The next time you’re down the local boozer with your mates and there’s an uncomfortable lull in the conversation, consider striking up a discussion based on the following question – which is the best band never to have had a top forty hit? Now, obviously, this is a version of the hoary old chestnut that’s passed many a drunken hour for the sports fan down the ages – who is the best footballer never to have played in the World Cup? The answer to that is a rather obvious one, of course, George Best. The musical variation of this question may be more stimulating.
Whilst Robert Lloyd and the various re-incarnations of his Brummie post-punk combo, The Nightingales, would make any respectable critics’ short list, his guttural, sub-Beefheart squeal was aimed more squarely at the underground than at the mainstream. The same uncompromising mindset also rules out the likes of New York’s Suicide and David Thomas’ experimental avant-garage group, Pere Ubu.
Soon enough, however, somebody will alight upon the only truly acceptable answer, at least the only answer acceptable to me, and a good number of other men and women of a certain age, who are each the proud possessors of a pair of rose-tinted glasses. It simply has to be those doyens of guitar pop, The Go-Betweens. The inexplicable absence from the singles chart of these Australian Indie-pop pioneers remains a mystery to this day. Not once, during their illustrious lifetime 1978-2006 (allowing for a hiatus from 1989 to 2000) did their melodic epistles ever threaten to deliver them pop stardom here, or in America. Incredibly, they even failed to secure a top 40 hit in their native Australia. This, surely, constitutes the greatest miscarriage in the history of popular music since the time Al Jolson blacked up for The Jazz Singer, declared brazenly “you ain’t heard nothing yet” and shamefacedly went on to make his fortune.
Just how the Brisbane based guitar heroes, led by singer/songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan failed to achieve even one solitary week in the top 75, despite crafting a plethora of heavenly pop songs that should have made them household names on both sides of the Atlantic, is a mystery that genuinely scrambles the brain. Indeed, it prompts the group’s long time fans to ask the age old question, the one that escapes our lips every time we drunkenly stumble upon a recording of Barry Manilow’s ‘Bermuda Triangle blaring out of a pub jukebox; ‘how could you let this happen, dear Lord, how?’
Consider some of the flotsam and jetsam that has (dis)graced the charts since the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll. In no particular order, I give you Vanilla Ice, The Bay City Rollers, Duran Duran, Milli Vanilli, Arthur Mullard and Hilda Baker, Black Lace, MC Hammer and Sting. And, that’s just the tip of a very embarrassing iceberg!
Even more puzzling was the regular presence on the chart of bands that might best be described as second rate Go-Betweens. The very ordinary Deacon Blue springs to mind here, as well as the Trashcan Sinatras. And, how on earth do you explain the continued presence in the charts, throughout the eighties, of bands that made comparable music, both in terms of substance and style to The Go-Betweens themselves. Aztec Camera, for example, chalked up 12 hits and 74 weeks on the chart while Lloyd Cole, with or without his Commotions recorded 15 hits spread over 62 weeks.
After the band split up in 1989 Forster and McLennan each took a stab at solo stardom, in theory doubling their chances of a hit, but still the record buying public remained un-persuaded. McLennan in particular, penned a succession of gorgeous ballads throughout the nineties, the best of which, ‘Black Mule’ (1991) and ‘Hot Water’ (1994) are arguably the finest of all his compositions.
Even the French, not exactly renowned for having their finger on the pop pulse, have made The Go-Betweens something of a cause celebre. A 1996 issue of leading rock magazine Les Inrockuptibles pictured the band on its front cover with the strap-line ‘Le groupe le plus sous-estime de l’histoire du rock?’ Which, broadly translated as – The Go-Betweens the most underrated band in the history of rock? The magazine also ranked ’16 Lovers Lane’ in its list of the best albums of the period from 1976-1996.
Publié en novembre 1996.
1. The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead
2. Pixies: Doolittle
3. The Stone Roses: The Stone Roses
4. The Go-Betweens: 16 Lovers Lane
5. Portishead: Dummy
6. PJ Harvey: Dry
7. Tricky: Maxinquaye
8. Morrissey: Vauxhall & I
9. Massive Attack: Blue Lines
10. Beck: Mellow Gold
11. The Feelies: The Good Earth
12. REM: Automatic For The People
13. James: Stutter
14. The Divine Comedy: Liberation
15. The Smiths: Strangeways, Here We Come
16. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless
17. The La’s: The La’s
18. De La Soul: 3 Feet High And Rising
19. Bjork: Debut
20. Jeff Buckley: Grace
This re-appraisal of the band’s standing, together with an invitation to play at the magazine’s 10th Anniversary bash prompted Forster and McLennan to reform the group.
For a brief moment true devotees of the group allowed themselves to believe that a great wrong might be righted. Perhaps the band might strike lucky and have a song included on the soundtrack of some mega Hollywood Rom-Com. There was a precedent of sorts. The Triffids, their compatriots from Perth and themselves a seminal indie band of the eighties, nearly managed to fluke a hit when their classic song, ‘Bury Me Deep In Love’, was chosen to play over the cheesy wedding scenes of Harold and Marge on the popular daytime soap, Neighbours. The band, profile duly raised, punched home their advantage; their follow up single, “Trick Of The Light”, spent a glorious week in the charts, at no 73, in early 1988.
Sadly, despite recording a batch of very fine comeback albums, particularly 2005’s ‘Oceans Apart’, with its standout tracks ‘Here Comes A City’, ‘Born To A Family’ and ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, a familiar pattern soon re-emerged – critical acclaim on the one hand and commercial indifference on the other. The Australian media wasn’t averse to chastising the band for their perceived failure either. ABC’S current affairs show The 7:30 Report announced their return to the stage in the following manner –
“The Go-Betweens have been described as the quintessential critics’ band. They made an art form of commercial failure. But as Bernard Brown reports, they’re happy to have earned the industry’s respect, even if the dollars didn’t follow.”
Good old Bernard concluded his report with “But the band’s influence far outweighed its record sales and they wear the tag of commercial failures”.
Any hope that The Go-Betweens could somehow turn the tide disappeared once and for all with the unexpected passing of McLennan in May 2006 at the age of 48.
Any discussion of great song-writing partnerships in popular music would rightly begin with the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, Leiber and Stoller, or Jagger and Richards. You shouldn’t, though, have to look too far down the list before coming across the names of Forster and McLennan, probably bracketed right alongside Difford and Tilbrook or Morrissey and Marr.
Both were capable of writing supremely catchy songs and both had the propensity to pen an eye-catching lyric. Grant McLennan’s ‘River Of Money’, from the ‘Springhill Fair’ album (Beggars Banquet, 1984) whilst rather atypical of his output (it’s more of a prose-poem than a pop song) is such a unique lyric that it demands to be quoted in full.
River Of Money
It is neither fair nor reasonable to expect sadness
to confine itself to its causes. Like a river in flood,
when it subsides and the drowned bodies of
animals have been deposited in the treetops, there is
another kind of damage that takes place beyond the torrent.
At first, it seemed as though she had only left
the room to go into the garden and had been delayed by stray
chickens in the corn. Then he had thought she might
have eloped with the rodeo-boy from the neighbouring
property but it wasn’t till one afternoon, when he
had heard guitar playing coming from her room and
had rushed upstairs to confront her and had seen
that it was only the wind in the curtains brushing
against the open strings, that he finally knew she
wasn’t coming back. He had dealt with the deluge alright
but the watermark of her leaving was still quite visible.
He had resorted to the compass then, thinking that
geography might rescue him but after one week in the
Victorian Alps he came back north, realising that snow which
he had never seen before, was only frozen water.
I’ll take you to Hollywood
I’ll take you to Mexico
I’ll take you anywhere the
River of Money flows.
I’ll take you to Hollywood
I’ll take you to Mexico
I’ll take you anywhere the
River of Money flows.
But was it really possible for him to cope with the
magnitude of her absence? The snow had failed him.
Bottles had almost emptied themselves without effect.
The television, a Samaritan during other tribulations, had
been repossessed. She had left her travelling clock
though thinking it incapable of functioning in
another time-zone; so the long vacant days of expensive sunlight
were filled with the sound of her minutes, with the measuring of
Not the stuff of the three minute hero, I appreciate, but the pair were equally comfortable writing the standard verse, chorus, verse pop song that chimed in at a radio friendly 2.56 and wouldn’t have frightened the horses. From ‘Springhill Fair’ they released a trio of pristine singles. McLennan’s pop-by-numbers opener ‘Bachelor Kisses’ was the first to hit the shops (and stay there, in the bargain bin) followed by Forster’s heart-achingly sad confessional, ‘Part Company’;
“That’s her handwriting, that’s the way she writes
From the first letter I got to this her Bill of Rights”
‘Man O Sand To Girl O Sea’, the final single from the album, found Forster in a more self- assured frame of mind;
“Feel so sure of our love
I’ll write a song about us breaking up”.
This sequence of starry-eyed singles should have seen The Go-Betweens clasped lovingly to the bosom of the pop establishment. Instead, they remained exiled in the wilderness, otherwise known as the John Peel show.
Still, at the time it seemed only to be a matter of time, before their streak of bad luck would break and the Brisbane boys would be basking in the sun kissed glow of chart success. Two robust albums followed, ‘Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express’, (Beggars Banquet, 1986) and ‘Tallulah’, (Beggars Banquet, 1987) each spawned excellent singles in Forster’s ‘Spring Rain’, and ‘Head Full Of Pride’, as well as McLennan’s ‘Right Here’ and ‘Bye Bye Pride’.
The great British public, though, remained sceptical. Peel sessions, stadium tours in support of the band’s long time admirers, R.E.M, contractual tie-ins with a host of high profile record companies including Rough Trade, Postcard and Capitol, made not the slightest difference to the band’s outsider status. If a pop group can be described as persona non grata, then they were it! The frustration was beginning to tell, driving McLennan to comment that he’d;
“given up on the commercial success thing, which is very good for my state of mind”.
The reality was, though, that their most “commercial” album, indeed their masterpiece, was still to come but in attempting to break into the charts the band would succeed only in breaking itself apart. The omens were not good from the outset. First off, bass guitarist Robert Vickers, who had been with the group since 1983, handed in his notice. His replacement, John Willsteed, seemed an upgrade, though, and his playing certainly brought a clarity and polish to the band’s sound, in keeping with their new direction of travel. He is credited by some insiders as having played a number of the more intricate guitar parts on ’16 Lovers Lane’.
Unfortunately, Willsteed was also battling a massive drink problem and it didn’t take him long to make enemies of the rest of the band.
Furthermore, Amanda Brown, recruited after contributing violin to The Servants sublime second single ‘The Sun, A Small Star’ began a relationship with McLennan. Suddenly, word leaked out that Forster and Morrison had been in a relationship of sorts for years. Battle lines had been drawn.
At the exact same time as the Forster/McLennan friendship, begun long ago in the Drama department of the University of Queensland, was starting to disintegrate, the power-brokers at the group’s management company were trying to push McLennan into the limelight at the expense of Forster. Author David Nichols, in his book The Go-Betweens, is clear about the re-alignment that took place “every promotional video from ‘Right Here’ onwards shows Forster completely back-grounded”. Seen today the video for ‘Was There Anything I Could do’ makes a toe-curling Exhibit A, with McLennan and Brown cavorting centre stage while Forster is stationed well to the rear. Morrison was deeply unhappy, particularly about the decision to draft in producer Craig Leon. In an interview with Sydney’s ‘On The Street’ she was scathing about the shift in emphasis;
“He was chosen to make this single accessible to people, to get us to crawl out of our cult corner.”
Despite the recriminations that would inevitably follow, the next five Go-Betweens singles would all be McLennan compositions.
On a more positive note, Forster and McLennan were working on the songs for ’16 Lovers Lane’ together, rather than working individually. The spirit of collaboration instead of competition at least extended to the song-writing! Released in August 1988 (Beggars Banquet /Capitol) and produced by Mark Wallis, who’d worked with the likes of Marianne Faithful, Tom Jones and R.E.M, ’16 Lovers Lane’ was a sublime collection of glimmering guitar ballads and sugar-spun indie anthems so glossy and sun kissed that you had to wear dark glasses just to listen to it.
On the release of their debut single ‘Lee Remick’ back in 1978, Forster and McLennan had talked about capturing “that striped sunlight sound” which Forster later defined as being;
“A romantic phrase, but it is abstract. It could be the sun coming through blinds as you play a record. It’s the shimmer of a fender guitar. It’s harmonies and tough-minded pop songs. It’s lying on a bed beside a window reading a book in the afternoon. It’s the sun on a girl’s shoulder length hair. It’s Buddy Holly in the desert the day they recorded ‘Maybe Baby’. It’s t-shirts and jeans. It’s Creedence. It’s Bob. It’s Chuck Berry.”
On ’16 Lovers Lane’, made twenty years after they first articulated the concept, they came closest to perfecting its meaning.
Opening with the McLennan’s unashamedly summery ‘Love Goes On’;
“There’s a cat in the alleyway
Dreaming of birds that are blue
Sometimes girl when I’m lonely
This is how I think about you”
and ending with Forster’s majestically romantic ‘Dive For Your Memory’
“I’d dive for you
Like a bird I’d descend
Deep down I’m lonely
And I miss my friend
So when I hear you saying
That we stood no chance
I’ll dive for your memory
We stood that chance,”
’16 Lovers Lane’ (once voted 24th greatest album of the eighties, by none other than Rolling Stone magazine) could also boast another pair of McLennan classics in the ‘Streets Of Your Town’ – a song that should have occupied a place in the nation’s pop consciousness in the same way that The La’s ‘There She Goes’ or The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ have done, and the wistful, heart-breaking lament,’ Quiet Heart’.
“I tried to tell you
I can only say it when we’re apart
About this storm inside of me
And how I miss your quiet, quiet heart”
‘Streets Of Your Town’ was such an obvious choice for a single that they had two cracks with it, releasing it first in October 1988 and then, refusing to accept defeat, the following summer. Sandwiched in between the twin versions of this neglected classic were two more ‘easy on the ear’ contenders, ‘Was There Anything I Could Do’ (McLennan) and ‘Love Goes On’. Both met the same miserable fate – they were steadfastly ignored.
The failure to impact on the charts, with such an obviously radio-friendly song as ‘Streets Of Your Town’, must have come as a crushing blow to Forster and McLennan and was probably the final nail in The Go-Betweens’ coffin. Broke and broken-hearted they went their separate ways.
That The Go-Betweens had swallowed their pride and danced to the tune of their paymasters, there could be no doubt. They’d flattened out the kinks in their song structures, planed off the angular edges and streamlined their sound until, with each passing record, they began to sound less and less like The Velvet Underground and more and more like Abba. Not that there is anything wrong with Abba or ’16 Lovers Lane’ itself, indeed in parts it’s a breathtakingly beautiful record. It’s just that 3/5ths of the band didn’t really want to make that type of record anymore. The Go-Betweens sold their soul, but they still didn’t sell any records!
To make matters worse there wasn’t even the consolation of making their mark in the album charts, where more mature bands could be expected to have their egos massaged by a loyal fan base, successfully built up over a lengthy career. All The Go-Betweens could muster, though, was a week at no. 91 in June 1987 with ‘Tallulah’, and one week at no. 81 for ’16 Lovers Lane’ in September 1988.
The Go-Betweens, however, did make minor inroads upon the UK Independent Charts. Before signing for Beggars Banquet the band had recorded for Rough Trade and Situation 2, qualifying them for inclusion in the Indie charts. Between 83 and 86 they had three entries in the top 40. ‘Cattle and Cane’, an autobiographical McLennan song voted by the Australasian Performing Rights Association in 2001 as one of the country’s 30 greatest songs of all time, reached no. 4 in March 1983, while ‘Man O Sand To Girl O Sea’ charted at no. 24 toward the end of the same year. A 12 inch only release of ‘Lee Remick’ peaked at no. 7 in November 1986. And there the trail runs cold.
To speculate, now, on the spectacular failure of The Go-Betweens is to set oneself an impossible task. Maybe, it was simply because they never really established a British fan base, maybe Australians appeared less cool than Americans or the dynamic duo just lacked sex appeal. It could be argued that both Forster and McLennan were not distinctive enough as singers, even that they sounded too erudite at times, for daytime radio. Maybe it was Forster’s controversial decision to play a Capitol Records promotional launch of ’16 Lovers Lane’ in an olive green dress (the company scaled down the record’s promotional budget the very next day). Or, perhaps, it was just that fate was against them all along.
In September 1985 the band had signed with Elektra, hoping for better promotion and distribution of their work. Forster was in optimistic mood “We’ve gone with Elektra – start our LP in just over a week. Without any doubt the songs are our best, we are playing our best, and with ourselves producing this unknown masterpiece, it might be great.” Within weeks Elektra had gone belly up and the band was back to square one again, much to Forster’s chagrin;
“I do think we have a sense of anger – no one’s ever been able to present us to the British public in any sort of cohesive or intelligent way.”
One thing is for sure, they had a fistful of great songs and in Forster they had someone who gave the band personality. His art-rock background led him to pay particular attention to his stage performance, although we can only presume his tongue was firmly in his cheek with this analysis of his ‘dancing’;
“Bobby Womack himself once told me that I am a soul man, and that as far as modern music is concerned there are only three soul men left: himself, me and Prince. Prince came to Brisbane and took the colours, the moves, his whole act from me. It’s true! He’s seen my moves!”
Perhaps The Go-Betweens’ drummer Lindy Morrison, speaking in 1992 was nearer the truth than I, and others, would care to admit when she offered this overview;
“We might have been one of the most lauded bands in the country, but we sold bugger all records. That’s a shame. So let’s not go on about it being one of the most lauded bands in the country, cause who cares? We didn’t sell records, we weren’t a popular band, and I’m sick of hearing about the fact that we were so fabulous – because if we were so fabulous, why didn’t anyone buy our records?”
Forster managed a slightly more laconic response;
“It was quite freeing to realise, our group is so good, and we’re getting nowhere. After a while, the lack of recognition was so absurd it was funny”.
Following their initial break up, the compilation album ‘1978-1990’ was released and allowed the music press to pass their verdict on the life and times of The Go-Betweens. Melody Maker’s Dave Jennings could barely contain his anger; “The fact that The Go-Betweens never became massive is a disgusting injustice… take The Go-Betweens to your heart, where they belong.” In 1996, writing for Select magazine Andrew Male wrote that “The only problem with listening to The Go-Betweens now is that they can’t help remind you of how crap the eighties were. The Go-Betweens produced records of quiet brilliance and got nowhere. Sting sang about a sodding turtle and became a millionaire.”
Even now, though, there isn’t exactly a critical consensus. Simon Reynolds in his definitive account of the post-punk years 1978-1984, “Rip It Up And Start Again”, devotes only one sentence to our Antipodean protagonists; “The Go-Betweens, who hailed from Australia but had a spare, plangent sound similarly rooted in Television and early Talking Heads”. It should be noted, of course, that at this stage The Go- Betweens only had ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ and ‘Before Hollywood’ under their belt. Bob Stanley in his widely acclaimed book “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop” (2013) omits them entirely from his 800 page anthology.
Any discussion of Literate Pop, though, if you are inclined to concede that the genre actually exists, if you believe great pop can be thought through, rather than instinctively felt, be cerebral rather than corporeal, would have to take into account The Go-Betweens’ collective body of work. Their singular form of romanticism, their shimmering chorus’s, their quirky, idiosyncratic lyrics and their wry pop sensibility all combined to make them one of the great post-punk pop groups. They made two albums, ‘Springhill Fair’ and ’16 Lovers Lane’ that would lose nothing in comparison with Costello’s ‘King Of America’, Lloyd Cole’s ‘Rattlesnakes’, Scritti Politti’s ‘Songs To Remember’, Mickey Newbury’s ‘Look’s Like Rain’ or The Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Everything Must Go’. In this context, their work will be remembered long after their more commercially successful contemporaries have disappeared from the recorded history of popular music.
To end, though, at the beginning. In 1978, after the local success of their debut single, ‘Lee Remick’, Forster dreamt of setting sail for England. Given the tortuous fate that awaited them on these shores, his words seem remarkably poignant now.
“England, I think, has the greatest acceptance of new music, they’re more open-minded. They write it in the NME and people buy your records. Any country that can accept Jilted John, X-Ray Spex and The Only Ones… there’s a place for The Go-Betweens.”