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.
While they’d go on to produce some minor pop masterpieces – several per album on Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane in the 1980s, and then again on The Friends of Rachel Worth, Bright Yellow Bright Orange and Oceans Apart from 2000 up to singer-guitarist Grant McLennan’s death in 2006 – the Go-Betweens’ early music was a knotty thing indeed, speaking loudly of their punk and post-punk influences as well as their inability to play smooth.
The group’s second album, Before Hollywood, is where they begin that journey towards lasting pop greatness (and step out of shadows of their early heroes), with two haunting songs from MacLennan: Dusty in Here and Cattle and Cane, which in the 30 years since its release has garnered huge acclaim in the band’s native Australia. Yet this most Australian of songs was written in London, on Nick Cave’s acoustic guitar, and recorded in Eastbourne, of all places.*
Drummer Lindy Morrison explained the song as being spurred by McLennan’s intense homesickness and his pre-occupation with his childhood, which must have seemed a long way away to a young man living thousands and thousands of miles in a bohemian demi-monde in London with characters like Cave and the rest of the Birthday Party providing company and role models.
Grant was incredibly homesick for the first couple of years we were in England and he spent those first couple of years thinking about his past. He was obsessed with it. A lot of those songs on Before Hollywood have the imagery of Australia. I think Cattle and Cane is a master song.
This is a generous repsonse from Morrison. Not because she’s overrating the song, but because her relationship with McLennan was never easy. Not long after joining the Go-Betweens, she began a relationship with the group’s founder, Robert Forster, McLennan’s best friend. McLennan tended to treat her pretty condescendingly, despite Morrison’s relative maturity (she was seven years older than Forster and McLennan, already 33 in 1983 when Cattle and Cane was released), and the interaction between the two was seldom comfortable. McLennan, for his part, recognised that Morrison did great things with a very tricky song.
Cattle and Cane is a metrically complicated song. Morrison explained that she counted it as a bar of 5, then a bar of 2, then a bar of 4. A musicologist might simply say it’s in 11/4 time, but Morrison’s approach acknowledges the strong beats and chord changes that MacLennan plays on guitar, and feels more intuitive and natural to me.
She keeps a tight rein on the song, staying off the snare until it’s well underway, giving the impression that the song is speeding up (there probably is also subtle ratcheting up of tempo as the track goes on), simultaneously making the irregular metre feel entirely natural. Her approach is wonderfully appropriate, since the song’s lyrics are presented to us as McLennan’s reveries when returning home on a train to visit his family at their cattle station. We actually feel like we’re on the train with him. Even without the music, even without the words, Morrison’s drum track would evoke movement, a train journey specifically. It’s an incredibly evocative performance, the one for which she’ll always be remembered.
*Eastbourne is a seaside town in East Sussex with a large population of retirees. Brighton, 20-odd miles down the coast and a spiritual world away, would seem a far more appropriate venue for a band to make a classic record. My grandparents lived in a town called Seaford, located between Eastbourne and Brighton, but closer to Eastbourne. So while Brighton was only half an hour’s drive away, I’ve been there maybe five or six times at most, while Eastbourne would be more like 20 or 30, the last three of which were for the funerals of my granddad, granny and aunt. I’d be happy not to go there again.