I wrote about Robert Forster’s memoir, Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a piece I wrote after a few days spent revisiting the band’s music.
The Go-Betweens’ music, taken in totality, is the story of songwriting talent eventually overcoming initial technical limitations, of a band whose members wanted and thought they deserved wider success working slowly towards a sound that might have brought it to them, only to disband at the moment it might have been within reach.
Formed in Brisbane in the late 1970s, the Go-Betweens began life as founder Robert Forster’s concept. Obsessed by rock ‘n’ roll and its history, he desperately wanted to be a musician, but he found bandmates who shared his vision hard to come by. He suggested to his closest friend, Grant McLennan, that maybe he should get a guitar and join the band. McLennan, though, was a film nut and wanted to concentrate on that passion, not become distracted by music. Not to be deterred, Forster kept working on him until McLennan agreed to give bass guitar a go.
To Forster’s delight, his friend had a natural ear for melody, quickly developing a bass style that complemented Forster’s terse guitar chords. McLennan soon started writing songs, too. Always a hard worker, he was prolific and – more so than Forster – tuneful. McLennan wrote the band’s early masterpiece, Cattle & Cane (a reflection on childhood from the point of view of a young man on a train bound for the parental home), and followed it up one album later with the first song by the Go-Betweens that sounds like it should have been a hit.
Bachelor Kisses, from 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, is built on one of those open-string tricks that guitarists love*. In the verses, McLennan shifts bass note while playing an almost-arpeggio on the open B and G strings. The implied chord sequence (C / D / G / A minor) is standard stuff, but the reliance on the open strings extends the harmony into something more like C major 7 / D6 (add11) / G / Am (add9). His vocal melody, while fairly static, avoids obvious root notes (he frequently sings yearning ninths), and is complemented by a graceful counter-melody in the chorus by the Raincoats’ Ana da Silva.
Another telling detail is the performance of Lindy Morrison. The band’s drummer was also Forster’s girlfriend, and her relationship with McLennan was uneasy and tense, yet she produced much of her most inspired work on McLennan’s songs, as on the tricky 11/4 time Cattle & Cane. Here, her decision to play the verses in half-time, only shifting to tempo for the bridges and choruses, and moving back to half-time for the middle eight, is astute and key to the song’s balance of tension and release.
Despite the efforts of producer John Brand to shine it up, Bachelor Kisses is perhaps still too skeletal to have been a genuine commercial hit in 1984 (maybe a couple of years earlier it might have been a contender), but it remains one of the great treasures of the Go-Betweens’ catalogue.