If there’s any one nation whose musical exports are making waves globally at the moment it has to be Australia. Putting the success of Cut Copy to one side, there’s currently the likes of Tame Impala, Flume, Jagwar Ma and the expressive, guitar-shredding overnight sensation of Courtney Barnett all vying for the world’s attention. Not that it’s always been that way – rewind a few years and unless you were AC/DC, Men At Work or The Primitives’ Tracy Tracy, it was tough to be Australian and get widespread international recognition, which makes the success of The Go-Betweens all the more remarkable and impressive.
Granted, if your definition of success is framed by mass-selling juggernauts such as Adele’s ’21’, then this group of Brisbanites will be nothing more than a drop in the ocean (in UK chart terms, their albums spent a total of two weeks in the standings, their singles ten, and nothing made it higher than 81). But if you view success in terms more akin to that of the Velvet Underground – records largely ignored in sales figures but almost unsurpassed in scope of influence – then they rank high up, and continue to do so now. As band biographer David Nichols offers in his book, “the people who grew up with them in the 1970s and 1980s spread the word in the 1990s, and new converts are made wherever their records are played.” This love is echoed in the flood of praise that followed the 1989 split of the original lineup, with Dave Jennings in a 1990 edition of Melody Maker, opining “They never got the attention they deserved which means, sadly, that you may never have experienced the thrill that comes from hearing The Go-Betweens describe exactly how you felt, the last time your emotions were pulled into unfamiliar shapes.” Andrew Male, writing in Select in 1996, added “the only problem with listening to The Go-Betweens now is that they remind you how crap the eighties were. An example? The Go-Betweens produced records of quiet brilliance and got nowhere. Sting sang about a sodding turtle and became a millionaire.”
They’ve a point, of course. A band has to have talent to have a career that at various junctures crossed paths with the likes of Geoff Travis, Postcard Records, Nick Cave, Tracy Thorne, and Sleater-Kinney, not to mention have an impact on the likes of Alex Kapranos and Stuart Murdoch. With Domino releasing the first of three lush boxsets examining The Go-Betweens’ career the time seems ripe to reassess both their history and enduring, long-term impact.
The songwriting vehicle for a pair of bright young Brisbane fops, the first piece of the Go-Betweens jigsaw, fell in place when University Of Queensland students Robert Forster and Grant McLennan crossed paths. With legend having it that the former – all 6ft 2 of him – was first spotted by the latter cavorting about in an adult nappy as part of a Rocky Horror Show drama rehearsal. Forster turned to music to escape a soporific suburban existence (“I remember spending twenty-one Saturday nights at home in a row – that was my record. My parents were going out more than me…I knew [that] to break the chain I had to get up onstage” he’d recall), having been a part of a covers band whose repertoire veered from The Beatles to KC & The Sunshine Band’s ‘Shake Your Booty’ called The Godots – “the band you’ve been waiting for!” – Forster decided to do things his own way, and in McLennan finally found someone of a similar bent. A boarding school graduate and eldest child of a conservative family, McLennan’s main loves lay in film and poetry, although music was never far behind. After early attempts to form a partnership proved abortive owing to McLennan’s desire to concentrate on his studies, Forster eventually got his wish following the completion of Grant’s course, and so they’d enter 1978 with a new sense of purpose and a blank musical canvas on which to leave their mark.
The real catalyst for the Go-Betweens story to take flight was at a punk show at Baroona Hall, Brisbane, where Forster managed to acquire them a two-song set. Looking back on the effect it had, he’d say “before we did that show in Baroona Hall in early ’78, we knew virtually no-one in the city. We knew a couple of people at university, both of us had lost contact with our school friends so we basically had a few uni friends and a couple of other people, but once we’d played that show we knew a hundred people – the number of people we knew just exploded over a week.” Having continued to ply their trade via a successions of gigs at pools, houses and that old rock and roll rite of passage: pineapple plantations, the next step would be to cut something to tape. With the help of local record store Toowong Music Centre and its proprietor Damien Nelson, they’d soon be releasing their début single via their own label, Able. An infectious slice of Monkees-esque pop, ‘Lee Remick’ would at once show their way with a tune and what happens when film buffs are given free reign to write lyrics (“She was in The Omen with Gregory Peck/she got killed, what the heck?” – it was later covered with unabashed gusto by The Wannadies, fact fans). On its b-side, ‘Karen‘, Forster would again demonstrate his way with words by channelling The Modern Lovers to describe his own loneliness and a yearning for excitement (he’s since conceded that the first Modern Lovers record was the one that he felt resonated most with his own experiences of mid-70s suburbia).
In a cultural climate dominated by identikit long-haired types playing interminable heavy rock covers at house parties and who, according to Forster, would “turn up at this suburban house and take pride in the fact it would take three hours to get their gear out the back of their vans” the Go-Betweens’ first single was at once a breath of fresh air and an audacious calling card. Dubbing their latest sonic creations ‘the striped sunlight sound’ after the visual accompaniment that practicing in the sun room of Forster’s familial home would afford, they were soon suitably buoyed to release a second single in the shape of the 60s-tinged ‘Some People Say‘ with its swirling organ line. The flipside featured a Forster/McLennan co-write in the shape of ‘Don’t Let Him Come Back‘ and its cries of “Who’s that dressed in black? Who’s that in his apartment?”, allegedly about fellow local musician and future member Robert Vickers. As far as the young Vickers was concerned, even at this early stage the Go-Betweens were showing their class, opining in David Nichols’ biography that at that time Forster “was just obsessed by sixties songs and mixing that [type of] melody with an odd slant on the lyrics…Some of these songs were really great: “My mouth feels like a jetty where young ladies walk.” You would just be standing there [thinking] “what the fuck is that?” Unbelievable lyrics. You just wanted to talk to him.”
I later learned that all those bands owned Go-Betweens records and aspired to be that good – Ben Clancy
Not that their early output resonated solely amongst their Brisbane peers. Though hearing it years after its initial release, Ben Clancy of the Lexington’s Sunday staple The Hangover Lounge (and organiser of its annual May day bank holiday Grant McLennan tribute gig – which has seen star turns in recent years from Luke Haines and, in 2013, Forster himself) can still remember the effect it had no only on him but also on other bands at the time. “’Lee Remick’ was reissued in 1986, it used to be played on Radio 1 in the evenings and it seemed to be a part of all those indie-pop bands that I was discovering, only better. I later learned that all those bands owned Go-Betweens records and aspired to be that good. I was 13-years-old”. Back in 1980, via some incredible serendipity, it would lead to the next step in the band’s career, when while hand-delivering 7”s of Orange Juice’s ‘Falling And Laughing’ Postcard Records head honchos Alan Horne and Edwyn Collins would spy a copy in Rough Trade. It transpired the girl behind the counter was a friend of the band, and Grand and Robert were in town as part of a lengthy UK jaunt. After a haphazard courtship between label and band, best viewed via Simon Goddard’s uproariously entertaining book on the Postcard Records story, the songwriting duo would spend the next 8 weeks ensconced in Glasgow, where they’d not only play their first shows outside of their native Brisbane but also cut a third single with the help of Orange Juice drummer Stephen Daly. Darker and more subversive than their earlier work, ‘I Need Two Heads‘ would see Forster musing that “the best detective is a child detective” over a nervous, scurrying beat. It would display not only another side to their songwriting, but also serve warning that they were becoming ever-more ambitious.
On Forster and McLennan’s return to Brisbane in mid-1980, another crucial element fell into place. Having gone through a rotating cast of eight drummers in two years, they finally found a permanent member in Lindy Morrison. Already something of a local celebrity via a stint in feminist punks Zero, Morrison as well as being highly skilled, offered a counterpoint to their relative naivety with her vivacious, outspoken nature contributing to the band’s identity. She and Forster had also already started a relationship that would continue, on-and-off, for almost the rest of the decade. Another change came in the summer of 1981, when the band would relocate to Melbourne, finding upon their post-UK return to Brisbane that the nascent punk and new wave scene that had welcomed them at their inception had stagnated. Though McLennan would opine that “the first two years in Brisbane were fantastic, and you really felt like you were the only people doing something that meant something”, Forster would later feel that from a personal perspective the move saved him from a creative black hole. “I’d lost it” he’d recall “Grant started to write really well and Grant’s songs were by far the better [ones]…Melbourne saved us. As soon as we arrived in Melbourne, I exploded again.”
That explosion of creativity would catapult the band towards their first record, recorded in July 1981. With the band’s standing affording a European licensing deal with Rough Trade before even recording, Send Me A Lullaby would see the band eschewing the temptation to rerecord old material in favour of showcasing a collection of new work. The end result is an intriguing window into a band still trying to hone their dynamic; it feels more in line with the art-rock of Television and Wire than it does with the Modern Lovers stylings of early singles or the lush arrangements they’d peddle later in the decade. From the opening chords of the album’s staccato opening salvo ‘Your Turn, My Turn‘ to the piano and saxophone motifs that pepper the album, to Forster in ‘Eight Pictures‘ admitting with barely-contained despair that “I suspected for some time that you had other lovers/But I didn’t know that those men in your room weren’t really your brothers”, The record fizzes with an undercurrent of tension and unease. Not that it’s a one-trick pony; the likes of ‘One Thing Can Hold Us‘ and ‘Hold Your Horses‘ would offer a glimpse into their more melodic side that would shine ever brighter as the decade wore on. As important a part of the band’s history the album is, McLennan (according to David Nichols’ band biography) would later view the record as ’embarrassing’ and ‘unlistenable’, while Forster would write in the sleevenotes of mid-90s retrospective Bellavista Terrace that newcomers should not buy their début offering – absent from said retrospective – “without owning at least three others. It’ll make no sense otherwise”. Lukewarm the duo’s feeling towards may have been, it didn’t stop their Australian fans foregoing the cheaply-priced 8-track version offered by the Australian label Missing link, in favour of the full 12-track European release and associated import costs. Now that’s dedication.
By May 1982 the band were on the move again, this time setting up shop bright lights of London, where they’d live until 1988. Like some sordid, Antipodean take on The Monkees’ house, they’d end up sharing a squat in Fulham with The Birthday Party, who they’d also recorded a single, ‘After The Fireworks’, as The Tuff Monks in 1981 before they all transferred to Europe (speaking of their time in the squat, Morrison would later candidly reveal that one of the few times she ever dabbled in drugs was at Nick Cave’s expense after finding his heroin while cleaning the kitchen). The band, having hit the capital before their début was released, spent their early weeks in the UK pensive about the reception it would receive. They needn’t have worried, with the NME dubbing it “a record of tremendous depth, a mystery to be fathomed…edgy, poignant, witty, naked and tense”. Suitably enthused, they’d begin work on their second album, Before Hollywood, a record that if nothing else must surely rank as the finest to have ever been recorded in Eastbourne. It’s also the record which arguably sees McLennan come of age as a songwriter and musician, having taken something of a back seat on its predecessor allowing Forster to shine in the limelight, not least on vocal duties. It would set up a longstanding dynamic between the two, with all future albums featuring five songs from each and with a clear and distinct identity. Though Forster and McLennan would occasionally encroach on each other’s style, from then on, for the most part, the former would provide the artier, more dramatic and theatrical elements and the latter the more instant and melodic (though no less lyrically elaborate). The Go-Betweens had found both their feet and a clear direction for the future.