Henry Cow – In Praise Of Learning


Paypal-funded old farts rejoice: come next autumn, Rér will issue the definitive Henry Cow box, nine CDs of previously unreleased archival materials and, get this, a DVD containing the only existent footage of the group. This should definitely carve in stone the fact that this collective – whose name, for the still existing doubters, is NOT derived from composer Henry Cowell – has been an influence, when not the origin, in several fundamental pages of the book that delineates the transition from cultivated rock to improvisation, plus their subsequent (a-hem) fusion.

In a nutshell, 1975’s In Praise Of Learning is one of those albums that divide the audience’s judgement in the classic “crucial/forgettable” dichotomy; no need to specify where this writer stands as this is the record that, at the age of 11, definitively shuffled the priorities in my approach to listening (and playing as well). After Desperate Straights – recorded in the same year – Tim Hodgkinson, Fred Frith, John Greaves, Chris Cutler and Lindsay Cooper were once again joined by Slapp Happy’s Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore, instantly shocking my childhood with the opening “War” – a genial piece if there was ever one, leaving the little kid wide eyed and willing to understand what was wrong in comparison with his “progressive favourites”; to this day, the trumpet solo by the late Mongezi Feza floors me.

This is also the place where two of the most brilliant songs ever written in the 70s are to be found (accepting “song” as a fitting definition for such intricate scores). “Living In The Heart Of The Beast” and “Beautiful As The Moon – Terrible As An Army With Banners” feature Krause’s dramatic interpretation of passionately politicized lyrics – by Hodgkinson and Cutler respectively – in instrumental contexts unsurpassed for emotional matter and technical adventurousness, unquestionable traits even without sharing the ideological essence. That’s what the sheer appeal of significance could once achieve. No scribbled word can testimony how hard the impact of these forms of expression was, and still is.


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