Power to imperfect pop
Noel Mengel Sounds, 1987
When discussing the style of his own idiosyncratic songwriting in a recent interview, Ed Kuepper said that it was not like the style of the Go-Betweens he didn't kiss and tell. He was alluding to the sort of confessional lyrical approach of a group whose distinctive mannerisms have kept them from breaking out of the second division in the year-round football season of pop, yet which endear them to their devoted core of followers from Bristol to Brisbane. They aren't about to get relegated either.
It's now nigh on 10 years since Robert Forster summoned Grant McLennan back to Brisbane with the invitation to start a band, but the partnership is still going strong. The Go-Betweens are a left-field inclusion perched jauntily among more consumer oriented Oz monoliths, those with big record sales, big record deals, and nice houses.
The Go-Betweens don't have any of that; they've never even had a 'hit' record to speak of, but they do have a batch of gems littering their recording career, the promise of more to come, strong management and a settled recording deal at last, a ton of work on the books, and the hope that someday, some way, that elusive hit will come.
In 1987, the Go-Betweens are five, with the inclusion of violinist Amanda Brown, to augment the rhythm section of Lindy Morrison and Rob Vickers. The confessional songwriting approach continues too on their latest album, Tallulah more refined, less angular, occasionally as obtuse. Given their penchant for double 'l' words in album titles, maybe the next record could be called Kiss and Tell. But first, let's wind back the clock. Somewhere up past Cairns, the phone rings. Grant McLennan answers:
"I came back to Brisbane from a cattle station up north and I took up the bass. I was finishing my (Qld Uni) degree, and Robert had rung me up at home and said 'how about it?' We started rehearsing in a house in Golding Street in Toowong with a microphone hung from a coathanger, one amplifier, and I had a breadboard with some steel strings on it (general mirth) for a bass. One of those plunky basses; you know, plunk, plunk, plunk. I played it like that, too.
Robert had his Telecaster. We didn't have a drummer, but we started to do some recording and Robert still hadn't worked out the lyrics, which is pretty usual for him and me. Eight Pictures and Lee Remick were the first songs we played as the Go-Betweens in February 1978.
How does the McLennan/Forster team operate today?
The way we work together is not like Van Heusen and Kahn, Frank Sinatra's songwriters, where there's a piano player and a lyricist. We don't actually sit down and write songs together. We have in the past, but not in the last three of four years. Before we go in to record we show each other the songs together on acoustic guitars and do a rough arrangement, so in a way we consult.
Do you do home recording?
I hate it, I hate unfinished things. I see demos as a necessity but prefer not to do them. The flip side of that is I love to hear unfinished things by other people demos of Bob Dylan and other people I respect. The only home-taping I do is to put the songs down so I don't forget them.
So you're still writing songs the way you started?
Yeah. That's a good thing and a bad thing, too. I would love to be able to work with a four-track recorder and a rhythm machine and work out a song. Part of me thinks that if I do that it would be too neatly arranged, too much me doing everything and taking the song along and saying 'there's the tape'.
Our band doesn't work like that which is both good and bad as well. We've got a very specific way of working and I think that about 80 per cent of the time it works. I also have a little trouble with technology. I love it to work with in the studio but I have a little difficulty pushing buttons. So I still work pretty much the way I always have.
Plenty of musicians these days get their inspiration dabbling with sounds and new toys.
The only time I get inspiration like that is when I hear a modern record I like, like Prince's Kiss and Sign of the Times. I think they're truly phenomenal records in that they're very minimal.
Sign of the Times has a devastating lyric, but there's almost nothing there. Yet I know from working in studios that there is a lot there. He's arrived at a stage where he knows what works and doesn't work and I really respect him for that.
The backing tracks to those two songs are something I was very interested in. I wanted to do it on a song called Cut It Out on Tallulah but it never went far enough because of the band we are and the type of records we make at this stage.
It does frustrate me, but I think everyone in the band gets frustrated. Robert obviously does because he produced a single for a band in England. He wanted to work in a different thing and did a good job.
I'd like to make different records, too, but I don't know if we can make them with the band because there are so many viewpoints. We work best when we don't talk about things. It's an intuitive approach. I think it's endearing and makes our music as individual as it is, but it is also restrictive.
What are the things that inspire you to write if it's not fiddling with gear?
Melody, I guess, and the lyrics. Normally it's just playing on my acoustic guitar. For the last few years I was experimenting with writing using drone strings and chords up the neck. There's loads of songs, Bye Bye Pride, Right Here, Cut It Out, In The Core Of A Flame, Cattle And Cane was the first of those.
I enjoy recording more often than playing live. I like playing live and I've come to know that ego and adrenalin thing when you play well and the band locks in. But I love building a record, trying things, I'd like to do more of that.
Are you satisfied with the records the Go-Betweens make?
Some songs. There's things on all our records I'm not satisfied with. There are songs that I think are perfect. Cattle And Cane is perfect to me. Right Here comes pretty close to sounding how I wanted it even though we didn't produce it.
What do you think are the most successful Go-Betweens songs?
Part Company, by Robert. That's brilliant. I still question a noise on it which Jacques Loussier did. At the time that Spring Hill Fair was recorded in France he did two synthesiser things on it and I preferred another one that was more melodic, less kettle-boiling-in-the-background shrill, and it does irritate me now. Draining The Pool, The Wrong Road too; a few of the things on Before Hollywood. As an album that really got close to a definitive sound for a certain period. It's great because there's very few records that do that.
I'm not comparing the album, but Marquee Moon by Television does that; a statement of a band, of intent, an unmistakable mood. Like Highway 61, early Creedence records, The Doors' first album, Revolver. They're albums which come close to defining (something).
Do you find you're writing now with Amanda in mind?
I do in a way because she can play a few instruments. It's a good feeling to know if you want a sad sound like an oboe she can do it. It'd be nice if someone in the band could play keyboards. Both Robert and I have been toying with the idea of getting some piano lessons for years. That opens up a whole different way of songwriting as well basically we're guitar major-chord songwriters. A lot of the songs I like have been written on piano, with great knowledge of music. I have a very limited knowledge of music.
I do want to learn more but I honestly don't have the time. We're a touring band. I'd love to get to the stage where we're a recording band that tours two months a year but we're not in the situation geographically or financially to be able to do that.
The thing that annoys me is that when Robert or I write a song we can never go in and record it. I'd love to just go into a studio and record everything we write through a whole year.
Songwriters usually have strong ideas about how they want their music to sound, so how do you find working with producers?
It's like the scriptwriter and the director in Hollywood. The drum thing, that's making modern 80s records very few records you hear on the radio are actually played by drummers.
In the pursuit of perfection which seems to be the aim of modern 80s records which I think is quite strange they've forgotten about the power of the song. They're trying to make a perfect record and you can't make perfect records.
Producers are either like bouncers for the record company or they can be very creative people who work with the band to put the sound in a contemporary framework. It's very difficult to find people like that. Richard Preston (Tallulah, Liberty Belle) was a good guy to work with in that he's intuitive too, but as far as making modern records goes, he's as far removed from it as we are.
I'd like to get someone who can make modern records but still not lose the soul of the band. We wanted to use Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, REM) for Before Hollywood in 1982 when we were on Rough Trade, but at that stage he wasn't making rock records. We wanted to work with John Cale for Spring Hill Fair but he was too expensive.
I don't think they're commercial producers. They're good producers but they're not pop producers and it's important for us, if we want to make pop records, to have a pop producer. George Martin is a very good producer who can make pop records.
Has there been a deliberate effort to become more commercially appealing?
We've been made more and more aware of the need to make commercial songs from all avenues of the vast Go-Betweens machine that is around us (ironic chuckle). I must admit it's an interest Robert and I have both got. Essentially we're album artists who occasionally have good singles. Up until Right Here I don't think we ever recorded a single properly to compete with the rest of the records released every week.
And, I don't think we could ever be popular songwriters because of our lyrics. I used to think it (the inability to shift mega-units) was maybe musical but it's not because there's stranger things on the charts musically than us. But lyrically we're very individual. It's strange.
The situation I'd like to be in Look at Jennifer Warnes, who's got a very smooth voice, the best session people in America playing on her latest album, yet it's an album of Leonard Cohen songs, where you can hear this tremendous lyric coming through with the slickest, modern sound behind it. You can get away with that but we always had this balance that's a little too individual musically and a little too individual lyrically. That's a bit hard for the public to consume.
In England it's possible, but only for the freak bands like The Smiths. They are a fantastic singles band who are very individual. But there are only two or three freak bands in the world at any one time.
Does all this touring get in the way of being songwriters?
Yeah, I haven't picked up a guitar in the privacy of my bedroom for about three months. I don't like it. I've got 12 songs which we haven't had a chance to rehearse or record, and by the time we get to make the next record I probably won't do any of them which really does depress me.
Do you sit down and analyse what you do as a songwriter?
No, that's dangerous for someone like me. Being a defensive character, if I analysed what I was doing I'd probably realise quite quickly I should be doing something else writing a different style of song.
Do you miss being a bass player?
I miss the thump of it. You can lock in on a groove playing rhythm or lead, but it's not so fundamental. When Lindy and I were a rhythm section we were very different. At the time I thought that just thumping one note on the bass thutunng was very boring, so I was playing amateur lead guitar riffs on the bass pretty much from the start. That contributed to the unique sound at that stage. Lindy was playing lead drums, I was playing lead bass, Robert was doing lead vocals. I do miss sitting on a groove, but it's quite restrictive to singing.
I try to put more work into my vocals now. Not singing lessons. But I try to listen to people who are great singers. I'm not a great singer, never will be, don't have the discipline. I am basically just a boring, male, white, middle-class singer-songwriter. I try now not to sing out of tune, which is the one concession I'll make to being a singer.
Who are the singers you admire?
Frank Sinatra, the way he plays around with the melodies. And I know that jumping from Frank to Cyndi Lauper is awfully pretentious but as far as modern singers go she's quite exceptional. I wish she had better songs. Al Green it's so effortless. I saw an interview with Tony Bennett today, and I know Tony is very, ungroovy, that Frank is the crooner everyone likes. He was so humble; and quoted this great scene from Limelight, where Claire Bloom says, 'Don't you ever wish you could be a professional?' Chaplin says, 'Honey, we're amateurs to the day we die. And Tony Bennett, who's made 85 albums or something, said that only now he'd worked out what he was doing.
To make it appear effortless is a most important thing to do. Things like Cattle And Cane and The Wrong Road come close. On other things you can hear the band trying too much. I don't know if that will ever arrive, when everything locks in, but it's something you have to believe in.
Lee Remick, the most sought-after slab of independent vinyl, maybe any vinyl, ever to come off a pressing machine in this country. An aching, anguished Brisbane blues of a lyric tied to Robert Forster's toppy Tele, scratching its way through E, B and A for the duration. (For later live work, the key moved up to F, one suspects when Robert had improved his barre chords). The drums rat-a-tatted along out the back, in the laundry somewhere, and the bass, it must have been so low that at times it sinks with barely a trace.
What can we possibly learn from such an inexpertly executed waxing, you say? Well, plenty we reckon.
At the time of the single's release, Brisbane was a town of groups called Abraxas, Able Magwitch, Moonlight, and of no-go disco palaces. There were other groups as well; Razar, The (expletive deleted) Leftovers, The Survivors, and The Saints' fun-house up on Petrie Terrace was already something of a shrine. But fragile, quirky pop groups? Not too many. Let's here it from a primary source, Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens:
"I saw the great man do it, I was a witness. Initially it was a song which wasn't about Lee Remick, it was about a whole bunch of other actresses. It was one of the first songs Robert wrote. I remember he came around and played it to me in Golding Street. At that stage (October, 1977) 1 wasn't even considering a musical career. He played the song and I thought it was really cute, with the ba-pa-bapa-pah. It was great.
"When it was first written Robert was playing in another band. They entered in a Search for a Band competition and all the other bands were doing Deep Purple songs. They actually played three or four times and I saw about three of the gigs. One of them was this competition where they did an early version of Karen (the famous ode to a librarian on the flip side).
"Lee Remick was a song that only Robert could have written I could never have done it. It wasn't being satirical at all; it was adolescent longing for a more, um, Las Vegas lifestyle (twinkle of the eye). Anything that wasn't Brisbane.
"I must admit I had a slight lyrical contribution to that song. In the third verse, the last rhyme. We recorded it in three hours, there are mistakes on it. Lynden Barber (the Sydney music critic) has called it so bad, it's bad. I don't think he meant as in the funky bad at all!"