Grant McLennan – circa 2003
“In search of a new voice / You burnt all your lyrics / And flew to a new town” – ‘That Way’ (Grant McLennan)
It has been argued that ‘the very essence of Australian hard rock’ is ‘animal sexuality, working-class directness and onstage ferocity.’ If this is true, what should be thought of The Go-Betweens? Okay, so they are not a ‘hard rock’ band, but they are undeniably Australian, both in origin and tone. Yet they are shy, erudite and given to an endearing awkwardness. All these characteristics set them apart from most of their brethren.
The two common features of all The Go-Betweens recordings are Robert Forster and Grant McLennan.
Grant William McLennan (12 February 1958 – 6 May 2006) is born in Rockhampton, Queensland. His father, a doctor working as a general practitioner, dies when Grant is 4 years old. The family relocates first to Cairns, then a cattle station in Far North Queensland. Young Grant spends five years at a boarding school, The Church of England Grammar School in the State’s capital city, Brisbane. In 1976, he begins a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Queensland. In 1977 he meets Robert Forster.
Robert Forster (born 29 June 1957) grows up in Brisbane. He attends Brisbane Grammar School and moves on to the University of Queensland. He meets fellow student, Grant McLennan, in drama class.
Forster and McLennan share an interest in American folk rock musician Bob Dylan and the New York music scene. Robert Forster is also a guitar player. He encourages Grant McLennan, who has no previous musical training, to learn bass guitar so they can form a band together.
The Go-Betweens are formed in December 1977. They are named after L.P. Hartley’s novel ‘The Go-Between’ (1953), which was turned into the motion picture ‘The Go-Between’ (1970) starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates. The story is set in Edwardian England where a high class lady and a farmer use an innocent boy to carry their messages and help them conduct their romance without the knowledge of the lady’s fiancé.
At first, Robert Forster takes the lead as vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, but, from 1980 onwards, The Go-Betweens’ songs are jointly credited to Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. They more often write separately, but the credits maintain the dual acknowledgement. Usually whichever of the two is singing the song is the person who is the main (or sole) author of the piece. Robert Forster’s voice is higher, dryer, and more brittle. His lyrics tend to be more abstract and self-consciously literate. Grant McLennan’s style is simpler, more straightforward and accessible. His voice is warmer and deeper.
Musically, The Go-Betweens meld folk music and a version of thin, wiry new wave rock. As their work matures, the arrangements become more complex and ambitious. The individual musical styles of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan mirror their songwriting and vocal styles. Forster’s music is more angular and painterly, while McLennan’s work is more pop-influenced and emotional. It’s a simplification, but Forster can be seen as the band’s mind while McLennan is the band’s heart.
The Go-Betweens stage debut occurs in early April 1978, as the support act for Australian rock band The Numbers at Baroona Hall in Brisbane. For this gig, they borrow Gerard Lee to play drums. Finding a suitable drummer proves a difficult task for the fledgling group.
Bruce Anthon is trialled as a drummer, but Dennis Cantwell, from Brisbane band The Riptides, sits in on drums when The Go-Betweens cut their first single. ‘Lee Remick’ backed with ‘Karen’ is released on the independent Able label in September 1978. ‘Lee Remick’ is Robert Forster’s tribute to the U.S. actress. It’s a fun tune with almost punkish energy. “She comes from Ireland / She’s very beautiful / I come from Brisbane / And I’m quite plain,” yelps Forster, before going on to yodel “I, I, I, I, I / Love Lee Remick / She’s a darlin’.” Still, when all is said and done, “My love is desperation / But it’s only infatuation.” The flip side, ‘Karen’, is ‘a love song to a librarian.’ The sleeve of the single shows Forster and McLennan alongside portraits of Bob Dylan, Lee Remick and guerrilla freedom fighter Che Guevara. They are also pictured with Tim Mustafa, the new drummer appointed to The Go-Betweens between the recording of the single and its release.
The Go-Betweens add another guitarist, Peter Milton Walsh, and negotiate a record deal with a U.S. label, Berserkley. However, Berserkley goes bust and Walsh leaves the band.
May 1979 brings the second Go-Betweens single, again on Able, ‘People Say’ b/w ‘Don’t Let Him Come Back.’ Malcolm Kelly augments the trio on piano and organ. Some additional songs are recorded at home that surface decades later as ’78 ‘Til 79: The Lost Album’ (1999) which also includes the official singles released up to this point.
‘Having garnered little more than critical acclaim for their first singles’, in November 1979 Robert Forster and Grant McLennan leave Australia. Travelling to the United Kingdom, they sign a recording contract with Scotland’s Postcard Records who issue ‘I Need Two Heads’ in April 1980. Steven Daly, of Scottish band Orange Juice, plays drums on this single. In Australia, the song is put out on Missing Link Records.
The Go-Betweens return to Brisbane and finally find a permanent drummer. Lindy Morrison (born Belinda Morrison, 2 November 1951) has ‘played with several all-girl Brisbane groups including punk outfit Xero’, who were obviously not all girls since the bass player in Xero is John Willsteed. Lindy Morrison recalls, “I was playing in Xero, and [Forster and McLennan] were two singer/songwriters who are not punk…The punk crowd…used to make fun of them because they were so straight and the music they played was folk based.” In November 1980, The Go-Betweens play their first show in Australia’s largest city, Sydney, New South Wales. They are the support act for The Birthday Party (featuring Nick Cave) and The Laughing Clowns.
The Go-Betweens fourth single, ‘Your Turn, My Turn’, is issued in September 1981 on Missing Link. By this time, Robert Forster and Lindy Morrison are lovers. Lindy Morrison is living in Spring Hill.
The first official Go-Betweens album, ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ (1981), is released in November. In Australia, Missing Link issues the album and it is picked-up by Rough Trade for distribution in the U.K. The album is produced by Tony Cohen. ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ begins a pattern followed by all but one of The Go-Betweens’ albums in the 1980s. It includes a double-L in the title (as in lullaby). The sole exception to this rule still has two L’s in the title, just not together. The album was originally (jestingly?) to be titled ‘Two Wimps And A Witch’. Instead, Lindy Morrison suggests ‘Send Me A Lullaby’, a reference to Zelda Fitzgerald’s novel ‘Save Me The Waltz’ (1932). Lindy also provides lead vocals on the song ‘People Know’. ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ draws more attention to The Go-Betweens, but it doesn’t make ‘them pop stars despite the favourable reviews and the airplay on alternative radio stations around the country.’
The Go-Betweens decide to base themselves in London. The single, ‘Hammer The Hammer’, is released in July 1982. Then, with John Brand producing, comes the second album, ‘Before Hollywood’ (1983). The album is notable for Grant McLennan’s ‘Cattle And Cane’, with its imagery clearly drawn from his youth on a cattle station with its “fields of cattle, fields of cane”: “I recall a schoolboy coming home / Through fields of cane to a house of tin and timber / And in the sky / A rain of falling cinders.” The song’s gentle acoustic guitars are troubled by an ominous bass line. Robert Forster states, “I can remember being woken up in a West Hempstead squat in early 1983 with people yelling ‘You’re on the radio.’” ‘Cattle And Cane’ regularly appears on ‘lists of cult classics – and rightfully so, it’s one of those songs.’ McLennan also contributes ‘That Way’, a song with a descending, puzzle-like guitar line. This ‘rich, evocative album of deceptively simple songs’ provokes a realisation with the band. As Lindy Morrison puts it, “We’d need another person in the band to recreate what people were hearing on the record. Getting a bass-player and moving Grant to guitar were necessitated by the record.” That bass-player is Robert Vickers, another Brisbane expatriate, who joins the group in late 1983.
Just before beginning work on their third album, the new four-piece Go-Betweens are dropped by Rough Trade Records. This turns out to be almost fortunate because they are picked-up by the larger (if not more prestigious) Sire Records, distributed by Warner Brothers. ‘Spring Hill Fair’ (1984) takes part of its name from Lindy Morrison’s former place of residence. This album is, again, produced by John Brand. The slow hurt of Robert Forster’s ‘Part Company’ is the first single. His ‘Man O’Sand To Girl O’Sea’ is also issued as a single, sounding like a demented dodgem cars soundtrack and demonstrating the band’s newfound muscle. The dragging ‘Draining The Pool For You’ finds Robert Forster quipping “Remembered your name / Evidently you’d forgotten mine.” Outclassing them all is Grant McLennan’s ‘Bachelor Kisses’. This tender and moving song suggests “Don’t believe what you’ve heard / ‘Faithful’s not a bad word.” Anna Di Salva provides backing vocals on this track and it becomes a common practice for The Go-Betweens to use guest female backing singers. On ‘Spring Hill Fair’ ‘the sound is bolder and more confident.’
A new year brings a new album and a new record company. For the rest of the 1980s The Go-Betweens recordings are issued by Beggars Banquet. The next album for The Go-Betweens is ‘Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express’ (1986). On ‘Spring Rain’ (AUS no. 92) a loose-limbed twanging guitar guides Robert Forster’s narrator, “Dressed in a white shirt / With my hair combed straight” and “Standing on the lawn / With cousins and child brides / Caught for the camera / On their best sides.” Forster also contributes ‘Head Full Of Steam’, with Tracey Thorn on backing vocals amid a gentle drizzle of strummed chords. Grant McLennan’s ‘The Wrong Road’ is a sort of warped sea-shanty, complete with string section. The Go-Betweens fourth disc shows them ‘gradually moving towards a smoother and more contemporary sound, while retaining elements of their idiosyncratic earlier style.’
Later in 1986, The Go-Betweens expand to a five-piece line-up with the addition of Amanda Brown (born 17 November 1965). A multi-instrumentalist, she plays violin, guitar, keyboards and oboe as well as providing backing vocals. Within a few months, Amanda Brown and Grant McLennan are lovers. This means that, with Robert Forster and Lindy Morrison already a couple, The Go-Betweens now contains two sets of romantic partners.
‘Tallulah’ (1987) (UK no. 91) is produced by Richard Preston and marks Amanda Brown’s recording debut with The Go-Betweens. She plays oboe and sings back-up to boyfriend Grant McLennan on his ‘Bye Bye Pride’. This sprightly song quotes “’When a woman learns to walk / She’s not dependent anymore’/ A line from her letter, May 24.” Brown plays a sawing violin on Robert Forster’s unsettling ‘The House That Jack Kerouac Built’, a song that blurs the Mother Goose rhyme ‘The House that Jack Built’ and the beat-poet Jack Kerouac, perhaps best known for the novel ‘On The Road’ (1957). Robert Forster’s narrator finds himself entangled in a love affair. “In a darkened cinema / I’ll give you pleasure in the stalls,” he offers while gawping at this love “With your kittens on the patchwork quilt / Oh no, what am I doing here in the house Jack Kerouac built?” The album is also home to the ‘efficient pop’ of ‘Right Here’ (UK no. 82). On ‘Tallulah’, The Go-Betweens are ‘threatening a more commercial approach’ to their work.
In November 1987, The Go-Betweens return to Australia. Robert Vickers is replaced on bass by John Willsteed, Lindy Morrison’s old colleague from Xero.
In this modified form, The Go-Betweens cut their next album. ’16 Lovers Lane’ (1988) is their sixth and finest disc. Produced in Sydney by Mark Wallis, this ‘underrated’ work is ‘the group’s most commercial offering.’ The first single is their best song, Grant McLennan’s ‘Streets Of Your Town’ (AUS no. 70, UK no. 80). The happy-go-lucky chorus is supported by Amanda Brown’s dreamy backing vocal. Yet the song also contains a dark, sinister undertow heard in lines like “And don’t the sun look good today / But the rain is on its way / Watch the butcher shine his knives / And this town is full of battered wives.” This sweet-and-sour mix exemplifies The Go-Betweens’ charm of blending pop and darker lines of thought. McLennan’s ‘Was There Anything I Could Do?’ is almost as good. This is an acoustic shuffle of desperation, with Amanda Brown’s violin sliding through the arrangement. The singer struggles with a self-destructive partner who sends him “A picture of her at the pyramids / A knife held to her heart.” Robert Forster’s lovely ‘Dive For Your Memory’ is a wistful ode to friendship.
From their formation, The Go-Betweens struggle to score even minor hits. Robert Forster notes, “We never got anywhere near a chart. We tried. And finally we did get close I suppose with ‘Streets Of Your Town’, the lead single off our last album.” By this time the band is dispirited from this seemingly hopeless battle. Perhaps equally important, the relationships between both Forster and Morrison and McLennan and Brown come unstuck, creating an uncomfortable tension. And so Robert Forster and Grant McLennan disband The Go-Betweens in December 1989.
On 23 May 1996 The Go-Betweens assemble again for a concert in Paris, France, at the invitation of fans at the French music magazine ‘Les Inrockuptibles’ for the publication’s tenth anniversary. For this show, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are joined by Adele Pickvance (bass) and Glenn Thompson (drums).
This leads to a full-scale return for the group. Minus Glenn Thompson, they record ‘The Friends Of Rachel Worth’ (2000). With Thompson back aboard, they make two more albums, ‘Bright Yellow Bright Orange’ (2003) and ‘Oceans Apart’ (2006). Grant McLennan’s ‘Finding You’ from the last-named album is the final Go-Betweens single.
On 6 May 2006 Grant McLennan prepares for a party at his Brisbane home with his fiancée, Emma Pursey. Saying he feels unwell, he goes upstairs to rest. His flatmate, friends and fiancée find him dead of a heart attack, aged 48. Robert Forster subsequently announces The Go-Betweens are no more.
The Go-Betweens story was one of a band that never really fitted in. They were not as loud and brash as their Australian rock contemporaries. Yet, in England, they remained resolutely Australian in tone and lyrics. The Go-Betweens recorded music that, in some better alternate world, would have dominated the pop charts. Instead, this accessible and enchanting body of work ‘only’ won critical plaudits and the hearts of a small but dedicated fanbase. Commercial success and creative quality are, sadly, not always aligned. ‘In a country in which the brash and obvious almost always holds sway, The Go-Betweens always stood out with their poignant, understated music.’ ‘Although they wrote and performed music that seemed tailor-made for radio, radio largely ignored them. At home in Australia, particularly, they failed to cross the line from cult band to sales and airplay status. The Go-Betweens were one of rock’s best kept secrets.’
- ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘The Go-Betweens’ by Ed St. John, Jane Gardiner (Megabooks, 1985) p. 74, 128, 129
- wikipedia.org as at 11 February 2013
- ‘DVD & Video Guide 2007’ by Mick Martin, Marsha Porter (Ballantine Books, 2006) p. 447
- tonedeaf.com.au (13 September 2012)
- ‘Bellavista Terrace, Best Of The Go-Betweens’ – Sleeve notes by Robert Forster (Beggars Banquet Records Ltd, 1999) p. 2
- ‘Hit’ liftout, ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) (30 August 2012)
- sing365com as at 28 February 2013
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 139
Song lyrics copyright Complete Music Ltd.
Last revised 26 August 2014