Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Opera Yokoo Tadanori wo utau” ******

Recorded 1968-1969

 

 

In the 1950s and 1960s, several Japanese composers developed strong connections with American avant-garde scene.  It is during these years that Toshi Ichiyanagi studied in the US with John Cage, participated in dada-inspired Fluxus movement and got involved with contemporary theater music.  Although Ichiyanagi initially focused on composing chamber music and scores with Japanese traditional instruments, the interface with the messiah of indeterminacy fertilized his budding taste for experimentation. 

 

Married to multimedia artist and fellow Flexus member Yoko Ono, Ichiyanagi experienced a creative breakthrough after his return to Japan.  He soon ventured into vintage live electronics and physicalism – performances in which sounds were activated by musicians’ movements.  Not all of these forays were entirely self-induced.  Already in 1961, his path had crossed with improvising pioneers Group Ongaku, led by Shiomi Mizuno, Yasunao Tone and Takehisa Kosugi. 

 

Yet contacts with US academic institutions continued.  This was the period when an entire generation of youthful musicians shuttled between America and Japan: Takehisa Kosugi, Masahiko Satoh and Stomu Yamashita among others.  In 1967, Ichiyanagi returned to New York to perfect his skills in electronic sound creation.  He experimented with tape manipulation and ring modulators.  As his sonic ventures coincided with the second wave of Japonism, his work attracted considerable attention in the West. 

 

Upon return to Japan, Ichiyanagi plunged into the country’s nascent psychedelic scene, combining the inchoate acid rock with musique concrète.  These experiments were unabashedly greedy; Ichiyanagi utilized a posse of theoretically incompatible sources – enka songs, kayookyoku popsike jingles, archival recordings, and indeterminate radio manipulation.  The “Opera” dedicated to Tadanori Yokoo’s visual art stems from this fertile period of bold syncretism.

 

Drawing from Japanese modernism and Roy Liechtenstein’s brand of Pop Art, Tadanori Yokoo’s posters gained recognition for his proto-psychedelic mysticism.  Although not directly portraying the music scene, Yokoo’s striking visuals were to Japan’s rediscovery of fully bloodied color contrasts what Hapshash and the Coloured Hat were to London’s LSD scene (in fact, his work for rock artists dates only from the 1970s).  Since the mid-1960s, Yokoo had been obsessed with the traditional red sun ray motif, by then disgorged from Japanese symbolism and considered highly risqué internationally.  It could be that Yokoo was influenced by Mishima’s nationalistic stance prior to the latter’s suicide in 1970.

 

The “Opera” was a multi-media affair, well ahead of its time.  The importance attached to the visual side of the production was unprecedented – years before picture discs and multiple gatefold LPs became commonplace.  The attention to detail in both the sonic and visual side of the undertaking was as meticulous as only Japanese traditional arts and crafts can be.  This was also Ichiyanagi’s last large scale composition before his contributions to Expo’70 in Osaka. 

 

 

The “Opera” is a monument of 20th century avant-garde.  Ichiyanagi’s self-declared objective was to achieve multiplicity that is so characteristic of nature, rather than bequeath fruits of human concentration.  If there was ever one such record in the history of rock avant-garde, “Opera” fulfills this task. 

 

 

 

Side A:

1.Aria ichi. Aria: 1 – Japanese Ballad

An aura of melancholy emanates from the opening “aria”, which is little more than a traditional Japanese ballad performed by a subdued female voice.  This opening is highly misleading.  Such intimate nostalgia will return on this record, but never again in this form… 

 

2.Erektrikku chanto. Electric Chant.

Electric hiss, rather than chant, grows oppressive and passionately synthetic.  The second, echoplexed tone disrupts prominence ordering and almost instantly affects the dynamic variety.  With the accumulation of decibels, the electronic squall becomes strident, but when it recedes, the effect is spacious and planar.  From this abiotic slurry there emerges a figurative, yet barely recognizable form – a marching brass band of a bygone era.  Its chorus is patriotic, fanfaric, enraptured in its pre-war swagger.  The tragic hindsight corrodes our unconscious as soon as the magic words emerge – “Tenno Heika” (the Emperor)…  This documentary character of this chorus is treated with exemplary irreverence – snubbed by sadistic electro-glissandi…  Yet the overall effect remains confusingly nostalgic…

 

3.Otoko no junjô. Man’s Pure Heart.

A story of incompleteness begins with distant noises, sound of footsteps and archetypal girlish laughter.  Up front, a man sings to gauche piano intonation.  Despite encouragements, the singer appears troubled by the keys.  All along, children’s voices are still audible, as if the piano were placed within a short distance of a gymnastics hall.  Against such skeletal accompaniment, the singer’s quavering voice tries hard to continue: “the golden stars passing, shimmering…”.  We are perplexed.  Is it for real?  Is it an offtake?  Whenever we are beguiled into believing that the final version of the increasingly jarring song eventually materializes, it all collapses again.  The two insidious characters burst into suppressed laughter…  The singer stammers on the quasi-liturgical melody, stressing the syllabic quality of the nasal sound, à la japonaise.  They complain about the piano when they realize the environing silence.  “Everybody’s gone – nobody is watching, but should we continue when there is no one?”  Finally, devoid of any background noise, the song is delivered in full. 

 

Ichiyanagi once compared music to Japanese garden design – meticulous and painfully orderly, yet always interacting with indeterminate elements: moisture, light and wind.  Were the children’s voices an unplanned accident?  And more generally, how much of this “Opera” was captured, rather than pre-conceived? 

 

This side ends with demented screams, contrasted with a woman’s frightened whisper.  The fury of huffing and puffing is unnerving – as if someone was breaking through the barricades.  She is sobbing in fear.  Finally the ‘siege’ is over.  A low-flying aircraft passes above Haneda airport…    

 

 

Side B:

4.Uchida Yûya to za furawaazu. The Flowers. 

 

Next to Le Stelle di Mario Schiffano (1967), Citizens for Interplanetary Activity (1967) and Red Crayola’s “The Parable of Arable Land” (1967), this 27-minute long track qualifies as one of the earliest psychedelic freak out forms.  It is performed by the Flowers, a predecessor of Flower Travellin’ Band – a solid hard rock act active in the early 1970s.  The Flowers here were Susumu Oku on guitar, Katsuhiko Kobayashi on pedal steel guitar, Ken Hashimoto on bass, Joji Wada on drums Hideki Ishima on guitar and leader Yuya Uchida.  The original plans to juxtapose the Flowers with a symphony orchestra were, fortunately, abandoned and Ichiyanagi gave them free hand.  Amazingly, the NHK studio engineers (Shigeyuki Okuyama?) let the recording tape run at half-speed.  The resulting shock wave of guitar-led dissonant turmoil was the official Big Bang for Japanese rock avant-garde. 

 

It all starts with an oversize riff berthed in perennial slap-echo.  Hashimoto’s bass bubbles with quasi-Turkic flips and a rapid-fire cymbal rattles (at double speed, as most of the band here).  This intro is stately, premonitory, narcissistic and wrenching.  The use of Hawaiian guitar is destabilizing, rather than purely decorative.  In these introductory chords the band remains purely abstract, way ahead of its time.  With its indolent, lateral moves, the bass makes the first pre-announcements of what is to come.  The accents from the Hawaiian guitar become garbled.  The cymbal and hi-hat work is highly tensile, taut and suspenseful.  Finally, the scalding fuzz guitar invites the drums, but the acoustic piano calls off the alarm and allows for some meter-planning by the drummer.  It lasts way longer than any drummer’s typical crowd-pleaser.  The drumsticks hit, and hit, and hit and nothing much happens.  This metronomic intro finally instantiates a French-style, tightly cropped wah-wah guitar (Mahjun, Komintern, Red Noise).  The full spaceship is now taking off – Ishima’s highly pitched, combustible guitar blasts at speed of light, later copied by Kimio Mizutani on Hiro  Yanagida’s second LP.  The bass remains very loyal, despite the freedom bestowed by Kobayashi’s rhythmic mantle (his Hawaiian guitar etches accents at every second beat).  There is nothing analytic in the instinctive interplay between the Hendrixy wah-fuzz, the piano and overload guitar injections.  The cooperation is certainly enflaming, vicious, bristling, stentorian, but never stereotyped. 

 

After a short lapse, the bass clutches on the colorful configurations planted by the Hawaiian guitar.  Then the second guitar (Oku?) crossdresses as a mining jackleg drill.  When it defects, the basic components are back – the bass, drums played with Nick Mason-ish mallets, a stately, hymn-building guitar, and ever-squirming Ishima with his scalpel-sharp axe incisions.  Uchida’s vocal interjections further coarsen the mayhem of guitars in total overdrive.  This manic superposition of grimy guitar walls leads to another climax, but piano arpeggios steer away (again) from any conclusion.  The beat is determined by quasi-looped wah-wah, with the pungent lead guitar meandering pointlessly.  Occasional voices make their holophrastic observations with the band in a supersonic flight, not unlike the electronic zooms crafted by maestro Ichiyanagi himself. 

 

The cut is so sudden, that it leaves us half-deaf.

 

 

Side C:

5.Uchida Yûya to za furawaazu. The Flowers.

 

The cut was necessary.  In the 1960s, few vinyl record grooves extended beyond 25 minutes.  We are, therefore, back with the Flowers and their totalistic skullduggery.  Several cowbell clinks later the bass will again host the melodic development.  The band turns into a 12-handed percussion machine.  There is tapping, patting and clacking of anything with everything – spoons, sticks, pens.  The wah-wah guitar descends into obscurity, ever less distinct, in a long goodbye.  There will be one more return of the wild guitar drill sound, enveloped in acoustic piano, indifferent coughing and electronic twitch.  

 

These 27 minutes of absolute bedlam remain a grand classic of psychedelic avant-garde rock.  The legendary rock freak-out re-appeared later under the title “I’m Dead”, in reference to Tadanori Yokoo’s famous painting reproduced on the back of the gatefold LP sleeve. 

 

6.Nyûuyôku no uta. Song of New York.

 

A Chinese-sounding intonation introduces a poem recited in Edo-jidai Japanese.  But then, a very contemporary dialogue ensues.  An actor impersonates two roles – in a tantalizing exchange facing human destiny:

“ (…) will I recover?

         sure you will.

         But mother died of the same disease…

         No.  You are in good shape.  You are still young.

         Will I get better?

         Sure you will. 

         But why does a human need to die?  I want to live.  Even 1000 years.  Even 10’000 years.  (…)”

Even without the sinuous violin legato, I find this existentialist dialogue chilling, desperate in its message of protest. 

 

A short monogatari follows, couched in vernacular shamisen chords.  This is soon replaced by a frivolous dance as if calqued from some absurdist, drunken matsuri.  A crowded festival should be the right place to obliterate from memory that Kierkegaardian dialogue…

 

7.Kayo myuzhikare. Kayo Musicale

 

This absolutely hilarious medley of radio snippets, commercials, random commentaries, and not so random musique concrète reappraisals is one of the highlights of the “Opera”.  Although no sub-sections are indicated on the original, there are several distinctive parts here.

 

It begins with a nonsensical, goofy and farcical jingle halfway between popsike bubble bee sounds and advertising clips from “Tonmontagen”, collected by Peter Roehr barely two years earlier. 

 

Next comes what is audibly an excerpt from a film (I do not have the CD version of the “Opera”, where the exact sources are probably made explicit).  An adult scolds an initially recalcitrant, but ultimately pliant young woman for accepting something from a stranger.  The scene develops close to the beach, as we infer from the dialogue and from the sound of waves lapping against the shore. 

 

And then the notorious jingle: “chokoreeto – chokoreeto“ – a well known 1960s Group Sounds-era commercial, still remembered in Japan today.  Its cheesy organ colluding with piano, drum and bass were probably the product of Kyotoite band Tigers, led by androgynous Julie Sawada.  As illustrated on the diagram above, such juxtaposition of extremes – saccharine inanity next to brazen stress induction – leaves the listener emotionally drained.  Evidently, coexistence in diversity was Ichiyanagi’s recipe for unity.

 

This is followed by the halting regularity of church bells – slow, but double-time, ineluctable like cloudy skies.  When a stratum of subterranean bass blends in to compete with the increasingly inarticulate bell sequence, the section begins to recall Current 93, rather than Don Wherry’s church bell recordings. 

 

In the next section, we hear harpsichord in J.S.Bach’s repertoire, but deconstructed, scrubbed, overlaid, looped, echoed.  The sound quality shifts, suggesting unsuccessful tuning to a radio station.  Church bells then return, morose, somber and poorly additive.  The bass figure swells, oblivious to these European accents. 

 

For all his admittedly aleatoric proceedings, Ichiyanagi is also an accidental emotionalist.  In this last section of “Kayo Musicale”, he welcomes the listener with a smudged, sweeping drapery of electronic whirr.  Then we hear explosions; they are too close and too crisp to be merely (familiar) thunderstorms.  These explosions are manmade.  And the whirr, as we slowly and reluctantly begin to understand, is the sound of bombers turning Tokyo into a fireball of charred civilian bodies.  This realism is unbearable. 

 

The animality of xenocide is universal.  I do not recommend this record to anyone for whom war is a personal memory, rather than sofa entertainment.

 

 

Side D:

8.Uta 1969. Love Blinded Ballad (Enka 1969).

 

The concluding side of “Opera” makes the transitions, co-occurrences, juxtapositions and articulations even denser than the sequential conveyor belt of inputs lumped together but permitted to breathe each with its own material. 

 

In the first section, we hear a Chinese-tinged melody, a mandolin, bluegrass, archival announcements, patriotic songs, marching fanfares, speeches, choruses, classical violin, Chinese erhu, and military songs.  All this appears and reappears intermixing in curvilinear fashion with neutering glissandos.  As a review of Japan’s tragic history 80 years ago it is at least as powerful as Georg Katzer’s testimony to 1930’s Germany. 

 

From the public space, we then step into the private sphere.  It is like walking away from Tokyo’s main thoroughfares into back alleys singularly resilient to the centuries of modernization, earthquakes, typhoons and bombings.  Early Showa-era songs compete here for auralscape with the sounds of a noisy market.  An insistent hawker tries to attract customers, distracting us from the leading ballad.  All of these elements are equally alluring and play an equal – and equally disorienting – role.  Their ebbing and flowing is, however, highly frustrating for their siren-like beauty beckons, only to push us away. 

 

Another of those marching songs romps through with accordion and trumpets.  Some fragments sound distinctly archival, others seem modern.  Orchestral tuning, operatic female voices, several choruses, comical elements – all bring back memories of the calamitous 1930s and 1940s, but the resurgent dynamic is too explosive to detect specifics. 

 

Frogs croak and waterfowl cackles amidst fluttering rivulets.  Echoes of patriotic choruses are eerily distant, pushed into the fading memory and only unearthed by misfits squatting around isolated bonfires.  Sepulchral crows crow.  Japan has long understood.  Will China ever do?

 

Within each of these subsections, the various layers seem to advance independently of each other.  If this is musique concrète, then we are light years ahead of “Variations pour la porte et le soupir”.  Light years, not four years. 

 

9.Uta 1969. Spite Song (Onka 1969)

 

Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” is being subjected to discordant squeaking.  As it turns out – this is again the AM radio tuning, in and out of the romantic cliché…  At its most climactic, the hissing and burring is becoming indigestible.  The drama is augmented by the ear-bending chaos and distortion of the higher notes…  A siren – bomb alert! 

 

10.Takakura Ken, Tadanori Yokoo wo utau. Ken Takakura sings on Tadanori Yokoo.

 

In 1969, Ken Takakura was still virtually unknown outside Japan but had already attracted cult following among the shufu for his roles in multiple yakuza movies.  In this closing moment of the “Opera”, Takakura sings a traditional bossa nova uta, arranged by Masao Yagi, with lyrics by Juro Tô and Kazuro Mizugi.  The choice of Takakura – portrayed on the fourth side of the double LP – was not accidental.  Tadanori Yokoo had been employed to provide commercial posters for several of Takakura’s gangster movies.  The actor’s dry, virile style contrasts with Yagi’s sweet guitar, ‘chicken’ organ and an overtly polite 1960s vibe.  Not surprisingly, the idyllic pastels are trampled by the schizophrenic gloom of the verses:

 

“the dream burns in deep red,

I am watching myself

I will make this name dance through the world”

 

***

 

I usually do not dwell on the visual side of musical products.  Since the advent of CDs, cover art has been not only miniaturized, it has been marginalized.  The mp3 phenomenon has now made music simply intangible, a step too far in my opinion. 

 

It was all different in the late 1960s.  After a decade of sterile LP cover productions in pop, jazz and contemporary music, the kaleidoscopic rendition of hallucinogenic illusions indelibly stamped the visual canon aimed at enhancing the appeal of adventurous, innovative music.  As last year’s exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum testified in its celebration of 40 years since ‘the summer of love’, some of these artifacts have how grown to become the classics of 20th century visual art.  Tadanori Yokoo’s posters and Ichiyanagi’s “Opera” LP belong to this shortlist.  Without permission, I reproduce here the palpable beauty of this historical object. 

 

 

 

 

***

 

Ichiyanagi is a highly prolific composer and the list below is by no means exhaustive.  In addition to the sessions described here, I particularly recommend the lengthy “Improvisation” from September 1975 – an achievement on a par with the intense documents of Takehisa Kosugi’s Taj Mahal Travellers and Michael Ranta’s Wired.

 

Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Music for Tinguely” (1963, 1967, 1969)

Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Opera Yokoo Tadanori wo utau” 2LP (1968-69)

Toshi ICHIYANAGI / Maki ISHII: “Music for Living Process / Cho-etsu” (1973)

Toshi ICHIYANAGI-Michael RANTA-Takehisa KOSUGI: “Improvisation Sep 75” (1975)

Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Cosmos” (1984)

 

Ichiyanagi’s early compositions from 1967-1969 can also be found on compilations “Extended Voices” and “Oto no hajimari wo motomete – Shigeru Sato Work”.  On this last CD, the composition entitled “Tokyo 1969” seems to have been recorded soon after the “Opera” sessions.  It exemplifies a very similar collage style and is a perfect companion to the classic album.

 

Flowers’ contribution on sides B and C was later made available on a separate LP which also featured a number of their (inferior) cover tracks from LP “Challenge”:

 

FLOWER TRAVELLIN’ BAND: “From Pussies to Death in 10’000 Years of Freak Out!” (1968)

 

 

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Special feature: HENRY COW’s bootlegs

On a very irregular basis, Sonic Asymmetry will devote a posting to a review of an entire series of recordings of historical significance.  This time, a chunk of cyberspace goes to Henry Cow’s elusive, unofficial documents.

 

 

Looking back in history, one can identify several tipping points that durably changed the nature of musical creation.  Those who operated at these inflection points not only enriched musical imagery and hugely expanded future artists’ perceptual map.  They also influenced the audiences’ musical memory and, as a consequence, created an entirely new set of auditory expectations.  Pierre Schaeffer’s 1948 lectures played such a role in concrète and electronic music, privileging radical changes in aural perception.  Ornette Coleman’s collective improvisation, immortalized in December 1960 had the most potent impact on human capacity to capture the power of spontaneous intersubjectivity.  In the process, Coleman pushed the jazz world into cognitive dissonance for at least five years.

 

In the broadly-defined rock format, such a tipping point was reached when several British musicians coalesced their revolutionary visions into the extraordinary story of Henry Cow.

 

By the time the band surfaced with official recordings, the musical axial age (1968-72) was already over.  But the uniquely creative atmosphere that prevailed during those years undoubtedly planted the seeds that eventually generated some of the most consistently refreshing archives of musical creativity – both composed and improvised.  Zürich’s Rec Rec Katalog stated in the mid-1980s: “Mit einer unglaublich radikalen Konsequenz zeigten sie uns, wie die künstlich gestzten Grenzen in der Musik durchbrochen warden können – und sie gingen mit diesem Bewusstsein bis zum Extrem.  Ihre Musik ist auch heute noch hörenswert und bestitzt für die Entwicklung der progresiven englischen Musikszene exemplarsichen Wert“.  Over twenty years later, nothing has happened to invalidate these opinions.

 

This year we celebrate 30 years since Henry Cow disbanded and 40 years since the group’s creation.  It is an excellent opportunity to review the less-known, unofficial recordings of the band.  In order to avoid lengthy repetitions, I first list the full names of musicians who, in various periods, appeared as more or less ‘official’ members of Henry Cow: 

 

·        Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone, clarinet, piano, prepared piano, electric piano, Hawaiian guitar, percussion, vocal

·        Fred Frith – guitar, violin, viola, xylophone, piano, bass, vocal

·        Andy Spooner – harmonica

·        Rob Two – guitar

·        Joss Grahame – bass

·        Dave Atwood – drums

·        Andy Powell – bass

·        John Greaves – bass, piano, celeste, whistle, vocal

·        Martin Ditcham – drums

·        Chris Cutler – drums, percussion, radio, objects, toys, whistle, noise, trumpet, vocal

·        Geoff Leigh – tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, clarinet, recorder, vocal

·        Lindsay Cooper – bassoon, oboe, recorders, flute, soprano saxophone

·        Dagmar Krause – vocal

·        Peter Blegvad – guitar, clarinet, vocal

·        Anthony Moore – piano, tapes, electronics

·        Georgie Born – bass, cello

·        Annie-Marie Roelofs – trombone, violin

 

~~~

 

 

 

“Early Demo Tapes 1973”*****

 

 

 

 

This collection includes a number of tracks from the period immediately preceding the first LP “Leg End”.  The official album was recorded between May and June 1973, so it is probable that the titles on “Early Demo Tapes” were immortalized during the second quarter of that year.  The line-up is the same as on the first LP (Leigh/Frith/Cutler/Hodgkinson/Greaves).  The material includes three tracks from “Leg End” (“Nine Funerals for the Citizen King” appears in two different versions), as well as a nine minute long “Hold to the Zero Burn” and a short “Poglith?”, neither of which appears on official issues. 

 

The presence of the former track is confusing and I can barely find any similarity between this version and the only studio document of this composition – presented on Tim Hodgkinson’s CD “Each in Our Own Thoughts” (1994).  In the liner notes, Hodgkinson mentioned that it had been commonly played by Henry Cow live in 1976-77.  However, the material on “Early Demo Tapes” would mean that “Hold to the Zero Burn”, at least in its skeletal form, is much older than indicated by Hogdkinson.  If it is so, its vintage form it is much less extended (9 minutes instead of 16 minutes on “Each in Our Own Thoughts”) and lacks the lengthy intro. 

 

The sound quality on this bootleg is good.

 

 

“Henry Cow & Co.”******

 

 

 

This is one of the most interesting of these collections, even though it incorporates some tracks that are not nominally “Henry Cow”.  Three of the group’s compositions were recorded in the BBC on 24 April 1973.  This set includes the excellent “Guider Tells of Silent Airborne Machine”, which has not been released anywhere else.  The session also incorporates yet another version of “Nine Funerals for the Citizen King” and “Bee”, both known from LP “Leg End”.  The line-up is Frith/Hodgkinson/Leigh/Cutler/Greaves. 

 

This is followed by a medley, opening with hitherto unknown “Pidgeons”.  This is an exploration in Lol Coxhill or Scratch Orchestra-style, followed by two tracks from the side A of LP “Unrest”, but sequenced in a reverse order.  On this recording Henry Cow are Frith/Hodgkinson/Cooper/Greaves/Cutler.  It was documented on 25 April 1974, i.e. a month after the “Unrest” sessions were finalized.  The recording venue also appears different.  “Unrest” was recorded at Manor Studio, whereas the April session was taped at Langham Studio 1.

 

There are 10 other tracks included on this bootleg and they are all tangentially related to the history of Henry Cow.  Five of them are signed by Fred Frith in an unusual trio with Anthony Moore and Dagmar Krause, recorded on 2 December 1974.  Three excellent pieces are by John Greaves and Peter Blegvad, who are accompanied here by Anthony Moore, Tom Newman and Andy Ward (13 December 1977).  This is far superior to any other Greaves-Blegvad bootlegs I heard from the era.

 

And finally, an expanded Slapp Happy adds two cuts from 25 June 1974.  The usual trio of Moore-Blegvad-Krause is augmented here by Frith, Cooper, Leigh as well as Robert Wyatt and Jeff Clyne.  This is an unusual opportunity to hear Lindsay Cooper and Geoff Leigh together (the only others being “War” from November 1974, which opens LP “In Praise of Learning” and two tracks on “Desperate Straights” realized around the same time).  To the best of my knowledge, this is not the material which was destined to become Slapp Happy’s “Europa” single and John Greaves does not appear here.  The two tracks are “War is Energy Enslaved” and “Little Something”.  The latter had previously surfaced on Robert Wyatt’s collection of rarities entitled “Flotsam Jetsam”

 

The sound quality on this collection is superb.

 

 

“Rare Tracks Compilation”*****

 

 

 

The unimaginatively entitled “Rare Tracks Compilation” collects several sessions, apparently from 1974, immortalized courtesy John Peel’s Top Gear.  Snippets from the same session as above (25 April 1974) are also reproduced here.  Although the line-up is not mentioned, we can assume that it is no different from the “Unrest” quintet.

 

The set begins with a 14-minute track of appalling sound quality with different versions of tracks from “Unrest”.  This is followed by 59 seconds hijacked form LP “Miniatures” – Dagmar Krause’s sampled voice from an Art Bears track and skittery improvisation. 

 

It is worth acquiring this disc for the next four sections, none of which I am able to disambiguate in full.  First we have an excellent 3 minute interplay with saxophone to the fore and a spasmodic electric piano in tortured tremolos and clusters.  The texture of this track and Geoff Leigh’s presence indicates that this is Henry Cow circa 1973, and not 1974 as stated on the cover.  What follows is a six-minute piccolo call, shadowed by some wailing, manic voices.  Many improvisations from around 1976 used this formula for an initial take-off, and there is a female voice here, but not Dagmar.  In addition, the saxophone is again very prominent, and this type of Frith’s fuzz was unheard after 1974.  This is followed by a 5-minute long abstract extemporization in a colorful, string-based style as known from LP “Greasy Truckers”.  Since that 21-minute contribution was recorded in November 1973, I stick to my conviction that the material presented here was also taped around the same period.  The next track is 6-minutes of deep, ominous piano clusters, soprano saxophone squeals, Cutler’s scraping and Dagmar Krause’s dramatic singing.  This slab of sonic menace is probably from around 1976.  It is as close to contemporary music as Henry Cow would ever get.  Years later Tetsuo Furudate and Zbigniew Karkowski would follow that path.

 

These four sections – which clearly justify the purchase of “Rare Tracks” – have a sound quality ranging from very good to superb.

 

Unnecessarily, someone decided to fill up the remaining disc space with material which is neither rare, not stylistically compatible with what we have just heard.  First we get “Viva Pa Ubu” and “Slice”, as known from LP “Recommended Records Sampler” (1978), then a number of Art Bears’ and the Work’s songs lifted from their official singles.  Finally, there are Fred Frith’s improvised guitar-based numbers with Dagmar Krause.  This is the same material as on “Henry Cow & Co.”. 

 

“In the Name of Freedom”****

 

 

 

The collection of live recording from the 1975 tournée has been issued under the name of ‘Henry Cow featuring Robert Wyatt’ and showcases Henry Cow as a septet of Krause/Cooper/Frith/Greaves/Cutler/Hodgkinson/Wyatt.  Were it not for the less-than-perfect quality of the recordings, the triple CD collection could constitute a welcome complement to the legendary double LP “Concerts”.  The official album featured live recordings collected between September 1974 and October 1975.  This unofficial set concentrates on the concerts performed in May and June 1975.  Much of the material is similar to the official “Concerts”, but it predates the groundbreaking medley of themes that were included on side A of the double LP.  Indeed, “Concerts” were a misnomer – the breathtaking string of complexity on side A (“Beautiful as the Moon…  Terrible as the Army with Banners”) was actually recorded in BBC Studios in August 1975.  The bootleg brings two other versions of this uninterrupted sequence – one from a concert in New London Theatre (21 May 1975) and one from the photographically documented gig at Piazza Navona in Rome (27 June 1975). 

 

But both concerts add another medley of themes, unknown from Henry Cow’s official recordings, entitled “Muddy Mouse(s)” and subdivided into five movements: “Solar Flares”, “Muddy Mouse(b)”, “5 Black Notes and 1 White Note”, “Muddy Mouse(c)” and “Muddy Mouth”.  These are nothing more than concert versions of songs from Robert Wyatt’s LP “Ruth is Stranger than Richard”, where they appeared on side B.  This material was salvaged by Wyatt from a failed collaboration with Frith.  Frith was not happy with his own contribution to the project, but Wyatt went ahead and published it on “Ruth” – a record he was never fully satisfied with.  The main difference between the LP version and the Henry Cow’s live rendition is the presence of Lindsay Cooper on gnarly bassoon instead of Gary Windo’s bass clarinet. 

 

The three concerts (the third one being from Paris – Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 8 May 1975) also replicate side B of LP “Concerts” with “Bad Alchemy” and “Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road”.  However, “Ruins” is attached here to the suite “Beautiful as the Moon…”.  The London and Paris concerts also include long improvisations (11 minute each), which are unique.  The interplay achieved on the Paris version is particularly impressive. 

 

The lengthy collection ends, unexpectedly, with Kevin Ayers’s “We Did It Again”, known from Soft Machine’s first LP.  This (only) version was recorded during the encore at the Paris concert.  Apparently the band had not rehearsed this before.  If that is true, they pull it off impressively. 

 

 

“Ruins”****

 

 

 

This double CD comprises one disc with exactly the same material as “Early Demos” described above and one disc with the recordings made 26 March 1976 for Jazz Workshop at Nord Deutscher Rundfunk (NDR) in Hamburg.  NB, the same material is also available on another bootleg simply entitled “NDR”.  It presents yet another version of the “Beautiful As the Moon…” suite, complete with “Ruins”, but with a distinctively novel keyboard work.  The line-up is the sextet of Frith/Hodgkinson/Greaves/Cutler/Cooper/Krause. 

 

This live in studio document is, apparently, the last occasion to hear John Greaves with the band, as he officially had left the band on 13 March to work with Peter Blegvad on “Kew Rhone” (recorded in New York in October 1976). 

 

The sound quality is very good. 

 

 

“Kaleidoscope”****

 

 

 

Two lengthy improvisations (44 and 47 minutes, respectively) were recorded during the tour on 26 May 1976 in Trondheim, Norway.  Henry Cow apparently played there as a quartet of Frith/Cutler/Hodgkinson/Cooper.  The material is very interesting and unique, with a particular focus on acoustic piano parts and lengthy openings with flutes and piccolos.  Unfortunately, the sound quality is acceptable at best. 

 

 

 “Unknown Session”******

 

 

 

This is a collection of recordings made apparently during the same Scandinavian tour in May 1976.  According to the description, the band, captured live in Stockholm and Göteborg appeared as a sextet (Krause/Frith/Cutler/Hodgkinson/Born/Cooper).  There are some doubts concerning this line-up.  First, it is surprising to find here Dagmar Krause in such a magnificent form – most historians point to her absence from the tour.  Still, she clearly is present.  These would also be the earliest known recordings with Georgie Born on bass, if she really is present (?).  It is known that during the auditions she edged formidable competition from Uli Trepte and Steve Beresford.  However, I would be very surprised if she did, in fact, manage to join this tour, as purported by the description.

 

There are seven lengthy compositions here, one of which spans over 20 minutes.  They are radically different and more evolved than the better known fruits of the 1975 concerts.  Only on two of them can I detect familiar themes.  It also includes some of the most unusually psychedelic guitar playing from Frith.  The sound quality is very good. 

 

The material also includes the anthemic folk song “No More Songs”, until recently undocumented elsewhere. 

 

 

“Live in Paris, November 1977”****

 

 

 

Spanning two CDs, this live recording is important for being a rare opportunity to ascertain the validity of claims and counterclaims about The Orckestra – the collaboration of Henry Cow with Mike Westbrook’s Brass Band and vocalist Frankie Armstrong.  The document stems from a concert taped on 20 November 1977 at Fête du Nouveau Populaire in Paris, eight months since the beginning of this ambitious collaboration.  In addition to the sextet of Cooper/Cutler/Frith/Krause/Hodgkinson/Born, we have here Mike Westbrook (piano, euphonium), Dave Chambers (soprano and tenor saxophones), Kate Barnard (piccolo, tenor horn), Paul Rutherford (trombone and euphonium), Phil Minton (trumpet) and Frankie Armstrong (vocal).  Again, Dagmar Krause’s participation is surprising, given that she had officially “left” Henry Cow a month before. 

 

There are all together 11 tracks.  The music is fanfaric, uplifting and quite distinct from Henry Cow’s other material, relying predominantly on Westbrook’s compositional framework.  It is most rewarding when brass sections surge from impressionistic landscapes, prodding the entire ensemble into transformative activity that marries New Orleans marching band and lateral group improvisation.  If you are able to imagine Music Liberation Orchestra overlaying “Nirvana for Mice”, “Ruins” or “Beautiful as the Moon” you are close.  The brass section acts as a powerful enhancer, interspersed with Phil Minton’s or Paul Rutherford’s lyrical solos.  On the other hand, Frankie Armstrong’s black singing seems a little out of step with the rest of the Orckestra.  In the second half of the concert, the band also performs excerpts from Kurt Weill’s “Dreigroschen Opera”.  Both Born and Cooper would continue to collaborate with Westbrook in future.

 

Unfortunately, the sound quality ranges from poor to acceptable, at best.  It prevents us from adequately judging how sonically successful this notorious project was. 

 

“Industry”****

 

 

 

This is Henry Cow with one foot in the grave, most likely stripped down to a quartet of Frith/Cutler/Hodgkinson/Cooper.  The recording was made in the Spring of 1978 in London, probably some time between its unfortunate tour of Spain (with Phil Minton) and the last series of concerts in France and Italy.  In other words, this is Henry Cow shortly after the official birth of Rock In Opposition movement (12 March 1978), which the band and Nick Hobbs championed.  The material encompasses three improvisations (21 minutes, 12 minutes and 8 minutes), as well as “Slice”, “Ruins”, material from the then upcoming LP “Western Culture” (“Industry” and “Look Back”).  Here again, the same “Recommended Records Sampler” versions of “Slice” and “Viva Pa Ubu” appear as a questionable bonus material. 

 

The unique improvisations capture Hodgkinson in an almost Middle Eastern mode on clarinet.  There is also a self-declared “Unreleased Number”, which is in fact an early version of Fred Frith’s “Time and a Half”, which eventually crept onto vinyl when Curlew recorded it in 1983-84 (LP “North America”). 

 

The sound quality ranges from poor to acceptable. 

 

 

 “Culture de l’Ouest”***

 

 

 

A double CD with recordings made in Lyon, France on 6 June 1978.  Most of the material is known from other versions etched onto vinyl either in January of that year, or over the following two months (July-August) at Sunrise Studio in Switzerland and published on LP “Western Culture”.  However, in addition to “On the Raft”, “Falling Away” and “Industry”, we are served here with one unique improvisation and hitherto unknown live versions of “Viva Pa Ubu” and “Slice”. 

 

The line-up here is Frith/Cutler/Hodgkinson/Cooper/Roelofs, augmented by a special guest – a pre-“Outside Pleasure” Henry Kaiser on guitar.  It is unclear who plays the booming bass part.  It does not seem to be Frith, unless Kaiser impersonates his style to perfection.  It could be Lindsay Cooper on “air bass”, or it could be Kaiser himself.  The poor sound quality makes it impossible tell. 

 

It is known that Yoshk’o Seffer also performed with Henry Cow around that time, but so far I have not found any of these recordings.

 

As a (superfluous) bonus, the second disc adds (again!) the original studio recordings of “Slice” and “Viva Pa Ubu” from “Recommended Record Sampler”.  We know that Georgie Born participated on one of these cuts, before her eventual departure in January 1978. 

 

 

***

 

When in the early 1990s the first CD reissues surfaced in the market, several bonuses were squeezed at the end of the original material, distracting rather than supplementing the wholeness that these deservedly legendary recordings constituted.  It was always hoped that they would reappear in full glory on a separate disc.

 

A long-awaited 9CD box of archival recordings and a 80-minute DVD are now expected to appear sometime this year to celebrate 40 years since Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson first thrashed it out in a noisy collaboration (apparently opening for a Pink Floyd concert).  Chris Cutler et al have seriously stretched the patience of fans who waited so long for the official versions of Henry Cow’s historic recordings.  But patience will be rewarded.  Apparently Bob Drake did a great job cleaning the archives.

 

According to some previews available online, the commemorative boxes will contain elements of the material included on the above-mentioned bootlegs “Ruins” and “Kaleidoscope”.  This is the perfect time to dream, and in this ideal dreamworld, my own wishes would incorporate the following historical sessions/concerts:

 

  • Any material of the early trio of Frith, Hodgkinson and Andy Powell (bass).  Powell is sometimes credited with exposing the founders to composer Roger Smalley’s ideas of extended composition (1970). 
  • Any material left over by Chris Cutler and Dave Stewart’s Ottawa Company, in particular their “Study for Keyboards” and Zappa pastiches (1971)
  • Any material from Robert Walker’s production of Euripides’s “The Bacchae” (1972)
  • Any material from John Chadwick’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (1973)
  • Any good quality version of “Hold to the Zero Burn” from the late 1970s. 
  • Professional quality recordings of the Orckestra (1977)

 

Robert Wyatt once famously quipped that Henry Cow were “the best band in the world”.  There are many things in the world that separate my own Weltanschauung from Wyatt’s.  But I do agree with him on this particular superlative.  This judgment has survived too many years unchallenged to be dismissed any time soon.