FIVE ROCK GROUPS THE RECORD COMPANIES DON’T WANT YOU TO HEAR.
This slogan nicely sums up why the English, Avant-fusion band Henry Cow invited four other like-minded acts, whose complicated, progressive-rock music effectively limited their fan base to mere cult status, to a concert in London called “Rock in Opposition.” This gathering was the first of several R.I.O. concerts in which the more high-minded and, consequently, difficult musical groups would aggregate to rock in opposition. The indirect object which these bands rocked out against, and still rock out against, is the music industry giants that refused to sign these bands to their labels because of their lacking monetary value. Like any music outside a person’s societal horizons, these bands were immediately deemed repugnant to the less thoughtful echelons of music connoisseurs (i.e. music business people and their subject) . Being crucified to the subjective cross that is obscure suffocation has obvious negative implications for the Senate and Caesar: they are both hampered. When Virgin Records cancelled Henry Cow’s contract, the band was deprived of an effective mechanism to record and distribute their music to a broad audience. When record labels drop innovative, challenging, and, more to the point, creative bands, the public is deprived of expanding their cultural horizons and the label confines itself to a sole customer sector: the intellectual plebeians. Wishing to challenge this trend, Henry Cow contacted theirs mainland European comrades in order to organize what would be become known as the first Rock in Opposition festivals.
Henry Cow is the most widely known band of the original lineup. Formed in 1968 by Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson at Cambridge University, this band (later to incorporate Dagmar Krause, Linsday Cooper, Chris Cutler, and many others) would redefine what it meant to be a ‘rock band’ through their music and philosophy. Their music was initially Canterbury Fusion with some hinting of Zappa, Beefheart, and Soft Machine. Do not be fooled into thinking that their first album Legend (1973 and the first to feature the trademark sock) is an embarrassment to be labeled as a misguided early attempt: it is evident that this band was to be like no other with their intellectual music that often found inspiration in Greek drama, Paul Klee’s paintings, history, and musical theory. Again, don’t be mistaken in thinking that their music is mere intellectual drivel. Their music is passionate and often relies on the immense improvisational talent of the members. There is little wonder that this band would be the kind that would start a movement such as R.I.O.: I advise any doubters to listen to “Living in the Heart of the Beast”and then tell me that this band did not despise commercial trends and musical cliche’s that were and still are abounding in popular musical forms. No work displays this more creatively and intensely than their masterpiece Unrest (1974). Henry Cow eventually broke up in 1978, leaving a stunning legacy that makes this band a hero, much to their chagrin.
Samla Mammas Manna was a Swedish progressive rock band that was generally less political than the other groups. Their music is often characterized by circus-like motifs and high-pitched vocals which espouse nonsense. Members of the original line-up were Lars Hollmer (keyboards), Hasse Bruniusson (drums), Lars Krantz (bass) and Henrik Öberg (percussion). For Måltid (1973), jazz fusion guitarist Coste Apetrea joined the group. They would later help out Fred Frith by being his backing band on his 1980 album Gravity. Though not as intellectually intense as their counterparts or as musically challenging, their music is extremely exciting and rooted in the musical genius of their members (especially Hollmer and Apetrea). Their music perhaps comes closest to rock genre yet, alas, their outstanding jazz and folk musicianship is as an asymptote to their impossible labeling as a rock band.
Univers Zero is a Belgian band that was heavily influenced by 20th century classical music.The band was formed in 1974 by drummer Daniel Denis. I have heard them described as very dark and their promotional photos would not discourage this image of the eccentric occult. Encouraging this darkness as an image, their most well-known work, Heresie, features the intense pounding of Stravinsky coupled with a strange and exotic evocation of the middle-ages. The band’s musicianship is very evident in the shifting time signatures, tight structure, and the great bassoon and bass! Seriously, the bassoon is the quintessence of what Univers Zero’s music is all about: tight structure which allows for salient peaks of brute ecstasy, insidious writhing, and beautiful catharsis. This band is the most classically influenced of the five. Chris Cutler said that they may have not gotten the most applause at the R.I.O concert but they sold the most records due to the great show they put on.
Stormy Six was an Italian progressive folk band founded in 1966 Milan. It may seem strange that the jazz wierdos in Henry Cow asked some Italian folk band to join R.I.O. (The second R.I.O festival was actually hosted by Stormy Six). It does seem strange to those who are unacquainted with the group’s pioneering music and politics: both lean leftward. In one song on their Un Biglietto Del Tram, their very Italian folk jam is interrupted by a hilarious section that parodies the melody of Yankee Doodle: I do not speak Italian but I am fairly certain that the song “Arrivano Gli Americani” does not hold our capitalistic super mall in a positive light.Their music can be quite beautiful at times and stands testament to the diversity exhumed by these 5 bands.
Etron Fou Leloublan (French for “Mad Shit, the White Wolf”) were a French avant-rock band founded in 1973 by actor and saxophonist Chris Chanet. This band opened up for Magma in 1973. Given this trivia, it is interesting to know that they strove to create a medium between alienating jazz and disenfranchising rock’n’roll. They would later lend their French hands to Fred Frith for his 1981 album Speechless. Their music often combines punk, jazz, music hall, and screaming into one avant-garde trip: it is a small wonder that a band of this nature would emerge out of post May 1968 France. This would have to be my least favorite band of the 5 just because I find their songs rather boring compared to the others.
The Concert: then and now
So Henry Cow got a £1000 grant from the British Arts Council, held a concert with their friends at New London Theater, and everyone went their separate ways. That would make my job easier but this was not the case.
Although the concert only attracted about 450 attendees, it did generate a good amount of press for the concert and the bands involved. That December the bands went to a Swiss recording studio to talk future plans. And so Rock in Opposition became a collective. Henry Cow had died by then but its different members still participated later in the guise of Art Bears. Art Zoyd and Aksak Maboul’s joining allowed for rules in order to get into the exclusive club which, at this point, just became an alternative promotion group.
(i) adheres to “musical excellence” (as evaluated by the collective)
(ii) works actively “outside the music business”
(iii) has a “social commitment to Rock”
A second RIO festival, organised by Stormy Six, took place between 26 April and 1 May 1979 in Milan where all seven groups performed, the original four (minus Henry Cow) plus the three new groups. During the festival, the RIO members met formally again to discuss the way forward. However, despite some constructive discussion, disagreements arose between the groups regarding RIO’s role and matters were left unresolved. Two further RIO festivals took place in Sweden and Belgium, but no new meetings, and by the end of 1979, RIO as an organization had “quietly slipped away.” Later in 2007, a new “Rock in Opposition” was created by French music promoter Michel Besset and our good friend Rodger Trigaux. The bands that have played in the 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 include Faust, Soft Machine, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and many, many more acts.
Towards the end of 1978, Chris Cutler had established Recommended Records. When RIO folded as an organisation, RR continued RIO’s work by representing and promoting musicians and groups of the popular periphery. RR became a “virtual” RIO, and “… is part of the continuing legacy of RIO”.