Pub. Date:
Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem

Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem

by Benjamin Piekut


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Thursday, September 30


In its open improvisations, lapidary lyrics, errant melodies, and relentless pursuit of spontaneity, the British experimental band Henry Cow pushed rock music to its limits. Its rotating personnel, sprung from rock, free jazz, and orchestral worlds, synthesized a distinct sound that troubled genre lines, and with this musical diversity came a mixed politics, including Maoism, communism, feminism, and Italian Marxism. In Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem Benjamin Piekut tells the band's story-from its founding in Cambridge in 1968 and later affiliation with Virgin Records to its demise ten years later-and analyzes its varied efforts to link aesthetics with politics. Drawing on ninety interviews with Henry Cow musicians and crew, letters, notebooks, scores, journals, and meeting notes, Piekut traces the group's pursuit of a political and musical collectivism, offering up its history as but one example of the vernacular avant-garde that emerged in the decades after World War II. Henry Cow's story resonates far beyond its inimitable music; it speaks to the avant-garde's unpredictable potential to transform the world.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478004660
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/27/2019
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 1,144,422
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Benjamin Piekut is Associate Professor of Music at Cornell University, author of Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits, and editor of Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies.

Read an Excerpt


You Can't Play This Music at Cambridge | 1968 –73

The first time that Tim Hodgkinson and Fred Frith performed together, in the winter of 1968, Henry Cow did not yet exist. Hodgkinson's friend, Roger Bacon, had choreographed a dance on the subject of the bombing of Hiroshima and asked the pair to provide musical accompaniment. They had met at the Cambridge Folk Club during the previous term, their first as students at Cambridge University. "Fred had been quick off the mark at Cambridge," Hodgkinson remembers. "I think he'd already had one band, so he knew that you could put a band together, and he thought, for some reason, 'I want a band with Tim in it.'" When they met with Bacon to discuss the project in his rooms at Cambridge, Frith might have mistaken the neck strap Hodgkinson was wearing as the mark of a serious saxophonist, when it signaled nothing more than the absentmindedness of a young hippy recently unleashed on the city.

The performance itself — entirely improvised to the movements of the dancers — was a revelation for both, because, in Frith's memory, "we stood up together and played really intense music coming out of nothing except one word [Hiroshima], without any experience of each other as players, and me playing an instrument [violin] that I had never used in that way before. ... And it was really powerful. It was like coincidentally discovering improvisation." It wasn't quite a coincidence, as Frith would later learn, because Hodgkinson had been a devotee of free jazz for many years, bringing his knowledge of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler into the performance. Frith remarks, "My jazz education up to that point had been much more mainstream, ending with Miles. A little bit of Coltrane. But he introduced me to the more avant-garde stuff." Frith's decision to play violin rather than guitar signaled his own listening habits, which had led him, by chance, to Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, which the composer had scored for a large ensemble of strings using extended techniques. "I was buying contemporary music records randomly, because there would be these compilations of contemporary music series, put out by cut-price labels. ... There would be a label with Cage, Berio, Maderna, something or other, and then there would be electronic music with Mimaro?lu, and then there was one which had the Penderecki piece on it. ... I was just curious, you know?" The dance lasted about twenty minutes, a span of time the musicians filled with scrapes, squeals, and squawks of great energy.

Aspects of this proto–Henry Cow performance will return many times in the text to come. First, it was entirely improvised. Second, it was collaborative and dialogical. Third, it was conditioned by the generative capacity of the LP form to make technically advanced music widely available for emulation. Fourth, it was conceived outside of accredited institutions of transmission, sparked by a meeting at a folk club and taking place in a student production without the legitimating support of teachers, a seminar, or a score. Of course, almost any student band — and Henry Cow was no different in its early years — held many of these qualities by dint of their low status and skill level: improvisation is a tactic for dealing with rough-edged musicianship, rock has always found its home in nonaccredited spaces, and pop and jazz musicians had long used recordings to extend their instrumental imaginations and model new possibilities. Yet for Henry Cow, along with many other groups we will encounter in this study, the aspirational nature of their LP emulations distinguished their sort of modeling from a more common sort directed at the mastery of an idiom (though they did plenty of that, too). One must mark the difference between listening to recordings in order to learn open-ended yet firmly established codes (like the electric blues) and doing so to reprogram those codes and unsettle the behaviors they normalize. Anthony Braxton would frame this difference as one between "traditionalism" and "restructuralism." Moreover, as the members of Henry Cow cultivated their intellectual and musical capacities in the years to follow, they did not continue merely to improvise and to collaborate, but rather staged improvisation and collaboration as sites of investigation in themselves — that is, as problems to test, doubt, revise, proclaim, and resist. So the early performance of Hiroshima music offers an utterly mundane example of vernacular experimentation even as it secrets some kernels of an unfamiliar story that will grow increasingly specific and unusual.

Born in 1949, Hodgkinson was preceded by a sister (Ianthe) and brother (Peter). Both of his parents had grown up in large houses with full-time, live-in servants, but that wasn't quite the life that Hodgkinson would know. His father, a former naval officer, had begun a career as an educator after the war; in 1955, he was named the headmaster of the Milton Abbey School, a private boys' school in Dorset, remaining in the post until retirement. The family took only occasional help with cleaning and childcare until the older children went to school, but the house grew grander when they were fully installed in the headmaster's quarters at Milton Abbey, which presented more occasions for formal dinners. A French governess who had been with some other branch of the family for many years joined the household and instructed Hodgkinson until he was eight years old, when he was packed off to Abberley Hall School in Worcestershire, followed by Winchester College at age thirteen. An acclaimed cornerstone of Britain's depraved private school culture, Winchester enjoyed a more intellectual reputation than Eton or Harrow, but, in Hodgkinson's memory, it still functioned like "a North Korean brainwashing system for producing upper-class imperial functionaries."

Hodgkinson began to develop a musical personality at college. His piano teacher at Abberley had been sufficiently creepy and uninspiring to motivate a change to the clarinet, which he continued to study at Winchester. Peter was a big jazz fan, particularly trad jazz. Hodgkinson was too young to participate fully in his brother's passion, but he did get to listen to his records and would continue to benefit from Peter's example when the latter became involved with New Departures, the important journal of the British beat poetry movement. But it was a record that Ianthe brought home on a break — John Coltrane's Africa/Brass — that really turned him around. That one, and a perplexing Charlie Parker album, had him realizing "that it might be possible to play like that, with absolutely no idea of how to get there, of course." His sister would also assist with two more highly consequential kindnesses. First, her friend met and accompanied the young Hodgkinson when he stepped off the train in London in search of a saxophone, which (post-Coltrane and -Parker) he had decided to add to his studies. Second, she took him to an AMM gig at London's Conway Hall, part of the Destruction in Art Symposium in September 1966. Otherwise, he was on his own finding LPs and learning about music. Coltrane was his North Star; eventually, he found a record shop in King's Cross that imported the Impulse! catalogue, and he ordered many albums knowing nothing of their contents — a good strategy, given the quality of the label's mid-1960s releases. He even put together a combo in the mold of the Coltrane quartet. Meanwhile, Hodgkinson's classmates were getting into R&B and the blues, but he was a bit slower to develop an interest in these genres, and by the time he finished at Winchester in 1966, he was just beginning to come to grips with the artier side of rock (Dylan, Revolver, soon Beefheart).

At a place like Winchester College, one drifts toward Cambridge University incrementally but ineluctably. Hodgkinson's schoolmaster asked him what he wanted to study, and the vague ensuing conversation resulted in his admission to the course in "moral sciences." Although it would take over his life by the end of his time at university, music was not a big factor in the move to Cambridge; he hadn't even done a music A-level.

Before he matriculated, however, Hodgkinson took a gap year and toured India. His parents, nonconformist in their way, supported the decision. The father of one of his classmates was the dean of Windsor, prominent in the Anglican Church, and he arranged for Hodgkinson and some friends to deliver a Land Rover to a school in Pakistan, staying with missionaries along the way. They made their way to Peshawar, where they taught in a school for the spring term, after which time Hodgkinson traveled to Varanasi and Kathmandu. He returned to England via public transportation in the late summer, arriving in Cambridge in time for the autumn term.

By the time of the "Hiroshima" performance, Frith had been, as he puts it, "a guitar player who happened to be at school" for many years. He came to Cambridge from Yorkshire, where the family had moved in 1953 (from London) so that Frith's father could take up the same kind of job as Hodgkinson's: headmaster of the Richmond School. Born in 1949, Frith was the middle of five siblings. By the late 1950s, the family had relocated to York, where Frith's father had taken another headmaster position, at Archbishop Holgate's Grammar School.

Born Jeremy Webster Frith, Fred had been nicknamed at school after the famous motorcycle racer Freddie Frith; the nickname stuck once he started performing under it. He had been a good student until about age nine or ten, when he passed the eleven-plus exam one year early. That good fortune put him into his father's grammar school, where his interest in academics plummeted and his interest in music soared. He had taken up the violin at age five, and wouldn't switch to the guitar until he was thirteen years old, when he was packed off to a private school, The Leys, in Cambridge, where his older brothers had both studied on scholarship; the chip had been placed on Fred's shoulder when he failed to win the same for music. In the memory of one of his classmates, Christopher Hitchens, The Leys School enjoyed a rather intellectual reputation, and its location lent it an esteem that other fancy schools lacked. Hitchens wrote, "English public schools have names like Radley and Repton and Charterhouse and Sherborne and Stowe ..., and it was quite the done thing to debate the relative merits of these status-conscious destinations. 'Hah, Pugh is going to Sedbergh — moldy old prison.' 'Oh yes, well you're going to Sherborne, which is full of snobs.' When my turn came, I would portentously say: 'I'm going to Cambridge.' That shut them up. Cambridge these little bastards had heard of." In that learned city, Frith, too, would come into his own, but not without the kind of self-doubt that would accompany any grammar school boy from Yorkshire now in the company of Huxleys and Keyneses.

Strong in science, The Leyes had a weak music program, but Frith sang in the choir and founded a band, the Chaperones, after seeing a Shadows imitator in concert. "I was completely entranced at once and decided immediately that I would have to start to learn guitar. I was so determined that I went out and got a book called One Hundred Chords and learned every single one so that I could get into a band too." The Chaperones played your basic British pop until about 1964, when Frith discovered Alexis Korner and followed him into the blues. His hip girlfriend, Jean Stokes, steered him from Muddy Waters to Mississippi John Hurt and other more obscure artists. She also taught Frith how to play clawhammer guitar. He bought every US blues record he could find, transforming the Chaperones into a blues band by 1965. As his facility on the instrument grew, his listening took him to John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, and, like those two adventurous folk guitarists, Frith cultivated a stylistically diverse frame of reference. "Technically, I was a jack-of-all-trades, just copying everything immaculately, kind of making these soulless copies of all my heroes."

At The Leys, Frith's marks indicated a certain lack of commitment, but his inspiring English teacher, Colin Wilcockson, worked closely with him in preparation for Cambridge University's entrance exam. Because he had been a year ahead in school, the guitarist had a long time to ready himself for the test, and his hard work paid off: he was offered a spot to read English at Christ's College, where his father and brother Christopher had both already studied.

Frith and Hodgkinson grew quickly during the 1967–68 school year. A gifted student, Hodgkinson was ensconced at Trinity College, one of the largest and most powerful in the university. Nonetheless, his course in moral sciences failed to stir him; he would switch to social anthropology in his second year. In the meantime, he practiced the saxophone and clarinet and involved himself in the radical theatre and performance scene. He met his future spouse, Caroline Ayerst, that autumn, when she knocked on his door collecting money for a political cause. Their political educations were intertwined for much of the next fifteen years, but began when they played lunatics in a Cambridge production of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade directed by then-student Bruce Birchall. A socially committed teacher in training at nearby Homerton College, Ayerst soon spurned Hodgkinson, and he spent the next year without her, moving further to the left, dropping drugs, and attending meetings and demonstrations. (Following one meeting of the Angry Brigade, he thought, "Hmm, maybe this is not quite my cup of tea.")

He was among the Cambridge group who welcomed a delegation of soixantehuitards from Nanterre in the late spring of 1968; they took one look around the sleepy quadrangles and concluded, correctly, that nothing would happen there. But Hodgkinson was in the middle of a personal political transformation that would stick — an experience shared with countless others in the days of Paris, Saigon, Prague, and Chicago. He explains, "There'd been a moment of history where the world paused for a second, and it was possible, foolishly, to believe that anything was possible. ... And then, suddenly, you realized that there was actually this huge fucking great big weight of stuff that was against you, that had violent force at its disposal." Among other things, that sudden realization also pertained to his own family — perhaps his father, running an upper-class private school, was functioning like a cog in the British class system. A distance opened up.

Eventually, this political consciousness would thread itself through almost every turn in the Henry Cow story, but Hodgkinson's first year or two saw an expansion of his musical horizons in a manner distinct from the political radicalization. He listened to a lot of records. And he shared them with Frith, who was swiftly establishing himself on the Cambridge music scene as a soloist at the Folk Club and an occasional member of student bands such as Blues Roar and The Nasty (the names say it all). Together, the pair made their way through Frank Zappa, Beefheart, Pink Floyd, Vilayat Khan, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio, Béla Bartók, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Frith's brother, Simon, was now enrolled in the sociology graduate program at UC Berkeley, and posted his brother LPs by West Coast groups like Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish. Somebody at the Folk Club slipped the guitarist a copy of John Cage's Silence, and he soon began reconceptualizing his instrument as a sound-producing mechanism rather than a vehicle for self-expression.

In the spring of 1968, Frith and Hodgkinson performed now and then at the Folk Club, where the example of Renbourn, Jansch, Davy Graham, and other progressive folkies had established an open atmosphere. Hardly purists, they played arrangements of Coltrane and generic "Indian" orientalia. By spring, they had enlisted four friends (mostly Cambridge students) — David Attwooll, drums; Andy Spooner, harmonica; Joss Graham, bass; and Rob Brooks, guitar — to form a blues band called Henry Cow. (The obvious reference is the US composer Henry Cowell [1897–1965], but there is no deeper story beyond that, despite Frith and Hodgkinson's occasional evasiveness on this question over the years.) As early setlists make clear (see figure 1.3), their repertoire consisted mostly of standard-issue, white-boy electric blues. But there were a few curveballs, including some classic blues (Bessie Smith's "Judge Judge"), country blues (Skip James's "Hard Time Killin' Floor"), and modern jazz (Hancock, Coltrane, and Adderley). And they also had a few originals; one that would stick for a while was "Amnesia," which was their catchall title for a bout of hypnotic solo improvisations over a pulsing drone. During gigs — they played a handful, mostly dances or parties between May 1968 and September or October — they got up to some hijinks: maybe somebody would start shaving, or an alarm clock would suddenly blare out from a stool on stage.


Excerpted from "Henry Cow"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Duke University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface  vii
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction. Feral Experimentalism  1
1. You Can't Play This Music at Cambridge | 1968–73  29
2. Faust and the Virgins | 1973  76
3. Contentment Is Hopeless, Unrest Is Progress | 1974  119
4. Death to the Individual: Slapp Happy | 1974–75  157
5. Europa | 1975–76  199
6. The Roads Leading to Rome | 1976–77  242
7. No Joy Anymore | London 1977  293
8. Henry Cow Always Had to Be Henry Cow | 1978  345
Afterword. The Vernacular Avant-Garde  387
Notes  409
Bibliography  455
Index  479

What People are Saying About This

Robert Wyatt

“What was it all about, to me? Thinking. Henry Cow really thought about the why, the what, the appropriate methods of making music. Their riveting music was the sound of thinking out loud: Henry Cow seemed to be asking, ‘So, what is the significance of these sounds in our heads?’ And they were always witty: just look at the name of the band and the unwearable sock representing ‘the Henry Cow legend.’ I am very glad this book exists. Henry Cow’s history—in all its inevitable turbulence—tells an inspiring story.”

Tamara Levitz

“In this landmark monograph, Benjamin Piekut offers a stunning new theoretical framework for writing the history of ‘adventurous’ music in the late twentieth century, realizing that theory in practice by replicating in his graceful prose the improvised relation to the world he seeks to illuminate. Through his gripping account of the band Henry Cow, he reconstructs the cultural space of what he calls the ‘vernacular avant-garde,’ where musicians learn from records rather than in institutions, live uncertainty, cross genres, improvise responses to novel situations, work with and against record companies, and embrace avant-gardism without negation. It is rare to finish a monumental monograph with a gasp. A must-read intervention and instant classic!”

Customer Reviews