There have been many side-effects associated with the pandemic. One has been to jump into untouched classic literature, like Proust. Alternatively, some, such as Kevin Smokler, have suggested returning to a favourite artist, while others, like Colin Marshall, have discussed the process of choosing one artist and listening to each album, once a day for a week. I tried Proust in regards to literature, but like so many before me, waved the white flag after the first two books. Moving on, I decided to dive into an artist I thought I knew, but knew that I had never listened to deeply. The artist I chose was The Go-Betweens.
I am not exactly sure why I chose The Go-Betweens as my deep dive. I had always known The Go-Betweens, but was not sure I really knew The Go-Betweens. One thought was maybe Kriv Stenders’ documentary, Right Here. I initially watched this on ABC iView. I think that I was captured by the discussion of the myth that surrounds the band. Another thought was listening to Missy Higgins’ cover of Was There Anything I Could Do on her album of Australian covers, Oz. Lastly, I was left thinking about Damian Cowell’s comment on the Take 5 podcast:
Use your power wisely … Treat them to an anchovy.Source: TISM’s Damian Cowell’s songs from the 90s zeitgeist by Take 5 podcast
Although Cowell was speaking about Custard, I could not help but think about The Go-Betweens.
The first question that needs addressing is who were or are The Go-Betweens? First, there is the name. David Nichols’ captures some of origins in his book on the band. The obvious reference is to L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, a story about Leo Coulston who is somewhat unknowingly entangled within an affair which leaves his life forever corrupted. However, some of the other ideas were that the music was a go-between ‘night and day’:
McLENNAN: Oh; we were driving along in a car one time; going to the Exchange Hotel. We drove over the bridge there and we were just thinking of a few names and 1 think Rob came up with the Go-Betweens. Because, we since found out, we went between two types of music, maybe, or …Source: The Go-Betweens by David Nichols
FORSTER: Basically there’s night and there’s day, and you try and go between that, and you find the twilight zone—and there lies the Go-Betweens. – Page 20
Or between different styles of music:
To be a go-between was far from a negative role in McLennan and Forster’s eyes. They were in between so many places, swamped by a cultural flood. While they faced the reality of Brisbane, the heat, parental pressure, and the influence of punk rock, they also yearned for New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Paris in the 1920s and 1950s, and were fascinated by Timothy Leary Bob Dylan, Tom Verlaine, Françoise Hardy, Samantha Eggar, Richard Hell, Blondie, and the Erasers. All of this was siphoned through a strange, anomalous Brisbane rock group called the Go-Betweens. – Page 52Source: The Go-Betweens by David Nichols
Interestingly, coming back to Hartley’s novel, Ali Smith describes it as a book about books:
The Go-Between is about books as much as it’s about memory. It’s a model of the importance of rereading (and God knows we treat books lightly – we wouldn’t, after all, expect to know a piece of music properly on just one listen), knowledge and innocence so much part of its structure as to make it a knowingly different book on revisiting. Above all, though, it is a text which works like a charm: books are, in essence, go-betweens, works which conjure rhythm and release across time and history, across places of familiarity and those foreign to us; and personally and individually, too, it’s all a going-between, for every person who picks up a book for a first, then a second, then a third time.Source: Rereading: The Go-Between by LP Hartley by Ali Smith
Replacing the word ‘books’ with ‘music’, maybe the The Go-Betweens are music or a band that go-betweens, across places familiar and foreign. In the end, the name seems to act as a catchall for whatever meaning listeners are willing to apply.
Going beyond the name, the narrative of the band seems just as disputed. The easy answer is to focus on myth surrounding the two songwriters, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster. They met while studying at University of Queensland, before deciding to form a band on Forster’s behest. Interestingly, Foster was interested in creating a band as an idea:
If a musician couldn’t be found, a friend could be taught. It then followed that a group could be cast like a play or a movie. – Page 25Source: Grant & I by Robert Forster
Although many compare the partnership between Foster and McLennen as some sort of Australian Lennon and McCartney, there inspiration was as much groups like The Monkees and the ‘band as a flagship’:
FORSTER: Grant and I used to look at products. As a game, I’d go round the kitchen and pick up something like Vegemite. And we’d rattle off five or ten advertising slogans. Products around the kitchen. We were flying! We thought we were geniuses. The band was always the flagship: “If the band becomes famous, everyone’s going to be interested in these ideas. We’ve got to get famous.” The group was the get-famous thing—once that happened, we could go. ‘‘Surprise, surprise, everybody, yeah, we’re pop stars but we’ve got all these other ideas and we’re goddamn flickin’ geniuses. You thought you were only getting two moptop pop stars, what you’re getting is Truffaut and Godard! We’re the Orson Welles of rock.” It didn’t happen. – Page 70Source: The Go-Betweens by David Nichols
However, The Go-Betweens story is far more complicated than a story about two songwriters.
In My Rock n Roll Friend, Tracey Thorn makes the case that The Go-Betweens are really a classic trio whose true story starts and finishes with Lindy Morrison.
It is Lindy, Robert and Grant who are the original Go-Betweens. It is their band. In the future they might get in backing singers, or keyboard players, or violinists, or sax soloists, or a full-blown bloody orchestra, but the essence remains. They are a classic trio, whatever anyone might say later. – Page 40Source: My Rock n Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn
Morrison was the drummer for much of the eighties, before McLennan and Forster dramatically pulled the pin on the band. She defied the “fantasies of a chic little French girl” that Foster and McLennan may have intially had. Instead, she provided a particular edge and perspective.
Underplaying Lindy’s contribution does not just do her a disservice: it is self-defeating. It makes them a less interesting band, saddling them with a dull identity when they had a bright and interesting one. It is their final act of self-sabotage. – Page 200Source: My Rock n Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn
In addition to Morrison, there are others, such as Amanda Brown, Robert Vickers and John Wilsteed, whose legacies served in making the band more than just a duo. Let alone the later additions of Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson when the band reformed in the late 90’s.
Although I listened to all the albums in order, I feel they can be organised into two groups. The original line-up featuring Morrison on drums ending with 16 Lovers Lane and the reformed line-up.
The Original Line-Up
Send Me a Lullaby
Spring Hill Fair
Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express
16 Lovers Lane
The Friends of Rachel Worth
Bright Yellow Bright Orange
I am not sure if it was because, out of all their albums, I had listened to 16 Lovers Lane the most, but listening to the early albums in more depth and detail felt a little like one of those word puzzles where you change one letter each step until the whole word has changed.
Send Me a Lullaby is an albums that feels like it is trying to find itself.
Released in 1981, it now sounds very much of its time: jerky, influenced by all sorts of even jerkier-sounding British post-punk bands like Gang of Four, the Raincoats and the Slits.Source: The last time I saw Grant – Griffith Review by Andrew Stafford
Beyond Hollywood adds hooks and texture to develop a more complete sound.
Where Send Me a Lullaby was fragile and occasionally faltering, yet still possessed of an uplifting resonance, Before Hollywood is a more complete album. Endearing as their vulnerability was, the Go-Betweens now play with confidence and solidity, though still with an edge . . . [here] they offer ten deceptively simple pop songs that pack an emotional impact just below a skin of finely wrought and realised melody and rhythmic attack. – Page 209Source: Stranded by Clinton Walker
With Spring Hill Fair, gone is the contrast between fast and slow of their early albums. This is replaced with the attempt at a slicker pop sound.
With synthesized rhythms—about half the drum tracks are programmed—and “slick” sounds, the album sounds the way a major-label debut is supposed to sound. There may, then, be no readily identifiable reason why Spring Hill Fair doesn’t quite seem to come up to scratch. Perhaps it‘s that the diversity of the songs prevents it from coming together as a cohesive whole.Source: The Go-Betweens by David Nicholls
Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express parks the technological experimentation, instead going for a more organic approach.
The production credit for Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (what a wonderfully pretentious title) was going to read, ‘The Go-Betweens and Richard Preston’. There’d be no drum machines, no piecemeal recording, no acquiescence to a higher authority – we were experienced enough in the studio, and flying on the strength of our demoed songs and Richard’s easy, collaborative ways. Our intention was to expand upon the crisp, woody sound of Before Hollywood, to include a grander, more exotic range of instrumentation – vibraphone, oboe, piano accordion, and, at Grant’s suggestion and to my apprehension, a string section. But he was right; we were making music and living lives that demanded strings. And we had a crack rhythm section, with Robert’s swinging melodic bass and Lindy’s signature rolls and fills, inventive and sturdy under every song. – Page 113Source: Grant & I by Robert Forster
Tallulah is an experimentation in sound and texture. For me, it sounds like a search for the right formula, something of a ‘what if’ album.
Among fans of the Go-Betweens, there’s a school of thought that every second album they made was better than its predecessor: the first exploring a style, the second perfecting it, before they would immediately move on to a new form. In this way, the Go-Betweens’ parameters kept expanding, like Chinese boxes.Source: The last time I saw Grant – Griffith Review by Andrew Stafford
16 Lovers Lane trades in the funk grooves and distortion of Tallulah, instead replacing this with a bed of acoustic guitars. Although it is heavily produced, leading to some songs being difficult to reproduce live, it still feels subtle and subdued.
I had trouble with 16 Lovers Lane for a long time. It wasn’t until the late nineties that I recognised the album for what it was – a pop record, a far but tine side of what we were as a band. With its spiralling guitars and narcotic groove it became an influential album in noughties pop. On its release my fear was that the production obscured the grit in the songwriting, the added heart Grant and I had put into our lyrics. – Page 140Source: Grant & I by Robert Forster
I find listening to the reformed albums, The Friends of Rachel Worth, Bright Yellow Bright Orange and Oceans Apart, interesting. There are the usual hooks and melodies, but no matter how much I listen, they do not gel like the early albums.
I wonder if they miss the ‘Go-Betweens drama’ as Amanda Brown has put it or if a part of this disappointment is my own listening experience? I was left wondering whether maybe they missed the flourishes from the likes of Willsteed and Brown? I also wonder if there is something about getting six, seven and eight records in? This also left me thinking about the challenges in listening back through a whole catalogue? When asked about album reviews and music criticism, Caroline Polachek suggested that:
Music criticism is not a review of the album you just made, its a review of your career up to that point. – Caroline PolachekSource: This Generation’s Caroline Polachek by Switched on Pop
Maybe it just is not possible to listen to their later albums without comparing or even placing them within the context of their time.
One of the things that I found interesting about doing this deep dive is that growing up with the singles, it can be hard to appreciate evolution that I imagine most bands go through it. In addition to this, it provided a deeper appreciation of the music. Bopping along with the jangly guitar of their ‘striped sunlight sound’, with mentions of love and emotions, it is easy to be lulled into their music. However, to come back to Cowell’s point about anchovies, I found that digging into The Go-Betweens more akin to zucchini chocolate cake. When you move beyond the surface, there are often ingredients that surprise you. Maybe this is what made them what they were, while at the same time prevented them from ever quite making it into the mainstream.
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