Money Can't Buy You Love
Mat Snow New Musical Express, 13 October 1984
There's nothing quite like a love affair to shake you out of an autopilot trance and put you back in touch with your feelings; feelings about home, job, friends, whole way of life.
And you know the side effects certain records have come to hold a particular poignancy; The The's Soul Mining, Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones and Elvis Costello's I Wanna Be Loved amongst others.
But most of all it is the songs from the Go-Betweens' new LP Spring Hill Fair that will evoke most achingly my summer and autumn of 1984.
It has already been a good year for the roses, for white-boy pop songs that deal affectingly with the faces and layers of love L-U-V. The Smiths, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout and, perversely, Nick Cave spring to mind.
But and this is entirely a matter of my own personal wavelength none have touched quite so deeply the chords that bridge literal lyricism and its wordless articulation in music. I don't think that I've heard purer, more moving songs since Blood on the Tracks? Imperial Bedroom?
Heavy Duty albums, but I reckon Spring Hill Fair can stand the comparison. As '84 mellows from Indian summer to autumn, my heart beats to the Go-Betweens' tune.
Now as it happens, the first feature I ever wrote for NME was an interview with the Go-Betweens. That was two years ago, and as a three-piece of Grant McLennan on bass, Robert Forster, guitar and Lindy Morrison, drums, they had just released their debut album Send Me A Lullaby on an indie label in their native Australia licensed through Rough Trade.
Since then they have gained Robert Vickers on bass (Grant thereby moving to guitar), released my favourite LP of last year, Before Hollywood, left Rough Trade and signed to the WEA spin-off label Sire, home of the Ramones and Talking Heads. Thus it is that you can go down to your local disc emporium and stand an excellent chance of being able to buy Spring Hill Fair this very afternoon. It was recorded during a very wet May in the Miraval Studios in Cannes owned by piano-playing French star Jacques Loussier, where even now Wham! are hatching their new LP.
Career moves over; let's talk about music. "Song of the week," proclaimed Biba Kopf recently of Bachelor Kisses, the new single and first track on Spring Hill Fair. "Only when we're confronted with a song so perfectly turned, lines so finely balanced and a melody so achingly sweet as Bachelor Kisses are we forced to notice how hollow most contemporary pop rings."
In the past, the Go-Betweens have hovered on the edge of a tense, terse and nervous sound which lends an edge of outsiders' awkwardness to even the most consoling and uplifting of themes. Not so with Bachelor Kisses, which caresses with expansive spaciousness and layered plangency. It has a sound not unlike those great AOR productions of late '70s West Coast pop Fleetwood Mac, that sort of thing.
I put this soft muso question to the song's writer, the dapper and wittily uptight Grant McLennan, and kicked myself afterwards for not inquiring into a parallel with friend-of-the-band Roddy Frame and his choice of Mark Knopfler as producer of Aztec Camera's Knife LP.
Any road, Grant, were you going for the poolside sound of Andrew Gold ? Of Lenny Waronker ?
"I'm glad you hit on that; it's one of the reasons Robert and I started the band Andrew Gold's first album. I'm interested very much more than Robert in genres of music. I think Robert pursues a line far more true to his views all the time, whilst I'm quite interested to look at the form, and to work within that form awhile. And in particular when I first wrote that song. If that song had been written by Culture Club, it'd have been given the production. It caused a certain amount of friction in the band because I wanted to do a record in the manner of a well-produced, arranged, produced pop song."
So far, so good. I then turned to the Go-Betweens' lyrics, which I find immensely evocative if not always crystal clear. As the discussion developed and if you think musicians and journalist droning on about the intricacies of music is boring, then you've just wasted 45p I began to sink deeper and deeper into hot water. My idea of the songs was often way out from the intended meaning I thought they were all about L-U-V given the tenderly anguished melodies and a state of mind ready to identify Cupid's arrow even in the phrase 'differential calculus'. Right now in my book Mills and Boon have all the best tunes; thus all the best tunes whisper soft of right and wrong romance.
So, I lumbered, is the tenor of Bachelor Kisses that of courtly romance ?
"Whenever I listen to the first or second Bob Dylan album and pick up a guitar afterwards I might feel like a troubadour. But I think it's a very easy song to misunderstand. It's not about courtship. It's about a man singing a song to a girl stating his feelings. The song might sound like that; the perverse part of me wants it to sound like that. I expect of myself if I ever hear a song, see a painting or read a book, to work.
"I'm sorry, Mat, if it sounds a courtly song but it's not about that. I see a lot of infidelity around me most people involved in music are guilty of it in many cases. I see a lot of trust, promises being broken I'm guilty of it myself. It's about all the promises the world of men have made women as far as the future of their lives, security, the raising of children, and I've found it wanting. Not a unique thought."
When Grant was a child his father died and he was subsequently brought up by his mother on a cattle-station in Queensland, Australia's Texas facts which unlock some of the 'meanings' behind last year's classic single, the autobiographical Cattle And Cane. On the new LP, Unkind and Unwise again allows glimpses of a rural, fatherless childhood.
"Ever since I was a boy I absolutely detested 99% of male society because they stick to the masculine role model. You talk of one-parent versus two-parent families; if you just have a mother you tend to have a completely different perspective and approach, and I think I've benefited a great deal from that. I don't think anyone could argue against the determining thing in the relationship between most men and women is the power wielded by men.
"But that song is no liberated blueprint. It's the narrator of Cattle And Cane all grown up, a little less nostalgic. He realises that while memory and the past can be really seductive, it's an unwise feeling to sing too much into. That song has nothing to do with a romantic love between two people beyond the family. I would never write a song about an idealised woman Stairway to Heaven
"Slow Slow Music also invokes the bond between parent and child as a music ever present yet so slow as to be inaudible to anyone else. I like songs about family and parents; it's unusual, since most pop treats the old folks as non-existent, figures of fun, or curmudgeonly old gaolers. Lennon was an exception, but being to all intents and purposes an orphan from an early age, parents weren't something to be taken for granted."
Is songwriting, then, for Grant, a form of emotional release ?
"Nothing as dramatic as that. It's just when you walk outside and see something, you just want to shout about it, tell someone, you just want to write it down, phone someone up. That's pretty much the way I write songs.
"When you listen to a song there are a lot more things than the words and the music, things like the sound of a voice beyond the chords and beyond the lyrics that just hits you. It can be a guitar sound, a drum pattern
"When I hear rock'n'roll phrases like Tutti Frutti off Marc Bolan's Jeepster, what do the lyrics mean?"
Robert Forster is seven foot two and permanently bemused. His hangover from the previous evening's housewarming party thrown by Perth's excellent Triffids is even worse than Grant's. "One of the classic lessons of rock is to throw phrases over the top that don't mean anything. From T. Rex back to Chubby Checker back to Little Richard they've done it. So I do it. I'm interested in directness.
"The lyrics I wrote on this album," (You've Never Lived, Part Company, Draining The Pool For You, Man O'Sand To Girl O'Sea) "I wrote when I've been drinking. I wanted to speak a lot more directly and I wanted to speak about certain topics in a very straightforward way. And the best way I found of doing that was by sitting down and drinking. A conversational-type lyric. Most of the lyrics I've done on that album were started at night. I'd start drinking, smoking cigarettes, and I'd write all the lyrics in one sitting. I think it shows."
Like in You've Never Lived which typifies Robert's angular and punchy yet allusive style of song and delivery.
"It's the confessions of people who are hounding someone. Like John Lennon and Yoko; there's a John Lennon interview where he says that when he met Yoko Ono, George Harrison had said that Bob Dylan had said that Yoko Ono had a bad name in the Village. John, keep away from Yoko she's got a bad name ! So I just thought of the greatest insult I could pay those sort of people. People who don't believe in love or commitment in a relationship, that two people together are not a good creative unit".
River of Money is the most extraordinary song the Go-Betweens have ever played. Narrated over an ominous execution backbeat counterpointing an eerily hummable guitar motif and noises of muted feedback distortion, it tells the story of the aftermath of an affair, of a man pining into oblivion. Only the chorus is sung: "I'll take you to Hollywood/ I'll take you to Mexico/ I'll take you anywhere the River of Money flows". It's absolutely chilling, and echoes in some of its feel the Velvet Underground's black comedy The Gift
"I'm sorry to disappoint my fans but I personally have never liked The Gift. I've always found it a bit tedious. I'll be castigated for this. I'm not a big Sister Ray fan either.
"I had a personal sense of loss I wanted to use in a song. I also had a picture of some person alone in an old wooden homestead in the country in Queensland, just endlessly regretting and ruing.
"The repetition of "I'll take you to Hollywood" etc. is all those blinding promises that people make to each other of I'll take you out of your life. I certainly haven't lost sight of the ridiculousness of I'll buy you a fur coat, two Rolls Royces and a yacht, all those stupid promises when all you have to promise is trust It's another perspective on the traditional McLennan pastoral theme that I've been lumped with," laughs Grant wryly.
A year ago in a live review Barney Hoskyns wrote of the Go-Betweens' "bedsit bookishness an allusive literary shell from which little seems to protrude "
"That's bullshit," objects Robert, freshly aggrieved at a criticism which I know wounded them deeply at the time. "We're obviously not vaudeville, which it's required in this country to be for mass success, we're not jumping up and down on the stage. We're standing there playing our instruments. Somehow that's taken as if we spend all our time huddled over books.
"If we were bookish, we'd be off reading books, but we're in a rock-pop band, and being in as band takes you away from the seclusion that the word bookish implies.
"It really upset me because I see some truth when people say that we're very isolated because we came from a place that was away from the centre. That we're incredibly introverted."
"In Australia," adds Robert, "all these bands have realised that they're not going to have the success and opportunities that they deserve. You find that out very early. That forces the bands to play music that just pleases themselves. Whereas here if you're any good success comes very quickly and the music suffers. They haven't had the time that we've spent working on the music."
"I think that we deal with a language that no one else was using, and I still think we do," rejoins Grant. "But unfortunately, given the mass-production values in this country, a lot of people can't be bothered to work, to try and make an effort to understand.
"I sure as hell don't reckon I'm much different from other people when I listen to music. I expect to be impressed, to be moved every time I hear a record. If I'm not, I look for reasons why I'm not. And I work at it. "That doesn't mean I have this severe analytical approach; quite the contrary, I can listen to Prince's Purple Rain, the ballad title song. It deals with straight rock cliché without a doubt, but it goes straight to the gut. It's got a great melody, great performance you work at it."
Last question and it's always the last question to people whose talent deserves far wider credit do you want to be rock'n'roll stars?
Grant: "Having been in the ball game for a few years I know what it takes and what you got to do, and we'll do a lot of that. But no way could I entertain the idea of us as megastars. It's just not that sort of music and we're not that sort of people."
Robert: "We've known all these groups, from Orange Juice to the Birthday Party, Aztec Camera, the Smiths, and bang! six months later they're very successful. It's very interesting because you can see the route of how it happened because you're so close to it. Everyone else around us seems to be stars "
"It's all right," soothes Grant. "In the reflected light we look the stars!"
Robert: "We're the friends of the stars!"
Grant: "We run out and buy their Chinese meals "
But Robert has the last word, signing off this piece with suitable gravitas
"In Hollywood there are two types of actors. There are the stars the pools, the fan clubs and the pressure. All the attention is on them. Then there are the character actors people like Thomas Mitchell, Thelma Ritter, Ned Beatty. They don't have all the stuff the stars have, but they make a body of work that is often a lot more substantial, a lot more real than the stars.
"And as far as the Go-Betweens go, we're the character people. That's what I'd like us to be remembered as."