THE 49 AMERICANS komplett auf STAUBGOLD
Junggebliebener Spaßpop einer 80er-WG
The Incompleteable Story of The 49 Americans
“The 49 Americans is all a rather hazy set of memories for me now as I write these notes from my Melbourne backyard on September 11th 2002. The date makes me wonder what is it like to be American... but hang on... I am not American and never have been American and this bunch of music-makers that I was briefly part of were not American either, (except for one of us and he didn’t even live in the USA)!”
“Most bands create an image in your mind. That image is a mixture of music, musicians, a sound, a style, your own personal history and the flavour of the times. In 1979 I had a brief experience of playing with a band that wasn't a band - The Flying Lizards - but The 49 Americans was more extreme. There were so many members that I never met all of them and the styles of music ranged from post-punk and disco to lounge jazz and indefinable Afro-folk hybrids. In other words, think of The 49 Americans as a band, in the conventional sense, and you're lost.”
“What can I possibly say about the 49 Americans, except there were not 49 of them, only one as far as I can recall. Such tuneful times they were, allowing all and sundry to singalong, a truely democractic experience. May Rock 'N' Roll live on strong forever.”
I am an American. And as an American I carry the burden of the nation and its culture to haunt me. The culture that incresingly strives to dominate the world. It will be a brat. Because it can. We are the greatest. All of that. My parents are from Memphis Tennessee, Elvis Presley, B.B. King. I was born in Key West Florida and came to London as Andrew Brenner, a child of the sixties, raised on corn flakes, Flintstones and anti-vietnam rallies. I discovered teenage life, punk, new wave and DIY recordings in the late 1970’s. Three chords made a band, photocopying made a fanzine and putting a cassette tape onto a plastic disc made a record label. My first band was a school band called Buddy Hernia and the Rickets. We were a parody of teenage rock and proud of our obvious inabilities. Hell, we were a celebration of them!
“In the late 1970s there was a theory that anyone could pick up an instrument and form a band. Setting out to disprove this, Buddy Hernia and the Rickets started out with pots and pans for drums and a bass guitar, which was just an ordinary 6-string tuned down until you could tie a knot in the bottom string. My guitar was the very cheapest available and Nick's school trumpet was probably the most valuable of the lot (but not the way he played it). Mike brought his one true gift: his voice (it had to be a gift - you wouldn't pay money for that). I remember when Phil borrowed a proper drum kit he had to set up in the hallway outside the room during recordings due to sound balancing problems.”It was at punk or new wave gigs in London, that I first spotted Nag, Bendle and Igor doing silly things, like running around the performance space between bands. Later I bumped into Nag and Bendle singing noisy songs for money in the underground. I joined in, sang along and added a song or two of my own. Nobody gave us money. We soon became friends and I discovered that they all lived nearby and had their own house, their own band(s), and their own record label: N.B. Records.
“Nag and I were playing in a band (the Door and the Window) that allowed us to indulge in our interests in sound and noise. Whilst we could play our own stuff and seemed to have found a market for our records, we couldn't play anything in a conventional sense. Skint, we sometimes went busking, where our weird noise earned us very little income. Thus we welcomed the stranger who joined in with us one day and introduced us to his tunes which seemed more popular with the passing public. He introduced himself as Giblet and we met again soon for another busking session. We collaborated on a number of ventures such as a "Benefit for Doubt" in Hyde Park and poetry readings on tube trains before Giblet came up with the idea of the 49 Americans single...”The 14-track single came out of the idea of giving as much as possible. Quantity not quality! We wanted to be generous with our music, generous to each other, forgiving of our weaknesses, generous to our public. N.B. Records had a practice of printing the prices on the covers to stop record shops charging more than the low price we wanted people to pay. 14 tracks was my calculation of the maximum number of songs we could squeeze onto seven inches of vinyl. I was told seven minutes was as much as one side could hold. And even now I find it tricky to keep my record player needle to stay on a vinyl copy until the bitter end. Some automatic mechanism makes it lift up like it’s hit the label.
“I remember the joy of recording the world’s longest ever single - 14 tracks, each exactly 58 seconds long - and all on a cheapo cassette recorder complete with one built-in condenser microphone. We bashed, scraped and blew away on anything that was to hand (including toy instruments) with a bunch of mates and some people I had never even met before in various bedrooms and kitchens over a few weeks... and then we released it all on our own record-label as a 7 inch single... and people actually bought them... and we got reviewed in the music papers!”The 14-track single was recorded in bedrooms and because of the automatic-level microphone, the ambience swelled on the quiet bits and dropped away when anything loud came in like the drums or a horn grumble. I invited as many people as possible to play including for three tracks, all the members of my previous band.
“One of the happiest days of my life was the day that Giblet gathered the rest of the Rickets round for some exciting news. We were moved to hear his plans to change the course of world history with the 49 Americans, and the inspiration that he draws from the career of Julie Andrews. I had never truly opened my heart to Julie until we shared that moment. We all sat around drinking beer and laughing as we watch early VHS editions of Mary Poppins and even The Sound of Music. At the end of this amazing evening, we were moved to create - and I was thrilled that those moments were captured for future generations in the track "Julie Andrews" on the 49 American's first 14-track single.”As America has always espoused the notion of freedom - a nation where even the inept would be allowed to thrive (And indeed achieve high office. Salute the President!) - so it was with the 49 Americans. We strove for Liberty in the fullest sense: “Freedom from fear, freedom from senility, freedom from pain, freedom from lack of ability!” Good or bad, young or old, everyone was allowed to join in, even our mothers.
“49 Americans - even the name makes me smile. I was surprised to be asked to join for a song (or two?), however being relieved to add another American to the group. But I never overcame the 'shock' of answering the telephone and being asked to speak to 'Giblet'. It all still makes me smile.”
“49 Americans - how long ago? Is my son as young as I was then or was I as old as he is now? Two enthusiastic if confused Mums warbling away in a small room in North London. N10 then, Japan now. What's the difference between providing a backing and backing up?”There were a lot of things about bands that bothered me at the time. They were so often pompous. And arrogant. And driven by melodramatic stances and angst. I hated posed album covers. People trying to look cool with a serious stare or snarl or other affectation. So I drew pictures of band members for record covers and there were 49. And people could only imagine themselves as whichever one they wanted. Nobody was really in the band and everybody was in the band. Most music we heard on the radio or TV seemed to be about nothing but building big egos, but our music tried not to offer too many opportunities for that.
“I recall feeling rather disappointed when the anticipated hordes of screaming teenage girls never materialised.”
“Learning Newton's Laws to music for the live performance at the London Musicians Collective with Earl Court & The Daggy Chucks as (one of?) the support band(s) was probably the best bit of Physics revision I ever did. My one if only claim to fame was being co - Honourary Roady with Philip. My talent at humping other peoples' instruments was marred only by my inability to play my own. You'll be pleased to hear I've graduated to learning how not to play the sax.”
“Being an American for a few days was a great honour. I recall John Peel mentioning the complaints he was expecting from the 'they call that music do they brigade'.”
“What might seem to others to be harsh reviews were to us wonderful complimentary fodder: ‘swamped in kettle and saucepan percussion’, ‘a hearty shabbiness’, ‘amateurism viewed as a material virtue rather than a spiritual one’, and the best quote of all, ‘makes Swell Maps sound like Led Zeppelin’.”Nag and Bendle discovered the London Musicians Collective (LMC) in early 1980. They joined and encouraged me to do likewise. I was daunted by one thing in particular: you had to put down what instrument you played on the application form. I didn’t feel I could honestly play any instrument well enough to put it on an application form, but Nag and Bendle quickly reassured me that it didn’t matter. Their main incentive for joining was that as a member you had a right to use the performance space - a huge old railway building in Camden Town - for free. So I joined.
The first 49 Americans gig was another experiment in equality and democracy. Nobody was allowed to have their own instrument, but we were all to share and swap round. The band’s line-up changed between every song and everyone had a copy of a complex chart indicating who had played which instrument last, and who was supposed to play it next. It was chaos. The songs tended to come in at under three minutes. The change-overs probably averaged out at around five.
“Early concerts there were 20 or so of us seated on chairs and for each song 6 or 7 people would stand up and play. Because at the time I was tone deaf, and because I couldn't play melodically, I remember playing along rhythmically on toy keyboards and bits of junk. I was a great radiator player! I guess our live sound was a shambolic toyshop/junkyard avant garde but our enthusiasm and joy were infectious - audiences at community festivals where we played enjoyed our performances.”The idea of putting on events in a space like that certainly appealled to me. The idea of attending collective meetings did not, especially after I heard reports about them from Nag and Bendle. But they also told me about certain musicians whom they found encouraging and supportive, like Steve Beresford and David Toop. Apparently, they even liked the 49 Americans! Nag and Bendle encouraged me to seek them out.
“As a founder member of the London Musicians Collective, I felt acutely aware of tensions building within the organisation. The LMC was started by improvising musicians, but by 1980 open membership and collective aims meant that we were attracting a younger generation. They needed a place to play, but didn't have much awareness of improvised music history or its 'philosophy'. Some of us felt that was a positive influence; others took it as a threat. Andrew Brenner was one of the new breed. I don't know why he approached me or how we came to be writing songs together but it just happened.”
I think I first introduced myself to Steve and David at the Brighton Arts Festival in spring 1980, when they were playing on the seafront as The Promenaders. The band featured a line-up of free improvisors from the LMC, many of whom would later play in the 49 Americans: Lol Coxhill on soprano & vocals, Steve Beresford on euphonium, Peter Cusack on guitar, Paul Burwell on drums, Terry Day on cello, and Max Eastley and David Toop as the African one-string fiddle section. The Promenaders played songs in a variety of styles and my personal favourite was: ‘Won’t You Play A Simple Melody?’ with a Tibetan interlude.
“In Brighton, playing with The Promenaders on the beach, we were approached by a young man wearing a T-shirt upon which was hand-written an entire recipe for chicken supreme. The last word in the recipe was 'giblets' and the young man was therefore known to his friends as 'Giblet'. Actually, maybe that's all wrong, but that's how I remember it, “and that's why we have ‘Rashomon’,” to quote the late Liz Young, who was talking about the story of a slightly better known group contemporary with the 49 Americans. Anyway, what is definite is that Giblet is now Andrew Brenner.”The pool of people playing in the 49 Americans had also grown to include a new group of friends from Tufnell Park, like Etta Saunders and Else Watt a naturally talented drummer with a very personal style. The mixture of personalities, tastes and backgrounds was probably at its most diverse in sessions at Steve Beresford’s flat which included Max Eastley, Peter Cusack, Viv Goldman and Viv Albertine of the Slits along with Nag, Bendle, Etta and Else.
“In my late teens my view of the world was that people tended to be spiritually and creatively dead by the time they were 26. To meet a group of accomplished musicians in their thirties who played weird plinky plonk music was hope inspiring. That people like Steve, David and Max were willing to play with me and Nag who couldn't play anything, and with a group of teenagers still in or just out of school and to treat us all with respect was a great inspiration.”By the time it came to recording the album We Know Nonsense the aims of The 49 Americans were shifting slightly. We had been struggling to get a better recording sound for some time, moving from small bedrooms to larger sitting rooms, from a cheap condenser microphone to multiple mikes and Max Eastley’s mini-mixing desk, but when we mastered Too Young To Be Ideal the sound quality still left a lot to be desired. We were becoming ambitious. We wanted our records to sound more accessible and reach out to more people. So we made a decision to go into a studio and for the pool of musicians to include a much higher proportion of people who played professionally, while still including young amateurs and newcomers like Else Watt and Eddie Saunders.
“Else Watt's unique drumming was logical and yet impossible to predict. And in that little studio off Euston Road, I remember being shocked and delighted by Eddie Saunders' seemingly immediate and brilliant grasp of the ballad 'Tendency To Lie'.”The 49 Americans was an experiment in diversity. Each member brought their own taste and musical interests. Etta Saunders had a passion for big booming jazz vocals. Her younger brother Eddie was into rockabilly. As a child I had crawled right into my parents’ records behind the couch and listened to soundtrack albums, folk singers and African music, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Ella Fitzgerald and Bob Dylan. The latter being the example my parents always gave of why I shouldn’t give up my songwriting - Dylan couldn’t sing well either. Mummy was a record player. When I met Steve and David I was introduced to record collections that covered whole walls. There was everything there. Why stick to one style? Why get stuck at all? I didn’t like the idea that bands would look for a ‘sound’. By the time it came to We Know Nonsense we were making a determined effort not to stay within any one style. We were pre-postmodernists.
“At that time I was doing a bit of live recording of other people's music, just using my Sony cassette machine. I was also working with Steve Beresford in a lot of different contexts where we had a chance to indulge our mutual love of disco, jazz, rockabilly, dub, ska, Nigerian Juju and exotic instrumentals. I certainly never intended to push The 49 Americans away from its quirky, punky origins but some organic process took place whereby Andrew's vision of what he was doing expanded to include whoever came to a session.”The 49 Americans was an experiment in democracy. It wasn’t really a democracy, but it had a strong democratic stance. People were encouraged to come and play, even if they were new to their instruments or didn’t have an instrument. A spirit of playfulness presided over our activities.
The 49 Americans was an experiment in idealism. But the truth is that we were, and we remain, too young to be ideal. And ours is a culture that gives up its desire to celebrate the ideal and substitutes a celebration of youth instead.
The 49 Americans were an experiment in liberty. Freedom to congregate! Freedom to make music! Freedom to enjoy ourselves! We believed, ‘Happy music doesn’t have to be dumb!’
“Listening now, more than 20 years later, I'm struck by how funny and clever Andrew's lyrics were. There was criticism at the time, that The 49 Americans was just a bunch of friends indulging themselves to amuse each other. To some extent that's true. That seems to me to be a laudable ambition, better than trying to change the world, subvert the music business or any of the other preposterous, self-inflated manifestos that people claimed to pursue with such grim determination in those days. Nothing was ever pursued with grim determination in The 49 Americans, except perhaps the correct pitch. Even then, what's a flattened sharp between friends?”The 49 Americans were an experiment in the pursuit of happiness. We were playing because we wanted to play, because we enjoyed being together and seeing what each other could do; musicians and non-musicians surprising each other. We did not take ourselves seriously, but we were serious about that. In the increasingly global market place, there is less and less room for individuals at the top. So we celebrated, not being at the top, but simply being together. Like the Statue of Liberty we held up a shining torch of self-entertainment! Saying: Have fun! Play! Participate! Everyone should be allowed to be an American. Like it says on the dollars: E pluribus unum!
Andrew Brenner (aka: Giblet)
(Revised: December 2012)
Michael We. für nonpop.de
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Es macht auch heute noch wirklich große Freude, die Musik der 49 AMERICANS zu hören. Das erste Album offenbart die improvisiertere, das zweite die poppigere Facette der Riesencombo. Tolle Wiederveröffentlichung, vom Label sehr ansprechend umgesetzt!
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