This is the story of Robert Forster’s journey with one of Australia’s most unique and inspiring bands – The Go-Betweens. For the most part Robert shared this journey with the late Grant McLennan who passed away prematurely in 2006. We also get an insight into growing up in 70’s Brisbane as well as the late 70’s early 80’s music scene in the Queensland police state era where being in a band would most likely get you arrested.
On paper Forster and McLennan seemed like an odd pairing but the equation of city boy + country lad x mutual cultural appreciations = some of the most endearing pop moments ever created.
The book has a casualness to it which makes it easy to absorb. It slices open the world of song writing, recording and touring with the various incarnations of The Go-Betweens as well as the intrinsically linked lives of Forster and McLennan. It does this without corrupting the Forster/McLennan enigma that exists for us mere mortals who could only ever dream of creating aBachelor Kisses (1983) or Head Full of Steam (1986). Forster name drops a plethora of 80’s new wave and independent music bit players throughout this history but without any pretentiousness.
For a non-local who has had a hard time finding my place in Brisbane this book has given me some perspective. For all the quirky celebrities and questionable politicians this state produces (is it the heat? Is it in the water?) it is heartening to know that the heat and/or water can also produce such an important slice of music history and in Forster, one of the coolest people to walk the planet. And for all its faults Forster was continually drawn back to Brisbane.
The Most Underrated Group in the World
Growing up in Sydney when Triple J was only a Sydney radio station really gave inquisitive music listeners the chance to experience music that was outside of the mainstream. The Go-Betweens for me was always a part of that existence. I never owned any Go-Betweens vinyl until Tallulah (1987) but the singles and radio songs were always part my soundtrack.
As Forster muses in the book it is a difficult puzzle to fathom that The Go-Betweens didn’t achieve the commercial success that matched their critical triumphs. Their rebounding from one record label to another and from one continent to another appeared to be more like a game of snakes and ladders. For every piece of good fortune that came their way it seemed to be mirrored with a spate of rotten luck.
In 1996 French magazine Les Inrockuptibles put The Go-Betweens on their cover with the headline ‘Is this the most underrated group in the history of rock?’ You’ll have to read the book to see what Forster thinks.
And then it all ends – very suddenly and with an incredible depth of sadness.
Now we just have the songs. The simple vocal arrangement of Spring Rain (1986) best sums up for me the connection between Forster and McLennan (vocal and otherwise) – one step away but coming back together with precise timing at the pivotal point in the song – never to be heard live again.
Or Darlinghurst Nights (2005) from Oceans Apart (The Go-Betweens unintentional swan song) where you can feel the nostalgia dripping from the lyrics and the music – and it’s not even anyone else’s nostalgia but Forster’s. And when those horns really kick in at the end you can almost imagine a New Orleans jazz band parading down the street playing this song with a funeral procession in tow.
While Forster has always been the more quirky songwriter and his almost conversational style lyrics were often about the external with eccentric characters; McLennan’s often tortured lyrics appeared to be more about the internal and him wearing his heart on his sleeve. Both songwriters have written quintessentially Australian songs. For all their world travels and smarts you really can’t get any more bloody Australian than a classic Go-Betweens song. It would be easy to electCattle and Cane (1983) as their career defining moment but that would be to dismiss the myriad of other landmark compositions spanning their entire existence.
I have not been able to stop thinking about this book and this story since reading it. I am now going to go off and listen to nothing but The Go-Betweens for the rest of my life.
theaussieword.com guest reporter Paul Webster.