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The 49 Americans – We Know Nonsense


The 49 Americans - We Know NonsenseIt’s unusual to encounter a CD reissue where the ubiquitous ‘bonus tracks’ amount to more than inessential filler. The extras here, taken from the group’s first single and LP, turn out to be far superior to the actual album itself. The good news is that there are no less than 23 of them – swamping the LP proper’s meagre 17 songs and making this CD an invaluable release, just so long as you start it at track 18 – the classic “Beat up Russians” – and only skip back to track one should you fancy some bonus material at the end.

The 49 Americans’ début 7” single was seldom far from my turntable back in 1979. I had no idea who they were, but had been lured by the sleeve’s promise of 14 tracks for 85p. I was beguiled by the ultra-primitive approach (“Makes Swell Maps sound like Led Zeppelin” reckoned the NME at the time), and being a physics student then, I was particularly impressed by the inclusion of songs that addressed both Newton’s laws of motion and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – subjects all too rarely broached by the dumbed down contemporary hits of Sham 69 and The Boomtown Rats. Here at last was a music that said something to me about my life. It was a great single – an unveiled missing link between The Residents, Magnus Pike, a music therapy session and that bloke who sits outside WH Smith with a tin whistle. Eleven of the single’s fourteen tracks are included here; all of them works of irrefutable genius.

When the group’s LP E Pluribus Unum arrived a few months later in 1980 it provided a bit more information about the group – “The forty-nine Americans is a band which consists solely of Americans and has forty-nine members” the sleeve notes helpfully explained, alongside other such illuminating observations as “we are taller than our mothers”. This album was almost as great as the single, especially the opening song “Beat up Russians” and the bizarre ‘musical’ that took up the whole second side, but which is sadly omitted here. A further ‘musical,’ Too Young to be Ideal followed on 12″, but again isn’t represented here. By this time, the group were revealed to be neither Americans nor naïve primitivists, but actually members of the London Musicians’ Collective – the distinguished likes of David Toop, Lol Coxhill, Steve Beresford and Max Eastley – fronted by an enigmatic character known as Giblet. The 49 Americans, it seemed, were the cream of the UK’s avant-garde community having fun – actually something Lol Coxhill for one had been doing for years.

By the time We Know Nonsense was released in 1982, their moment had largely passed and the group had almost morphed into one of those slightly annoying ‘quirky’ groups, a kind of low budget British hybrid of the B-52s and Dutch novelty rockers Gruppo Sportivo. The playing was more conventionally accomplished and the songs’ take on various generic forms – from “It Is and It Is”‘ rather dull 12-bar rock ‘n’ roll stylings to “It’s Time”‘s quite charming Bert Kaempfert/Calypso hybrid. The album contains appearances from The SlitsViv Albertine and Melody Maker writer Vivien Goldman, but lacks the anarchic surrealism of the group’s previous releases. That said, it is an enjoyable listen in itself, but was and remains a disappointment when compared to the genius of the group’s earlier output. Happily, much of that earlier output is also included here, making this CD a worthwhile purchase. It seems that Staubgold have made all the original releases available in full as downloads, but for those who still value physical artefacts, this is the closest you’re going to get to the true genius of the 49 Americans.

-Alan Holmes-

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