Henry Cow

The World Is a Problem

Book Pages: 512 Illustrations: 63 illustrations Published: September 2019

Author: Benjamin Piekut

Cultural Studies, Music > Popular Music, Theater and Performance

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.


“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.” — Robert Wyatt

“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." — Jazzwise

"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."  — Phil England, The Wire

"Exhaustive and illuminating." — Kurt Gottschalk, 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." — Sid Smith, Prog Magazine

"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." — Phil Howitt, Facelift

"Like Henry Cow, the book is sometimes a struggle (especially the theoretical introduction and afterword, which can be skipped by most rock fans without missing anything, or even offending the author). But it’s worth persevering with for those interested in a very different kind of rock music and history." — Richie Unterberger, Folkrocks blog

"It's hard to think of another group that did as much as Henry Cow to distance themselves from the usual Dionysian image and activities of your typical rock band. . . . All things considered, it doesn't sound like it was much fun at all. But this book is." — Daniel Spicer, Jazzwise

"Why would this book appeal to anyone had never heard of Henry Cow? Well, I think that anyone that is interested in the development of British underground or counter-cultural music through the late sixties and seventies will find this book fascinating. As will anyone that is interested in the working out of a musical response to prevailing sociopolitical circumstances. And, as much as anything, it provides universal insights into a group of people and managing complex relationships where, at times, it seems that what would help most would be a psychological understanding of intergroup processes." — Phil Stringer, Free Jazz Collective

“By adopting an inclusive and comprehensive approach to using contemporaneous band and individual material, [Piekut] is able to combine the personal, group and musical into a coherent and engaging history of one of the strangest and off-the-wall bands of the late twentieth century.”

— Rupert Loydell, PUNK

“The afterword makes clear that one aim of Piekut's research is to blur the line between high art institutions and the popular music sphere. In doing so, he gracefully dismantles Peter Bürger's (and implicitly Theodor Adorno's) dismissive theorisations of popular culture on account of their lack of empirical knowledge concerning avant-gardistic and political activities in the field of popular music."
  — Lukas Proyer, German Society for Popular Music Studies

"Piekut engages in continuous reflection as he narrates. In this sense, the book is also a sort of ethnography, with Henry Cow as an object of study serving to elucidate a range of matters both historical (music and art as cultural practices) and theoretical (larger issues of politics, musicology, and sociality). The research is impeccably thorough—not just by measure of the requisite bibliography but also the extensive, rigorous interviews with the people involved in the Henry Cow project. This original research on its own is a real treasure." — Stathis Gourgouris, Los Angeles Review of Books

"A meticulously researched intellectual biography. . . ." — Kieran Curran, Tribune

"Piekut's richly nuanced account of [Henry Cow] is, as far as I am aware, an unprecedently detailed case study of the life of a rock group" — Chris Atton, Popular Music


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Price: $29.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Benjamin Piekut is Associate Professor of Music at Cornell University, author of Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits, and editor of Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface  vii
Acknowledgments  xi
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
Notes  409
Bibliography  455
Index  479
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Recipient of a Certificate of Merit in the category of Best Historical Research in Recorded Rock or Popular Music from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections

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