Up From Down Under
Don Watson New Musical Express, 26 November 1983
How touchingly English this all is. Outside in the late autumn Notting Hill Gate landscape shoppers shuffle through the leaves, surprised at the novelty of a mild November day. Inside in the basement area of this homely hotel, Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens is being Mummy, sloshing a second round from the silver-coloured teapot into the bone china cups. Cheers! So nice to talk to civilised people. Then Forster stirs his tea reflectively and, with a characteristic straightforward manner it's easy to mistake for glumness, pronounces in his determined Aussie drawl, "We don't really loik the English".
A ten minute tirade follows. "Part of me is glad that Thatcher is in power in this country, because she might screw and dry up the English people to the point where they'll have to turn around and just open up and be more human and friendly," he concludes.
Not surprising perhaps that Forster should harbour a certain resentment, at the end of a year which has seen the Go-Betweens take an artistic quantum jump, but left them stuck in the sludge as far as public response is concerned. The second Go-Betweens LP, Before Hollywood, their masterpiece to date, stands as undoubtedly one of the most underrated of the year a hard centred exploration in the art of melody unique in a time of soggy pop dropsy. And yet still, even after the release of the excellent Man O'Sand single, they dwell in the half-light on the periphery of recognition a crime.
"I really do think that it's because we don't look English that people in this country find us difficult to assimilate," says Grant McLennan, attempting to explain why they've been left on the starting blocks by fellow Rough Traders the Smiths. There are no displays of extravagant camp here, but the more retiring values of the Go-Betweens are moving in the same direction as Manchester's latest finest. The common goal is the reclamation of pop as a vehicle for esoteric wit and everyday insight, the trashing of Pop as a constricting collection of platitudes. Yet while the Smiths use an English folkiness overlaid by Shelley's affecting ambiguity, the Go-Betweens are indeed a spirit more removed from the closed-in values of this isle. The Go-Betweens' imagery is wide screen, coloured in deep blue and bright yellow, peppered with isolated figures. They are, I venture, more Australian in their sound than other products of their continent.
"I think perhaps it's just more prominent in our sound," Grant replies. "There is an undertone in people like the Birthday Party, certainly in Nick's lyrics, and the Moodists. But when it comes to communicating the feeling of a country people tend to be reluctant unless you're going to present it in that whole Kid Creole The Country, The Show, The Package way."
"If we put Ayers Rock on the cover of our LP perhaps," contributes guitarist Rob Vickers with a laugh.
"But what we do," Forster continues, "is take a few elements of Australia and work it into the network of a sound, which is what people find difficult. There are things that we could do that English people would find tantalising, but they're things which we would find rather obvious".
Obvious is one thing the Go-Betweens steadfastly refuse to be. Their sound is a complex system of codification packed into the deceptive simplicity of the pop format they work with clues and undercurrents rather than immediate images. It's an approach you either find intriguing, for the jarring roughness it adds to their sound, or dismiss as obtuse. There's always the feeling, though, that through the gaps in their poetry is visible a tougher world than the superficial impression might indicate.
"Well, our band was born out of a fascist state," exclaims Forster melodramatically. "No, you may laugh, but it's true," he continues. "Brisbane, where we come from, is exceptionally right-wing. It's run by fundamental Christians and rivals the Southern states of the USA for racism. We've been at concerts where the Special Branch has come in in overalls and taken all the gear away".
"Externally it looks like a peaceful, tropical state," Grant adds. "But there's this constant undercurrent of violence it's fascinating".
It was that sense of fascination of disturbing elements overlaid with strange humour which put the Go-Betweens in accord with the Postcard label who released their first UK single, and particularly with the jagged japes of Josef K.
"The people at Postcard were the only ones outside of a few in Australia," Rob says, "who listened to the same music as we did and had the same desire and ambition, it was great. Unfortunately it seems like a lot of the humour has gone out of that scene."
With Man O'Sand and its vivid semi-surrealism, though, the Go-Betweens have confirmed their claim as the strongest mettle to emerge from that Irony Bru. But what can they offer ?
"Oh, hopefully some beauty, a certain spirit of wildness."
Is that all ?