Henry Cow were an English experimental rock group, founded at Cambridge University in 1968 by multi-instrumentalists Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson. Henry Cow’s personnel fluctuated over their decade together, but drummer Chris Cutler, bassist John Greaves, and bassoonist/oboist Lindsay Cooper were important long-term members alongside Frith and Hodgkinson.
An inherent anti-commercial attitude kept them at arm’s length from the mainstream music business, enabling them to experiment at will. Critic Myles Boisen writes, “their sound was so mercurial and daring that they had few imitators, even though they inspired many on both sides of the Atlantic with a blend of spontaneity, intricate structures, philosophy, and humor that has endured and transcended the ‘progressive’ tag.”
While it was generally thought that Henry Cow took their name from 20th-century American composer Henry Cowell, this has been repeatedly denied by band members. According to Hodgkinson, the name “Henry Cow” was “in the air” in 1968, and it seemed like a good name for the band. It had no connection to anything.In a 1974 interview, Cutler said the name was chosen because “it’s silly. What could be sillier than Henry Cow?”
Situation that rules your world (despite all you’ve said)
I would strike against it but the rule displaces…
There I burn in my own lights fuelled with flags torn out
Of books, and histories of marching together…
United with heroes, we were the rage, the fire.
But I was given a different destiny – knotted in closer despair.
Calling to heroes do you have to speak that way all the time?
Tales told by idiots in paperbacks; a play of forms
To spite my fabulous need to fight and live.
We exchange words, coins, movements – paralysed in loops
Of care that we hoped could knot a world still.
Sere words, toothless, ruined now, bulldozed into brimming pits
Who has used them how? Grammar book that lies wasted:
Conflux of voices rising to meet, and fall,
Empty, divided, other…
Clutching at sleeves the wordless man exposes his failure:
Smiling, he hurls a wine glass, describing his sadness twisted
Into mere form: shattered in a glass, he’s changed…
Now dare he seize the life before him and discompound it in
Sulphurous confusion and give it to the air?
He’s rushing to find where there’s a word of liquid syntax
Signs let slip in a flash: “clothes of chaos are my rage!”
He shrieks in tatters, hunting the eye of his own storm.
We were born to serve you all our bloody lives
Labouring tongues we give rise to soft lies:
Disguised metaphors that keep us in a vast inverted stillness
Twice edged with fear.
Twilight signs decompose us
High in offices we stared into the turning wheel of cities
Dense and ravelled close yet separate: planned to kill all encounter.
Intricate we saw your state at work its shapes
Abstracted from all human intent. With our history’s fire
We shall harrow your signs.
Now is the time to begin to go forward – advance from despair,
The darkness of solitary men – who are chained in a market they
Cannot control – in the name of a freedom that hangs like a pall
On our cities. And their towers of silence we shall destroy.
Now is the time to begin to determine directions, refuse to admit
The existence of destiny’s rule. We shall seize from all heroes and
Merchants our labour, our lives, and our practice of history: this,
Our choice, defines the truth of all that we do.
Seize on the words that oppose us with alien force; they’re enslaved
By the power of capital’s kings who reduce them to coinage and
Hollow exchange in the struggle to hold us, they’re bitterly
Outlasting… Time to sweep them down from power
Deeds renew words.
Dare to take sides in the fight for freedom that is common cause
Let us all be as strong and as resolute. We’re in the midst of
A universe turning in turmoil; of classes and armies of thought
Making war – their contradictions clash and echo through time.