FEBRUARY 19, 2017
THE GO-BETWEENS, a band formed in 1977 by two college friends from Brisbane, Australia, exemplify a musical genre that the critic Robert Christgau has dubbed “the semi-popular”: “music that is appreciated […] for having all the earmarks of popular music except one: popularity.” In the 1980s, the Go-Betweens released six albums, most of which were lavishly praised, none of which sold. They reunited in 2000 to put out three more well-received, modest-selling albums. Though revered by critics and fellow musicians like Nick Cave, Belle and Sebastian, and Sleater-Kinney, the band remains a private taste, and a bit of a mystery even to its admirers. They live perpetually in the what-could-have-been, kings of an alternate Earth’s hit parade. Appropriately, there are three different “lost” Go-Betweens albums from various points in their career. The track listings for those records remain provisional; it’s part of their allure. “There was still a sense of potential about us,” Robert Forster writes of his band in 2005, nearly 30 years since they started.
Forster, the band’s surviving co-founder, is also, of late, a critic, writing on books and music for The Monthly and Time Out. His prose style is that of his lyric writing: witty, terse, fond of sharp similes. The perspective of a band recording an album, “a month of ten-hour days in a black box, [is] akin to the one you’d get from a submarine parked on a seabed.” The early Go-Betweens trudge off to their practice rooms “like a trail of miners going off at night.” Riding in overnight touring buses “turned rock and roll into a freight business.” Having to overdub tracks piecemeal, band members are “called out [to the studio] one by one over the next four days, like witnesses at a murder trial.”
These lines are from Forster’s memoir Grant & I, which entwines the story of the Go-Betweens and of its co-founder Grant McLennan, who died of a heart attack in 2006 at age 48. Forster and McLennan were the band’s core, and a bit of an odd couple, as shown on the cover of Forster’s book: McLennan, wearing the expression of a wry cherub, stands over the lanky Forster, who looks like Conrad Veidt’s somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In appearance, they came off as wayward college professors: Forster a scandalous drama teacher; McLennan a genial English instructor. They both sang lead, played guitar, wrote songs, and fell in love, at different points in the band’s career, with fellow Go-Betweens: Forster with drummer Lindy Morrison, McLennan with oboist/violinist Amanda Brown.
Despite the Fleetwood Mac-ian melodrama baked into this situation, Grant & I isn’t a traditional rock memoir. The sex is off-stage, the drugs mostly so; only when Forster is diagnosed with hepatitis in 1996 does he disclose his occasional heroin use. Instead of chronicling hotel-room trashing escapades, Forster writes about the novels of Christopher Isherwood or taking a Shakespeare course later in life. It’s in keeping with Forster and McLennan’s image of being gentlemen scholars who happened to dabble in rock music. They were ambitious provincials, but rock wasn’t their only route out of Brisbane. Eldest sons, the golden boys of middle-class Australian families, each was talented and privileged enough to have done more or less anything they put their mind to. It’s easy to imagine them as respected novelists, poets, or makers of documentaries.
Instead Forster, the more outgoing of the pair, cajoled his college friend McLennan into playing bass in his band, and soon into writing songs as well. The Go-Betweens were blessed by a run of early breaks. A Brisbane record store owner funded their debut single after only a few live gigs. The influential Scottish band Orange Juice became fans, thus securing them an invite to record for hip UK indie label Postcard Records. London’s Rough Trade was another early champion, though they would later dump the Go-Betweens for The Smiths.
These first triumphs bred a confidence, a sense of inevitability, which kept Forster and McLennan going throughout a decade of routine disappointment. They knew they didn’t have to be slaves to the road, angling for a slot on an AC/DC tour. Instead they could follow the trajectory of their heroes The Saints: cut a great single, get it played by John Peel, land a British label deal, get out of Australia. In the early days, the Go-Betweens were a “practice room band,” Forster writes, working on building a song catalog, not so much an audience. Enlisting Forster’s girlfriend Lindy Morrison as drummer, a quantum leap from the clubbers of their first recordings, solidified their early sound: “the elements of a band playing for their lives with no rhythmic cover from a fourth person,” Forster writes. “Two wimps and a witch,” is how an Australian friend described the trio.
The Go-Betweens’s songwriting was built on a fraternal intimacy. They’d go to each other’s houses and sit face to face, talk, strap on guitars, strum through new material. Their musical personalities took shape early on. Forster usually wrote knottier, more sardonic songs, tense and nervous like an antipodal Talking Heads, though he came up with simple pop gems on occasion: the magnificent “Lee Remick” (“She comes from Ireland / she’s very beautiful / I come from Brisbane / and I’m quite plain”) and “People Say” are his. McLennan was a gifted melodist, a knack bred by starting out as bassist and writing dancing counterpoint lines for Forster’s early songs, which were sparsely built and kept close to the ground. McLennan’s songs are eager to open up, to blossom in stages: “That Way,” from 1983’s Before Hollywood, keeps expanding, like a house with an infinite set of rooms. Forster writes of “the familiar tricks of [McLennan’s] composing […] fingers descending in melodic steps on chord shapes, the swoon given to a minor chord when it breaks majors, the invented two-note chords he’d suddenly place to build or relax tension, all there at the service of a grand, grand melody.”
The typical Go-Betweens song has lyrics that read like opening lines from lost short stories: “I recall, a schoolboy coming home / through fields of cane, to a house of tin and timber”; “Remembered your name. Evidently, you’ve forgotten mine”; “A widow’s life’s no life at all”; “A white moon appears, like a hole in the sky / the mangroves go quiet.” The business of Forster and McLennan became the manufacture of such songs, in great numbers: though each of their official albums, bar the first, has only 10 songs (five sung by Grant, five by Robert), a recent boxed set has three CDs’ worth of outtakes and B-sides, and that’s just up to 1984. As each wrote full songs (only in the 2000s did they experiment with fitting their words to the other’s music), they used their workshops to critique, refine, and cull each other’s material. The process worked — it was rare when a clunker like “Cut It Out” (which Forster calls “the worst song in the Go-Betweens catalog”) reached the studio.
Yet the band never had their pop moment. There was always something off in a Go-Betweens single that kept it from crossing over to an ’80s radio audience: an abstruse lyric, a tinny mix, an oddly phrased refrain, a hook that came 10 seconds too late. Their songs sounded strange upon first listen, then took root in the head a day later. They came at you from an angle. Not that they didn’t want hits. Grant & I is the story of a working band that spent a decade looking for a break that never came. Their biggest chance was in 1988, with McLennan’s “Streets of Your Town,” with its swooning, radio-ready sound. Letting down the side was their label, Beggars Banquet, which didn’t have the resources to push the single; despite getting regular Radio One play, “Streets” died outside the UK Top 40 and went nowhere in the United States.
This kind of near-miss was typical of the band’s fortunes. The Go-Betweens lacked the label patronage that allowed a U2 or R.E.M. to build their audience and become an arena act by the late 1980s, and never gained any real commercial momentum. They were cast off again and again, multiply orphaned, and each album meant starting over with a different label, producer, and A&R staff. The Go-Betweens had other problems. They lacked a strong manager to tame the band’s various egos: the only member happy to remain in the background was genial bassist Robert Vickers (Forster, describing Vickers’s departure in 1987: “the diplomat had left the embassy”). They didn’t have a charismatic front man like Bono or Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch: instead, their lead singers indulged in awkward, insular banter and were “chained to their guitars” on stage. Forster and McLennan had modest singing voices. Over the course of the ’80s, their career became a grind and a trap: the Go-Betweens had to keep touring and recording to stay afloat but “we never generated the money to buy time for regeneration or time away from each other,” as Forster writes.
By the end of 1989, this way of life had become unsustainable. Forster was alienated during the recording of 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane, which he regarded as being overproduced and overly pop-oriented without the commensurate units shifted. McLennan and Morrison had been at odds for nearly a decade, Morrison and Forster had broken up, and Morrison and Brown became a new faction within an already fractious power structure. After a random incident — Morrison dressing down a new bassist during practice — McLennan told Forster he wanted to leave, and Forster realized that he did, too. While both went solo in the 1990s — each man releasing four albums in the decade, as if per a divorce settlement — Forster makes clear how much they were still caught up in each other’s lives. Only a year after breaking up the band, Forster and McLennan played as an acoustic duo for a Lloyd Cole tour, and would perform throughout the ’90s in various revivals. Mid-decade, they even spent months working on a film script called Sydney Creeps, again sitting in a room face to face.
While Forster merely grew into the eccentric persona he’d cultivated all along, McLennan changed. First, in appearance: by the early 1990s, he’d exchanged his neat professional wardrobe for baseball caps, flannel shirts, and “jeans worn low on his arse […] [D]id grunge inspire this,” the more sartorially elegant Forster wonders, “or did his mental state just happen to coincide with a cultural moment?” He was also dealing with depression. He’d always been reserved, opaque, the sort who needs warming up for 20 minutes before they acknowledge you — he had the personality of a cat. Now “the person I’d known had unravelled and was in trouble,” Forster writes. McLennan was becoming an alcoholic, and allegedly using harder drugs. In 1999, he broke down and told Forster, “I’m tired of being a fake.” Even during The Go-Betweens’s revival in the 2000s, which was essentially Forster’s gift to buck up a lost McLennan, the latter continued to deteriorate, downing Long Island Iced Teas like milkshakes and getting sloppily drunk in public, where once he’d prided himself on his poise during benders. “Drinking was eating him out, destroying him and he knew it,” Forster writes. Songwriting sessions now ended when McLennan needed to hit the bar: “I could tell he wanted to start the numbing.”
There were still the songs, though. The three final Go-Betweens albums are a small miracle: a band picking up right where they’d left off but letting their gap years seep into the sound. They’re at once warmer and more distant than the early records, with some of their finest compositions: Forster’s “He Lives My Life,” “German Farmhouse,” and “Darlinghurst Nights” (an ode to 1980s Sydney); McLennan’s “Finding You,” which stunned Forster upon first hearing (“he’d just played me one of the ten best songs he’d ever written”), and the somber “Boundary Rider.”
McLennan’s sudden death on the afternoon of a housewarming party shocked fans, but there had been signs of trouble: he’d had arm and finger pains for some time, to the point of struggling to fret his guitar, but apparently ignored his doctors and continued to drink. “He walked to it,” Forster tells his wife Karin on the night of McLennan’s death. In the last pages of his memoir, Forster takes a breath and sums up his dead friend:
Grant had no anchor. No life-grounding weight at the end of the long chain we all drag […] Grant floated in calm waters, through the good years and the dangerous, the bad. He had a weak point that made it difficult for him to say, “No, I won’t do that,” and he seemed to conspire to allow conditions for that attitude to prevail: shared households, few responsibilities, a remote sense of time — the rock life. Yet through it all, he was a gentleman and most people knew him as such — polite, caring, and highly intelligent. The most gifted person I will ever know. But he drifted on his back, his face blissful to the sky, free to the currents […] A naive boy, he thought the world was fair.
Grant & I is a beautifully written book, but it feels, fittingly, half-finished. You long to hear McLennan’s voice, to view the band, and Forster, through his eyes. There is still, even after McLennan’s death, a sense of potential about this relationship. Helping to bear his friend’s coffin, Forster notes that “he was heavy.” A good line to start a Go-Betweens song.