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Henry Cow/Slapp Happy Desperate Straights Review

Album. Released 21 February 1975.  

BBC Review

The short but sweet union between quirky avant popsters and political progsters gets a...

Peter Marsh 2004

There can't be many instances of an entire band merging with another, but that's what happened back in 1974 when eccentric avant popsters Slapp Happy joined avant prog heroes Henry Cow. And (of course) Henry Cow joined Slapp Happy. A rather gnomic press release from the time suggested that "both groups, though different, were the same'. Mmmm....

Slapp Happy (Peter Blegvad, Anthony Moore, Dagmar Krause) had already recorded one album for Virgin, and their charmingly quirky brand of surrealist pop had Mr Branson and his chums thinking they may have had a commercially viable band on their books. A merger with one of the most musically and politically radical bands of the time (also on Virgin) wasn't likely to enhance their earning potential much, but this was the seventies after all.

Desperate Straights was recorded before the merger became 'official'. Though the bulk of the material was composed by Blegvad and Moore, the results do feel like a genuine halfway house between the music of the two groups. Despite their reputation for being a difficult proposition, Henry Cow were keen to experiment with more conventional songs. Similarly Blegvad and Moore's avant-garde tendencies were given more room than they had been on their last Virgin effort.

Certainly this a spikier beast than the cool pastiche of that album; Dagmar's voice is a harder, more expressive presence, and the gluing together of pop sensibilities and avant-rock experimentalism results in rich, dynamic music. There are the usual traces of Zappa, Kurt Weilland Bartok, but then there's cheerful Hawaiian-edged pop strumming ('Strayed') or a song which seems to harnesselements of psychedelia and muted prog in a mournful tale of a dying relationship ("Riding Tigers"). But none of that can express quite how strange it all is, and yet it's stuff you could find yourself whistling on the bus.

Blegvad and Moore's gift for literate, playful lyrics is in full effect; there are songs about hats, a tale sung by a character who may be a hermaphrodite, and even a song about writing a song which criticises the song about hats. But though Henry Cow bassist John Greaves seemed particularly drawn to Blegvad's darkly surrealist musings (starting a long and fruitful partnership) and Dagmar eventually became a full time member of the Cow and the Art Bears, the merger wasn't destined to last. The subsequent, heavily political In Praise of Learning was made with much less involvement from Blegvad and Moore, and then the whole thing broke up quite rancorously. Still, as a one night stand, this is as good as any. Beautifully strange, and strangely beautiful.

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