Robert Forster’s memoir, based on his life in The Go-Betweens and his relationship with his former band mate, the late Grant McLennan, strikes a personal chord with Nick Triani. Includes bumper The Go-Betweens playlist.
The Go-Betweens OQM playlist
Your turn, my turn
The Go-Betweens were an Australian band formed in 1977 in Brisbane. The constant and formative members of the band were Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. They released nine critically acclaimed albums up until the unexpected death of McLennan in 2006. Those are the basic facts, the story is so much richer. Luckily, Forster has written a book, Grant & I, which is not only beautifully realized, but offers insight to the duo’s friendship and the constant struggles the band faced throughout their career.
I was (and still am) a Go-Betweens nut. I went to every gig I could get to, bought all the records. I even got to befriend their manager Bob Johnson who would kindly give me advice about my then band. The closest I got to actually meeting the band were a few handshakes with Lindsay Morrison and Robert Forster at an aftershow party. Bassist Robert Vickers was someone I would see regularly walking around at SXSW, Austin in the early noughties (still looking like a Beatle or a Byrd).
The music of The Go-Betweens has been a constant in my life from an early age (15 onwards to be exact). It must have been John Peel who played ‘Cattle & Cane’ one evening and from then on I was hooked. I went back to the early singles and got the first album (the angular Send Me A Lullaby). An obsession with this band started and continues still. To me, Forster was the awkward yet eloquent one – angular with his songwriting. McLennan was the bohemian film buff who would master melody. So, when Robert Forster’s Grant & I was announced last year, I couldn’t wait to get a copy. Published by Penguin Australia, getting the book wasn’t easy. It arrived in the new year. I devoured it.
To me, Forster was the awkward yet eloquent one – angular with his songwriting. McLennan was the bohemian film buff who would master melody.
Nowadays Robert Forster writes a lot (he’s a music critic) and occasionally releases a solo record (the excellent Songs To Play from 2015 being his latest). His previous book The 10 rules of rock and roll: collected music writings 2005–09 remains on my shelf unread. Grant & I has hastened my need to read that. Forster is a very good writer, the tone here is similar to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Grant & I is often poetic in its descriptions of childhood life in Brisbane. McLennan, remains a distant, yet troubled presence throughout. But you always get a sense of brotherly affection between Forster and McLennan, even when their friendship has been strained or Forster spends a time living in Germany after the band’s initial split.
The rise of The Go-Betweens on a barren Australian indie scene of the late 1970s (Nick Cave lurks around these pages) is well captured, and you get the feeling that The Go-Betweens got a lot of breaks just because they were so different. Influenced by the burgeoning New York punk scene, a shared love for The Monkees, classic movies and books, Forster and McLennan harboured thoughts of trying to make it abroad, something they initialized after a few single releases. Unable to afford their true destination New York, the band turned up in London in the early 1980s with little money and barely any contacts.
So begins a pattern: Initially, Britain brings them associations with Postcard Records and Orange Juice. Forster’s first meeting with Edwyn Collins is vividly rendered; Collins in his Glasgow bedsit, with an ear to a speaker listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival. These are the first days of indie as we now know it, and Forster and McLennan were almost bemused participants. A recurring theme of the book is how The Go-Betweens struggled to build lasting relationships with record labels, from Postcard to Rough Trade to Warners and Beggars Banquet, momentum wasn’t ever easily acquired. There is no particular reason for why this transpires, other than bad luck and circumstance. The Go-Betweens you find out never really got the breaks.
Dusty In Here
Robert Forster’s then partner Lindsay Morrison joined the band for their second album Before Hollywood. For me, Morrison remains one of the great drummers, possibly only second to Moe Tucker. As the band grew, an unflattering contrast to being the critics’ darling but actually trying to survive and earn a living as musician in 1980s Britain emerges. Despite the plaudits, the band never really made any money, this is often a tale of living in crazy London squats and struggling to survive, severe poverty a constant state. Grant & I peels back the veneer on an industry that doesn’t really look after its own, even when the talent is obvious.
Grant & I peels back the veneer on an industry that doesn’t really look after its own, even when the talent is obvious.
I don’t think much has changed now to be honest. Interband relationships messily put and end to The Go-Betweens initial time at the end of the 1980s (they would reform at the start of the noughties, for three more great albums). You get a sense from Forster that McLennan never really recovered from former bandmate/lover Amanda Brown leaving him when Forster and McLennan announced they were going to play a duo only tour. Alcohol and drugs play their role here too – a shock as The Go-Betweens seemed more like hip librarians than rock n rollers – but rock n roll they did. Refreshingly, Forster never peddles any of those associated clichés with his stories.
Crucially, Forster offers insight to the magical inner workings of how the songwriting process would go between himself and McLennan. His pride at his songwriting partner’s ease of creating melodic treasures is a highlight. Forster also gives rich detail to singles and albums and offers his own critique on the band’s work. This most definitely is the authoritative text on The Go-Betweens. Forster offers a view rarely written about, giving insight to life in a band hovering on the margins of success, but only remaining a cult to some. As a band that was loved by their peers and critics, but never quite embraced by the masses, Forster’s wish for The Go-Betweens legacy to be acknowledged in the greater pop lore is genuinely moving. Acknowledgement in some form finally arrived in Australia, with Brisbane’s Go-Betweens bridge – but that was too late for McLennan.
Forster offers a view rarely written about, giving insight to life in a band hovering on the margins of success, but only remaining a cult to some.
At the heart of Grant & I is a sense of unfinished business and a last chance to cement the band’s legacy. When Forster loses his friend before time it is heartbreaking. Forster was in shock at McLennan’s sudden passing, but acknowledges that his friend had lost his way. While I was reading this book, a dear friend of mine passed away. I had to head back to England for the funeral. The Go-Betweens were somehow entwined in our own story, my friend had sold me his 7″ of that precious Go-Betweens Postcard single way back when I was 16 years old. Memories came flooding back, not only of The Go-Betweens, but of much of the era covered in this book and my friendship with my oh so special friend. Listening to McLennan’s song ‘Dusty In Here’ (about his late father) got so much harder. The lyrical context is different, but the meaning resounds with me more now.
“like a ghost
a ghost of something old
it’s cold and dusty in here
it’s in your hand
it sits just like a glove
the finger traces the lines of love
it’s cold and dusty in here
someone you knew
is watching you
I’m someone you knew”
That sense of loss and feeling for Mclennan from Forster is rendered thoughtfully here. It strips away the excess, the day to day, the problems, the missed chances and the failures and leaves us that essence of true love – from one friend to another.
I’ve compiled this Go-Betweens playlist from Youtube, which seems to be the best place to get an overview of their music (other streaming services have a very incomplete discography). The playlist runs in chronological order from early singles to tracks taken from all the band’s nine official albums. Enjoy.