The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Henry Cow: The World is a Problem

Benjamin Piekut
(Duke University Press; Durham and London)

Henry Cow, 1975                                                                   © Sula Nichols, courtesy of Duke University Press

Chapter 5: Europa 1975-76

Rock Music Is for Everyone

As they had done semipublicly in the late summer of 1974, Henry Cow spent the second half of 1975 clarifying their theoretical basis. But unlike the year before, when their thinking about the music industry, audiences, and their own musical practice trickled out in scattered interviews or other press outlets, 1975 saw the band attempting to write and present a formal statement. The vehicle would be a full-page advertisement for a tour in late 1975. Tim Hodgkinson, Chris Cutler, and Lindsay Cooper submitted drafts for review by the band, and Fred Frith also seems to have drafted a short text. (There is no evidence that this statement was shared with his bandmates, and the drafts by Cutler and Cooper do not seem to have survived.) The “Ho Chi Minh style lang[uage]” of Cutler’s submission led Frith to question its suitability, and Cooper’s was agreed to be more appropriate for a program note, once revised. (1)

Hodgkinson’s statement received the most commentary. It begins by declaring that Henry Cow’s music is intended for working people before arguing for a revitalization of freedom and progress. Rock presents freedom in the figure of the rapist, “the freedom of the Individual to indulge his libido at the cost of others, a freedom which people before arguing for a revitalization of freedom and progress. Rock presents freedom in the figure of the rapist, “the freedom of the Individual to indulge his libido at the cost of others, a freedom which necessarily rests on the unfreedom of others.” (2) We are taught, Hodgkinson writes, that freedom is a kind of escape from responsibility, manifest in rock culture as the obsession with drugs. Music figures progress, on the other hand, as the progress of a career or the fetish of success.

Let us speak of Freedom, not for some but for all, a freedom which we can only learn to develop when the relations of property & oppression are swept away. A freedom based on the recognition of the Communist Individual, who embraces his social nature, as a strength, and draws from it.

When we speak of Progress, we will not mean progress rooted in the needs & ambitions of a class elite, who benefit, & a mass who serve, but one forged by people who collectively revolutionize their society & their culture; people who understand that knowledge must replace fatalism if men & women are to wrest their futures from the uncon[s]cious forces of History.

In place of bourgeois freedom and progress, Henry Cow’s music will strive toward “a joy stemming from Action & Commitment, a joy which integrates both feeling & understanding.” They wished to foment a social joy, wherein individuals who had been divided by capitalism could recognize their common cause with all oppressed peoples. “We will have a meaningful Progress & Freedom only when we work collectively & informedly to determine our own future.”

As one might expect, other members of the band debated Hodgkinson’s manifesto at some length. Cooper’s minutes of the meeting capture the overall reaction:

Greaves: T’s lang alienating
Frith: Both [Cutler’s and Hodgkinson’s] too long
Hodgkinson: Disagree
Frith: Reservations about T’s passage about drugs etc. communicates fact that it is provocative rather than provoking
Dagmar Krause: Necessity for warmth. found C+T too cold – C harsh
John Greaves: Content music be provocative / lang as appr[opriate] veh[icle] – C’s on the way there
Frith: Some unnecessarily ornate. ...
Greaves: Imp[ortant] to put across a human way cf John Berger
Frith: But Berger avoids trap of being didactic – C+T come over as being in elevated position. – one is hyperconscious of the writer. Should be an absence of sloganism – T’s full of sloganism – imp[ortant] x [not] to rely on last generation of communists for language
Hodgkinson: Lang revitalised [because of] context
Cooper: Disagree – too obj[jective] and exp[licit] argument – process of writing should be more vital
Frith: Felt closer to C’s writing
Cutler: Emotionally must win people over – intellectually must antagonize them.
Fundamental way of relating is affective – leads to/produces cognitive reaction.

In his own draft statement, Frith struck a friendlier balance between the intellectual position of the group and the language they might use to communicate it; his comments are also more directly concerned with the conditions of the rock industry and address fans in a more straightforward manner. He explains that since the unsettling Captain Beefheart tour of 1974, “we have learnt to accept even less what people tell us can or cannot be done. Specifically, we have brought our activities more under our own control, we have continued to develop a more and more collective approach to what we do; and we have renewed our strength and commitment with regard to our beliefs and our music.” Like Hodgkinson (and, presumably, Cutler and Cooper), he criticizes the image of “freedom” presented by “so-called rock culture.” “Such freedom, like the abuse of drugs, is no more than an escape from, and a refusal to face, real conditions in the real world,” he writes.

It is not enough merely to comment on conditions that we recognize either in our personal lives or in society. To be aware of a contradiction should be to try and expose it, and to change it. Our music is for all people who are dissatisfied with their conditions and want to change them. ...
Our music represents an ongoing, collective critical process of thought and feeling – it is not finished.
Our music is a celebration – let ends begin. (3)

Although Frith’s involvement in and contribution to these conversations about the mission of the band seem clear enough on the evidence, he has expressed to me serious reservations: “The tone that Henry Cow adopted to speak to the press within the period between Unrest and post–In Praise of Learning was incredibly pompous and arrogant. That was the feeling I got from it. If I read that stuff, I think, ‘These humorless bastards!’”

It turned out that none of these statements saw the light of day. According to a note by Cutler in 1981, the band had planned to take their full-page worth of advertising guaranteed by the Virgin contract to publish some version of these commentaries. “A music-paper strike put paid to the ad if I recall. ... We were on tour in France at the time. Then Virgin cut our advertising budget.” (4) Nonetheless, the surviving drafts by Hodgkinson and Frith, not to mention other statements in the press from this time, throw a spotlight on the matter of audiences and how Henry Cow conceived of their relationship with them.

As artists, they resisted the image of rebellious outsiders. “So much art has been based on the romantic picture of the individual against the society,” Cutler told Time Out’s John Fordham. “But ... creative activity is a collective thing, you’re drawing on the community even if you work alone.” (5) At the same time, however, it would be disingenuous to overstate their power to speak for that community, aware as they were that revolutionary social change would come from the working classes, not artists. Frith told Kenneth Ansell, “Although our relationship to the working class, or the working class struggle, or trade unions or any actuality in that sense is very removed – we needn’t pretend that we were a working class band – the statements that we are making bear a direct relation to it.” (6) We can surmise that the direct relation to which Frith referred consisted of the many forms of musical dialogue that Hodgkinson had listed in 1974 – those that spring up within and through open improvisation, and those that can be modeled inside of written compositions. As Cutler made clear in a broadcast interview with the BBC’s Derek Jewell following the release of In Praise of Learning in 1975, such dialogues extended to their recorded work: “It is necessary with this record and with this music to actually become involved in it – because it lives, because it’s unfinished, because there are relationships which one only notices [on a] fourth, fifth, tenth listening, and because they do all relate in a deliberate and conscious way.” (7)

So even though Henry Cow, as musicians, would endeavor to extend and revise the techniques and vocabularies of musical sound, they would do so always with a view to wider social relations. In their minds, this close attention to their audience set them apart from some of their contemporaries in free improvised music. As Hodgkinson told Fordham, “The free players’ model is an ideal of themselves, and ultimately of society – which is why they attach great significance to the act of playing, whether the audience like it or not. It’s a very anarchistic view – an individualism which to me is suspect.” (8) Frith, too, found the politics wanting. Although Derek Bailey remained a very inspiring and influential figure for the Cow guitarist, Frith commented, “he appears to enjoy a music where everyone is free to do as they want without getting in each other’s way.” “This seems to be the opposite of what we’re trying to do. Derek also says that he’s happy to play whether anyone shows up or not. That’s something that we’d totally disagree with.” (9) For the Cows, rock could lead to a direct engagement with questions of the social, evident in their fascination with the genre’s collective production practices (rather than its myths of racial transcendence or dodgy claims to sexual liberation) and in their construal of the rock audience as a participatory, demotic grouping. Free improvisation, in their view, sought a hermetic purity that led them away from larger groups of listeners.

They felt similarly about their colleagues in more “classical” experimentalism. In a discussion about the problems of the capitalist music industry, Gerard Nguyen asked Hodgkinson if he had heard of Brian Eno’s Obscure Records. Founded in 1975, the label had released recordings of works by composers such as Christopher Hobbs, Michael Nyman, John Cage, John Adams, and John White; their best-known LPs were Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic and Eno’s Discreet Music. Given Eno’s prior membership in the Scratch Orchestra and Portsmouth Sinfonia, Nguyen might have thought that Hodgkinson would have a great interest in the unusual, genre-hopping label. Instead, the composer replied, “Yes, but it has nothing to do with us. We are a rock band, and we need to be in an area where people will promote our records, put them in stores where people can buy them, as rock music. ... We believe that rock can do something; we do not want to make avant-garde music for a small minority, because rock music is for everyone.” (10) He wasn’t the only band member who held to this populist interpretation of rock: Frith told another journalist in early 1976, “The largest audiences are within rock and we want to reach as large an audience as possible.” (11)

These comments indicate that, unlike the experimentalisms of the concert hall or jazz club, rock had not yet established a strong narrative for or anxiety about audience abandonment in the 1970s. To be sure, however, the British critical reception of German rock represented but one example of a stratified, intellectual, self-conscious connoisseurship inside rock culture, and of course one might say that rock’s entire raison d’etre owed to its high-status distinction from a debased and feminized “pop.” These faultlines were thrown into relief in a group dialogue on the subject of MOR (middle-of-the-road) pop in the November 16, 1974, issue of Melody Maker. Although the conversation by Shusha Guppy, Barry Blue, and Francis Rossi ranged widely across subjects in commercial pop, a sampling of the questions asked by moderator (and rock critic) Chris Welch lays bare the anxieties then plaguing rock:

“Doesn’t MOR mean a negation of progress?”
“Doesn’t middle of the road mean mediocrity?”
“Don’t people who listen to [MOR] prefer things to be conservative and safe?”
“Does rock still have the strength of a movement that it used to have?”
“You don’t see MOR as a threat to rock music?”
“Isn’t MOR the easy way out, for listeners?”
“Is there an element of snobbery in the dismissal of MOR?”
“Isn’t MOR a compromise?”
“Doesn’t the industry have to create a balance between what will sell anyway, and what is new, fresh and original.” (12)

Welch might have been surprised to find agreement at one point in the discussion with Shusha, the Iranian-born chanteuse who had released several albums of cosmopolitan folk in the 1970s. She even advocated for a kind of corporate-backed patronage for the most progressive and artistic rock bands: “I think the fact that the industry is doing well should help everybody. I really think a lot of the bands, have to be subsidized, there’s no doubt about it. Otherwise we’ll have nothing that isn’t middle of the road.” (13)

All told, the scattered discussion in the British press about the possible evaporation of rock audiences or the need to subsidize its most visionary practitioners recapitulated existing anxieties about the commercial basis of the art form. Henry Cow occupied a not entirely predictable position in this discourse. If the general pattern in rock equated paying attention to one’s audience with abandoning one’s artistic independence, then the Cows appeared not to choose either. “We don’t take audience reactions at their face value,” Hodgkinson said at the time. “We don’t say ‘we’d better not play that again because they don’t seem to like it’. These things naturally do determine our next move, but not in a one to one way. It might be for instance that we decide we must do whatever it is more strongly in order to overcome that resistance.” (14) The “audience,” therefore, was not a simple category that one engaged in a single way.

Hodgkinson’s populist interpretation of the genre – “rock music is for everyone” – spoke both to Henry Cow’s outsider status relative to rock (as Cambridge intellectuals, and fans of jazz and contemporary classical music) and to their agonist formulation of the very category: “everyone” was not a unitary place where all agreed but a site of conflict itself. Again in comparison with the free improvisers, Cutler told Ansell, “The compromise that we have made by making records with a commercial company is one that on balance we consider to be more in our own interests at the moment. ... You have to make allies to achieve what you want to achieve.” (15) Rock may have developed a minority, connoisseur audience by the middle of the decade, and it may have been inseparable from the profit interests of the major corporations, but for Henry Cow, the opportunity offered by the sheer number of listeners there far outstripped the alternatives.



  1. Henry Cow meeting minutes, Notebook 1, November 1, 1975, St. Pargoire, France, Tim Hodgkinson archive.
  1. Reprinted in Chris Cutler and Tim Hodgkinson, eds., The Henry Cow Book, 1968–78 (London: self-published, 1981), 56.
  1. Written in Fred Frith, 1975 datebook, Fred Frith archive.
  1. Cutler and Hodgkinson, The Henry Cow Book.
  1. John Fordham, “Not With a Mirror . . . But a Hammer,” Time Out, January 31, 1976, 11.
  1. Kenneth Ansell, “Dissecting the Cow: An Almost Complete History of Henry Cow,” Impetus 2 (June 1976): n.p.
  1. Chris Cutler, interview with Derek Jewell, BBC Radio 3, [“mid-1975”], transcript. I am grateful to Trond Einar Garmo for sharing this document with me.
  1. Fordham, “Not With a Mirror,” 11.
  1. Ibid., 11.
  1. “Atem Raconte l’Histoire (presque) Complete de Henry Cow,” Atem, September 15, 1976, 20, translation by Andrew Zhou.
  1. Dave Laing, “In Praise of Henry Cow,” Sounds, February 7, 1976, 44.
  1. “Who Buys Records by John Denver, Charles Aznavour, and Peters & Less? [Dialogue],” Melody Maker, November 16, 1974, 26-28.
  1. Ibid., 28.
  1. Fordham, “Not With a Mirror,” 11.
  1. Ansell, “Dissecting the Cow,” n.p.


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