Tag Archives: Lindy Morrison

Back in Miraval

Hi all. I’m sorry for the extremely sporadic posting of late. Since the new year, I’ve been taking on some freelance work, and I’ve often had to do it at weekends, so it’s been eating into my blogging time. I’m working on a long I’ve Never Heard post, and was hoping to have it ready for this weekend, to coincide with a landmark anniversary for the album, as well as the eighth birthday of the blog itself. It’ll probably surprise you. I hope it’s worth the wait. I haven’t quite managed to finish it, but in view of it being Songs from So Deep’s eighth anniversary, I did want to post something, even if it’s quick and off the cuff. So here goes:

Chris O’Leary’s 64 Quartets is a fantastic occasional blog series on four-piece bands. Proper analytical, long-read, deep-dive stuff. Before this week, he’d covered Booker T and the MG’s, the Jamies, the Benny Goodman Quartet, Queen and the Boston/4AD diaspora: Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly and the Breeders. This week, he turned his attention to the Bangles.

The Bangles are one of those bands that I always meant to check out at full album length, but I’ve never quite got round to it. I do know a fair amount of their material, and really like much of it. After reading O’Leary’s piece, I’m determined to put that right, while already knowing that some of what I’m going to hear is, um, unrepresentative of the band as it was in real life, for reasons O’Leary makes clear with the aid of quotes from the band members:

“We would go in as a band, all four of us in a room, and lay down the song,” Vicki [Peterson] told Vintage Guitar. “Then, in classic ’80s style, with the guidance and decisions of Kahne, we would systematically replace everything we’d just done! Every guitar line was replaced with various schmutz. Even Susanna [Hoff]’s rhythm tracks.” To Craig Rosen, she said “we’d isolate the drums, and we’d sound like the Rolling Stones, and then we’d come back out and every single note on that record is replaced with a trigger—snares that Debbi hit are now triggered by another sound.”

“He made us more aware of what our flaws were then the things we were good at,” Hoffs recalled to DeYoung. Then Kahne started bringing in “ringer guitar players to do certain things,” Vicki said. “At one point, I’d had to leave the studio for an emergency, and I came back, and he’d had his guy show up and do a solo. It was the backwards thing on ‘September Gurls.’ I hate to burst your bubble, I didn’t play that.”

Reading this put me in mind of passages from Robert Forster’s Grant & I, his memoir of his life in the Go-Betweens, in which he talks about making Spring Hill Fair at Studio Miraval in France with producer John Brand (Aztec Camera, the Cult), who was on a mission to make a “proper record” with them:

What constituted such a record in John’s eyes became apparent when, instead of miking the band’s instruments and starting to record, we spent three days getting a bass drum sound. Then started the dreaded discussion of live verses programmed drums and suddenly we were face to face with eighties recording hell. Little was getting done as John manouvered Lindy [Morrison, the band’s drummer] into accepting the use of drum machines. The rest of the band were trapped, literally, in Miraval as the clock ticked and things nosedived into disaster.

The era of the obsession with timekeeping was upon us, automated recording and mixing desks and synthesisers forcing the requirement of absolute accuracy in the drums; no “feel” was allowed.

Later in the book, you can almost hear Forster groan despondently as he describes recording Tallulah‘s Right Here and Cut it Out with Craig Leon and Cassell Webb as like being “back at Miraval”.

Now, as any fan of either band knows, both the Bangles and the Go Betweens could play live just fine. No, neither of them contained any members that could have hung in there on a Steely Dan session, but that’s not the only measure of a musician’s worth. In fact, there’s only one meaningful measure for anyone in a band (as opposed to someone looking to make a career playing sessions): can they execute their own music? It’s pretty clear they all could, not least Lindy Morrison, whose 11/8 beat on Grant McLennan’s Cattle and Cane I wrote about here, and Debbi Peterson, who on the clip I linked to above of the Bangles on Saturday Night Live lays down one of the biggest, meanest backbeats you’re ever likely to hear.

So why did they have it harder than, say, R.E.M. or any other serviceable but not virtuosic 1980s indie rock band? OK, so the Bangles were operating at a higher level of fame and success than the Go-Betweens ever attained, or even R.E.M. at that stage in their careers, and mainstream record-making has always been more exacting and technically focused than indie production. But the answer is surely in part because both bands featured women in key instrumental roles (Go-Betweens) or all the instrumental roles (the Bangles, obvs). Forster doesn’t mention sexism from producers in his book, but it’s possible he just didn’t fully notice it. Nonethless, it’s striking that a band like R.E.M. were allowed to play their own music by a big-name, big-time producer like Don Gehman while the presence of Morrison was deemed surplus to requirements by John Brand, and later by Craig Leon, and the Bangles were all but kept off their own records by David Kahne.

So, there’s not really a thesis statement here, other than the fact that musicians, and female musicians especially, have historically been treated disrespectfully by a lot of producers. But I think it’s unarguable if you listen to early Bangs/Bangles recordings like Getting Out of Hand, and then to, say, Manic Monday, that something was lost by Kahne’s not allowing them to play their own music. As for the Go-Betweens, Spring Hill Fair‘s accomodations with mainstream pop record-making don’t harm the songs unduly (Bachelor Kisses, agonised over and re-recorded as it was, is magnificent), but Right Here, off Tallulah, is a wonderful song disfugured by its lumpen, ugly drum programming – contrast the studio cut with this urgent, energetic live performance). O’Leary’s Bangles piece is well worth checking out particularly because he allows the band, particularly Vicki and Debbi Peterson, to tell their own story eloquently.

Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens – Robert Forster

Robert Forster’s Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens (published in 2016) is as good as rock memoirs get.

Its focus on the relationship between Forster and Grant McLennan is key to what makes it so fascinating. There are no shortage of rock bands built on the relationship between two key creative protagonists, but books about them tend to focus on their rivalries, disagreements and power struggles. McLennan and Forster had a period of estrangement in the 1990s, during which they made solo records and Forster lived with his new family in Germany, but the Go-Betweens didn’t break up because McLennan and Forster no longer wanted to work together. Their relationship stayed fairly harmonious all the way along, and the pair picked up again pretty seamlessly in 1999 to make The Friends of Rachel Worth. Forster, then, has no axe to grind, and his love and respect for McLennan is evident from the first page until the last.

So much so, it should be said, that he pulls a few punches. While his accounts of McLennan’s drinking and depression shed a great deal of light on his death of a heart attack at the age of 48, Forster doesn’t discuss MacLennan’s heroin use, which has been well documented elsewhere (most notably in David Nichols’s The Go-Betweens), and which may have contributed to his later physical and mental ill health. Perhaps Forster wanted to spare McLennan’s family and former partner, but it is a notable omission in a book that’s otherwise so candid.

What I loved about the book, though, and what kept me reading it more or less in one sitting on an overnight flight from Portland to London during which I couldn’t get to sleep, was Forster’s retelling of the band’s early years – their hopping back and forth from Brisbane to Melbourne to London, their alliances with like-minded Scottish indie groups Orange Juice and Josef K, their adventures in the West London demi-monde with Nick Cave and the other members of the Birthday Party, and their struggle to ever stay on the same label for more than one album cycle. Forster brings it all alive vividly in precise but engaging prose, and shows how one good song by either of them could compensate for cold and uncomfortable lives lived in squats and Dickensian shared houses.

Forster’s a sound judge of the band’s best work, and his willingness to highlight McLennan’s work rather than his own speaks well of him, as does his his honesty in admitting to sometimes feeling envious of McLennan’s greater musical facility. McLennan was, I suppose the better melodist, and on Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane his hookier songs were more natural choices as singles, but Forster was always the heart of the band, and it’s fascinating to read about the songs he wrote, and how he views his process. The passages about Forster’s relationship with drummer and former partner Lindy Morrison (who emerges as a difficult, somewhat domineering figure in Forster’s telling) are similarly illuminating.

It’s rare to find a book about a band, especially ones by musicians, that I’d recomment to a non-fan, but Grant & I is a rare exception. It’s funny, wise and humane, and a priceless look at the world of 1980s indeoendent music from a man who lived it.

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 6: Cattle and Cane – The Go-Betweens

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.

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The Go-Betweens: l-r Robert Forster, Robert Vickers, Grant McLennan and Lindy Morrison

*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.

Bye Bye Pride – The Go-Betweens

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.

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Grant McLennan, with sincere eyebrows, c. 1984?

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Go-Betweens c.1986, l-r Robert Vickers, Lindy Morrison, Grant McLennan, Amanda Brown, Robert Forster