The Go-Betweens // Feature

Go betweens

The record would leave a lasting impression on Allo Darlin’s Elizabeth Morris, having had her début album the subject of a 1,200 word essay by Forster, shared a bill with him at the 2013 Grant McLennan tribute, covered ‘Dive For Your Memory’ and namechecked Tallulah (on, erm, ‘Tallulah‘), she has had a career almost inexorably linked with the band. “Streets of Your Town was still played on the radio when I was growing up, so somewhere along the line I’d absorbed that song,” she says “I think it was always that warmth, the sunny sound they have, without relying on a 12-string Rickenbacker to create it. I don’t really find any tricks in their music. They don’t sound too cool for me. The images and feelings emoted in the lyrics resonate because I know what the places they’re singing about, and I hadn’t heard anyone else do that; sing about where I came from. Brisbane was just the most ordinary place, but suddenly they made me see the romance in it. I think really good writers can change the way you feel about something, and they certainly did that for me.”

Another to have been influenced by the record is Darren Hanlon, who has made a series of fine, ultra-melodic and lyrically observant folk-pop records, and played as part of the Go-Betweens tribute extravaganza in Sydney in 2006 following McLennan’s death. He echoes Morris’ observations, both in the effect 16 Lovers Lane had on him, and how the band’s sense of place would resonate with him. “A teacher, who knew my music tastes, passed me on a copy of 16 Lovers Lane and I wore the grooves off it. No one else in my school knew anything about them. 16 Lovers Lane was the only album of theirs that I had for years, I realise now it’s the perfect entry point. It has a clarity of vision and as a collection feels perfectly formed. Every song has its place. There’s nothing too angular like on some of their earlier albums. I would say anyone trying to write love songs should start here. ‘Clouds’, ‘Quiet Heart’, ‘Dive For Your Memory’, ‘Devil’s Eye’! Individually they’re as good as you’ll find anywhere, but that they’re all on the one album is astounding! It’s an album that endures for me. I have friends who I’ve visited in Lismore for the past 20 years and we listen to it each time without fail. And their Jack Russell always sings along to the harmonica solo in ‘Quiet Heart.”

Despite extensive touring, incredible songs, and genuine attempts to make themselves chart-ready, they still didn’t get the success they deserved, and soon after returning, burnt out, from a world tour they split. The further the split is delved into, the greater a mystery it becomes. Conflicting, innumerable accounts and speculation can be found, Forster would go on record as saying “If I hear the enactment of the break up of the Go-Betweens at one more dinner party I’m going to go crazy.” Morrison, speaking in the 16 Lovers Lane edition of the ‘Greatest Australian Albums series would contest that “the only people who tell the story are Amanda and I. Grant’s dead so he’ll never tell his story and Robert won’t talk about it…”. Something that everyone agrees on is that having made the decision amongst themselves at a pre-agreed time, Forster told Morrison and McLennan told Brown on the 27th December 1989 that the band was finished. Though heavy with acrimony in the subsequent years – when the band split, Brown also left McLennan and she and Morrison would take the two songwriters to court for unpaid royalties – all members speak with fondness and admiration for each other’s work in the aforementioned documentary. Even if Morrison would concede that “we’ve never been able to deal with either Robert or Grant after the band broke up.” In the aftermath Morrison and Brown would form a short-lived outfit, Cleopatra Wong, before Morrison embarked on a career in advocacy and politics. Forster and McLennan would spend most of the next decade making solo records, with potted highlights including Forster’s ‘Baby Stones‘ and ‘Broken Hearted People‘, McLennan’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go‘ and ‘Lighting Fires‘ (the latter would also form one half of the Jack Frost project). Over time though the pair, from the middle of the decade, would periodically join forces to perform Go-Betweens songs, backed by Forster’s band members Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance. Soon, the next chapter in the band’s history would swing into action…

In 1999, while on tour, the pair agreed they should make another record. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, on that same tour, they’d meet another band who, it would transpire, they shared a mutual love for. Enter Carrie Brownstein, who’d say in David Nichols’ band biography: “I was the only Go-Betweens fan in Sleater-Kinney – I mean then, we all are now. They were one of my favourite bands. We were flying back from Japan and going to play two shows in San Francisco, they happened to be playing, just Robert and Grant, that night. We went backstage and met them, and we were just so shocked that they knew our band – it seemed like two different worlds.” That same surprise was expressed by Forster, who’d recall “when I first heard Dig Me Out I heard faint little echoes of Before Hollywood and I thought “That just can’t be. These young women from Portland are not even going to have heard of the Go-Betweens”, but when we met them…this hunch I had turned out to be true.” Onstage that night they’d announce their intention to make a new album, and on coming offstage were presented with an offer from Janet Weiss to act as drummer. When the following year Thompson was unavailable, Forster and McLennan, along with Pickvance, would travel to Portland not only to take Weiss up on her offer but to make their first album together in eleven years.

Perhaps still smarting from the fallout after 16 Lovers Lane the pair would eschew big studios and big budgets – something that would be reflected in the music contained on The Friends Of Rachel Worth, which would meld their melodicism with a simpler, more spacious production. The change in style was evident from the opening notes of McLennan’s airy ‘Magic In Here’, a trait which would pepper the album through the similarly reserved, mellow ballads of ‘Spirit‘, ‘He Lives My Life’ and ‘When She Sang About Angels’. These would be offset by the breezy, upbeat pop of ‘The Clock‘ and ‘Heart And Home’ as well as the forceful ‘German Farmhouse‘. In which Forster would directly address his life in Germany with his new wife (a trait at odds with previous lyrics and their underlying aura of mystery) for a result which sounded remarkably like a lost Sleater-Kinney track. Having already secured the services of Janet Weiss for the entire album, on infectious single ‘Going Blind‘ they’re also joined by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein to create a melding of Brisbane and Portland. While sonically a world away from the height of their late 80s pomp, the record would reinforce Forster and McLennan’s ability to work with each other again and continue to produce high-quality output, encouraging them to continue doing so.

By the time they’d start work on the follow-up, Forster and his family had relocated back to Australia from Germany to ease the creative process, with the subsequent record’s title – Bright Yellow, Bright Orange – coming from the colours used in the painting of his young son’s bedroom. With regular band member Glenn Thompson now available, Weiss would step aside to bring the regular line up together for recording. Stylistically, it would follow the template laid out by The Friends Of Rachel Worth – plaintive ballads such as ‘Mrs Morgan‘, ‘Crooked Lines’ and McLennan’s devastating closer ‘Unfinished Business‘ would sit snugly alongside the upbeat straight-ahead guitar-pop of the Monkees-style ‘Old Mexico‘, the Tom Petty-esque-‘Make Her Day‘ and the opening ‘Caroline And I‘, where Forster would draw parallels between himself and – but of course – a member of Monaco royalty. Blessed with a sense of space and a reasonably sparse production, and benefiting from months of preparation from the two songwriters, the record is another testament to their abilities and continued high standards. But at the same time, given what would follow, it oddly also feels like something of a porch step to the door of recognition the band would finally start to receive after almost thirty years of trying…

Though often viewed as under-appreciated, 2005’s Oceans Apart would glean five star reviews from the likes of MOJO, and be awarded the title of best contemporary adult record at that year’s edition of Australia’s prestigious ARIA music awards. It’s not hard to see why, with the brooding shuffle of ‘Here Comes A City’ giving way to the beautific ‘Finding You‘ and ‘No Reason To Cry‘, and lilting ‘Lavender‘. Whether by accident or design, both songwriters would in their own way reference breakthrough track ‘Cattle And Cane’; Forster by addressing his own childhood in ‘Born To A Family‘, McLennan via the tale of a ranch hand looking back over his life in ‘Boundary Rider‘. The closer, Forster’s sweeping, graceful ‘The Mountains Near Delray‘ would suggest that in 2005 they, as they had been in 1978, were capable of creating vivid, evocative imagery to lose yourself in. But in a cruel twist, their overdue acension would be cut short by McLennan’s sudden death in April 2006. Darren Hanlon, having met him only a month prior, would remark how he was still up for a quip, after witnessing him retort on the band’s ARIA win that he didn’t believe himself to be adult contemporary “though I do think I’m a contemporary adult.” Forster would disband The Go-Betweens following McLennan’s death, but he’d take the songs he’d earmarked for their next record – as well as finishing off three of Grant’s, including stunning ballad ‘Demon Days‘ – to form his solo album, The Evangelist. It would prove a fitting end to an enduring and special partnership, summed up by the title of Forster’s forthcoming Go-Betweens memoir (Grant & I), the touching memorial contained in the collection of his writings, The 10 Rules Of Rock And Roll, and his willingness to pull an all-nighter to play The Lexington’s tribute gig in 2013 having played in Spain the night before.

got betweems

While The Go-Betweens would appear to be gaining the recognition they’ve deserved for so long via the release of the Domino Records boxset and having a bridge in their native Brisbane named in their honour, arguably their influence started much earlier – almost from day one. Former Creation Records artist Pete Astor (The Loft, Jazz Butcher etc) recalls the effect seeing them in 1982 had on the way he made music: “how The Go-Betweens went about making music and being in a band were incredibly important to me. Post punk was the music that I particularly loved, but artistically, for me, it ended up as a bit of a dead end. What we were doing was all a bit too serious and rigid, like some kind of abstract Maoist tract, that ticked all the post punk boxes but without enough life and soul. What I heard in The Go-Betweens was a melodic beauty and songwriting deftness that was totally cool and showed a way out of the post punk artistic cul-de-sac. I’ll always aspire to making music with the kind of heartbreaking emotional understatement that they were masters of”. The Hangover Lounge’s Ben Clancy argues that their mixed-gender line-ups and literate pop stylings were a bold challenge to the culture at the time “An Australian band getting international success by playing a very melodic brand of guitar pop was a refreshing affront to their country’s pub rock tradition. It’s absolutely crucial to recognise the contribution of Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison, as well as Robert Forster’s androgyny, in encouraging a music culture that accepts and encourages new ways of playing and presentation in a macho music culture.”

Growing up in Queensland, Elizabeth Morris (Allo Darlin’) feels that that aspect of their image not only appealed to her, but encouraged her into the musical scene and to write her own songs, “they were important to me because I found the Brisbane music scene to be quite macho, quite trendy, I didn’t feel like I fitted in. I thought you had to be super cool to write music. That definitely says a lot more about me and my insecurities at the time then it does about Brisbane though. After I found The Go-Betweens, suddenly it seemed like the best band to come out of Brisbane had the opposite qualities, people loved them because they were homey, comfortable, friendly. Beautiful, like a wooden house in Taringa. It made me feel like I could be like that too.” It’s a view echoed by Darren Hanlon, who feels that having a relatively local band making music with such resonance, who had an international fanbase acted as an inspiration “The fact that they were from Queensland was important to me – that this music was being made only two hours down the Bruce Highway made me believe I had options. I felt comforted in the way I was able to use the songs to get meaning from events in my own life. The lyrics have very sharp evocative images, but put together in ambiguous ways, none of the songs seem to be laden with obvious narrative.”

Summing up a band who mean so much to so many people, and who have such an enviable back-catalogue of songs as intriguing as they are emotive, is no easy task, but here’s an attempt: profound but not self-important, intelligent but not pretentious, theirs was a world that in throughout a period of time referred to as ‘the me decade’ made a wealth of music that made love not only feel like the fascinating, complicated yet beautiful thing that it undoubtedly is, but at the same time managed to make it seem achingly cool too. Or, as Andrew Mueller put in the reissue sleevenotes for Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express: “I would like more people to hear it, because I’d like to think that everyone can feel like I do when I do: pleased with the dreams they once harboured, however wrecked or neglected they might have become; simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the knowledge that love will find a way, however well you’ve hidden; comforted by the affirmation that the foolishness we commit in the name of love can be the closest to greatness we get.”

Amen.

Get the G Stands For Go-Betweens boxset, released by Domino now.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3