I find something endlessly adorable about the Go-Betweens. Not naturally gifted as songwriters, and certainly not gifted as players or singers, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan succeeded more or less on hard work and the strength of their aesthetic. Each of their albums contained 10 small-scale indie-pop songs, five by each writer, Forster’s hipster smart-arsery balanced by McLennan’s winsome sincerity, but all determinedly low-key. In such a setting, a little detail can be overwhelming in effect.
Forster is usually seen as the artier Go-Be, a sort of Brisbanite David Byrne figure – a rock ‘n’ roll renaissance man. Yet it was Forster who was always the wannabe musician. McLennan, on the other hand, was a keen literature student and aspiring film-maker, and had to be badgered by Forster into forming a band with him. From the off, Forster had his sound down. He’d get better at the execution, but at the start of the band’s career Forster already knew how best to deploy his limited singing voice and what kind of songs he could write. McLennan, by contrast, was still learning. He went on to become the band’s craftsman, yet his initial lack of technical know-how perhaps prevented him from becoming the true pop songwriter he often seemed to want to be: no amount of hard work would turn him into Paul McCartney. Even his best tunes get by with only four or five notes and the same number of chords.
Nonetheless at his frequent best (and indeed the same is true for Forster) he could take his very simple building blocks, his Play in a Day chord changes and semi-spoken tunes, and make gold out of them.
By the time the release of Tallulah launched the Go-Betweens mk II – for which Forster, McLennan, drummer Lindy Morrison and bassist Robert Vickers were joined by Amanda Brown on violin, oboe and guitar – McLennan was straining at the edges of his talent, alternating between lovely pop songs and darkier, moodier pieces, generally succeeding but sometimes falling hard on his face. Tallulah’s Cut it Out is a notorious example of a McLennan failure: an attempt at electro-funk that suggested an attempt to play Cameo at their game. Hope then Strife is a more interesting misstep: semi-spoken verses, with flamenco guitar, and choruses largely alternating between two notes, backed by Brown’s violin, linked by a brief but lovely half-time section where McLennan’s tunefulness makes itself present (“Don’t say that you agree/With the price that you pay for your captivity”).
So Tallulah was an up-and-down record for McLennan, and most of the album’s best songs are Forster’s (my pick of them is I Just Get Caught Out). But McLennan had a couple of heavy hitters. Right Here and Bye Bye Pride, for my money the last great song he wrote before the Go-Betweens broke up for the first time (his contributions on their first last album, 16 Lovers Lane, feel a bit hollow to me, lacking his usual depth, as if he wrote happy love songs less well than sad ones). Bye Bye Pride pairs a repetitive, Lennon-esque tune with one of his finest, most closely observed lyrics:
A white moon appears like a hole in the sky
The mangroves grow quiet
In the Parisi de la Palma a teenage Rasputin
Takes the sting from her gin
“When a woman learns to walk she’s not dependent any more”
A line from her letter, May 24
And out on the bay the current is strong
A boat can go lost
I like the details at the start of the second verse, too: “Turned the fan off / and went for a walk / by the lights down on Shield Street”. At his best, McLennan was as good a lyricist as his more celebrated partner, with a knack for accumulating detail quickly and unobtrusively.
But Bye Bye Pride is a record, not merely a song, and no appreciation of it as a recording would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of Amanda Brown on oboe and backing vocals. Forster, in the midst of his rock-star-as-vampire era, could not have given McLennan the emotionally open, optimistic harmonies the song needed.
Sadly for long-time fans, when the band reformed, Brown wasn’t part of the crew; she and McLennan had been lovers and she was hurt that McLennan and Forster has taken the decision to the end the band without warning her first (she went on to a successful career arranging strings for R.E.M., Silverchair and others). Female backing vocals had become such an important part of the band’s sound, though, that they needed someone to fulfil that role when the band reformed. Initially, Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss (and Corin Tucker on a couple of songs) were on hand to supply them, before bassist Adele Pickvance joined the band for its last two records.
For a band that had seemed as reliant on the chemistry between Forster and his former partner Morrison as that between Forster and McLennan, a band that had been so enhanced by the contributions of Amanda Brown, what a welcome surprise it was that their comeback albums were so strong. With Finding You, Boundary Rider and No Reason to Cry, McLennan left us with some of his finest songs before dying in his sleep of a heart attack in 2006.
Grant McLennan, with sincere eyebrows, c. 1984?
Go-Betweens c.1986, l-r Robert Vickers, Lindy Morrison, Grant McLennan, Amanda Brown, Robert Forster