Brecht-Weill Blues

Henry Cow, The World Is The Problem (Duke)

‘Rock In Opposition’ actually meant a mix of influences that included jazz of the experimental type, Mingus, Roland Kirk, Art Ensemble of Chicago, but also Cage, AMM, Cornelius Cardew and The Scratch Orchestra. Formal experiment was part of symbolic resistance back then. Questions of representation and language focused on taking the dominant language apart in order to re-assemble it.

How I yearn for this to return! I don’t believe it ever will. Blunter and more nostalgic forms of symbolic resistance have emerged on left and right. Churchillian on the right and the left with their Soviet-era pictures. Both pick their imagery badly, at times. But my yearning is also nostalgic.

And therefore this scholarly exploration of the work of Henry Cow is, I put it to you, even at this time of total crisis, quite essential.

The later incarnation, Art Bears, were the real flowering of Henry Cow for me. Fred Frith produced the greatest guitar solo ever. Did you know that? The third track on The Art Bears’ 1981 album The World As It Is Today is called ‘Freedom’. It presents a kind of Blakean-Marxist, Brecht-Weil blues. ‘Freedom’ is about the ‘liberty’ to sell one’s own labour in emerging capitalist cities.

Halfway through the track, Dagmar Krause lets rip with an incredible, tortured scream, as the Weimar blues-cabaret continues. Under these enforced conditions – as if under fire – Frith begins to wrangle notes out of his dirty, overdriven electric guitar, and in the context manages to create a depthless space of despair at the centre of the maelstrom. The notes totter drunkenly, as though trying to stand up in a gale, and as the track collapses. The solo also expires, like an exhausted old man, breathing with difficulty.

Ital Calvino once wrote that when inside ‘Inferno’, you either become it, and stop seeing it, or seek what in Inferno is not Inferno. Frith’s solo faces these two choices and tries to escape them both, inevitably failing, and yet in doing so proves that art really does bear all. This book sort-of explains how and why these people did all this – Henry Cow had a female roadie in the mid-70s fer Christ’s sake – but to really get it listen to, say, Unrest all the way through.

Steve Hanson

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