Tag Archives: The Go-Betweens

Bachelor Kisses – The Go-Betweens

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.

 

iPod, still – phone storage, streaming

Last week, while I was on holiday in the US, my iPod Classic (about 12 or 13 years old now) finally gave up the ghost on me. It would no longer charge or recognise that it was plugged in. I tried replacement cables and different USB sockets, all to no avail.

It was the end. But the moment had not been prepared for.

I’ve hung on to an iPod this long as it’s invaluable for carrying around 16 bit/44k mixes of recordings I’m working on (at the moment, that’s an album I’m finishing off with James McKean, an EP Mel and I are recording, and a bunch of random stuff of my own). If I’m working on mixes and test driving them, so to speak, as I travel around, I don’t want to hear them as MP3s – if I could store them at 24 bit, I would. But without a working iPod, I thought I’d try bowing to the inevitable: I’d use Spotify for general listening, and took about 20 mixes that I have on the go, reduced them to 256kbps MP3s and put them on the phone itself.

iPhone storage full.

Not a good start.

At the same time, I wanted to listen to some Go-Betweens records, as I’d just read Robert Forster’s Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens and it’s been a few years since I went through all their stuff. Spotify doesn’t have their first two albums, or the records they made after they reformed, or their US- or UK-market best-of compilations.

Sigh.

Off to eBay, then, for a second-hand iPod Classic, hoping I don’t get ripped off.

This is the problem that streaming boosters don’t seem to recognise. I get the convenience of having one device. I get that if you live in a big town or city, your Wi-Fi and/or 4G (or 5G, or even 3G) connection is going to be more or less constant, and I get that if you listen to contemporary music mainly, you’re always going to find what you want on Spotify.

But if your interests lie elsewhere, you’re reliant on deals being struck to get legacy artists’ catalogues up on Spotify (or Apple Music, or Google Play, or wherever) and kept there. And that’s far from a sure thing. The Go-Betweens are not a marginal group — they were well known enough to get national coverage in the UK, and are even better known in their native Australia – yet most of their albums are not streamable on the biggest online music platform.

As I’d long argued, there is still no truly viable alternative for carrying around a capacious hard drive stuffed to the brim with music if you want to listen to whatever you want, whenever you want. Which is why, even if I didn’t also need a device to store work-in-progress mixes at a half-decent audio quality, an iPhone and a Spotify account still doesn’t cut it, and why I’m the satisfied owner of a 12-year-old reconditioned iPod Classic bought off eBay.

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, which is more than enough.

Bye Bye Pride – The Go-Betweens

I find something endlessly adorable about the Go-Betweens. Not particularly gifted as songwriters, certainly not gifted as players or singers, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan succeeded more or less on the strength of their aesthetic. Each album contained 10 small-scale, indie-pop songs, five by each writer, Forster’s declamatory 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. Yet Forster was always the wannabe musician. It was McLennan who was a keen literature student and aspiring film-maker, who had to be pressured 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 voice and what kind of songs he could write. McLennan was still learning. He went on to become the band’s craftsman, yet his initial lack of musicality 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 and the same number of chords.

Nonetheless at his 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 prime example of a McLennan failure; he seemed to think that perhaps he could play Cameo at their game. He could not. Hope then Strife is a more interesting failure: 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 hard-fought tunefulness threatens to make 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 Lover’s Lane, feel hollow, facile, lacking depth – 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) but female backing vocals had become such an important part of the band’s sound that they needed to be supplied by someone when the band reformed. And so they were, initially by Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss (and Corin Tucker on a couple of songs) and latterly by bassist Adele Pickvance. 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