This Sunday, The Scala sees Anglo-Australian quartet Allo Darlin’s swansong. They may never have done the talk show circuit, played stadia or ridden a wave of hype, but the degree to which they meant something to those who heard them renders such quantifiers redundant. “I’ve never been a success in my life” sings Elizabeth Morris on farewell single ‘Hymn On A 45’, but a sold-out Scala show (and a similarly sold-out pair of hastily-arranged Moth Club dates to meet demand) would suggest otherwise.
While the story will end in London it begins on the other side of the world in the Australian city of Rockhampton, in the heart of Queensland’s beef country. A place seemingly as adept at breeding whipsmart songwriters as it is livestock, it would see a young songwriter attempting to emulate one of the city’s most famous sons, Grant McLennan. McLennan, along with partner-in-crime Robert Forster, would later become the dynamic duo who spearheaded The Go-Betweens as they took their vision of Queensland – state capital Brisbane especially – to the wider world, thanks to the likes of ‘Cattle & Cane’ and ‘Streets Of Your Town’. Back home, their legacy was breeding the next generation of musicians. “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.” said Elizabeth, speaking of their legacy and their impact on her back in 2013 “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 than 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. It made me feel like I could be like that too.”
Like a whole host of Australian musicians before her, Morris would head to London to realise her musical ambitions, faithful uke in tow; a young woman with a small instrument in the big city with even bigger ideas. Once there happenstance, chance encounters and a Bruce Springsteen cover for a compilation would all conspire to create the crack squad that has endured right through to the forthcoming finals. Morris was joined by fellow Brisbanite Bill Botting and the British duo of Michael Collins and Paul Rains. One of their early forays, 2009’s ‘Henry Rollins Don’t Dance’, acted as an attractive mission statement where over a precocious, infectious shuffle and parping horns Morris celebrated the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures and gave the notion of po-faced piety short shrift.
From the first line (“Will you go out with me tonight, lose it on a disco floor?”) of the self-titled début the foursome recorded that same summer, it was clear Morris was foregoing documenting the uncertainty that a relative newcomer to a country could be forgiven for writing about. Instead fizzing with the effervescent, intoxicating energy and excitement of the opportunities and experiences her surroundings offered. From frosty nightbuses through to fiscal inadequacy and everything in between, it was an album which presented the city as a blank canvas where everything was fair game for romanticising and celebrating. Painting a world in which most of life’s tribulations could be solved with the warm embrace of a loved one. The centrepiece of its worldview came from the gorgeous thrum of ‘Let’s Go Swimming’ where Morris extolled the virtues of a lazy waterside summer’s escape (asserting that punks, hipsters and bankers couldn’t respectively shout about it, style it or buy it) before throwing a witty callback to her days in Queensland by observing “I tell you it feels new to go swimming somewhere nothing can eat you”. Fresh, bright and unashamedly hopeful and idealistic, blissful exuberance ran through it like the sound of a band in love with being in a band. With good reason: they were, with Michael saying in 2012 that “There’s a naivety about [that first album] because we were in our infancy as a band. It all felt so giddy at the start of this band, sort of like a love affair.”
Writing in his 1200 word essay on the album for Australia’s The Monthly (later featuring in his Ten Rules Of Rock And Roll), former Go-between Robert Forster suggested that the band “now have doors open before them”. Thus Allo Darlin’s follow-up LP Europe could be viewed as the album The Go-Betweens dared them to make, and they rose to the occasion. The sparkling pop perfection (and throwback to Morris’ native Queensland) of lead single ‘Capricornia’ felt like a more wholesome ‘Streets Of Your Town’ that replaced knife-sharpening butchers, spousal abuse and keep-your-wits-about-you wariness with hot tarmac, sunbathing hounds and overdue reunions. Elsewhere, the devastatingly emotive minimalism of ‘Tallulah’ took the happy-go-lucky “driving my first car, elbows in the breeze” of Forster’s ‘Spring Rain’ and melded it into something far more poignant as she recalled a drive where “we had the windows down for our aircon, the door was so hot that you burned your arm.” Written during a time of unrest on the continent, rioting in London and when Morris’ visa was being reviewed, it simultaneously looked at the Europe of her present alongside the Australia of her past that could have proven to be her future.
Not only a stunning reflection on belonging and sense of place, it showed the band at their most dazzlingly technicolour and the giant leap Morris had made as a songwriter. On one hand heartbreaker ‘Tallulah’ sat with ‘Some People Say’, ‘My Sweet Friend’ and ‘Neil Armstrong’ (whose “If a hero comes in last, who is winning?” is a candidate for best question asked in a song since Jonathan Richman’s ‘Do you long for her or the way you were?”) in an accomplished suite of gentle reflection. On the other, ‘Capricornia’ headed the dual rushes of ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Northern Lights’ and the anthemic ‘Still Young’ as an uptempo – though on occasion no less lyrically thoughtful and fearful – counterpoint. An all-round class act, Europe‘s announcement as Rough Trade’s biggest seller of 2012 shouldn’t have been as big a surprise as it was; it was an achievement that felt like a victory for sincere and meaningful songwriting that connected with people, the title track’s use for the closing credits of ITV’s coverage of the following year’s Europa Cup final an amusingly surreal postscript.
But the same year that saw them enter the realms of sports-montage soundtrackers also saw major changes behind the scenes with Morris leaving for the continent, settling in Florence, and getting married. Now a band split between two countries, the fact that they managed to make another album is impressive enough, but to make one so graceful and of such high quality as We Come From The Same Place borders on the inspirational. If Europe ruminated on belonging through sense of place, then its successor dwelt on belonging in terms of new beginnings and stages of life – “What came before doesn’t have to be the best” sung Elizabeth on the quiet determination of ‘History Lessons’, adding on the forceful ‘Crickets In The Rain’ that “nothing feels the way it did before and I am grateful for that”. Documenting Morris’ journey into a new life, it’s an album that sees her flit between the uncertainty of starting anew and post-resettlement confidence and is steered by a musical direction which jettisoned the kaleidoscopic brightness of Europe for something sparser which had the band deploying their talents in a new and different way. Paul challenged Elizabeth to write in a minor key, she delivered ‘Romance And Adventure’. She repaid the favour by writing a song for him to sing on, he duly delivered on ‘Bright Eyes’. The spiritual successor to The Primitives’ ‘Crash’, ‘Half Heart Necklace’ remains the only song Elizabeth has written from another perspective, musing on love through her hometown’s infamous teenage runaway, Natasha Ryan. In a record made by overcoming challenging circumstances, in retrospect it’s fitting that they crossed off some self-imposed demands along the way.
From their earliest forays through to swansong single ‘Hymn On A 45’ (which joins the heady rush of ‘Darren’ and affecting seasonal observations of ‘Only Dust Behind’ in highlighting the wealth of material the band had away from albums) there’s been a constant theme – the degree to which their songs have mattered. Allo Darlin’s songs work because, to borrow from Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel pitch, they take us to a place where we feel loved. They resonate and connect with us because at their core they present a world where all of us want to live, where compassion and love and joy are the driving factors, an alternative reality in which to simultaneously lose yourself in and to which you can relate to. Emotional trust falls, they often take us to parts of ourselves we’ve either suppressed or have yet to discover and then are always there to catch us if and when we get there. At a time when the days are darker and there’s a lot of fear around, having a presence that can still make us believe that if we fight the good fight we’ll end up with the prize feels about as important as it ever has. Carrie Brownstein once described seeing Grant McLennan – that man again – live was like simultaneously watching the lost soul and the search party, and it could be argued the same applies to listening to Elizabeth’s songs. In a single line like “When I see you from the bus it’s my heart that stops” they contain a range of emotions (wit, yearning, hope, romanticism), and in coffee-ringed A-Zs and apricot skies and morning light through windows a gallery’s-worth of detail-rich imagery to hold on to like the feelings they inspire. They make it seem OK to both dream and to be unsure of ourselves, and act as rejuvenating bursts of idealistic energy or beacons of reassurance whenever we need them.
While the focus is often – and not undeservedly – put on the songwriting, to ignore the way the band functioned as a whole would be foolish. Rarely has a group of people brought their talents to songs in a way that so convincingly enhanced them without ever overpowering them. Paul Rains’ bright, rolling guitar lines were often the most noticeable element (there’s a reason his double-speed live rendition of the guitar solo in ‘Kiss Your Lips’ regularly got its own round of applause at live shows), but a well-timed bass motif from Bill or expertly-judged drum fill from Michael similarly highlighted the way they worked together to bring the songs to life. “From our very first practice I can still remember what a thrill it was to play with Mike, Paul and Elizabeth.” said Bill, speaking in 2014 “I remember plugging into this amp we had in The Bunker, a small studio in Shadwell or wherever it was and playing the songs that would form the first single, and it felt like being 15 again in a high school band, thinking ‘this sounds awesome!I love this, it’s great!’ I went home and said to my wife that it felt like a magical time machine.” At the time we were speaking ahead of their first show together in almost eight months, and he added that “we went to the rehearsal in Tottenham and I was there on the train with my bass and I felt really excited. I think it’s so nice that that hasn’t gone away despite the frankly obscene number of shows that we’ve played.” “You always read about these bands and how the first time they played together they felt this energy,” added Paul, speaking separately during that same interview session “and you always find yourself looking for that. You can go for ages playing in bands thinking ‘yeah, this is pretty cool…these are my mates and it’s special in a way’ but there’s really something in the four members of Allo Darlin’ and the way they play together that really does feel special and feels like it has that kind of energy…or it does to me, anyway. I feel really grateful that it does have that.”
Live, they took it to the next level, each and every show granting the feeling of falling in love with a band for the first time; a gang tearing from town to town leaving not destruction in their wake but memories of a burning pop supernova and a sea of smiling faces left feeling things were that bit better. Who wouldn’t be swayed after an hour of watching Bill leap around with abandon, face never straying from a locked-in gleeful grin? With a world seeming ever more cruel, Allo Darlin’ seem at once both increasingly anachronistic and ever-more vital. It’d be easy to begrudge them their stopping point, but ceasing at a point where they end on a joyous high and with friendships intact is about the most Allo Darlin’ thing they could have done. Struggling on – and with Bill having already found the awkward trans-Europe logistics around the making of the last album an occasionally frustrating distraction, a struggle it could well have been – under duress, Strokes-style with gritted teeth, not only wouldn’t have computed but would have been heartbreaking to watch.
I’m going to miss doing press with them, and the long-running joke that everything we ever did together was part of a wider conspiratorial plan that would make them the biggest band in the world (“this is going to be the one that does it, right Gareth?”). Of course it was never serious, but as with everything to do with Allo Darlin’, it was OK to dream. However proud I am of everything they’ve achieved (very, for the record) I can’t help wishing the world had offered them more. Not just because I want to see people who, over the course of their crazy journey, have become dear friends do well. Nor just because they and their songs deserved it, their breakout Indietracks and End Of The Road sets proving that beyond doubt. It’s more that I’d love to have seen them get the breaks because I can’t help feeling, and holding onto a hope, that the more people who saw Allo Darlin’ the better a place the world would have become. They were that sort of band. Or, as Andrew Mueller once wrote on an unrelated topic: “I would like more people to hear [them], 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.”
They were the band that could make father and daughter mock-squabble over which name to get signed on their record, and a young boy buy an album to leave in the lobby record collection of the hotel he was staying at. They were everybody’s favourite deep down in the place where music made us happiest. They could charm us with a pop song and make us believe we’d all met before and that we came from the same place. They were escapees who were brave, kings and queens who said adventure was worth taking. They were shooting stars leaving only dust behind. They did it because they loved it. They were everything. They’ll be missed.
I’ll remember these nights always.
Photos by Nik Vestberg, find out more about his book Allo Darlin’ The Early Years.