You can go home again
John O'Donnell Rolling Stone, 1988
"My mother's never seen us play. And I don't think she wants to rectify that imbalance either. It's a bit loud for her. And also, like a lot of people, she wants to follow a straight melody, and so the songs she likes are the straighter ones like Right Here and Spring Rain and that's about it actually,' laughs Go-Between Grant McLennan. Mrs McLennan might be the music market's ultimate representative sample. Certainly her attitude to her son's band mirrors that of the public at large. For, despite their ten year existence, their large vinyl output, and the critical acclaim they've garnered, the Go-Betweens remain very much a mainstream secret. But maybe it's time for a change.
Crammed into a spare space at Mushroom Records' Sydney office, McLennan (vocals, guitar, and songs), Robert Forster (vocals, guitar, and songs) and Amanda Brown (violin, oboe, and guitar) seem to be awkwardly revelling in what other bands find a chore the interview rounds. The reason for their enthusiasm is that now, more than ever, the Go-Betweens' house is in order. With a new country of residence, a new record label, and their sixth album, 16 Lovers Lane just released, the Go-Betweens are poised for a crossover.
"We got playlisted on 2MMM (Sydney) yesterday," beams Amanda Brown. "It's the first time that's ever happened, so hopefully a few more people will be listening to our music and hearing about a band called the Go-Betweens."
McLennan sums up the band's current positive attitude, on their next single Was There Anything I Could Do?, when he sings 'If you spend your life looking behind you/You don't see what's up front.'
The Go-Betweens have been on the outside for too long. The group began as a partnership between McLennan and Forster when the two met at Brisbane University in 1977. Although inspired by the British punk explosion, they took only its liberating aesthetic across to their music. While black leather and studied sneers were the order, the Go-Betweens dressed in flannelette and played a music that was melodic, winsome, and both rhythmically and lyrically imaginative. It was a music more attuned to Creedence, Dylan, and the New York sounds of Tom Verlaine and Jonathan Richman, than to Radio Birdman, the Stooges or the Sex Pistols. From these earliest beginnings the Go-Betweens looked and sounded like no one else.
Forster was vaguely familiar with the guitar, and he taught McLennan what he knew about bass. Forster has said, "Even though he (McLennan) couldn't play at the time, I knew he was an intelligent, arrogant person and a creative person. I just needed someone who believed and liked the same things I did I knew he'd start writing songs and singing." The Go-Betweens cut two singles on the Able label, before adding Lindy Morrison as their resident drummer. Morrison's intricate drum patterns further coloured the band with an idiosyncratic rhythmic base.
The common ground between Forster and McLennan was literary rather than musical, although they both shared a deep and abiding passion for middle-period Bob Dylan. Their influences are apparent on one side of their first single, Karen about an unrequited love for a librarian who 'Helps me find Hemingway/Helps me find Genet/Helps me find Brecht/Helps me find James Joyce/She always makes the right choice.'
Both Forster and McLennan aspire to write more than pop songs, although they have a particular respect for the Monkees. As Forster once wrote, "The initial impetus of the Go-Betweens was a cross between the Monkees and Patti Smith. The Monkees were pop and bad poetics; Patti Smith poetics and bad pop (the Monkees) music is perfect, as perfect as pop could ever be; Last Train to Clarksville has been written, and we are left with our own imperfection."
The Go-Betweens' lyrics have often been closer to poetry than most of their contemporaries and they have derived a strength from this belief in themselves. That said, they aim to write genuine rock'n'roll songs in the tradition of Lou Reed and Dylan. Like those artists they have eschewed formulae. They have demonstrated an ability to write pop songs but continue to look for something else.
Over time the group has become more assured as a rock band and their musical abilities, particularly with the addition of Wilsteed and Brown, have caught up with their lyrical ambitions. At least in terms of popular taste.
The relationships in the Go-Betweens have evolved gradually. Where once Robert and Grant sang on each other's songs now there is a demarcation and each sings his own. The rhythmic intricacies of the songs have diminished since the romance between Forster and Morrison broke up. The couple used to share the same flat and worked on embellishing arrangements day and night. Forster's songs these days are noticeably more simple. As McLennan and Brown got closer they compounded each other's melodic strengths.
McLennan and Brown have taken to doing solo performances which feature Go-Betweens material as well as providing McLennan for an outlet for those of his songs which don't fit the band. "It's given me an opportunity to do some covers which the band have never been able to do."
John Wilsteed, as the newest Go-Between, also comes from Brisbane and was involved in the postpunk milieu. He led a band called, variously, Zero, Xiro and a few other names, which featured Lindy Morrison on drums. Since leaving Brisbane, Wilsteed has been working with graphics, in radio and making the occasional record.
Wilsteed has a blend of personal anarchism along with his musical abilities on guitar and bass. He also has a sufficiently headstrong personality to actually enforce his presence in a way that Robert Vickers never managed. Perhaps it's also a matter of a more open attitude on the part of the group's founders to admit wider influences.
The Go-Betweens are all individually eccentric and Wilsteed fits right in.
It would seem that every time relationships within the band change or they change locale, the group as a whole takes on a new persona. The Go-Betweens have settled well into Sydney over the past year and become an integral part of the Sydney scene. For example Paul Kelly has admitted to "borrowing" images from the Go-Betweens and they have been sharing stages around Sydney nightclubs and tennis courts.
However, the Go-Betweens have never aspired to be a typical Australian band, they have always, particularly McLennan and Forster, promoted their feminine side not only on songs like Bachelor Kisses but also in their onstage demeanour. McLennan for instance, has always maintained that an artist transcended sexuality. He has recalled his boarding school days when he revelled in his David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust LPs at the expense of being called a "poofter". This is very much at odds with the suburban pub-rock ethic. Nevertheless, the Go-Betweens are now finding an audience deep in heavy metal territory.
This is somewhat ironic given that the Go-Betweens turned their back on the Australian circuit almost ten years ago. They were one of the first groups to base themselves in London, to be followed by the Birthday Party, the Triffids and others.
Having recorded the fragile, arty Send Me A Lullaby, they attracted the attention of the English label Rough Trade and in 1982 moved to London where they remained for the next five years. Four albums followed: Before Hollywood, Spring Hill Fair, Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express and Tallulah. All of the LPs had a double L in the titles, due to their superstition that it was the double L in Thriller which took Michael Jackson over the top.
When Before Hollywood was released in 1983 it was hailed by the critics here and in Britain as a masterwork. It was an almost seamless, less alienating LP than its predecessor and established Forster and McLennan as writers with a strong emotive resonance, capable of many tones as they waxed poetically about love's addiction.
During their London secondment they expanded their scope with the addition of Robert Vickers on bass and later Amanda Brown, whose instrumental versatility enabled the band to further pursue their ambitious soundscapes.
Yet while the Go-Betweens evolved with each album, commercial success was conspicuously avoiding them. Each album contained hits that should have been Cattle And Cane, Bachelor Kisses, Spring Rain, Right Here but record company indifference and sheer bad luck bedevilled the band.
If nothing else this haplessness has made the Go-Betweens more resilient. It engendered a strong self-confidence and egotism within the band that has had a pronounced effect on their collective personality, and their music, since.
Fed up with London, the band left for the warmer, and potentially more receptive, Sydney in November last year. At this time the bassist Robert Vickers departed the band, and John Wilsteed has since taken his place. The move from London back to Australia was the catalyst for the Go-Betweens' change in mood, and perhaps ultimately a change in fortune.
"I think the band had really run its course in London," says Brown. "We don't get played on BBC Radio 1 at all, and so we were really just playing to the same group of Go-Betweens fans every time we played. We weren't getting to any new people."
"With certain members of the band there was also a personal desire to get back closer to their families, who we'd spent a long time away from," added Forster. "And people are a lot more receptive here (Australia), a lot more open. After five years of London, I've had a really good dose of the English resistance the coldness, stiffness. So Australians are a great relief to me again. A great relief."
The Go-Betweens react strongly to the personnel, acting and interacting, both professionally and romantically, on their records. Where their first two Brisbane singles were relatively breezy folk/rock records, Melbourne imbued the band, and ultimately Send Me A Lullaby, with a more bold, edgy and totally individual sound. In London, Before Hollywood contained a mixture of English chill (Dusty In Here) with sounds of longing and remembrance (Cattle And Cane), while Liberty Belle represented a bravado-ridden declaration of self-worth, in defiance of mainstream indifference.
16 Lovers Lane is again a work that reflects its environment. It is very much a Sydney album. It sees the band more relaxed, more at ease than ever before. This transformation is most palpable on Robert Forster's contributions. Gone is the 'I'm a star!', 'How could anyone disapprove of me' bragging of Liberty Belle (and he also appears to have shed his flamboyant fashion aberrations of recent years). Not more obvious is the change than on Love Is A Sign, where Forster sings 'I'm not a playboy or a poet', and later on the heartfelt Dive For Your Memory.
"A lot of that boasting came from London. I felt like screaming and stamping my foot a lot over there," admits Forster. "I now feel that I just want to play and sing the songs. I'd much prefer to be singing Dive For Your Memory and know I'm getting to the heart of something. That I'm really saying something and I can feel it inside me, as opposed to 'I'm a star!' or 'I'm a sex-god'. London, it draws out those extreme reactions.
"When we moved back here in November last year, we wanted to do the whole recording process here. On a lot of the songs I wrote for the album the lyrics were written around Christmas up in Brisbane, and then I came down here and the songs were demoed, rehearsed and recorded in Sydney. It was great. I could walk to the studio and walk home, whereas in London it'd take me one and a half hours to get there, and then at 10 o'clock at night it'd be completely dark and you'd have to find your way home it was frightening."
"It's definitely a more relaxed record," says McLennan. "It was recorded in summer, which I think has a lot to do with it. It was also the first time that we've recorded the whole album in a good studio, and it just makes things so much easier "
"It inspires you," interrupts Brown. "You can hear the actual sound quality of the instruments improve so much that it just inspires lots more ideas and sounds."
16 Lovers Lane was recorded at Studio 301, Sydney with producer Mark Wallis. Wallis had previously worked with the Go-Betweens, remixing a handful of tracks for Tallulah, and his other credits include mixing duties on U2's The Joshua Tree and Talking Heads' Naked, and the production of recent albums by The Primitives and Ups And Downs.
"It's the first record we've ever made where the producer has called all the shots,' says McLennan. "On our other records, even though the production has been credited to one person, there was always a lot of input from us, and a lot of resistance to the producer's suggestions. But on this record Mark did everything, he just worked from the demos Robert and I had done.
"It was very different for us in that it was the first time Robert and I had just demoed the songs, and not the band. That meant that the band came to the songs with melody lines on guitar, suggestions of where strings would go, and what the rhythm might be. So a lot of the things that were added by the band were added after, whereas in the past everything was added in the organic process of making the song. I don't know whether we will work that way again, because it caused difficulties within the band. It's just quite a radical way of working for us.
"Overall I think he's produced a very good record. There's questions of approach on some songs, on which we would differ, all of us. But overall I think he's done a splendid job. It's a beautiful record."
Certainly 16 Lovers Lane is the band's most direct and accessible moment thus far. Since Liberty Belle in 1986 the Go-Betweens have consciously been working towards simplifying their convoluted song structures, and thus building a bridge between McLennan's roughened pastoral pop and Robert Forster's more quirky versions of the dream. 16 Lovers Lane is where they've succeeded. And in fact, on I'm Allright, and Dive For Your Memory Forster treads the lush, endearing ground normally reserved by McLennan as stalked before by Forster on Spring Hill Fair's excellent Part Company and here provides two of the record's highlights.
With their songs more streamlined, the Go-Betweens have then imbued them with sympathetic instrumentation that gently underscores and enhances the inherent melodies, without ever crowding them. Here the value of John Wilsteed who handles guitar and keyboards as well as bass and Amanda Brown is incalculable. In the past the Go-Betweens had strong wills and a plethora of ideas, but lacked the strong musicianship required to fully capitalise on them With this now obtained, the realisation of their visions is more possible than ever.
"When I was writing the lyrics to this album they came easily because the musical structures that I'd written were simpler," says Forster. "And so I didn't have to curl the words around the music so much. I could just be more expansive and sort of talk more it's like talking to a friend, talking to someone as they lie in bed while they're sick or something like that."
Listening to I'm Allright, Dive For Your Memory and Love is a Sign one can't help suggesting that Forster's bedridden friend is not so much sick as unwilling/beckoning to uh accommodate his friendship.
With Forster's long-standing, but now defunct, relationship with Lindy Morrison and now 'Grant & Amanda's' romantic involvement a much covered topic, is Forster not wary of exposing too much of himself on vinyl, and perhaps bordering on self-indulgence?
"No, not really. I think every Go-Betweens album's indulgent. Every album's a tug on the sleeve from a friend,' he replies. "I'd never, never want the songs to be some soppy confessional I don't like that. But I still think that what I like, in the works that I like, is honesty is truth is beauty all given to you at the one time."
The Go-Betweens argue that the move to Australia does not represent a lessening of their considerable ambition.
"I think our ambition is even bigger than it's always been," offers McLennan. "Moving to Australia is to try and consolidate a lot of the good feeling we've had here over the years. And working with Mushroom, it's the first time we've worked with a company that does have some say in records being on the radio. And that's the only thing, I think, that we've lacked."
With strong interest in the band in Europe, and some very encouraging noises coming from America, the Go-Betweens intend to regularly pack their idiosyncrasies into their travelling bags and tour the world with a live show that is often one of the most uplifting experiences imaginable, and at other times, well
"I think we're an exciting live band, because you really don't know what you're going to get," says McLennan. "Some night we can be great and other nights we're abysmal. But there's a confidence in what we do. There's a confidence even when we're bombing, and I quite like that.
"I think that's probably a bad marketing thing, but y'know "