The Go-Betweens: The Greatest Band That Never Made It Big
The list of bands in modern music that deserved to make it big with a wider audience is getting larger every day. Many of those show flashes, even continuous brilliance, but only accrue cult following and praise from the music critics. Still, with most of them, that is exactly what they need and deserve.
There is definitely one exception where the brilliance of musical/lyrical creation, the staunchness of critical praise and cult following and lasting impact were never matched with anything resembling something that could be called wider success. It is Brisbane, Australia’s The Go-Betweens and its writing/singing duo Robert Forster and Grant McLennan.
During the bands two runs, and after McLennan’s death from a heart attack in 2006, the band were labeled by Robert Christgau, one of the most renowned rock critics, as “the greatest songwriting partnership working today.” A toll bridge in Brisbane was renamed after the band,“Cattle and Cane,” one of their earlier songs was selected by Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) as one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time, they have a musical fellowship grant in their after Forster and McLennan were invited to play at the 10th Anniversary party of the best French rock magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, in 1996, and are still serving as a source of inspiration on an ever-growing list of musicians, writers, and public figures.
Was There Anything I Could Do?
So goes the title and the refrain of one of the countless gems Forster/McLennan created (this one from probably their best album, 16 Lovers Lane, from 1988). They did their best, and their best was always among the best, whether it was the early material inspired by The Velvet Underground, and later punk/new wave artists like The Talking Heads and Wire, or anything that came after. They gradually shifted to more melodic, complex and sophisticated pop inflicted music, garnered with some of the best lyrics in modern music. And that includes the likes of Lennon/McCartney, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and a very select group of others.
…they came up with “this beautiful, mutant thing, which is longer lasting in the end.”
A comparison could actually be made between the Forster/McLennan partnership with the one Lennon/McCartney had during their cooperating heyday – the compatibility and difference of ideas, the feeding off of personal energy, and the actual synergy in composing that ensued. Over the course of 10 official albums, and some 3-5 different compilations, and a box set series that is still evolving during the two incarnations the band had, Forster/McLennan with evolving musical help, had done everything they could do and as their compatriot musician Paul Kelly puts it, they came up with “this beautiful, mutant thing, which is longer lasting in the end.”
From Joyce and Beckett to Goddard and Truffaut
Who names a band after a classic L. P. Hartley novel (The Go-Between)? Two Australian college kids studying writing (Forster) and film (McLennan) bonding over James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (Lloyd Cole called Forster “the Samuel Beckett of songwriters”) and French New Wave cinematography and movies like Jules Et Jim.
Oh, and modern music and a particular love for The Velvet Underground and later groups like The Talking Heads and Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers. As Forster himself puts it, we were highly conceptual from the start because we didn’t have the musical chops.” Later on, commenting on The Velvet Underground inspiration, Forster wrote that “they (The Velvets) were the first band I ever heard who wrote songs better than they could play them.” And that is exactly what happened with The Go-Betweens.
And I ride your river under the bridge And I take your boat out to the reach Cos I love that engine roar But I still don’t know what I’m here for
Round and round, up and down Through the streets of your town Everyday I make my way Through the streets of your town
– “Streets of Your Town”
Their first single, “Lee Remick”/”Karen” (“Helps me find Hemingway/Helps me find Genet/ Helps me find Brecht/ Helps me find Chandler/ Helps me find James Joyce”) and first two albums, Send Me A Lullaby (1981) and Before Hollywood (for most part) from 1983 were jerky, new wave-ish stop/start musical affairs combined with already brilliant lyrical visions. It was obvious that Forster and McLennan were developing their musical capabilities fast, as already on Before Hollywood they were able to come up with songs like “Dusty In Here” and “Cattle and Cane.”
…The Go-Betweens had a run of four musically and lyrically impeccable albums, full of odd, but still perfectly sensible melodies and thought-provoking lyrics that worked in perfect sync with each other.
From 1984’s Spring Hill Fair throughLiberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986), to Tallualah (1987) and 16 Lovers Lane (1988), The Go-Betweens had a run of four musically and lyrically impeccable albums, full of odd, but still perfectly sensible melodies and thought-provoking lyrics that worked in perfect sync with each other. Forster/McLennan’s conceptualist approach was evident throughout, including in the fact that all these albums had titles that included a word that had a double meter L, while the last album of that incarnation, 16 Lovers Lane, had two L’s, but in two separate words.
Whether this L thing had something to do with the fact that the two female band members during the ’80s, Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown, were Forster and McLennan’s girlfriends (respectively) and that when those relations fell apart so did the first incarnation of the band remains moot.
My Rock And Roll Friend
“You’re home late/And you smell/Of the music that you make”
Although Forster and McLennan had a synergy that truly worked, they ended up going their separate ways. At least for a while. In the six-year period before reuniting, both went on to make solo albums (Forster four, McLennan, also four), which never went below very good, but that personal chemistry that existed between the two was still something special.
After the Les Inrockuptibles invitation and concert (the magazine proclaimed The GoBetweens “the most underrated band in the history of rock”), Forster and McLennan decided to give it another run. Yet again, on three studio and one live album in the ten year period before McLennan’s untimely death, the band exhibited musical and lyrical brilliance almost par to none, to practically no avail of gaining a wider audience.
The Go-Betweens produced some of the most mutant, evocative intellectual pop, that never succeeded at the time it was made…
Still, for anybody who gave the band at least half an ear to or saw their later live performances, The Go-Betweens will remain exactly what Les Inrockuptibles said about them – the most underrated band in rock history. Personally, I remember their performance at “The Crossing Border Festival” in 2000, then located in Amsterdam, when backed by Sleater/Kinney,among the all-present brilliance, Forster decided to three times restart a song because it didn’t sound perfect. The overall effect was that all of the nuances of The Go-Betweens songs just got accentuated and made them, well, more alive.
So, to paraphrase Paul Kelly, who got it right, The Go-Betweens produced some of the most mutant, evocative intellectual pop, that never succeeded at the time it was made, but lingers on til this day. Once you make the connection with Forster/McLennan, they become true rock’n’ roll friends.
It is neither fair nor reasonable to expect sadness To confine itself to it’s causes. Like a river in flood When it subsides and the drowned bodies of Animals have been deposited in the treetops, there is Another kind of damage that takes place beyond the torrent At first, it seemed as though she had only left The room to go into the garden and had been delayed by stray Chickens in the corn. Then he had thought she might Have eloped with the rodeo-boy from the neighbouring Property but it wasn’t till one afternoon, when he Had heard guitar playing coming from her room and Had rushed upstairs to confront her and had seen That it was only the wind in the curtains brushing Against the open strings, that he finally knew she Wasn’t coming back. He had dealt with the deluge alright But the watermark of her leaving was still quite visible He had resorted to the compass then, thinking that Geography might rescue him but after one week in the Victorian Alps he came back north, realizing that snow which He had never seen before, was only frozen water I’ll take you to Hollywood I’ll take you to Mexico I’ll take you anywhere the River of Money flows I’ll take you to Hollywood I’ll take you to Mexico I’ll take you anywhere the River of Money flows But was it really possible for him to cope with the Magnitude of her absence? The snow had failed him Bottles had almost emptied themselves without effect The television, a samaritan during other tribulations, had Been repossessed. She had left her travelling clock Though thinking it incapable of functioning in Another time-zone; so the long vacant days of expensive sunlight Were filled with the sound of her minutes, with the measuring of Her hours