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.
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
“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.”
“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!”
Tamara Levitz, Professor of Musicology and Comparative Literature, University of California Los Angeles
"Henry Cow: The World Is A Problem provides an exhaustive account of an incomparable group pushing music to its limits, on a linear mission to change civilization and its culture forever."
"A fascinating and pacey read, stitched together painstakingly from over 90 original interviews and both public and private texts including Hodgkinson's extensive diaries. The combination of narrative background, musical analysis and critical insight should open the door for a new generation of listeners."
"Exhaustive and illuminating."
New York City Jazz Record
"Mixing a highly readable musicological analysis with fascinating details about the band's often-turbulent existence, Piekut's book is a fitting tribute to Henry Cow's importance and legacy in a notable but marginalised movement of 20th century music."
"This biography is many things but its main strength is as a chronicle of the band’s extraordinary history which spanned barely a decade, meticulously researched from a vast array of sources, not just from the music papers of the times but via interviews with the musicians, plus access to private musicians’ notes, diaries and minutes from the band’s many documented meetings. . . . A remarkable project: compelling, unique and requiring considerable powers of concentration and assiduousness—somewhat like the band themselves."