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From Tubular Bells to Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom: Henry Cow's John Greaves comes clean

John Greaves in a green shirt pointing his finger
(Image credit: Press/John Greaves)

John Greaves grew up in Prestatyn in north Wales and his musical path might have taken a different direction had it not been for the death of a bass player in his father’s dance band, The Ray Irving Orchestra. At that point the 13-year-old Greaves had taken piano lessons and was able to read music, so his father bought him a bass guitar, telling him, “Bass is dead easy, you can learn this in a month.” 

After this early musical education, Greaves declined his father’s offer of a permanent place in the band and instead went to Cambridge University in 1968, where he met the members of Henry Cow and promptly joined the group. He also had stints with the Ottawa Music Company, a rock composer’s orchestra whose members included Steve Hillage, Mont Campbell and Dave Stewart of Egg.

Henry Cow signed to the nascent Virgin Records in 1973 and quickly established themselves as one of the most inventive, challenging and politically motivated groups of 70s progressive rock. They recorded Desperate Straights in 1974 with Slapp Happy, a trio of Dagmar Krause, Anthony Moore and Peter Blegvad. After recording In Praise Of Learning, Greaves left Henry Cow in 1976 and teamed up with Blegvad to record the acclaimed Kew. Rhone. in 1977. He enjoyed spells in National Health and, throughout the 80s, in Soft Heap.

Greaves’ later groups include The Lodge with Jakko Jakszyk and Anton Fier, and he still plays in the Peter Blegvad Trio. In recent years he’s played on Robert Wyatt’s 1974 album, Rock Bottom, with the North Sea Radio Orchestra and vocalist Annie Barbazza, both in concert and on the 2019 release Folly Bololey.

He moved to Paris in 1984 and established himself as a songwriter of rare invention on the albums Songs (1994), Chansons (2004) and most recently Life Size (2018). At the moment he has a number of releases in the pipeline. 

How important was it for you playing in your father’s dance band?

It was absolutely important. It was the post-war generation meeting the beat music scene and not really knowing how to deal with it. We’d do dances where we’d begin and people were dancing around in their frilly frocks and their dress suits, and then Freddie And The Dreamers would come on. 

By the time I was 15 or 16 I was doing arrangements of James Brown tunes and Otis Redding with the St Bernard Waltz, and the military two-step. It helped me have an open mind towards music and my father was very influential. He’d take us to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and I saw Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman, and at the same time The Scaffold were playing in The Philharmonic, a pub across the road. It was a great time.

You joined Henry Cow as a teenager at Cambridge University in 1969. How did that come about?

I was a young innocent from north Wales suddenly in this wild and wacky world of Cambridge, which was like a Disneyland of academia. That was quite a shock. In the second year [guitarist] Fred [Frith] walked into my room and asked me to join this band, Henry Cow. That was another pivotal moment – there are times when you see something or hear something and don’t understand what the fuck is going on but you know that you would like to be part of it. 

At the time I was a fan of Cream and Steve Winwood and I’d never heard anything like these odd sounds and time signatures that [sax and keyboard player] Tim Hodgkinson and Fred were making. I had to relearn how to play the bass guitar, how to play these impossible harmonic shifts and melodies. I began to play melodic bass because, at the time, there were only three of us, there were no drums, so it was a little chamber orchestra, really. 

How did you present your compositions to the group?

During my time in the band Fred and Tim were the main composers by a long chalk. Tim’s compositions were more hermetic, he’d written everything out. We spent a long time trying to get them right. Fred’s compositions were deliberately more open to interpretation or more flexible. 

I was learning to compose and daring to compose. I’d say, “I’ve got this riff here, Fred. What do you think?” Fred was always very generous in a pedagogical way. We’d incorporate these bits and pieces into a composition. On the first album, The Henry Cow Legend, Teenbeat is credited to both of us. 

A recording that presents Henry Cow at their best is the 25-minute John Peel session from September 1975, which also appeared on Concerts. It’s played as a continuous performance that incorporates songs, composed instrumental sections and group improvisations where the ‘one’ seems to have disappeared and the playing feels almost telepathic. 

If I remember the piece correctly, it’s the long improvised section in Nirvana For Mice, which I think is still more or less in 21/8! But the fluidity that occurred on a good night between Chris and me would have been the result of a lot of hard work. We had been at it for six years by the time I left and developed something that, without any false modesty, was unique. No one else was doing that… and probably for very good reasons. (Laughs.) We worked on a radically different approach to written music to the point that by the end of our best gigs nobody knew the difference between when we were improvising and when it was written.

When Virgin Records formed it seemed like a haven for more adventurous progressive rock artists. You and a number of other Virgin artists, including members of Henry Cow, played on the Tubular Bells concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall and the famous BBC2 2nd House programme in 1973. Was there a camaraderie among you?

There was camaraderie, definitely. We were very friendly with Mike and Maggie Thomas, his girlfriend. It was centred around The Manor, Virgin’s studio, which was run independently by the wonderful Tom Newman. 

Mike was living there and we met him on our first day, when he engineered the first track Henry Cow recorded, Nirvana For Mice, because Tom had been celebrating the end of Tubular Bells and was brainless drunk under the console. 

And so when the Tubular Bells thing came up, Mike needed a band, so he got us all roped in to do that. We rehearsed at The Manor. Steve Hillage was and is [still] a friend. He lived with us in the Henry Cow house in Walmer Road in Ladbroke Grove. I lived above Steve’s bloody echo chamber for a long time! Mick Taylor we didn’t know, but he was brought in because Richard Branson wanted a star to sell his new product and he was great. We were also great friends with Hatfield And The North and we toured with Kevin Coyne. 

Henry Cow have been cited as a Marxist band but Chris Cutler has said that in his opinion you weren’t actually Marxists.

Chris would have preferred ‘dialectical materialist’, I suppose. We were – or I was – figuring things out. There was no specific political alignment. Geoff was the most militant; Tim’s lyrics read like a manifesto for a revolutionary faction. I think these days we’d just be part of the general anti-capitalist movement.

After leaving Henry Cow you recorded the song cycle Kew. Rhone. in 1977 with Peter Blegvad, who had been in Slapp Happy. It sounded quite remarkably different from what else going on at the time.

I had the experience from Henry Cow but at the same time I wanted it to be something different. It was time to move on. I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it and, again, maybe there is a good reason for that.

It’s so complicated lyrically that at times it feels like a kind of crossword puzzle. 

Talking about Peter’s lyrics, he has been criticised for being pretentious all
his life. And he probably is, but he still carries on doing the most extraordinary creations. I think your description of it as a puzzle is good; it’s a game, it’s fun. The song Kew. Rhone. is an epistemological study in 7/4 with a rhumba beat. All the elements are there and you can figure it out any way you like.

You joined National Health in 1978. Were you keen to play in a group again?

I’d just gone to New York to do Kew. Rhone.. Neil Murray had left to join Whitesnake and Dave Stewart called me then and asked me if I’d like to join. I came back a year later and the job was still going. [Drummer] Pip Pyle was my best friend and he doesn’t take no for an answer. Dave’s music was challenging. I listened to the first National Health album with Neil on bass and thought, “Shit, I’m not sure I can play this.” But hopefully I brought something different to it and we had a good time for a couple of years. 

Henry Cow and National Health were both revered, but were hardly mainstream. Was it difficult making any money from music in those days?

It still is! Henry Cow were very thrifty. We would do these long tours where Chris and Maggie Thomas [who mixed the live sound] would be in charge of the food. Maggie had a book called Food For Free [by Richard Mabey]. She would take that quite literally. We’d roar down the autostrada to Naples and she’d spot some plant in a field and then she’d be cooking it on the bus, which would become filled with noxious fumes. We had survival techniques. With National Health it wasn’t much better. We sold a few records and were getting paid for gigs and Dave Stewart was very good at handling money, but it was always hard. But if you do that sort of music, you are inevitably going to be worrying about paying the rent at the end of the month. 

How much did the musical landscape change in the 80s? Did you find that commercial considerations gradually became more important? 

I left England in the 80s and I’ve been plodding on skirting the mainstream and occasionally getting little entries into the business, retreating again, but still managing to survive in a world that you necessarily have to create for yourself. Nobody else is going to help you. You make your own rules.

What was it like in Soft Heap playing music that was all improvised?

At the beginning it wasn’t totally improvised. I joined when Alan Gowen was still alive and I replaced Hugh Hopper. Then Alan died. And then with Elton Dean, Mark Hewins and Pip Pyle it was clearly stated that there was no point trying to do any written stuff, just get up there and play. That was improvising in a kind of jazz context but it wasn’t jazz. We’d go places where I’d never really been before and I loved that.

In a review of Soft Heap in The Guardian, John Fordham wrote, “It’s like an improvised equivalent of an early Who concert.” I thought, “Hey, I’ll go with that.”

Your 1994 album Songs features a number of guest artists. How did you allocate who should sing which song?

I had done solo albums like Accident [1982] and The Little Bottle Of Laundry [1991], which are my compositions, but I was shy about singing. I’ve known so many great singers, including Dagmar and Lisa [Herman who sings on Kew.Rhone.], and then I found myself in the studio in front of the microphone. I lacked self-confidence, but I bashed on and I’m pleased I did because I listen to them now with some admiration for the gall of the guy singing.

When we got to Songs, I met the wonderful singer, S’Ange – Susan Belling – who sung The Price We Pay and Swelling Valley, both of which had appeared on another album I made, Parrot Fashions [1984], but in a kind of classically trained soprano way, and I think they’re both beautiful.

So I found myself in a very nice studio in Paris with a Steinway and I realised that I was beginning to make an album of my songs – and redoing some songs – but using different voices and of course Robert sprang to mind. I knew I could nail him because Kew.Rhone. was his favourite record and I’d get him to sing Kew.Rhone. because he couldn’t really refuse – which he didn’t.

I sang a couple of songs on the album including the Dylan Thomas song The Green Fuse. I wanted to conclude it with a French voice and wrote a couple of songs for a quite well-known French singer and actress called Caroline Loeb. 

You’ve done a number of albums based on poems by Paul Verlaine, beginning with Verlaine in 2008. In what way has he been an influence?

I’d been in France for quite a long time and I thought that it was about time that I did an album in French, but it would take me years to write a song in French, so I thought that maybe I should a look at all those French poets that I was supposed to study at university all those years ago. I came back to Verlaine and all the poems sang directly off the page. I set them to music and found that relatively easy to do. So it wasn’t so much an influence, I was researching the possibility of writing lyrics in French. I don’t want to diminish him as poet but he’s also a pretty good lyricist when it comes to it.

This writer saw you play and sing Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom at London’s Café Oto with the North Sea Radio Orchestra last year and thought it was a brilliant reimagining of the original album.

The arrangements are all Craig’s and I think he did a fantastic job of not pussyfooting around but reinterpreting those songs and finding a way to orchestrate lines that were originally virtually wholly improvised. Robert had got his old pals [trumpeter] Mongezi Feza and [saxophonist] Gary Windo to play and then edited with [the album’s producer] Nick Mason to make it into a coherent shape, which he did beautifully. 

What Craig managed to do was to re-pitch the compositional side of Rock Bottom and to allow a limited amount of improvisation to go on, which let it breathe the way that Rock Bottom breathed and he really made it work. The band is great and I was able to introduce Annie Barbazza, who, I think you will agree, sings it beautifully. I’m so thrilled to sit there and play some of those Hugh Hopper bass parts like A Last Straw and Alifib and I know that Robert likes it. I couldn’t resist playing a Tubular Bells bass riff under Oldfield’s guitar lick at the end of Little Red Robin Hood…, which was admirably interpreted by Craig Fortnam.

Your singing on your most recent solo album, Life Size, seems to exude confidence and gravity. Robert Wyatt has said that your voice is “unique and saturated with gravelly charm”.

Thank you, Robert. You can quote him on that by all means. I think I’ve become
a singer despite myself. I get asked to sing things as an invited singer. I sing Fauré with some pretty heavyweight singers on a lovely record [Ici-Bas – Les Melodies De Gabriel Fauré] and I got invited to do a special Moondog event where I sang a couple of songs. I’m gung-ho now: anywhere, any time.

You’ve regularly played and recorded with Annie Barbazza. Your voices are so contrasting but there seems a distinct chemistry there.

Well yeah, that really is a thrill. I did quite a lot of solo gigs, which are just piano and voice, which I enjoy, but at the same time it’s so much more fun with Annie. She’s such a lovely person and we get on great. So I’m hoping that we will do a lot more.

How did Life Size get released on Manticore?

Max Marchini started the label Dark Companion and he produced Greg Lake’s Live In Piacenza, recorded on his last solo tour in 2012, on Manticore. They became great friends and Greg said, “If you like I’ll give you the Manticore label, in name. I would like you to take on the legacy of the label.” So Max co-runs Manticore with Greg’s wife Regina as a sort of sleeping partner in the background. 

He asked me what I thought of putting Life Size on Manticore and I thought, why not? I was never a great fan of Emerson, Lake & Palmer but that’s neither here nor there. And of course it’s got Jakko [Jakszyk] on the record and Himiko Paganotti from Magma – come on, it’s got to be prog! So I’m pleased that’s on Manticore. 

On Alain Blesing’s 2009 album Songs From The Beginning there’s a version of King Crimson’s Fracture with your spoken-word interludes from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood, ‘Starless and bible-black’ and all. How did you get involved in that? 

When I say that I get asked to do things, that was one of the first times. I’ve often regretted saying no, but I’ve never regretted saying yes. It’s not my favourite album, but it’s got interesting things on it. I am doing more spoken-word now and on Life Size I felt freer to do that – there aren’t any rules. I can sing, I can imitate Richard Burton in a Dylan Thomas piece, or whatever.  

On the track on Life Size, Kew Rhône Is Real, Kew. Rhone. seems to have re-emerged as some sort of entity, as if it has a life of its own.

For his [2011] Kew. Rhone. book, Peter Blegvad asked a lot of people what Kew. Rhone. is. Lisa wrote this wonderful poem. I had to find a context for it so I built up a computer-based piece and I just then spieled on top of it. She wrote: ‘Kew. Rhone. will threaten, will make you cry/God’s just an apocryphal bearded guy’. Kew. Rhone., is bigger than God is what she is saying. And who could disagree with that? 

This article originally appeared in Prog issue 111.