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Fred Frith met Tim Hodgkinson, a fellow student, in a blues club at Cambridge University in May 1968. Recognizing their mutual open-minded approach to music the two began performing together, playing a variety of musical styles, including "dada" blues and "neo-Hiroshima". Henry Cow's first concert was to support Pink Floyd at the Architects Ball at Homerton College, Cambridge in June 1968.

In October 1968 Henry Cow expanded when they were joined by Andy Powell (bass guitar), Dave Attwood (drums) and Rob Brooks (rhythm guitar). They performed with this line-up until December that year when Frith, Hodgkinson and Powell split off from the rest of the group and became a trio. Powell at the time was studying music at King's College under Roger Smalley, the resident composer. Smalley was influential in Henry Cow's early development. He exposed them to a variety of new music from bands and musicians like Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Smalley also introduced them to the idea of writing long and complex musical pieces for rock groups.[6] It was at this time that Henry Cow began writing music to challenge their collective ability to play, then using it to improve on themselves.[7][8]

As a trio, with Frith on bass guitar, Powell on drums and Hodgkinson playing an organ Frith and Powell had persuaded him to learn, Henry Cow performed at a number of gigs on the university calendar, including the annual Architects' Ball, the Midsummer Common Festival and on the roof of a 14-storey building in Cambridge. In April 1969 Powell left and the band reverted to a duo again, with Frith playing violin and Hodgkinson on keyboards and reeds. In October 1969 philosopher Galen Strawson auditioned for the band. Later, Frith and Hodgkinson persuaded bassist John Greaves to join the band, and with the services of a couple of temporary drummers and then Sean Jenkins, Henry Cow performed as a quartet for the next eight months. In May 1971 Martin Ditcham replaced Jenkins on drums, and with this line-up they played at several events, including the Glastonbury Festival alongside Gong in June 1971.

Ditcham left in July 1971 and it was not until September that year that the drummer's seat was filled again, this time by Chris Cutler. Responding to one of Cutler's adverts in Melody Maker, the band invited him to a rehearsal,[6] and it was only when Cutler joined, that Henry Cow settled into a permanent core of Frith, Hodgkinson, Cutler and Greaves. The band then relocated to London where they began an aggressive rehearsal schedule.

After having entered John Peel's "Rockortunity Knocks" contest in 1971, Henry Cow recorded a John Peel session for BBC Radio 1 in February 1972. They later went on to record another session in October that year and a further three sessions between 1973 and 1975.

In April 1972 Henry Cow wrote and performed the music for Robert Walker's production of Euripides' The Bacchae. This involved an intense and demanding three week period of concentrated work that changed the band completely. It was during this time that Geoff Leigh on woodwinds joined and Henry Cow became a quintet.

In July 1972, the band performed at the Edinburgh Festival and wrote and performed music for a ballet with artist Ray Smith and the Cambridge Contemporary Dance Group at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It was Smith who later did the "paint sock" art work on three of Henry Cow's LP covers.

Back in London, they started to organise a series of concerts and events under the names Cabaret Voltaire and Explorers' Club at Kensington Town Hall with invited guests, including Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, Ivor Cutler, Ron Geesin, David Toop and Ray Smith. Improvisers Bailey and Coxhill became "enthusiastic supporters" of Henry Cow and attended many of their concerts; Frith later stated that he was "strongly affected by their critical engagement and encouragement."[9] For the first time, Henry Cow started getting some attention from the rock press and the then emerging Virgin Records label. After much negotiations and deliberation, in May 1973 Henry Cow signed a contract with Virgin.

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