the arkive

The Go-Betweens

The Go-Betweens were the quintessential cult band. Throughout their hugely acclaimed career they sustained an unparalleled artistic consistency which year by year elevated them above their contemporaries many of whom lapsed in to unfortunate artistic decline whilst the unique songwriting partnership of Forster and McLennan garnered more respect and acclaim with each new release. Even Princess Caroline of Monaco and the Premier of Australia have become fans with the latter distributing copies of their latest album in the American Senate. A fervent fan base finally resulted in the group playing to larger audiences than it ever did in the eighties and their latest album Oceans Apart proved to be one of their biggest sellers of their career.

The Go-Betweens were formed in 1978, when Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, two Queensland University students with a passion for films and the US punk scene, met and decided (in Grant’s words) “to do The Factory in Brisbane”. Musical instincts prevailed and, encouraged by Robert, Grant took up the bass guitar.

After playing together for no more than four months, the pair went into the studio to record two of Robert’s songs – ‘Karen’ and ‘Lee Remick’. Pressing up 500 copies and distributing it themselves, they nearly ended up with a deal at Beserkley Records (US indie label and then home to Jonathan Richman) but Beserkley ran into financial difficulties. In fact, the Go-Betweens were dogged by label troubles through out their career. Rough Trade who eventually put out their debut LP Send Me a Lullaby in Europe, had to drop the band after their second album due to a lack of finance. Later, both Sire and Elektra who either had the band signed or were in the process of signing them had to let them go when both labels closed their UK offices. But the Go-Betweens always had a phenomenal drive that kept them going- returning again and again to Britain, as strangers and then as undervalued songwriters, in an effort to establish themselves on the world-wide music scene, self-financing singles, supporting the Birthday Party across Australia, recruiting more members as they went (drummer Lindy Morrison, bassist Robert Vickers and, later, violinist/oboist Amanda Brown, whom the band discovered playing a Forster song, ‘Draining The Pool for You’, in a coffee bar) and on the last album, bassist John Willsteed.

Their second album, Before Hollywood, was recorded in Brighton, autumn 1983 and sounds all the more wonderful for it. Four more albums followed: Spring Hill Fair, recorded in France on a major label budget, the more coherent Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (for which Robert recorded all his vocals in one afternoon, his voice having been out of action for most of the sessions), the bright, poppy Tallulah and finally, the more acoustic and reflective 16 Lovers Lane. The heavily played radio single ‘Streets Of Your Town’ followed, as did a support slot with REM. However, by this point the pressures of being together for twelve years were beginning to have visible effect and both Grant and Robert were pushing in different directions. Finally, the Go-Betweens decided to call it a day. The set up of the band, with two independent singer-songwriters was an unusual one, but in this case it worked out perfectly. Robert’s edgy, dark and highly romantic compositions were offset perfectly by Grant’s lighter, more wistfully melodic and lyrically more expansive contributions. It’s hard to say however, what made them both so special. Unlike a lot of bands the Go-Betweens just made albums of (admittedly highly accomplished) guitar-based pop songs. They didn’t do anything widely unusual or idiosyncratic, but what they did was beautiful and timeless. Maybe it was something to do with the interplay on two perspectives on what must be similar or concurrent events. Maybe it was the underlying romanticism of all their records – that they appreciated the fact that love and life are battles but they are battles which must be fought and one should wear ones scars proudly. They also knew how to craft a subtle arrangement around an intelligent lyric and winsome melody. And that should be enough for anyone.

After the split the Go-Betweens, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan had vibrant solo careers. Both released four solo albums and Grant also released two albums with Steve Kilbey of the Church under the name of Jack Frost and one album with Ian Haig of Powderfinger under the name of F.O.C. Recent projects have included a biography written by David Nichols and published by Allen and Unwin in Australia, a Go-Betweens tribute album, an acclaimed compilation: Bellavista Terrace, and a collection of lost early recordings from 1978-79. After the split, Grant and Robert played together on several occasions acoustically including the Beggars Banquet birthday celebrations in Tower Records, in Piccadilly Circus London (August 1994) and most notably with a full band at the Les Inrockuptibles 10th anniversary show in Paris (23rd May 1996) and a run of six full band shows in June 1997, two in Dublin, one in Glasgow, two in London (Forum and Fleadh Festival) and the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. As a duo, Robert and Grant toured the world (including the US) in 1999 to rave reviews, which prompted the pair to consider recording a new album together. Sitting in a Melbourne seaside hotel on the Austalian leg of their tour, Forster and McLennan finally agreed to restart The Go-Betweens with a new album.

The Friends Of Rachel Worth was the result. Ten new songs were recorded in Jackpot Studios in Portland, Oregon. The album was produced by the band with Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney on drums, Adele Pickvance (who played with both Forster and McLennan in their solo careers) on bass, Sam Coombes (Quasi and Elliot Smith) on keyboards along with Carrie Brownstien and Corin Tucker from Sleater Kinney on guitar and backing vocals. The finished record stood proudly alongside anything in their canon and received unanimously rave reviews.

The Go-Betweens toured the world with great success playing to the largest audiences of their career and culminating in a headline slot at Australia’s Big Day Out. Robert and Grant were honoured by the Australian Performing Rights Association for writing one of the ten greatest Australian songs of all time with ‘Cattle and Cane’. They completed their eighth studio album Bright Yellow Bright Orange in 2003, which was released to huge acclaim. The group toured the world including Japan for the first time and their UK dates were sold out with a rapturous response.

Forster, who was previously living in Bavaria, relocated to Brisbane where McLennan was based, and this reinvigorated their song writing partnership. In 2005 they released their ninth album, Oceans Apart, to unanimous global praise. From London to New York and Tokyo it was hailed as a masterpiece, garnering the most enthusiastic plaudits of any of the Go-Betweens’ albums so far.

Oceans Apart would, however, be the last album the Go-Betweens would ever record. On the 6th May 2006, Grant McLennan passed away at his home in Brisbane. Just before a party to celebrate a new home and his relationship with his girlfriend, Emma, he died of a heart attack in his sleep, leaving a legacy of beautiful, timeless songs through which he will be fondly remembered.

  • The Go-Betweens