I'm a little late, but I've been meaning to write something about Brisbane's Go-Betweens on the anniversary of Grant McLennan's far too early passing.
I was a latecomer to the Go-Bs, but they've rapidly become one of my very favorite bands. Hard to put into words why; suffice it to say that I hear art, craft and the pursuit of something beautiful in just about everything they did, from their early '80s jerky and sparse post-punk/folk to the brainy jingle-jangle of 16 Lovers Lane. Their second incarnation in the new century wasn't half bad either, and, while I'm not keen on the overuse of the word "tragic," McLennan was one of those artists who clearly had a lot more to give.
The songwriting partnership of McLennan and Robert Forster, formed during their university days, is among the most productive and interesting in the annals of pop music. They've been referred to as the Aussie Lennon & McCartney, which was both a touch of flattery and accurate in that there was a certain yin-yang quality to the musical relationship--the tall, lean Forster as the literate one and McLennan as Mr. Solid and Dependable. Unlike L&M, though, they habitually worked and wrote co-operatively. And, if you care to peruse Forster's lovely and heartfelt tribute to his friend and collaborator, you'll see that their musical personae stood in many ways in stark contrast to their personalities.
McLennan's the one who seems to get the majority of the critical kudos (his solo stuff during the '90s Go-Betweens hiatus was certainly better received than Forster's), but I don't have a preference in terms of songwriting. Relative quality varies from album to album. I usually prefer Forster's lyrics, which are more observational and acerbic; McLellan deals more with basic elements and when he hits the mark, it's stark and poignant, but when he doesn't it can be a tad banal. Neither of them are great natural singers--which is obvious from live recordings--but they learned how to use their voices better and better with each successive album.
For an appreciation of the band's studio albums, you could do worse than flip through allmusic. I'm in general agreement with their assessments, with the exception of their being way too hard on Tallulah and slightly too easy on The Friends Of Rachel Worth. But anyway, here's my quick run-down:
Send Me A Lullaby (1981)--would be better considered if it were by a lesser band. Not a lot of great songs but a lot of interesting impressions poking their heads above the battlements. The execution isn't quite there yet--the vocals (majority by Forster on this one) are thin, the arrangements a little insecure ("Midnight To Neon"), and there's too much weird for the sake of weird [hey, this is an early-'80s Oz band, fergawdsake!--ed]. But for all of the stop-start jerkiness of songs like "Arrow In A Bow" and the abbreviated rhythms and 4-bar phrases ("The Girls Have Moved"), there's a counterbalancing gentleness ("One Thing Can Hold Us"). I think a lot of this is down to the guitars, which burst all bright and jangly-like to the surface during the middle-eights and breaks. "Your Turn, My Turn" sounds like a mellow version of The Birthday Party. "Eight Pictures" is a poorly-realized hamfest, lyrically and musically.
"One Thing Can Hold Us" (from Send Me A Lullaby)
"People Know" (from Send Me A Lullaby)
Before Hollywood (1983)--the great leap forward and the best of the early-period albums. Manages to sound both tougher and more lyrical than its predecessor, not to mention more concise and more melodic. McLellan's contribution shines through; his vocals are much more relaxed, and he delivers the goods big time with standout tunes "Two Steps Step Out" and the much lauded "Cattle And Cane," among others. Forster provides the spiky Tom Verlaine-like counterpart with the title track and "Ask." A few of the songs ("By Chance") tread similar ground to Lullaby but are better realized. The band vibe is wonderful, with drummer Lindy Morrison in particular sounding much more comfortable. Not an inch of fat on this one.
"Two Steps Step Out" (from Before Hollywood)
"Ask" (from Before Hollywood)
Spring Hill Fair (1984)--a transitional album in many ways. A number of excellent tunes but somewhat all over the place in terms of style and production. The addition of the more traditional bass player Robert Vickers and GM's move to guitar full-time (and the use of more acoustic guitar in general) changes the rhythm section balance and makes for a much warmer band sound, shown particularly in standouts like "Five Words." A few of McLellan's songs ("Bachelor Kisses," "Slow Slow Music") date themselves with the constrained "eighties" production and drum machines, and are an uncomfortable fit with Forster's bluesy-pop contributions (the very good "Draining The Pool" and "You've Never Lived"). McLellan's spoken-word "River Of Money" doesn't really fly, but "Unkind And Unwise" is a particularly sweet offering. I've never taken to Forster's melodramatic "Man O' Sand To Girl O' Sea," try as I might.
"Five Words" (from Spring Hill Fair)
"The Old Way Out" (from Spring Hill Fair)
Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express (1986)--the first "middle-period" record and the first with "that" Go-Betweens sound. Simpler music, with a much gentler and janglier sound, fleshed out effectively with strings on tracks like "The Wrong Road." It's not all high art by any means ("In The Core Of A Flame"), but the material hangs together extremely well and the production is never obtrusive. The abbreviated three-time "The Ghost And The Black Hat" is my favorite of the McLellan-sung tracks, and Forster's "To Reach Me" and the dreamy "Bow Down" are particular good ones. "Twin Layers Of Lightning" is a bit of a throwback but the arrangement with mallet percussion is very nice.
"The Wrong Road" (from Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express)
"Bow Down" (from Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express)
Tallulah (1987)--a particular favorite of mine and I think their most underappreciated album. Its pleasingly muscular sound is very much an anomaly, sandwiched as this one is between Liberty Belle and 16 Lovers Lane. The production is a common complaint with Tallulah, and although I'm not as bothered by so-called '80s "big drum" production as some, parts of the album, like the single "Right Here," could have used a remix to mitigate the worst effects of the jack-hammer drum machine. On the songwriting front, though, this is as strong a showing from both GM and RS as there is in the Go-Betweens catalogue. Forster's "You Tell Me" and "The Clarke Sisters" are unimpeachable, and all these years later you're left wondering how in the hell McLellan's "Right Here," "Cut It Out" and the brilliant "Bye Bye Pride" weren't huge hits. "Someone Else's Wife" is the one track that sounds out of place, with GM seemingly channelling Hunters & Collectors.
"You Tell Me" (from Tallulah)
"Bye Bye Pride" (from Tallulah)
16 Lovers Lane (1988)--you can't really argue agin this one as the Go-Betweens' best. A friend of mine once said that this was one of the easiest albums to like that you could ever come across and I know exactly what he meant; music, lyric, arrangement and sound mesh together seamlessly. I suppose a cynic might complain that it doesn't demand enough from the listener, but 16 Lovers Lane certainly isn't slick; it's just lush and lovely. Listen to the lovely string arrangements on the opening tracks "Love Goes On!" and "Quiet Heart" and you'll see what I mean. "Love Is A Sign" and "Clouds" are two of my favorite Forster songs and lyrics, the latter being great for drunken sing-alongs. "Streets Of Your Town" is another lovely McLellan hit-that-should-have-been. An album of its time but not imprisoned by it.
"Clouds" (from 16 Lovers Lane)
"Quiet Heart" (from 16 Lovers Lane)
more to follow...