Of all the musical trajectories that took place during the 1980s, there are few that match that of the Go-Betweens’. Forming in Brisbane and then relocating to London, from the late ’70s to their break-up in 1989, they grew from a melodic and primitive post-punk outfit to a fully-fledged pop group. However, whilst electronic instrumentation and date-stamp production took over much of the ’80s, The Go-Betweens went further the other way. The music of their former peers was becoming swathed in synthesisers and drum production techniques that re-mastering engineers have since been trying to eradicate from reissued material, but The Go-Betweens’ sound took in strings, viola and oboe, pushing earnest songs about love rooted in pop traditionalism, eschewing the conventions of the decade and carving out a unique path of their own.
Despite many critical successes and a retrospective adoration, at the time nothing quite synced-up for the band who found themselves going from record label to record label before bowing out due to debt and feelings of futility. Recharged and energised, the group returned in 2000 with strong new material. They then continued forth with momentum, until sadly, in 2006, founder and one half of the vital songwriting duo Grant McLennan died. It left Robert Forster no option but to call an end to the group for good.
An expansive, limited edition boxset of their first four records, complete with another four albums worth of rarities and outtakes, is out now on Domino. It also contains a book with extensive linear notes from Forster, guest essays, unearthed photographs, hand-written lyrics and the first six hundred orders were even sent a signed book from McLennan’s personal library.
Studying at University in Brisbane in the late 1970s, Forster recalls to me a “very conservative government,” where the atmosphere was that of repression and “Christian fundamentalism was in play.” Live music existed, but it wasn’t as prominent and explosive as it was in other major cities across the world.
“It wasn’t like forming a band in London or New York and thinking we can launch the band into the world from here. It was a good place for an apprenticeship but you always had to leave to further you career.”
Brisbane was, however, free from the fashion-focused, narrow-minded musical tastes that came (and continue to come) from larger cities. It proved to be somewhere to dip into music that in, say London, would be deemed sacrilege; there was an opportunity to cross-pollinate, absorbing the Velvet Underground and The Voidoids but also Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan. McLennan’s love of cinema proved vital in the group’s early days – Forster would school McLennan on the works of Dylan and McLennan would show Forster the world of the French New Wave. The duo would form a deep-set friendship, and a creative partnership that formed instantly.
“I’d known him for two and a half years before we started the band,” says Forster, “but as soon as we started the group it was an instant click. It was right there from the beginning.”
They recorded their debut album, ‘Send Me a Lullaby’, in Melbourne in 1981, where they were joined by drummer Lindy Morrison. “Built into the design of the band was to have a female drummer,” says Forster. “An obvious inspiration was Moe Tucker from the Velvets; others were the two male/one female cast of [favourite Forster and McLennan TV show] The Mod Squad and the charismatic triangle of [François Truffaut’s 1962 film] Jules and Jim.”
As a trio, they moved to London. “We knew then that we’d done our apprenticeship,” says Forster. “We’d done everything we could. We travelled like a lot of young Australians do; it’s a right of passage. We flew to London and had a walk around, went to lots of shows and just took it all in.”
It was whilst doing this in London that a spectacular piece of luck struck: three Scotsman turned up in London to flog their latest single, called ‘Falling & Laughing’. They were two members of Orange Juice, along with their manager. Whilst in Rough Trade they spotted an imported Go-Betweens 7” hanging in the window (Judy Crighton, who worked in the shop, had an Australian husband who brought back some copies of the group’s single) and decided to buy it, having heard them played on John Peel’s radio show a year earlier. Crighton told Orange Juice that the band were in town and were staying in a hotel just down the road, so down the road they went. The Go-Betweens were out, but they left a copy of ‘Falling & Laughing’, along with a note, offering for the band to come up to Scotland and record a single for their label, Postcard Records.
Forster notes: “There’s a fairy-tale aspect to it. That was a piece of luck; it was great timing and good fortune for the band.
“Orange Juice were the first great group that Grant and I saw up close – they were just incredible, Josef K were very good, also, and [Postcard founder] Alan Horne was charismatic and filled with ideas and we could see it close and be a part of it. The music of Orange Juice was something that was very inspiring.”
Forster feels that there was something in the air during that period (1980) overall. “It felt like there was a great record coming out every week. Everyone was on fire. There was a lot going on, great records and a real crackle in the air – you could really feel it. There would be bands that would make great records and then just disappear.”
When back in Australia, The Go-Betweens had found themselves in the same studio as The Birthday Party, and the two parties formed a one-off group called Tuff Monks. They recorded a track called ‘After the Fireworks’ and the bands would hook up again in London (a city the Birthday Party loathed).
“They were about the only other Australian group that we knew at the time,” says Forster. “The first gigs we did when we came to London were with the Birthday Party, in June 1982. That was our introduction, to play with them; we were friends and interacted during our time there.” (Go-Betweens track ‘Cattle and Cane’ was written by McLennan on Nick Cave’s acoustic guitar when the two briefly lived together before McLennan kicked Cave out for being a pig).
Now signed to Rough Trade the group released their second LP, ‘Before Hollywood’, a record that smoothed out some of the primal, scrappy expulsions on their debut. More critical success ensued but Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis couldn’t commit financially to keeping the band on, so he helped get them set up with Sire Records for their third album, ‘Spring Hill Fair’ (1984). Again, the label declined to release a second record for the group and this hopping from label-to-label became a creative hurdle for the band.
“It stalled momentum,” says Forster. “It kept dragging us back to the starting line. We were watching bands that had started around the same time as us, of similar ability – The Smiths, R.E.M, U2 – but they were all on the one label. So they were all working as part of a system, one that made people know that in 18 months another Smiths album was due, another Echo & the Bunnymen album, etc. These people could work on these records knowing that it was a continuing thing, where we had to keep reintroducing ourselves to a record company and people that might be interested in our music”
As the decade went on, the group became more polished and structured. Pristine pop was sanding over the rough edges of their post-punk-inflected initial output. It was a balancing act between trying to chase an ever-elusive hit single and retaining a sense of individuality.
“We would have loved a hit record because it would have eased our financial situation, which was desperate,” says Forster. “There was always a bit of a tug between the art you want to pursue and the money that you need to pursue your art. The solution was to sell more records and to sell more records was to make more commercial ones. To have hits you needed to be on Warner or Sony. This was a time when the major record labels were a lot more powerful than they perhaps are today and so knowing that we weren’t on any of those labels, we knew we were a bit behind the eight-ball. We were out of the game.”
In 1988 they released their sixth album, ‘16 Lovers Lane’, a string-laden, pop-strewn masterpiece, and whilst it produced their biggest hit in ‘Streets of Your Town’, it wasn’t enough to keep momentum going and the group disbanded a year later.
“Grant and I had had enough. He’d only ever been in a band with me and he’d had enough of being in the Go-Betweens. I’d had enough too. We weren’t making any headway and just going further into debt, it seemed like a good time – it was right at the end of the ’80s, let’s just stop now.”
McLennan and other group member Amanda Brown (who’d joined the band in 1986 – one of 20 musicians to play in the group in its lifetime) had also been romantically involved, something that was ended by Brown on the day they decided to dissolve the band, putting an end to that incarnation of The Go-Betweens forever.
Forster and McLennan followed separate solo careers, getting together to play the odd acoustic show here and there. “I thought Grant and I were great with two acoustic guitars,” says Forster. “When it just came back to two guitars and two people singing it sounded really good.”
Also getting their relationship further back to basics was a decision to write a film together. “We’d been talking about doing that in the late ’70s,” says Forster. “Grant was a film nut and that was just something that we did. I had an idea and we went for it. It was enjoyable to do something together and sit down that wasn’t based around music and that took Grant and I back to the beginning of our friendship.”
The group returned in 2000 (Forster and McLennan the only returning original members) with ‘The Friends of Rachel Worth’, working in Portland with members of Sleater Kinney a group that had made one of Forster’s favourite records during the time that the Go-Betweens were inactive.
“I very much liked ‘Dig Me Out’,” he tells me. “I just thought that was an amazing album. It just knocked me out, it was the first rock record – 1997 when it came out – in a long time that really knocked me out. It had a post-punk drive that no one had done for years. All those other bands sounded ham-fisted and blurry, Sleater Kinney just came in and sliced it all down – I just loved it and thought ‘this is a great rock band’.”
The Go-Betweens carried on with momentum, releasing two further albums, the last being 2005’s ‘Oceans Apart’ but suddenly McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006, aged 48.
“I felt like up until Grant died we were getting better,” says Forster. “I was very happy with what we were doing. I thought we were in good shape to honour our past and we were doing work that would have a similar arc to what we were doing in the ’80s.
“Grant was an educator… I think that is the piece that I miss most, almost more than the musician, and I know that sounds absolutely weird – the friendship side of it and someone who was an inspiring character, almost outside of the music but within the music too. Outside of that he was just someone who ate up books and movies, so to be around someone like that is fantastic because they just have all this knowledge and enthusiasm.
“Our final moments together were spent doing what we always did – I drove over to his place and we’d just chat and play and work on new songs. That I’m thankful for.”