the go-betweens, 1978-1988, 2000-2006, r.i.p.

Posted on December 10th, 2006 by Scraps.
Categories: Music, Musicians.

Feel so sure of our love
I'll write a song about us breaking up

I wasn't sure whether to put the song links at the beginning or the end. I think I'll put them at the end. We Go-Betweens fans know how inexplicably their appeal seems to elude the very people who ought to embrace them; we are anxious to explain them to you. (My inner copy editor wants to correct "anxious" to "eager"; in this case, "anxious" serves better.) The urge to communicate that passion risks the appearance of making exaggerated claims, almost guaranteed to put off the potential fan. (Maybe I should put the links first.) But if I'm going to write this at all, I have to say what they mean to me. I can't undersell them.

Today I was listening to Tallulah, and when it reached "Bye Bye Pride" , I was hit by a wave of sadness, and I started to cry. At first I thought I was mourning McLennan, but I realized it was the band I mourned, the band that had resurrected itself and would never play again, the band I had never seen. Nine albums isn't too few, but I want more. This is all there will be.

We thought there would be more. We were lucky to get as many as we did. Seventeen years ago they called it quits, and now more than ever I'm grateful for the improbable last three: improbable that they existed at all, but even more improbable, given the poor record of great bands reuniting, that they were good. They'd never been less than good. Even on their early singles and their first album (1982's Send Me a Lullaby), still callow and fumbling for their form, they were distinctive: another angular post-punk band, but with a literary bent and a range of subject matter unlike anyone else's. By the second album (Before Hollywood, 1983), though there were traces of their brief musical adolescence, they had found the clean, restrained style that was their signature, a flexible sound that allowed them to move from warm to cool (though never hot, never cold): personal, reflective, always distinctively themselves. For the next four albums (Spring Hill Fair, 1984; Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, 1986; Tallulah, 1987; 16 Lovers Lane, 1988) they developed and refined their style; there was enough range within their style that they stayed fresh without fundamentally changing. Their last album, this first time round, was arguably their best.

The Go-Betweens were, essentially, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. Other members of the band, especially drummer Lindy Morrison, keyboardist Robert Vickers, and string/woodwind player Amanda Brown, made important contributions to the sound; but Forster and McLennan wrote the songs. They met as students in Brisbane, and were instant friends; McLennan wanted to make movies, and Forster convinced him to make music. Their partnership was founded on two principles that never changed as long as they were together: each of them would write half the songs on an album, and they would never do anything they didn't both agree to. They were well-matched: similar enough to forge a coherent sound between them, different enough -- McLennan the more personal songwriter, Forster the more worldly -- to tug and push at each other, to provoke each other's muse. Even when the band broke up, with some acrimony, McLennan and Forster were able to patch up their friendship, and did one-off shows together over the years. For a decade the two pursued solo careers. They made good albums, of which McLennan's country-tinged Horsebreaker Star (1995) is the best; but as is so often the case in great songwriting partnerships, something was lost -- some tension, some balance -- and it reduced them to good but ordinary.

But they kept in touch, and played together sometimes, and after ten years and another one-off show, when their fans (and Sleater-Kinney) pushed, they were ready. Somewhat controversially, they didn't recruit any of the old members (though Robert Vickers issued the new albums on his Jetset label), but when the first reunion album (The Friends of Rachel Worth, 2000) came out, there was no doubt that it was the Go-Betweens. Not at their top level, but (to our relief) a solid second-tier album, a valid addition to their legacy. The next album (Bright Yellow Bright Orange, 2003) was also pretty good. But 2005's Oceans Apart was a revelation, an album as good as their best; the first of the new albums to make me genuinely excited about how much more they could have in them. And then, on May 6, 2006, Grant McLennan died in his sleep of a heart attack. He was 48. Immediately and inevitably, Forster said the band was dead too. I haven't gone three days without listening to them since.

I don't think any band has grown so slowly and relentlessly in my affections as the Go-Betweens have. I liked them offhandedly during their first incarnation; over time the beauty deepened, the moods -- always in different shades than any of their contemporaries -- grew more vivid, the pleasure more personal. Now they occupy a position in my pantheon of Greatest Bands; in the mid-eighties, between Talking Heads and the Pixies, only R.E.M. rivals them, and I listen to R.E.M. less than I used to -- I have wrung most of the pleasure out of those songs, and the pleasure I take in them now is largely nostalgia (which is not to say I now think they are less great than I did then) -- while there are Go-Betweens songs that are still opening up for me.

I paid insufficient attention to the lyrics. I do that a lot; for a verbal person, sometimes lyrics can be a very small part of my pleasure in popular music (and I can also tolerate terrible lyrics with relative ease if the music offers enough pleasure). I have low standards for song lyrics, and am content if songs offer some witty turn of phrase, some precise and new observation, some sincere feeling. The Go-Betweens offer all these in abundance, so it took me a long time to notice how often their songs were perfect (or near-perfect) self-contained expressions of things other songs didn't say, pieces of life, beautiful, meaningful, complete (forgive me) works of art. As passionate as I am about pop songs, this is a level of achievement, beyond passion and craft, that is rarely reached by pop songs. Fans trying to describe it grasp at descriptions that only partially get there: feeling that the moods, for example, are more subtle and complex than ordinary songs, we call them "wistful" or "plaintive" or "wry", and know that we haven't really described it at all. Christgau is close when he calls them short stories; he resists calling them poems, because the term is abused so often when writing about popular songwriters, but in fact I think they are the musical equivalent of poems: just that sort of vivid and precise observation, compacted and intensified so that it simultaneously is what it is and implies things higher, broader, deeper. Not just the lyrics; the entire shape of the song, the mood of the music almost always a complement to that of the words.

Before the words is the music. The songs have to insinuate themselves before they can grow inside you. Here, I think, is where the Go-Betweens failed to find their audience. Their songs are rarely arresting; they are persuasive. They are passionate, but they don't shout; heartfelt, but they don't sob; they are reflective, contemplative; they run deep and still and clear, but the surface is calm. They can pass right by. And they did; but they came back, and the world was ready to hear them. Then they left, too damned soon. I can't properly mourn Grant McLennan, not like someone who knew him can; but I knew the Go-Betweens, and this is my eulogy for the band I loved.

I couldn't choose one song, or even two or three. I've compiled here something like a Go-Betweens album. I think it covers their mature range of styles. Half the songs are by McLennan and half by Forster, though there are twelve instead of the usual ten. They are all from the original incarnation of the band, because those are still the songs I know and love best (and the most recent three albums are the easiest to find if you want to explore further). And I kept the opening four songs from 16 Lovers Lane in the same order, here opening side two.

side one
Bachelor Kisses (McLennan) from Spring Hill Fair
I Just Get Caught Out (Forster) from Tallulah
Draining the Pool for You (Forster) from Spring Hill Fair
Cattle and Cane (McLennan) from Before Hollywood
When People Are Dead (Forster) single b-side 1987
Bye Bye Pride (McLennan) from Tallulah

side two
Love Goes On! (McLennan) from 16 Lovers Lane
Quiet Heart (McLennan) from 16 Lovers Lane
Love Is a Sign (Forster) from 16 Lovers Lane
You Can't Say No Forever (Forster) from 16 Lovers Lane
The Clarke Sisters (Forster) from Tallulah
Apology Accepted (McLennan) from Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express

(Song links are provided in the hope that people will buy the albums if they like the songs. Please support good musicians by buying their music. Thanks!)

6 comments.

Alison Scott

Comment on December 11th, 2006.

eMusic have a whole pile of stuff by the Go-Betweens. You know what would really go well with posts like this -- if you stuck the playtagger code somewhere in your page template. It's a single line of javascript which puts playboxes on all the mp3s. For an example of how it works, see my potted music page.

Scraps

Comment on December 11th, 2006.

Thank you! I will try installing that tonight.

Misha

Comment on December 12th, 2006.

Scraps, wren pointed out this link on the Well, and I was delighted to see a love letter to Go-Betweens as the first post I read. I dearly, deeply loved them, as much as you have, and was fortunate to see them several times in the late 80s and even hang out with them a little. The stories are too long to leave here, but here's a link to my own blog entry about Grant's death: http://mrmisha.livejournal.com/58464.html . "Spring Hill Fair" and "Liberty Belle" are my favorites, from right when they were on the transition from quirky art-pop to smoother jangle-pop.

Ed Ward

Comment on December 12th, 2006.

Good to read you again! And good to see the Go Betweens up top when I found you. And good to see I'm not the only person who's made it through Don Cherry's Eternal Rhythm (and repeatedly)!

Scraps

Comment on December 12th, 2006.

Good to see you guys! Misha, I almost didn't use anything off Liberty Belle; I think it's an excellent album but for me it doesn't have any of the highest peaks (not even "Spring Rain"). And thanks for the link.

Ed, I love pretty much everything I've heard by Cherry, by himself and with others, but Eternal Rhythm is inspired.

Richard

Comment on December 12th, 2006.

Very nice piece. I have two Go-Betweens albums, Tallulah and Spring Hill Fair, as well as Horsebreaker Star, and they're good, certainly, but they've gotten kind of lost in the mix of all the other music. I've never really given them enough time to sink in, to really even assess them adequately. I will now, thanks.

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