The Go-Betweens and Me

in memory of Grant McLennan

Back in the early 80s the best place (or, should I say, the only place) to hear new music was local community radio station 5MMM (now known as 3D). It was where I first heard so many bands of the era – The Cure, Associates, The Birthday Party, Laughing Clowns and many more. It was also where I first heard The Go-Betweens. It was some time in late 1981/early 1982. They played two songs, one of which was ‘It Could Be Anyone’ from ‘Send Me A Lullaby’. The track reminded me a little of Talking Heads, one of my favourite bands at the time, so I went out and bought the album. I loved it immediately. The music did possess many of the qualities of Talking Heads’ early work – a certain naiveté, a spiky post-punk guitar sound, and unusual song structures. But there was also something indefinably Australian about the record; perhaps it was the rawness of the recording, perhaps it was simply the photos of suburban Brisbane on the inner sleeve.

I bought their following record ‘Before Hollywood’ as soon as it was released. It was a giant leap forward for the band in every respect – the sound was rich and expansive, the lyrics evocative, and the tunes quite beautiful. I loved the up tempo pop tracks like ‘Ask’, ‘Before Hollywood’ and ‘That Way’, but I also loved the quieter atmospheric pieces like ‘Dusty In Here’ and, of course, ‘Cattle And Cane’. The album was one of the best of that year, and I decided that The Go-Betweens were one of my favourite Australian bands, along with the aforementioned Laughing Clowns and The Birthday Party.

I saw them in concert soon after the release of ‘Before Hollywood’. They played to a packed crowd at Adelaide’s Tivoli Hotel. I found myself crushed against the far right-hand side of the stage, but still loved the show. The band stage dynamic was already established by that time – Robert the showman, playing it up for the crowd, and Grant contrastingly quiet and shy. It was the first of many times I saw the band play live during the 80s.

I declared each subsequent album after ‘Before Hollywood’ their ‘best yet’ – ‘Spring Hill Fair’ with its wonderful pop moments; the atmospheric soundscapes of ‘Liberty Belle’; the sunny shimmer of ‘Lovers Lane’; and ‘Tallulah’ with its strings and gorgeous vocal harmonies. For quality and consistency the band’s only rivals were R.E.M. and The Smiths, yet they were virtually ignored by mainstream Australia, who were more concerned with atrocities such as Moving Pictures, Pseudo Echo, Swanee, and (shudder) the Uncanny X-Men.

Despite the indifference of the mainstream, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, along with Nick Cave, Ed Kuepper, Dave McComb of the Triffids, and others, were forging a unique, distinctively Australian music. Inspired by the Velvet Underground, Television, The Stooges, Patti Smith, punk and post-punk, they took the elements of rock ‘n’ roll and bent them through a peculiarly Australian prism, utilising local landscapes, characters and situations. Grant McLennan’s contribution was considerable, his evocative lyrics rich with detail – mudflats and mangroves, butchers and battered wives, a house of tin and timbers.

When the band announced a new album in 2000, after a break of 10 years, I was not alone in fearing for the worst. What were the chances of the band regaining the creative spark that produced a string of such great albums? How many bands had reformed after such a break and gone on to produce material of worth? I needn’t have worried, for ‘The Friends Of Rachel Worth’ was a fine album, while last year’s ‘Oceans Apart’ stands amongst their best work. There was no reason they couldn’t go on making great music for as long as they wanted.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. With Grant McLennan’s passing the Go-Betweens’ story sadly and suddenly comes to an end, and I feel as though a little part of me has been lost. The Go-Betweens have soundtracked my adult life, each album linked to a particular period, each song evoking an image, a mood, a memory. Grant McLennan wrote a fair share of those songs – ‘Right Here’, ‘Streets Of Your Town’, ‘Going Blind’, ‘Bachelor Kisses’, Bye Bye Pride’, ‘Finding You’ and many, many others. They are songs that will remain special to me for the rest of my life.

And, I guess, this is how we seek consolation in a time of sadness. In the knowledge that Grant and The Go-Betweens will live on for decades to come – through their wonderful, wonderful music…

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