Over the course of nearly 30 years, from 1978 until the untimely death of cofounder Grant McLennan in 2006, the Australian band the Go-Betweens crafted a near-perfect body of work that often played out more like a series of short stories than pop songs. Their lyrics were rife with poetic imagery and literary allusions, but their songs never felt arch or smug or self-satisfied. Rather, they tackled romance (and the loss of the same), alienation and classism with writing that was impossibly sharp and precise.
The recent compilation G Stands for Go-Betweens documents the band’s early years — their first five singles plus the records Send Me a Lullaby, Before Hollywood and Spring Hill Fair — when their music was decidedly ricketier and more obtuse than it would become in their later years. But that’s part of what makes it so compelling: On these albums, the band seems to be inventing a whole new way of writing rock songs, jamming in ramrod guitar lines like they’re fiddling with an erector set and filling the empty spaces with coy, clever wordplay. Unlike the Smiths, to whom they’re occasionally compared, the Go-Betweens underplayed every hand, wrenching more drama out of the subtle hint than the bold declaration. They would go on to influence artists like Allo Darlin’, A.C. Newman and countless others.
I spoke with Go-Betweens co-founder Robert Forster about this period in the band’s career, and asked him to walk me through some of their breakthrough songs from this time period.
The first song I wanted to ask about was “Lee Remick,” which was released in 1978. How old were you at this time?
We were both 20. We were very precocious. The band consisted of just Grant and I — the drummer was someone we’d played with in other bands. When we made this single, we’d only ever played two gigs, and both gigs consisted of two songs. Grant had been playing bass for four months. It was as non-rock ‘n’ roll and as unorthodox a start as you can imagine.
But the band felt extraordinary from the start. We thought this could be the only record we ever made. Getting into a studio back then and recording then was incredibly hard — it’s not like today where it’s very easy to record and release music. There were hurdles then. There was no pressing plant in Brisbane, so we had to mail the master tape down to Sydney, and there was no one else we knew who was making singles, so we couldn’t ask anyone, “How do you do this? How do you do the covers? How do you do the labels?” We had to invent it all ourselves. So making a record was a big step, and we didn’t know if we’d ever make another one.
The band started in early 1978, just after the punk flashpoint year of 1977. Listening to how literary and erudite your lyrics are, I wondered: If the blunt energy of punk was a reaction to all that had come before, to what degree did you see the Go-Betweens as a reaction against punk?
Well, we were excited by the first Sex Pistols singles as much as anyone — they were incredibly exciting. But by the time they released that album, it was a massive disappointment — not only to Grant and myself, but to a lot of people. It was already six months too late, and every month counted during that period. Punk was already starting to get a bit weary, and that album was not exciting. And we weren’t leather and chains, we weren’t all of that. We were taking our fashion tips more from the Talking Heads than the Clash.
The next song I wanted to talk about is “People Say,” where I feel like you first start introducing some complexity into the songwriting.
There’s a fair amount of invention in the lyrics. When I wrote that song I just thought, “This is the song that can follow ‘Lee Remick’ and ‘Karen’ as a single.” Those songs were almost vomited out — they’re very direct, almost garage-type things. “People Say” surprised me. I immediately thought, “A lot of people could cover this.” It felt like a song Ray Davies could have written. It immediately had a sort of classicism to it. Lyrically, I knew it had to have a sophisticated worldview. There’s also some Dylan in it, who was a big inspiration for Grant and I — especially electric Dylan. We were fascinated by that era. We loved Dylan As Pop Star. We were 19, 20, 21 — there was this older generation that liked Dylan the protest singer, but we liked the dandy pop star, the more punky Dylan — the polka dots, lots of attitude, Don’t Look Back, Dylans interviews at the time — we liked that. We found him fascinating and very contemporary to us. So he’s in the song as well. [Later songs like] “Part Company” or “Draining the Pool,” they go back to “People Say.” This song was an early sign of where I was going.
You talk about preferring Dylan the Pop Star to Dylan the Activist. Was there any thought given to injecting more overt politics into the Go-Betweens lyrics, as some of your post-punk peers were doing?
It was a very political time in Brisbane. There was a very repressive government in place. Brisbane in this era was referred to as being like the American Deep South. I almost felt that because I was in an environment that was very redneck and very conservative, the fact that I was writing songs about librarians and movie stars seemed like a rebellious act within itself. We were in the political milieu, we knew what was going on, but being in the Go-Betweens just seemed like such an outrageous act in itself that we left it at that.
I wanted to talk about “Your Turn, My Turn” next. What strikes me about this one is how abstract the lyrics are — you have little snatches of images and impressions rather than a linear narrative.
This was a song that was mostly written by Grant, and I wrote some of the chorus. It was a transitional phase, because Grant was about to become a fully-fledged singer-songwriter, and start to sing lead vocals, but that hadn’t happened yet. So it was two people writing the song, which meant it was a little bit more oblique. Our music made lyrics really hard, because the music was taking all of these hairpin turns. The music became quite complex and angled, so you couldn’t get long lyric lines in there. So everything had to be a little bit more fractured, and narrative broke down. Trying to get any sort of long line in was almost impossible. We were growing more musically than we were lyrically at the time. We knew we couldn’t do “Lee Remick” and “Karen” forever. We knew we had to keep on pushing. So what we were doing was quite raw. We just wanted [the songs to have] strong bones, you know? There’s no keyboard player or second guitarist, we were very stark. And that’s how we wanted to be. I wasn’t strumming happy chords all the time. I could leave space, because Lindy and Grant were so strong. Grant was such a melodic bass player and Lindy was such a strong drummer. We were just raw bones.
On the other extreme is “Cattle and Cane,” which has to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and certainly among the best of the ’80s. Do you remember the first time Grant played you this song?
We were all living in a house together in Ladbroke Grove, and we were going to do the album [Before Hollywood] in a couple of months. So we had a summer of songwriting in this house. It was just an ideal time. We had three floors to ourselves. I can remember Grant playing it for me, I can remember the room. I thought it was a strong riff, but Grant was always a riff merchant. He had tons of them, and he was writing great songs around this time. So at the time, it just seemed like one good riff among a number of good riffs. And I can remember us trying to put chords on it — and almost the only thing I could do was play it with him in time. It was so unique that we had trouble putting any other thing on it. Once Lindy came in with that drum beat that emphasized the riff — that’s what the song was.
But then when he came up with the lyric, that’s when I went “Oh my god,” because he was writing about his childhood. And I could recognize the railroad and the cane and the burning cinders — all of that stuff. I knew where that came from. Grant’s lyrics up to that time, I found them quite oblique. They were poetic and abstract. But I think the music here gave him more room. There was enough melody and space for him to tell a story and not just a series of poetic images. The line about leaving his father’s watch in the shower — his father died when Grant was 6, so his father’s watch obviously meant an enormous amount to him. To put that into a pop song is just an amazing, powerful detail.
Urban legend holds Grant wrote the main riff on Nick Cave’s guitar.
We did two tours with the Birthday Party in Australia, and we were on the same label and we lived in Melbourne for six months. We had the same friends. I don’t know about writing it on Nick’s guitar, but I know Grant would go and visit Nick. They were socializing, so it could have happened. I don’t know if it did. I don’t know if Nick Cave had a guitar to be honest.
“On My Block” seems to take a very literal, concrete concept — this mansion on your block — and subtly pivots it so it’s about something else.
Grant and I wrote this one together. The mansion, it’s locked — it’s very romantic language that I’m using. It goes on with other songs that follow, like “Draining the Pool” or “Twin Layers of Lightning,” of the band being denied — it’s the romance of being locked out, of being excluded, which I was throwing on to the band’s career. It just seemed like a very rich thing to write about, the romance of being an outsider. It’s about that. It’s about having your own riches and the things you value that mightn’t be valued in the main culture, and being very possessive about them. “On My Block,” this is my world. It’s like the Beach Boys song “In My Room” — this is what I’ve gathered, this is what I think is valuable.
The other side of the band that I feel like was beginning to develop by the time of Spring Hill Fair was the nuanced way you wrote about romance. “Part Company,” I think, is one of the first great examples of that. The line, “That’s her handwriting — that’s the way she writes” — there’s such sadness in the way you deliver that.
That line came from — I was in a relationship with Lindy, and we were in a house in Sydney while we were on tour. And I came back with a friend around midday, and Lindy had left a note saying that she was somewhere, but she didn’t sign it. And I said, “Oh, Lindy’s out.” And the person beside me said, “How do you know the note’s from Lindy,” and I said, “That’s her handwriting. That’s the way she writes.”
I’d written the chord sequence for the song in London, and I couldn’t come up with a lyric idea. And then I just said that and I went, “That’s the way into the song. There it is.” And I remembered that. And then the song just moved from there. Since then I’ve written a lot more narrative things, but I almost think with memory, you don’t always get the full story. Things stick out. If you collect all the things that stick out — key moments, things that shine — that gives you a better picture than if you go, “Then this happened, and then that and then that.” It’s the way novelists write, they sort of grab and hinge on moments hoping that makes a whole story. It’s also trying to look at something from as many sides as you can gives you more information or insight, and that provides lyrics or ideas.
It’s sort of the same idea in “Man O’ Sand to Girl O’Sea” — you sing, right out of the gate: “Feel so sure of our love/ I’ll write a song about us breaking up.”
It’s almost like I’m singing about having written “Part Company.” It’s just a very bold statement. That could be put on a billboard or something. It’s inverting the way normal people make declarations of love — I love you for this or that, compare thee to a summer’s day. That line is just another way of saying it, it just inverts it.
It’s like how “God Only Knows” opens with the line, “I may not always love you.”
It is, It is. It also sort of lets you know that the song is going to be playful. Because it’s such an outrageous way to start a song, it’s hard to do the rest of it with a straight face. And a lot of it’s dictated by the music. That was a very assertive guitar riff — it was a rock song. So I needed something that was just going to hit people right between the eyes. You’re playing that song live in front of people and you imagine that in a way. The band’s pumping away and you walk up to the microphone and you’ve got to sing the first line, you’ve got to have something that matches that. It’s got to be a big first line, and that’s the one that came to me.
Looking back over the albums assembled in this collection, what are you struck by?
I’m struck by how much of a journey it’s been. We were living in very volatile times. We were moving through periods and pushing and trying to find the mature style, which I think we do. I also think, for the guys that started off with “Lee Remick,” I’m really proud of the journey that we took. We could’ve kept doing that and our career migth’ve been better if we’d stayed with that ’60s- and ’70s-flavored innocence. But we kept going, and we brought Lindy into the band. We didn’t bring along people who were just going to tap away in the background. We brought in Robert Vickers — forceful people. I’m happy about that.