned in the very
early days, they are so much higher than the equivalent today (once inflation
is taken into account) and there was an audience then for experiments and
novelty. Pop in the '60s changed radically every few years and novel forms
constantly gained attention - and a public; now we've had hip-hop grinding
on for nearly three decades - presumably because nothing more interesting
has come along. The structure that encouraged and drove innovation yesterday
has dissipated today and the infrastructure of venues and organisers has
shrunk accordingly. In such a climate, a group like Henry Cow would have
a far harder time now than we had in the early '70s I'm sure.
we're all aware of the many mistakes appearing on the cover of Vol. 6.
Have you spotted some more - I mean, on the other CDs, and in the booklets
to the box?
I hope so.
press release says: "there is a great deal of written, (...) and
I'm really curious about the discussions between group members about musical
and logistical issues. Are there any texts about this? (It's been said the
members of Gentle Giant used to argue quite heatedly about each other's mistakes
in their dressing room after the shows...)
Not really, there are the minutes of one of our weekly
meetings, which give some idea of what we discussed, but although we talked
a lot about art and music, and sometimes presentation, we did not criticize
each other's performances as far as I can remember.
I'm certain the booklets discuss this, I've always been curious about
the process that had the group choose a (relatively speaking) lightweight
player as a replacement for a virtuoso, this not once, but twice. The
case of Georgie Born ("who played everything staccato", a friend
of mine reminded me recently) being really peculiar.
Twice? Who do you consider the second lightweight? I
can't agree with your characterization of Georgie and characterising her
playing as 'everything staccato' is only evidence of your friend's cloth
ears - as listening to the second box in this set will confirm.
to remember that you liked 70s Steely Dan, but I have no recollection
of seeing that band's name being mentioned in the (very few) Henry Cow
interviews I read back in the day. Do you remember any other "atypical,
names of groups/artists that the other band members liked at the time?
We seldom spoke to the press about music we liked
– because we were seldom asked (the Melody Maker 'Band File' was a
rare exception); and it's way too long ago to say who liked what with any
certainty, but we all listened to a lot of music of all kinds and across
all the genre divides. And we discussed music a lot. I like Steely Dan; I
think Fred does
– but I couldn't say about the rest of the group, quite possibly not.
We had quite different tastes as well as having a lot of things in common.
© Beppe Colli 2008
| Dec. 18, 2008