I had the pleasure of speaking to The Go-Betweens one gorgeous autumn in a Bondi Icebergs function room with a breathtaking view of the beach. Well, when I say ‘The Go-Betweens’, I mean Robert Forster and Grant McLennan (to whom I may collectively refer, at least in this introduction, as ‘The Gobby Twins’). Glenn Thompson, their current drummer, was also there and I did ask him a couple of cursory questions, but he graciously took his leave when he saw that I was far more interested in the lifetime members of the band.
Having devoured David Nichols’s biography
Having devoured David Nichols’s biographyThe Go-Betweens (published by Allen & Unwin in 1997, but no doubt revised since then) I had the good sense to select a ‘Modern Lovers’ t-shirt to wear to the interview. It clearly went down a treat, because Robert Forster ended the dialogue by telling me how “lovely” it was “to be interviewed by a man with a Modern Lovers t-shirt”. It’s that underground punk band thing that informed so much of The Go-Betweens’ early career, and still makes itself apparent, albeit less directly, in their work.
At one stage McLennan tried to solicit my opinion on the cover art for the new album but I had the good sense to keep shtum. To me, it’s the kind of expressionist chiaroscuro of Weimar cinema. The foregrounded Forster, with the shaded eye sockets, is a zombie, McLennan, the controlling mad scientist. Well, I was there ostensibly to conduct a film interview for FilmInk, so I’m allowed to ‘read’ everything cinematically. But I’m glad I kept that particular cinematic insight to myself: after I’d unplugged the microphone, The Gobby Twins started to talk about journalists who had ‘done them wrong’ in the past, the name of one scribe in particular causing Forster to declare that McLennan would hold the guy, while he himself gave him “a bit of this!” The emphasised ‘this’ was accompanied by Forster busting kung fu moves not unlike those favoured by the jump-suited Elvis Presley of the 70s in performance mode. Having thus divulged this scenario online, I daresay that the next time it is enacted, the scribe who is held by McLennan and kung fu’d by Forster will bear my name.
What follows is the cinema-heavy FilmInk article coupled with a version written up for the magazine Last, and the bits that don’t quite work are probably where segments of the different stories were grafted together.
This version is dedicated to Fritz, AKA Anthony Frazer, who was interested enough to e-mail me and ask why I hadn’t yet uploaded this interview, and to Paul Davies, who was hip enough to own Go-Betweens albums and lend them to me when, whether I realised it or not, I really needed to hear their music.
“It’s been a great – I hate to use this word because it’s been over-used and it has terrible connotations – ‘journey’,” Robert Forster confesses. The Go-Betweens, a band he formed with his friend Grant McLennan nearly thirty years ago, have released Oceans Apart, possibly their best album yet. It’s certainly up there with 16 Lovers Lane, the other contender for the title. The major difference between the albums is that 16 Lovers Lane featured the so-called ‘classic’ band line-up that included Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison. Nowadays it’s all too easy to regard subsequent members like bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson as ‘additional members’. In fact since Forster and McLennan are the only band members present in every incarnation, perhaps every other Go-Between has been an ‘additional’ member. “It’s been a bit of a curse that there hasn’t been a constant line-up,” Forster admits, “but it’s been good as a reflection of different eras. But with Glenn and Adele, we feel really great, and I think you can hear it in the music.” Forster confesses that Mark Wallis, who produced both Oceans Apart and 16 Lovers Lane, could also hear it in the music. “He was just going, ‘these two are great’,” Robert reports. “We know it, but people around us are saying, ‘they’re fantastic’.”
Despite the connotations, ‘journey’ perfectly describes the career trajectory that The Go-Betweens have traced. They came into being in 1978 in Brisbane, when Robert Forster approached his mate with the idea of forming a band.
“The fact that Bobby would ask someone who couldn’t play an instrument if he wanted to start a band – I thought that was really interesting,” McLennan recalls. “He didn’t ask me to come in and start playing the whip…” – a reference to Gerard Malanga, who used to dance with a whip in front of the stage when the Velvet Underground first started to play – “…or film it; it was to be a musician. That period when you’re a teenager and you’re dreaming of taking on the world or getting out of the world you’re in – which is probably more apt for me – the last thing that I really wanted to do was be a musician.”
More than a quarter of a century later, sitting opposite me in a room overlooking Bondi Beach with “a microphone shoved in my face – in a nice way,” Grant McLennan acknowledges that he made the correct decision. However, to begin with, McLennan was more interested in film than music. “I still think my film years are ahead of me,” he confesses. “Film was pretty much my first great love, and it remains so.” To prove his point, Grant announces that he recently acquired “a tremendous biography” of Francois Truffaut. “I’d been searching for an English translation of it for five years and I found one in America a couple of weeks ago.” Truffaut is McLennan’s favourite filmmaker, although he namechecks other ‘new wave’ French directors of the late 50s/early 60s that he admires: Rivette, Godard, Franju…
“They took the American language of film and put a European – and quite poetic – slant on it,” he explains. Truffaut, however, holds pride of place for McLennan, not merely because he’s a fellow Aquarian: “I like his depiction of female characters, I love the fact that he had a great love of books, and there is a gentleness to many of his films. He was also very interested in the passage of children into adults. And his use of music was amazing.” How apt! The same could be said of The Go-Betweens’ music…
Robert Forster is passionate about an earlier generation of cinema: the screwball comedies of the 30s. “Anything with Jean Arthur in it just gets me going,” he says, citing Easy Living (1937), Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and both Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) (“with Gary Cooper!”) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) (“with Jimmy Stewart. I love Jimmy Stewart!”) However, having lived without a television in a German village for the last little while, Forster claims he “hasn’t seen many films” in the last ten or fifteen years. “Mainly, I see films on aeroplanes,” he admits, which explains not only his love for “commercial cinema that has old-fashioned Hollywood values,” but a specific admiration for “the cinema of Ben Stiller”. According to Forster, Stiller is “a modern-day comic genius.”
Unlike his collaborator, Grant McLennan is still an avid movie watcher. “I’m trying to structure my life so that I can see two or three films a day for the rest of my life,” he says. “There’s a lot I’ve got to catch up on.” But he’s not so keen on bonus features and the like. “The problem with DVDs is the same problem with CDs – people just jam too much on them. I’m not really interested in outtakes or the director’s cut in general. To me, if you’re going to deliver something to the public, you’ve got to have the guts to say, ‘that’s it!’ All this bonus material – there’s way too many other things in the world to do than to have to sift through four hours of outtakes of Dumb and Dumber.”
Hang on, I point out, doesn’t this mean that there wouldn’t be a time when The Go-Betweens’ back catalogue was reissued with alternative takes and flipsides?
“Well, it’s already happened, man…” Grant begins, a little exasperated.
Yeah, yeah, I jump in quickly, I remember the Red Eye and Beggars Banquet reissues; perhaps I should have said ‘doesn’t this mean there shouldn’t have been a time when The Go-Betweens’ back catalogue was reissued with alternative takes and flipsides?’ But the point I’m making, I tell him, is that he’s been caught out on his position…
“No, no,” he interrupts, “I think you got ‘caught out’…”
Well, okay, I must admit that I never invested in The Go-Betweens’ back-catalogue-reissued-with-bonus-tracks that were made available towards the end of the 90s – I was far too busy buying The Beatles’ Anthology CDs by the time I was hip enough and had the ready cash. But I knew the Go-Betweens’ reissues existed. Now I want to move on and, thankfully, McLennan lets me off the hook:
“When you’ve got the ‘cannon’, as Robert refers to the Go-Betweens albums,” he says, “and when you’ve got as many passionate fans as we do around the world, it’s a good thing to make sure those songs remain available, that they can be part of the culture and part of the dialogue. Part of presenting that to the modern public is to include everything.” Still, he maintains, he and Forster “have been very selective” in what they have allowed to be reissued. “The first six albums have all come out with the bonus discs, so there’s the b-sides, the radio sessions and the rare songs that never quite made the album. And the great thing about it is we will never have to do it again!”
Even if Grant McLennan sees his film years as lying ahead of him, at some level at least they have accompanied The Go-Betweens on their journey. The band’s first single ‘Lee Remick’ was named after the actress; their second album was called Before Hollywood; even the band’s name is a film title. 1970’s The Go-Between depicts a torrid, forbidden affair between characters played by Alan Bates and Julie Christie. Really, the only cinematic dimension missing from The Go-Betweens’ oeuvre is a film soundtrack.
“We never get approached to do soundtracks,” Robert Forster admits. “I don’t know why. I’m quite glad, actually, because I don’t think we could pull it off.”
This is clearly false modesty. I reckon the real reason The Go-Betweens don’t get asked to do film soundtracks is because their songs are already so cinematic in and of themselves. The imagery of the lyrics and the sound-pictures painted by the music conjure better scenarios than anyone could provide. Consider the album’s lead single, ‘Here Comes A City’ – every line of lyric describes the image you’d film to illustrate it. It’s clearly going to be a very strong radio single, I tell the duo.
“You’re talking our language, baby!” Forster shouts. “Yeah! That’s what we’re hoping.”
I can already picture the video clip, I tell him.
“What do you see?” McLennan demands.
It’s a fast-moving, black-and-white clip with jump cuts and quick edits, as seen from a hurtling train, I tell him.
“That’s the way I wanted to make it,” Grant McLennan says. “But you’re right, it’s black and white. And there are jump cuts. But the fast-moving stuff has all been done by the band. It’s very much a performance video.” He draws parallels to mid-60s New York: “…Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga with the whip, all that sort of stuff…” Not quite a reference to The Go-Betweens’ earlier interest in New York punk, it turns out, rather a nod at Warhol’s experimental filmmaking: “beautiful people doing disgusting things to each other,” Grant explains.
Other songs similarly hark back to earlier times. ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, name-checking a host of former Go-Betweens’ associates including former manager and music journalist Clinton Walker and Died Pretty organist Frank Brunetti, specifically documents the band’s return to Australia in 1983. “We were touring for about six or eight weeks and were just hanging around a house in Woolloomooloo before we went back to England,” Robert Forster recalls. “We spent a lot of time and met a lot of people in Darlinghurst.”
‘Boundary Rider’ is also associated with that period, at least by default. The band’s breakthrough single in 1983 was ‘Cattle and Cain’ and ‘Boundary Rider’ appears to be similarly inspired by the McLennan family’s roots ‘on the land’. Yet, Grant says, beyond the memory of “riding fences” in order to maintain them and ensure your paddocks aren’t “getting mixed up”, the song serves as a metaphor for self-protection. “Most people spend a lot of time stopping things getting out,” McLennan explains, “but there are occasional times, and they’re probably more scary, when things come in that you’ve got no control over.”
An interesting track is ‘Lavendar’, which almost has a reggae feel despite, Forster explains, it beginning as a “folk toon”. Whereas Mark Wallis produced the album, ‘Lavendar’ bears a production credit for Dave Ruffy (former Waterboys, Ruts drummer), who programmed click-tracks for the original demo-versions of the album’s songs. ‘Lavendar’ is the only song that retains its original click-track. “Dave, who was doing some programming and some keyboard overdubbing, had this rhythm that he’d written that we were playing along to that sounded so good that we kept it,” Robert says. “Because he took the song ninety degrees that way – suddenly it’s got this reggae beat and we just really liked it. It took us all by surprise.”
Another interesting offering is the track ‘Mountains Near Dellray’ which, apparently, was McLennan’s idea, but Forster’s song. “I wrote a folk toon,” Forster begins again. “I had come up with the lyric and I went over to see Grant, as I do, and Grant had just come back from Tasmania.” McLennan related his Tasmanian travel experiences and Forster “immediately went home and wrote them down”. Now here’s the interesting bit: Robert thought Grant had mentioned ‘Dellray’ – “I misheard ‘the mountains near Dellray’ and thought, ‘that’s fantastic! There’s the song title!’ – when McLennan was actually talking about ‘Deloraine’. The former (in fact, Delray Beach) is in Miami, Florida, while the latter, as you’d expect given the context of Tasmanian travel experiences, is indeed in Tasmania, near the Derwent River. Scintillating, isn’t it! But there’s more:
“What I particularly like about the song,” Grant adds, “is that Robert says ‘Derwent’ and it’s one of his middle names. I think it’s one of Robert’s greatest lyrics, and the fact that there’s that parallel makes it even better.”
There is a pensive sadness to many of the lyrics, if not the actual music on Oceans Apart. ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ begins with “tears”, and even though another backward-looking song tells us with its very title that there’s ‘No Reason To Cry’, by its end, we are urged to “find a reason”. If, as it appears, Oceans Apart is the album with which The Go-Betweens look back upon themselves as a band, it’s worth noting the biggest difference between the ‘classic’ line-up and its current one. Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown served not only as Robert Forster and Grant McLennan’s former musical partners; they were also their respective romantic partners. There’s clearly a different dynamic when lovers, or former lovers, are in your band. But is it a good or a bad dynamic, I find the courage to ask.
“Well I think Robert’s dating Adele, and I’m going out with Glenn at the moment, so we’ve managed to solve that problem,” Grant deadpans before offering a serious appraisal:
“We’ve always played with women in the band and there’s a certain island mentality that comes into being in a band – it’s like being in a gang. In my case, a relationship with a band member wasn’t something that I was looking for; it just presented itself and I’m very happy that it did. There’s a great passion and friendship within any Go-Betweens line-up, but I think I can speak for other people that have been in the band and say we’ve always believed in the songs. The most important thing has always been, making the songs as good and as clear as we can.”
With Oceans Apart The Go-Betweens have managed to do that again.