The story of The Go-Betweens, Australia’s criminally underrated pop band

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The story of The Go-Betweens, Australia’s criminally underrated pop band

Photo courtesy of Essential Media
Words by Tom Parker

Without The Go-Betweens, Australian music would look very different today.

Talent often slips through the cracks. Whether it be by misfortune or design, for some bands, acclaim is like an agave, flowering only once to the ears of critics and the music-learned but not given the commercial chance.

Name them on two hands and you’ll run out of fingers, bands such as The Church, Mudhoney, The Triffids, The Tea Party and Tumbleweed are just a few who didn’t translate critical praise into widespread success.

Then there’s The Go-Betweens, Australia’s cherished guitar pop torchbearers. A band who spread their wealth across five prongs without a leading rockstar. A band who arrived on brittle ground with their genre not settled. A band who didn’t appear on television and evaded the fast-track to stardom.

This, alongside their quirky lyricism which didn’t assimilate with the mainstream and their unpretentious, unglamorous image, and you have one of the most unheralded rock bands of all time.

So, what is the story of The Go-Betweens? Fittingly, they formed through unspectacular means. Robert Forster met Grant McLennan at the University of Queensland where they both studied a theatre arts course and they started a band.

Just two months after their formation, Forster and McLennan were cutting their first single. The A-side bore ‘Lee Remick’; turn it over and you had ‘Karen’. The two songs were apples and oranges, the former a vibrant pop track, the latter artier, gloomier and far longer.

The single was released to the world but the world didn’t flinch. Forster and McLennan sent copies all over the globe and just when they thought they’d reached Broadway, a potential record deal with Californian label Beserkley was left under the carpet with the company’s ill-timed bankruptcy.

Aside from the bad luck, you had two songwriting masterminds with too much idiosyncrasy, they were too different and the world could only digest so much change — new sub-genres were infiltrating and the rock genre was on a swivel as it was.

On the local scene, The Go-Betweens couldn’t catch a break either. Throughout the ‘70s, Brisbane music was awash with copycats, cover bands who pampered what came before but were cold on the corner, oblivious to what came next.

There was also a little band called The Saints which had inscribed a blueprint of punk in the city’s music skeleton. Chris Bailey and his pals had toughened things up just when The Go-Betweens were taming it down.

Yet, the situation was ambiguous. The Go-Betweens were punk, but in a manner which bends the true meaning of the term — their attitude was punk but their rhythms weren’t punk.

Like preferring to run the 3000m steeplechase instead of the 100m sprint, the Brisbane outfit pushed forward weathering the rough climate. In November 1981, they unveiled their debut album, Send Me a Lullaby.

It received mixed reviews with brash critics latching onto the peculiarity and slapdash nature of the release. It wasn’t the ideal start for The Go-Betweens and could’ve been their biggest regret — they attempted to muscle up with the punkers beside them but departed the bright melodicism and wiliness that enlivened their early singles.

Their music would evolve going forward but The Go-Betweens did little to accessorise their image. At the time, they were three round peas in a pod, no one was bigger than the other, they were an operation rather than a show.

Send Me a Lullaby embodied The Go-Betweens’ immaturity in the early going, but they’d grow older and while their sophomore album, Before Hollywood, retained their unadorned persona, it capitalised on their strengths.

It was their critical breakthrough and suddenly, The Go-Betweens found their voice. Suddenly, listeners had a handle on the doorknob, they were invited and welcomed to enter and come along for the ride.

It was the accessibility and consistency of the songs that drew attention. ‘Cattle and Cane’ whisked McLennan to the front, introducing a storyteller and troubadour who’d supplemented his tool shed of just a bass guitar.

‘That Way’ was another standout, in all its organ-led splendour, while ‘As Long As That’ and ‘By Chance’ channelled Forster’s nervy pop sensibilities, jittering without overthrowing McLennan’s romanticism and nostalgia.

Still a three-piece at the advent of Before Hollywood, The Go-Betweens would bolster their sound in 1983, adding Robert Vickers on bass as McLennan shifted to lead guitar.

The Go-Betweens only major-label record came with Spring Hill Fair in 1984 which embraced their European surrounds. It was recorded in France and producer John Brand advised them to make something competitive to challenge the commercial market in England. The UK was a fertile field for The Go-Betweens and the early ‘80s was a time to harvest.

Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express arrived and so did Tallulah. With five albums in six years, the band were quickly forging a robust discography. Their prolificacy would draw praise, yet no album was as influential as their next.

16 Lovers Lane bookended a busy seven-year run for The Go-Betweens but, by no means, exhibited a band running out of puff.

Relocating from the UK to Sydney, 16 Lovers Lane was the band’s first homegrown record since their debut offering. It channelled the rejuvenation of being home, resonating strongly on the commercial market and mirrored a band more united than ever.

Forster and McLennan attempted to conjure the togetherness of the band’s early days by collaborating on all recordings. Everything was above board and all bandmembers, including the newly recruited John Willsteed, had a say on the direction of the album.

The Go-Betweens were in full flight but just when they were poised for stardom, they disbanded. With the decision, Forster and McLennan not only concluded their proceedings with The Go-Betweens but terminated their relationships with drummer Lindy Morrison and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown, who’d both been respective partners to the two.

1989 sounded the end of a fruitful, yet tumultuous 12-year journey for The Go-Betweens. The band reunited in 2000 before Grant McLennan’s tragic death in 2006 compelled Forster to conclude things once again.

The Go-Betweens were a testament to commitment and acceptance. The cogs weren’t perfect, there was infighting and discordance at times, but Forster and McLennan didn’t let that get to their songwriting. They will be remembered as a band ahead of the curve who strived to be different but didn’t always adhere to their market. Their legacy is far-reaching, names such as Courtney Barnett, Belle and Sebastian and Sleator-Kinney, have professed their admiration but that’s only the beginning.

There’s a new generation of guitarists incorporating spring and cushion into their songwriting, and maybe, who knows, without The Go-Betweens, guitar pop might not be a thing.