Growing up gracefully
Stuart Maconie New Musical Express, August 1988
past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."
the butcher shine his knives / And this town is full of battered
Come here, little boy. You, yes, you with the oily hair and the tiny mind. Let me tell you about a real pop group. A group haunted by the ghosts of long lost lovers, musty attic rooms, and Cash and Dylan on Nashville Skyline.
In today's sleazy pop diner. where haute cuisine means shakes and a Big Mac, The Go-Betweens are Jack Daniels and caviar. They are not scared of being complicated. nor are they afraid of being simple.
They are unutterably wonderful. When will you learn?
but I was so much older then, l'm younger than that now"
L P Hartley was right, the past is a foreign country. The people have different customs, the places have different names. When I lived there I once heard a record called Cattle And Cane, a strange, forlorn thing full of open spaces and childhood memories. I loved it. Since then the Go-Betweens have quietly and unassumingly created some of the decade's strongest, most beautiful music. Why aren't they huge?
"Oh, that doesn't worry us unduly. We no longer expect our records to be massive hits. Within the pages of the music press there exists a kind of wilful pursuit of the new and whilst that can be exciting, over the last couple of years it's meant a celebration of the ephemeral, music as supermarket trash. And we are not part of it. I'm into writing classic songs that'll last forever and the notion of permanency is a terribly unfashionable one at the moment."
Grant McLennan is a considered person. Like Lindy Morrison and John Wilsteed (the other Go-Betweens present here) he is amiable and articulate. This, of course, will come as no surprise to you, probably fitting nicely with your assumptions about the group; sensitive types, night-time Radio 1. You probably have them tagged as Grade A wimps.
"There is this conception of us as terribly earnest types. We have a wild sense of humour. I think some of our songs are really funny. We get drunk."
Lindy: "Incredibly drunk!"
"We love to party!"
Still it's hardly urban music, is it? It isn't "hey-baby, we're gonna-have a-good-time-tonight."
John: "No, it's sub-urban music; it's "hey-baby, we're-gonna have-a-bad-time-tonight!"
At this point, Grant goes to the record player and puts on the new Go-Betweens album, a track called You Can't Say No Forever, an impassioned, desperate howl from the heart. As the song swells to its conclusion in a quiet storm of guitars, Grant turns to confront me. "Is this wimpy? Call this wimpy?"
Come back, sonny, I haven't finished yet. Take that stupid smirk off your face and tell me, slowly and in your own words, what you have against the Go-Betweens.
Are they just too much for you, too raw and lovely and grown up? Or perhaps it's the nagging doubt at the core of their music, the melancholy and despair that lurk just below the surface of every 'good time'.
Describe to me the typical Go-Betweens fan?
Lindy: "German, male, between 20 and 26, earnest."
Grant: "Female, heavily into Sylvia Plath, could have played hockey with the Australian Olympic squad but gave it up. And called Mirabelle."
John: "A young man who's just been jilted for the first time."
Have you ever received a proposal of marriage or an article of underwear through the post?
"No. We get people writing who want to share their problems with us. Your know how some people go to see their favourite group and you know that they want to fuck the lead singer? Well, people at our gigs want to have meaningful relationships with us."
favourite way of getting kicks. I go down town and hustle chicks."
You see, the thing is, little boy, this whole wretched rock'n'roll circus is obsessed with sex. It began with The Everlys in sweat-damp borrowed Chevrolets. and it ends with Clint Poppie rubbing himself against a mannequin woman. Take Prince: the man is a genius but he has the mind of a 15-year-old boy.
The Go-Betweens are no exception to this splendid rule. But there's a difference. The Go-Betweens are grown ups. And grown ups have more fun.
Grant McLennan says: "I know that our dear friend Roddy Frame called his last LP Love, but I maintain that the Go-Betweens write about love better than anybody else in the world."
The new Go-Betweens LP is called 16 Lovers Lane. Earlier efforts at a title included 'Love Is Geography' and 'Changing Beds'. As well as continuing the tradition of having a double 'l' in every LP title, the name reflects the group's abiding preoccupation; love and its associated ups and downs.
"You're in love and it's the best thing in the world.
"Then you're dumped and its baaad."
The Go-Betweens are candid and upfront about all this, incurable. They collect yellow roses from city gardens to leave on lovers' doorsteps at midnight. They catch ferries and ride overnight trains to foreign lands to be with the object of their affections. They really do!
Lindy: "Terribly romantic, hopelessly romantic. I never learn. I nearly sent someone a dozen red roses the other day but then I decided it was too presumptuous. "
John: "Nothing is presumptuous where romance is concerned."
But remember, little boy, the Go-Betweens are grown ups. No snotty leg-overs here. And no twittering coyness either. This is X-rated stuff, for adults only. It is real and sad and often wildly beautiful.
"During the making of this album there were occasions when at least two of the group were in tears," says Lindy self-mockingly.
Grant: "That's the Go-Betweens, the only group in the world who make themselves cry!"
Soul music. What does it mean to you? These days it seems to mean an anodyne, beige frippery, a classy bedroom accoutrement. Or worse still, a fatuous nightclub shuffle for Kev and Sandra, for lunkheads and football lads.
Here's an outrageous one: like compatriots The Triffids, the Go-Betweens can claim (although they wouldn't, they're too modest) to be real soul music, the genuine article, wrung from somewhere deep down, born of longing, joy and despair. Is it therapy?
Grant: "I suppose it is. I suppose it's our version of primal scream."
John: "I don't know. I've never been to a therapist. Well, I went to a hypnotherapist once but he did all the talking."
Lindy: "I wouldn't want to associate it with that at all. Psychology has been the scourge of the 20th century. It has taken away from people the responsibility for their own actions, made it easy for people to blame their past experiences for everything. There's been too little emphasis on conscious discipline and will."
The Go-Betweens can say things like this because they are grown ups. The Go-Betweens are not scientologists.
Was there any justice, the new Go-Betweens' single, Streets Of Your Town, would come gleaming through the daytime programming like a diamond in the murk. But it won't because that's the way things are. Typically, behind the almost sugary charm of the tune lies something darker.
"It's a song about a town in Australia called Brisbane, about what the city and mothers have done to it. they've destroyed its community."
Are the Go-Betweens very 'right on'?
Grant: "Tremendously. We are innately political animals."
John: "Actually no, we spend a great deal of our time in private making jokes at the expense of various minority groups."
The Go-Betweens' favourite sexy tennis players are Navratilova, Lendl, Sabatini and Yannick Noah. See, they aren't phased by wacky NME style questions. Seek them out. Don't be afraid of them, little boy, they won't hurt you. They just want to make your life a better place, you understand.
If the Go-Betweens were a film, what would it be?
John: "It's A Wonderful Life."
Lindy: "Summer Holiday!"
Grant: "We'd be that scene in Love In The Afternoon where Audrey Hepburn's running along the platform thinking Gary Cooper has gone forever and then this arm comes down and he sweeps her onto the train."
Ahh! You big softies!
Lindy: "Well, Hemingway said that people can only write properly when they're in love Mind you, he said that writers can only write when they've got syphilis, too, so what does he know about anything!"