Everyone of my age must have memories of gigs they wanted to go to but couldn’t, for one reason or another. My parents wouldn’t let me go to a Genesis gig, I seem to remember. I just wasn’t old enough, they thought, to go on the train to Birmingham at night without them. I can’t say I’m bothered, looking back. I think I tried to like the popular end of “prog rock” because my classmates liked it.
What I do regret, however, was missing a Henry Cow gig in Manchester a few years later. I’ve forgotten why I couldn’t go. Some chaotic detail or other in my life as a student meant I didn’t make it. I did get to see Segovia, Nico, Ian Dury, Caravan and Frank Zappa back then so I can’t complain too much.
But Henry Cow. I’ve been listening to them a lot recently. Possibly the greatest underrated band of all time, I think. I shouldn’t worry too much about having missed them: I don’t think I would have appreciated them then as I do now. They created a kind of rock music (if that’s the right word for it – even ‘jazz rock’ doesn’t do justice to it) which was Bartok, Sun Ra, Kurt Weill, Schoenberg and Stravinsky rolled into one, with a dash of free improvisation thrown in. Much of their music was purely instrumental, although the German vocalist Dagmar Krause did join them for a while.
However, despite the brilliance of Krause’s contribution, my favourite Henry Cow tracks are still the instrumental ones. One of their strengths was the power they injected into their music without recourse to words. What the vocalist and film-maker Sally Potter said about the band’s bassoonist (yes, bassoonist) Lindsay Cooper could be said of the whole band: “Her life was threaded through with political commitment and idealism – but her work was never didactic. She believed in the transcendental power of pure sound.” When the band were putting together the album Western Culture, they decided they wanted it to be an instrumental work. A number of them put together a second album, featuring the songs they were working on a the time. Good though it is, the music of Western Culture is deeper and darker, in my opinion. At times, listening to it, I found myself imagining I was watching a mime artist playing an apocalyptic game of charades.
Recently, someone shared on my Facebook page the phrase What a time to be alive: it’s like the collapse of Rome but with wifi. Forty years ago, Henry Cow wrote the soundtrack. What they had to say is as relevant now as it was then. The trouble is, I don’t think enough people want to listen to it. Personally, I don’t see the point of the arts if they ask me to believe the world to be other than it is. (That’s not an attack on fantasy and scifi, by the way: they can be great at drawing our attention to the way things are). The trick is to be honest and uplifting at the same time. Henry Cow were masters at performing it.