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Within two weeks of signing the contract, Henry Cow began recording their debut album Legend (also known as Leg End) at Virgin's Manor Studios in Oxfordshire. It took three weeks of hard work, but at the end they knew how to handle the studio themselves, which would prove to be invaluable later in their career. The track "Nine Funerals of the Citizen King", sung by the whole group, was Henry Cow's first overt political statement.
To promote its new signing, Virgin organised a UK tour for Henry Cow and Faust, who had also just signed to the label. During this tour, Henry Cow began preparing music for an unorthodox and provocative play, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. Some of this music was used on their next record Unrest.
In November 1973, members of the band participated in a live-in-the-studio performance of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells for the BBC. It is available on Oldfield's Elements DVD.
During a tour of The Netherlands in December 1973, Geoff Leigh left the group. Looking for more unusual instruments to draw them further away from standard rock and jazz, Henry Cow asked classically trained Lindsay Cooper (oboe, bassoon) to join. With hardly any time to rehearse, and Cooper having just had all four wisdom teeth extracted, they returned to The Manor in early 1974 to begin recording Unrest. It was during this time that they became acquainted with Slapp Happy, a quirky avant-pop trio of Peter Blegvad (guitar), Anthony Moore (keyboards) and Dagmar Krause (vocals), who had just completed their first LP for Virgin.
Recording Unrest was another intense experience, and the strongest period of collective learning since The Bacchae. They only had enough material to fill one side of the LP, and so were forced to spend a good deal of time developing the studio composition process that produced Side 2. The recording session brought out a lot of tensions in the band, and it reflected in the music, but in the end they were pleased with the result and this re-united the group.
Henry Cow with Robert Wyatt performing at the Piazza Navona, 1975. Left to right: Lindsay Cooper, Robert Wyatt, Dagmar Krause, Chris Cutler.
In May 1974 they were on tour again around England and Europe with Captain Beefheart. It was during this tour that Henry Cow woke up to the realities of what was happening to them: they were becoming a rock band, playing the same thing night after night. Life was no longer a challenge and they were becoming complacent. After some serious thinking they decided to ask Lindsay Cooper to leave and fulfil their last outstanding concert obligations (a tour of the Netherlands) as a quartet. Without Cooper they were forced to abandon much of their learned material and worked up a 35-40 minute piece unlike anything else they had done before (this later became "Living in the Heart of the Beast" on In Praise of Learning).
In November 1974, Slapp Happy invited Henry Cow to be their band on their second LP for Virgin. The result was Desperate Straights, an almost entirely Slapp Happy composed album that surprised everyone, considering how dissimilar the two groups were. The success of this venture prompted a merger of the two bands.
In early 1975 the merged group began rehearsing for In Praise of Learning in a freezing gymnasium. It was an arduous and extremely demanding time, something Slapp Happy were not prepared for, and it soon became apparent that the merger might not work. Nevertheless, they still went to The Manor and made In Praise of Learning together. But it was only after they started rehearsing with a view to performing live together that it became clear that their approaches were incompatible. The merger ended in April 1975, when Anthony Moore quit and Peter Blegvad was asked to leave. However, Dagmar Krause, whose contribution had added another dimension to Henry Cow's sound, elected to remain, which effectively spelled the end of Slapp Happy as a band.
Having guested on both the Henry Cow/Slapp Happy albums, Lindsay Cooper rejoined in April 1975 and Henry Cow became a sextet. In May 1975 they embarked on a brief concert tour with Robert Wyatt to premier In Praise of Learning and Wyatt's new album, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. This was followed by what became the most rigorous working schedule of Henry Cow's career: two years of almost continuous touring in Western Europe.