Utopia Strong; Kavus Torabi/Steve Davis, Golden Lion Todmorden 8 November 2019

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There’s a very fine ‘Fry and Laurie’ sketch from the late Eighties where an old man in a care home, played by Hugh Laurie looks back on his life regretfully, listing all the things he’s never done (‘never watched a woman urinate’, ‘never killed a man’, ‘never ridden a camel’, ‘never had oral sex’ etc). As his demands for this to be rectified get ever more insistent and surreal (‘I want to drink milk from the breasts of a Nepalese maiden’) he’s put firmly in his place by Stephen Fry’s camp carer ‘Brian’, who suggests, in his passable Yorkshire accent, that such outlandish things could never happen in Todmorden, where the sketch is set. I suspect this is the first (and probably only) ever mention of Todmorden in a skit and was certainly the first time I’d heard of the place.

30 years on and surreal would be the operative word here. It’s scarcely more credible that my local boozer (I now live in Tod) should be hosting the launch of an ex-world snooker champion’s first ever tour as a practicing musician, alongside the lead singer of Gong and a pipe player from the experimentalists Coil. Or that I should be ‘raving’ at 1 in the morning to tunes including Magma offshoots whilst Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi punch the air exultantly from their slots behind the decks.

But that’s the nature of this bizarre and extremely memorable gig. I’ve extolled the virtues of the Golden Lion as a venue elsewhere, as well as Steve Davis’ close connection to the current Gong and the wider field of experimental music and so shall concentrate on the evening: principally Utopia Strong, the 3 piece containing Davis, Torabi and Mike York, as well as the unexpected delights which followed.

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The Utopia Strong produce great washes of sound, a mix of electronica, and both electric and acoustic instrumentation, somewhat tripped out but at the same time disquieting, not safe enough to be background music and also not totally relying on beats to sanitise it. When I discussed the fact post gig with Kavus that I hadn’t heard any of the tracks on the album performed (I’d been particularly been looking forward to hearing ‘Brainsurgeons’ and ‘Do You Believe in Two Gods?’ it became clear that I’d misunderstood the process – the music is completely improvised, starts from a blank canvas every time, and therefore every performance is unique. If I’ve got this right, the genesis of each piece is a series of initial module sounds triggered and compiled by Steve Davis, here seated studiously stage left, squinting at the mass of wires in front of him, and possibly to a lesser degree from Mike York stage right. Kavus’ job is to add electric guitar, sometimes crashing, sometimes picking, sometimes glissandoed, plus hefty washes of harmonium, voice or the gong-like crescendo of a single cymbal. Mike York adds a descant recorder or, best of all, what appeared to be an uillean pipe into the mix. All elements can be looped and effects abound, particularly reverb. Behind it all is a bubbling, swirling light show, the overall ambience accentuated by the intensity of Davis’ and York’s concentration and Kavus’ occasional wild gestures.

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The audience was a fairly typical Golden Lion crew, not all entirely there for the merits of the music (although the reasons for that will become more clear as this review progresses), some rapt in appreciation, others taking the chance to rattle away noisily towards the back of the room, illiciting some strong reactions from at least one aggrieved punter. This wasn’t a problem until the music dipped more into quieter reflective passages, at which point the general babble could be construed as being just damned rude. The music built organically, unexpectedly and there were several small conferences between Kavus and the other band members mid-piece before things moved off in new directions. Like all improvisations there’s a hit and miss element to the final results, but this was ultimately intense, trippy and totally immersive, not always comfortable listening, but certainly transportative.

A quick check in at the sound desk where we grabbed a few words with Kavus but things were already moving on. Steve Davis, as apparently he did last time he DJd at the Lion, had agreed to take on all comers down in the pool room, and so a memorable half an hour or so ensued in an extremely convivial but rowdy back room downstairs. Did Steve win all his frames? Probably not, given the occasional crowd cheer which raised the roof, but his involvement was genuine and a joy to witness. One of his challengers was an old cricketing colleague of mine who confessed he’d been practicing all week with the game plan of potting a ball from the break, then clearing up all the balls. This cunning plan came to a sticky end as soon he lost the toss to break. Meanwhile we were chatting to Mike York about his pipes, which he identified as actually being border pipes from the West Country, partly inflated by mouth but mainly through bellows pumped via an elbow. He’d not been happy with this particular section of the Utopians’ performance although it had been one of the more stand out moments for us.

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But once again things were moving on. Whilst the room upstairs that hosted Utopia Strong is tiny and at best hosts around 80 people, the downstairs bar opens out nicely, funneling the audience past the bar towards the DJ booth, with a space towards the side complete with sofas and armchairs producing a warming living room feel. Not that many people remained seated for long. The Torabi/Davis set is hugely eclectic, upbeat and danceable as long as your feet are prepared to move in a multitude of directions: there were tracks from Talking Heads and the Beatles, Magma’s near neighbours Offering and Weidorje, a personal blast from the past in Spacemen 3, a spot of Utopian Strong themselves from their album plus all manner of weird and wonderful stuff not (yet) on my radar. Possibly the most enjoyable DJ set I can recall hearing, all fuelled by a febrile atmosphere, lots of bonhomie and plenty of drink imbibed from both audience and performers. Things were still showing little sign of abating as we left a couple of hours into the set. Outlandish things do indeed happen in Todmorden….

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Thanks to Annie Roberts for many of the pictures (the better quality ones!)

Buy the Utopia Strong album at https://theutopiastrong.bandcamp.com/album/the-utopia-strong

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Cow – the World is a Problem – Benjamin Piekut (Duke University Press)

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In the early days of producing my fanzine Facelift in 1989 I made the cardinal error of publishing something which suggested Henry Cow might be part of the Canterbury scene. I probably wasn’t even aware of doing this until a letter arrived from their drummer Chris Cutler which politely but firmly admonished me for such a suggestion, before offering support for the ‘zine and putting me on the mailing list for his Recommended Records label and distribution network. Ultimately this opened up a whole new musical world for me: Skeleton Crew, Fred Frith’s ‘Step Across the Border’ and ‘Gravity’, The Art Bears and The Work, much of which was more accessible than the Henry Cow I already knew, whose music was and remains something of a mixed blessing to me.

Henry Cow may indeed not be part of the Canterbury scene but what is indisputable is that the paths of musicians from both genres intertwine inevitably, be it from the days of the Ottowa Music Company ensembles in 1971-2 which involved Dave Stewart; to John Greaves’ involvement in National Health (alongside Georgie Born) and Soft Heap; to Hugh Hopper’s work with Lindsay Cooper; Geoff Leigh’s connections with Phil Miller; plus of course the fact that Robert Wyatt unforgettably co-fronted Henry Cow for a heady few concerts in 1975. Facelift published interviews with Dagmar Krause and Peter Blegvad but also gave column inches to Jakko’s involvement with the Lodge (alongside Blegvad and Greaves), Lindsay Cooper’s ‘Oh Moscow’ and much much more. And so this is why this remarkable 500 page tome from Benjamin Piekut can be viewed as an almost a parallel narrative to that of the Canterbury scene and you don’t have to be a Henry Cow expert (I am not) to fully appreciate the story.

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. This, alongside the fact that a significant number of Henry Cow members and associates were at the book’s launch in London suggests that this is a history with involvement of differing degrees from various members of the band, and it would appear that few stones have been left unturned in attempting to produce a definitive biography.

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Secondly it’s almost a sociological study of a band who very much set out to be different not just musically but also politically – their creation of difficult, questioning music was not just a function of the considerable musical talents of several significant intellects (the band initially emerged from the university of Cambridge), but of a desire to function as a band somewhat differently from the norm.

I was aware that Henry Cow were keen on documenting their own history, often in situ, but having read little of this other than what came my way as archive clippings from the 1970s music media I learnt a lot which surprised me (but maybe not others) – such as the functioning of a band as a collective with its own payroll incorporating a small army of assistants as equal members (roadies, technicians, administrators). Frequent allusion is made to group meetings which decided every facet of the band’s existence, both musicially, ideologically and logistically. Piekut makes much of the term ‘contraviviality’ – his argument is that the tensions within the group, as well as their constant struggle to survive economically contributed to the efficacy of the music and in some cases may even been embraced as an essential part of the band’s existence.

‘The World is a Problem’ also, perhaps unwittingly, contains the best description I have yet seen of the machinations of the embryonic Virgin empire – the context being how Henry Cow benefitted from the setting up of a label which had a surprise success with ‘Tubular Bells’, which for a while at least helped legitimize the support for non-commercial outfits such as Kevin Coyne, Gong, Hatfield and the North as well as Henry Cow.   That said, Richard Branson, as is well chronicled elsewhere, had little personal interest in either the Cows’ or other roster bands’ music and ultimately Henry Cow began to regard Virgin Records as part of the ‘problem’. There are also interesting passages covering crossovers with Virgin label mates Faust, and much later Mike Westbrook’s ‘Orckhestra’, plus the development of ideas which would eventually culminate in the Rock in Opposition movement involving European likeminds, plus Chris Cutler’s ‘Recommended’ mail order and record label outlets. This is an intensely serious book about what would appear to an intensely serious band, but the mood is occasionally lightened through descriptions of the band’s early Dadaist theatricals, such as a performance where the band staged an argument on stage, then split into splinter groups who performed separately from that point onwards.

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There are heavy going chapters debating exactly the nature of Henry Cow’s improvisational elements, their ongoing ideological ideas and how they fitted into a bewildering spectrum of politically far left experimental musicians, particularly their involvement in Rock for Socialism in 1977. To the casual cynical observer it might appear that Henry Cow created the perfect alchemy to ensure their indisputably marginal audience: extreme music (either intricately composed or uncompromisingly improvised) fringe politics and an alienating intellectualism which is alluded to often within the book (by members of the band) as ‘pompous’. But heartwarmingly this briefly struck a chord in Italy, where the band played to probably their most appreciative audiences, at politically-motivated events where there was the additional novelty of entering a world with little tradition of rock gigs. Elsewhere there is an entertaining discourse about how the band felt about punk, an intellectual analysis which would probably have baffled most of its proponents, and there is a particularly gem unearthed in that Fred Frith was once considered as a producer for the Sex Pistols.

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There are also detailed descriptions (and transcriptions) of particular musical pieces that thread their way through explanations of various time signatures – perhaps somewhat unnecessary given the fact that for the small number of people for whom this is essential information may well have already worked it out for themselves. Even if this is in fact necessary to paint the full picture of what the Cow was actually all about, then these extended examinations are of course much less interesting to this reader than the ‘personal’ stuff – the musical tensions that led to particular members leaving the band at various points; Dagmar’s ongoing battles with both health and the practicalities of taking her young son on tour; the various couplings between wider group members; the assimilation then rejection of the Slapp Happy band of Peter Blegvad, Anthony Moore (Dagmar of course remained and became the band’s focal point); the tensions in the core inner circle of Hodgkinson, Cutler and Frith and how it came to be balanced gender-wise by strong feminist personalities in Lindsay Cooper and Georgie Born. And finally, the changing in dynamics within the band over the recording of what eventually became  the album ‘Hopes and Fears’ (credited to the Art Bears)  and its role in the group’s subsequent disbandment.

Piekut is careful not to deviate much from a script that looks at the activities of the Henry Cow musicians purely from within their lifespan of Henry Cow alone – Geoff Leigh and John Greaves for example, drop off the radar pretty much the moment they leave the band. In that regard, for the Canterbury scene student that is perhaps a little frustrating given subsequent collaborations with musicians we all know and love, but an alternative covering the entire Cow legacy, given that this is already a substantial book, would have entailed a monster. One other criticism might be that whilst Piekut often navigates carefully through the musical scores, and has a clear picture of the personal qualities of the indivduals in the band: Tim Hodgkinson’s intellectual vision; Cutler’s work ethic and charisma; Greaves’ sense of fun; Dagmar’s physical fragility, there is barely a mention of each members’ musical ‘voice’. This for me would always be the starting point: Fred Firth’s dissonant multi-instrumental virtuosity; Chris Cutler’s butterfly drum patterns, John Greaves’ warm human bassplaying, Dagmar’s extraordinary mastery of everything vocal from the serene to the guttural and so on. Perhaps too, within the 100 or so pages of references, bibliography and indeces space could have been found for a timeline which in particular would have enabled the reader to keep pace with the various personnel changes within the wider Cow collective.

These, however, are minor criticisms – this remains a remarkable project: compelling, unique and requiring considerable powers of concentration and assiduousness – somewhat like the band themselves.

Thanks to ‘Banana Steve’ for procuring this book for me at the October book launch in London

‘The World Is A Problem’ is best ordered from RER Megacorp (because that way the author will see the best rewards for his work)