Ah, Henry Cow. The name never ceases to amuse my family. One of my most difficult listening experiences as a teenager back in the 70's. However, I was transfixed by the album cover. Maggie Thomas's wonderfully detailed pen drawing really fascinated me to what the sounds were inside.
This double LP was released on Virgins mid price Caroline label, and so wasn't such a risky investment for a teenager on limited pocket money. I actually bought this, as I did a lot of my vinyl back then at our local newsagents who had a small record department upstairs. Those were the days!
The other thing that struck me about the album cover was the inside picture of the band in a live settting spread over both sides of the double album. The standard floor lamps always amused me. Who needs lasers and dry ice when you have these bad boys! Loved the handwritten credits too.
Musically it was uncompromising stuff. Henry Cow were out on their own, no doubt about it. Dense, complex, more European classical than rock with a foot in the Canterbury sound of the day. The first side of Concerts was a complete BBC John Peel session and for me is one of the best things the band has committed to tape. Played like one continuous piece of music, this medley of material from their studio albums and other pieces is fantastic. A particular highlight is their take on Matching Moles "Gloria Gloom" written by Bill MacCormick. Side 2 has some live stuff with Robert Wyatt, including a cover of a track from his classic Rock Bottom album. But the standout is a live rendition of "Ruins" a Fred Frith composition which originally appeared on the Unrest album. But this live version is incredible. It includes one of the most original guitar solos ever. Owing more to musique concrete, than standard rock guitar, Frith does wonderful things to his guitar. Somewhere within this solo, it even sounds like he is dropping stones on his guitar strings! But it all works within the framework of the piece tremendously well. A really intense, frenetic, ingenious, inspired piece of guitar playing.
Side 3 and 4 of the original LP are the other side of the coin. Pure improvisation. The piece titled "Oslo" is the most uncompromising. To be honest at nearly 30 minutes it is heavy going. Bob Drake who remastered the latest CD issue had the good sense to break the piece into smaller sections making it more digestible.
There are two CD versions of the album. The first was released by the US label, East Side Digital
This set included some bonus tracks which were the bands contribution to the Greasy Truckers compilation.
The remastered version was, as mentioned updated by Bob Drake back in 2006 and had retouched artwork which included a bit of colour. Not sure why. Maybe to sex it up a bit!
To me Concerts stands as a perfect testament to what Henry Cow were about. Always better in a live setting than in the studio. Maybe the album has been somewhat overshadowed now by the epic, 9 CD, DVD box set which Chris Cutler assembled for the bands 40th anniversary. This is an incredible set which includes many hours of live material throughout the bands existence. But that's another story for another day.