Driving along Lovers Lane
Barry Divola On The Street, September 1988
From their first impassioned plea to a movie star, the Go-Betweens have always been obsessed with love from the explosive joy of infatuation to the shattering realisation of love lost, and all the dangerous uncharted territory of the heart that lies in between. It's appropriate that the band's latest album is called 16 Lovers Lane. It's their main drag and their home turf. It's the street where they live.
Send Me A Lullaby, Before Hollywood, Spring Hill Fair, Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express, Tallulah. If you can't spot the similarity between, the titles of The Go-Betweens' previous albums, then it's back to the rock 'n' roll textbooks. I asked Robert Forster, one half of the guitar/songwriting team, why the trademark double "l" was separated by all these other letters on the new record.
"Because we didn't want to do it. The first two times it was just coincidence, then we decided to build on that coincidence, and then we stopped building on that coincidence and decided to break away a little bit from it."
It was too much of a temptation not to pull out a full-on Michael Parkinson deep and meaningful connecting question at this point. Is that change indicative of what's happening on the new album? John Wilsteed, the band's new blonde, bespectacled bassist, joins in and jokingly rephrases the question to Robert.
"Have you been building on coincidences now for some time and decided to depart from that?'
"We're in exceptionally deep water already in this interview, aren't we?" Robert replies. There are certain departures one of them was from London to Sydney."
Robert Forster often plants tongue firmly in cheek, and this is no exception. There's an element of truth in what he says, though. The songs for 16 Lovers Lane were written and recorded in different cities and different studios, with different frames of mind to Tallulah. As Robert says, "Everything has virtually been reversed. We just changed three or four of the ingredients."
One of the changes was producer Mark Wallis, who has worked with U2, Talking Heads and The Primitives. The last album was recorded largely with Liberty Belle's Richard Preston, apart from two songs with American Craig Leon.
"We did two songs over a ridiculous amount of time with him. Nine days to do two songs! God made the world in seven days. Craig Leon thinks he needs nine days with The Go-Betweens."
OK, let's get personal for a minute. Let's talk about songs and personal relationships.
Robert: I don't wish to put names too soon!
John: You don't want to name names, you don't want to name dates, you don't want to name places, bathrooms, bedrooms
Robert: No, but I still want to be direct. I do write very much from what's going on in different rooms, in different times. I haven't got the imagination to think up whole plots that are far away from myself, and invent characters and things lie that. It makes it easier and I feel like I'm writing with greater authority.
The opening lines from Love Is A Sign read 'I'm ten feet underwater, standing in a sunken canoe.' How did you come up with that?
"I wrote that lyric in London. If you've lived in London you'll understand. After you've been there a while you begin to write lines like that. I think a lot of the songs are written with a post-London sense of escape."
There's certainly a clarity and simplicity surrounding the songs on the new record. A spate of solo acoustic shows, combined with the blue skies and sun of Sydney town, have brought out a new directness in the writing.
"I think with Love Is A Sign and Dive For Your Memory, it was finally getting to the time when things felt sufficiently clear to actually look at my immediate world. I'm singing to an audience all year round so you begin to look right into people's eyes when you sing these words. And that's good that's what I want to do now.
But do you, Robert ever find that your songs get too personal? While aiming for the heart, do things ever hit a nerve?
"I think the natural censor for all that is the fact that you don't want to hurt the person you're writing about, so you don't get too direct on your weak points or their weak points. The natural censor is good taste."
The McLennan/Forster combination has always been a strange one. Grant is solid and stocky, usually stands stage right, and introduces his songs like self-conscious schoolboy who's just written a poem for his beloved. Robert is tall and lanky, stands centre stage, fire out sarcastic comments like an apprentice Clive Robertson, and wears a bemused look that's occasionally broken with a sly grin.
The two most-unlikely-to met in 1977 at Brisbane University and via their friendship and common interest in music, the Go-Betweens were born.
"We've got a lot of shared experience, because we've been writing around each other for such a long time," Robert said. "We know each other's moves, in a way.
Even though the songs are credited to Forster/McLennan, it's obvious that the singer on a certain track is the main writer, and the different personalities show through as a result.
There's a small cross-over in that little bits are suggested to each song. We talk about how we think they're sounding. I guess it's just one songwriter talking to another songwriter it'd be like Paul Kelly taking his songs to someone else who played guitar and knew about songwriting, then playing them the songs and getting a reaction."
And are the two as close as they were in the early days?
"That's a hard question," Robert says, "because the circumstances have changed so much "
"Boys are always very close at that stage when you first leave school," adds John. "As soon as women start entering your lives in a serious way in your twenties, you can never be as close in that same way because it's almost like lovers when you're that young. Then there suddenly are lovers, and it alters."
And so it comes back to love, yet again. As John puts it, "there's a lot of love involved in the album good and bad love." Even the current spate of live shows is called The Birds And The Bees Tour.
They're a funny band, The Go-Betweens. Sometimes there's a quirkiness and gawkiness to them that makes them look like first-timers and even then they're great. And other times they're something else again, like the other night at Dee Why, when they just about lived up to the tag "greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world."
"We aren't a band like there are so many hideous Australian bands like Noiseworks or someone like that who bounce on stage every night. Their mother could be dying, there could have been a traffic accident on the way, three of the band have been poisoned by the other two, and they'll still bounce on stage and say 'Hey! We are going to rock you!'"
With The Go-Betweens, it's more like, "Excuse me, we are going to move you "