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 âThe Go-Betweensâ, I mean Robert Forster and Grant McLennan (to whom I may collectively refer, at least in this introduction, as âThe Gobby Twinsâ). 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 Nicholsâs biography
Having devoured David Nicholsâs biographyThe Go-Betweens (published by Allen & Unwin in 1997, but no doubt revised since then) I had the good sense to select a âModern Loversâ t-shirt to wear to the interview. It clearly went down a treat, because Robert Forster ended the dialogue by telling me how âlovelyâ it was âto be interviewed by a man with a Modern Lovers t-shirtâ. Itâs that underground punk band thing that informed so much of The Go-Betweensâ 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, itâs 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 Iâm allowed to âreadâ everything cinematically. But Iâm glad I kept that particular cinematic insight to myself: after Iâd unplugged the microphone, The Gobby Twins started to talk about journalists who had âdone them wrongâ 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 âa bit of this!â The emphasised âthisâ 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 fuâd 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 donât 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 hadnât 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.
âItâs been a great â I hate to use this word because itâs been over-used and it has terrible connotations â âjourneyâ,â 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. Itâs 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 âclassicâ band line-up that included Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison. Nowadays itâs all too easy to regard subsequent members like bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson as âadditional membersâ. In fact since Forster and McLennan are the only band members present in every incarnation, perhaps every other Go-Between has been an âadditionalâ member. âItâs been a bit of a curse that there hasnât been a constant line-up,â Forster admits, âbut itâs 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.â Forster confesses that Mark Wallis, who produced both Oceans Apart and 16 Lovers Lane, could also hear it in the music. âHe was just going, âthese two are greatâ,â Robert reports. âWe know it, but people around us are saying, âtheyâre fantasticâ.â
Despite the connotations, âjourneyâ 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.
âThe fact that Bobby would ask someone who couldnât play an instrument if he wanted to start a band â I thought that was really interesting,â McLennan recalls. âHe didnât ask me to come in and start playing the whipâ¦â â 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 â ââ¦or film it; it was to be a musician. That period when youâre a teenager and youâre dreaming of taking on the world or getting out of the world youâre in â which is probably more apt for me â the last thing that I really wanted to do was be a musician.â
More than a quarter of a century later, sitting opposite me in a room overlooking Bondi Beach with âa microphone shoved in my face â in a nice way,â Grant McLennan acknowledges that he made the correct decision. However, to begin with, McLennan was more interested in film than music. âI still think my film years are ahead of me,â he confesses. âFilm was pretty much my first great love, and it remains so.â To prove his point, Grant announces that he recently acquired âa tremendous biographyâ of Francois Truffaut. âIâd been searching for an English translation of it for five years and I found one in America a couple of weeks ago.â Truffaut is McLennanâs favourite filmmaker, although he namechecks other ânew waveâ French directors of the late 50s/early 60s that he admires: Rivette, Godard, Franjuâ¦
âThey took the American language of film and put a European â and quite poetic â slant on it,â he explains. Truffaut, however, holds pride of place for McLennan, not merely because heâs a fellow Aquarian: âI 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.â How apt! The same could be said of The Go-Betweensâ musicâ¦
Robert Forster is passionate about an earlier generation of cinema: the screwball comedies of the 30s. âAnything with Jean Arthur in it just gets me going,â he says, citing Easy Living (1937), Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and both Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) (âwith Gary Cooper!â) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) (âwith Jimmy Stewart. I love Jimmy Stewart!â) However, having lived without a television in a German village for the last little while, Forster claims he âhasnât seen many filmsâ in the last ten or fifteen years. âMainly, I see films on aeroplanes,â he admits, which explains not only his love for âcommercial cinema that has old-fashioned Hollywood values,â but a specific admiration for âthe cinema of Ben Stillerâ. According to Forster, Stiller is âa modern-day comic genius.â
Unlike his collaborator, Grant McLennan is still an avid movie watcher. âIâm trying to structure my life so that I can see two or three films a day for the rest of my life,â he says. âThereâs a lot Iâve got to catch up on.â But heâs not so keen on bonus features and the like. âThe problem with DVDs is the same problem with CDs â people just jam too much on them. Iâm not really interested in outtakes or the directorâs cut in general. To me, if youâre going to deliver something to the public, youâve got to have the guts to say, âthatâs it!â All this bonus material â thereâs way too many other things in the world to do than to have to sift through four hours of outtakes of Dumb and Dumber.â
Hang on, I point out, doesnât this mean that there wouldnât be a time when The Go-Betweensâ back catalogue was reissued with alternative takes and flipsides?
âWell, itâs already happened, manâ¦â 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 âdoesnât this mean there shouldnât have been a time when The Go-Betweensâ back catalogue was reissued with alternative takes and flipsides?â But the point Iâm making, I tell him, is that heâs been caught out on his positionâ¦
âNo, no,â he interrupts, âI think you got âcaught outââ¦â
Well, okay, I must admit that I never invested in The Go-Betweensâ back-catalogue-reissued-with-bonus-tracks that were made available towards the end of the 90s â I was far too busy buying The Beatlesâ Anthology CDs by the time I was hip enough and had the ready cash. But I knew the Go-Betweensâ reissues existed. Now I want to move on and, thankfully, McLennan lets me off the hook:
âWhen youâve got the âcannonâ, as Robert refers to the Go-Betweens albums,â he says, âand when youâve got as many passionate fans as we do around the world, itâs 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.â Still, he maintains, he and Forster âhave been very selectiveâ in what they have allowed to be reissued. âThe first six albums have all come out with the bonus discs, so thereâs 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!â
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 bandâs first single âLee Remickâ was named after the actress; their second album was called Before Hollywood; even the bandâs name is a film title. 1970âs 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-Betweensâ oeuvre is a film soundtrack.
âWe never get approached to do soundtracks,â Robert Forster admits. âI donât know why. Iâm quite glad, actually, because I donât think we could pull it off.â
This is clearly false modesty. I reckon the real reason The Go-Betweens donât 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 albumâs lead single, âHere Comes A Cityâ â every line of lyric describes the image youâd film to illustrate it. Itâs clearly going to be a very strong radio single, I tell the duo.
âYouâre talking our language, baby!â Forster shouts. âYeah! Thatâs what weâre hoping.â
I can already picture the video clip, I tell him.
âWhat do you see?â McLennan demands.
Itâs a fast-moving, black-and-white clip with jump cuts and quick edits, as seen from a hurtling train, I tell him.
âThatâs the way I wanted to make it,â Grant McLennan says. âBut youâre right, itâs black and white. And there are jump cuts. But the fast-moving stuff has all been done by the band. Itâs very much a performance video.â He draws parallels to mid-60s New York: ââ¦Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga with the whip, all that sort of stuffâ¦â Not quite a reference to The Go-Betweensâ earlier interest in New York punk, it turns out, rather a nod at Warholâs experimental filmmaking: âbeautiful people doing disgusting things to each other,â Grant explains.
Other songs similarly hark back to earlier times. âDarlinghurst Nightsâ, name-checking a host of former Go-Betweensâ associates including former manager and music journalist Clinton Walker and Died Pretty organist Frank Brunetti, specifically documents the bandâs return to Australia in 1983. âWe were touring for about six or eight weeks and were just hanging around a house in Woolloomooloo before we went back to England,â Robert Forster recalls. âWe spent a lot of time and met a lot of people in Darlinghurst.â
âBoundary Riderâ is also associated with that period, at least by default. The bandâs breakthrough single in 1983 was âCattle and Cainâ and âBoundary Riderâ appears to be similarly inspired by the McLennan familyâs roots âon the landâ. Yet, Grant says, beyond the memory of âriding fencesâ in order to maintain them and ensure your paddocks arenât âgetting mixed upâ, the song serves as a metaphor for self-protection. âMost people spend a lot of time stopping things getting out,â McLennan explains, âbut there are occasional times, and theyâre probably more scary, when things come in that youâve got no control over.â
An interesting track is âLavendarâ, which almost has a reggae feel despite, Forster explains, it beginning as a âfolk toonâ. Whereas Mark Wallis produced the album, âLavendarâ bears a production credit for Dave Ruffy (former Waterboys, Ruts drummer), who programmed click-tracks for the original demo-versions of the albumâs songs. âLavendarâ is the only song that retains its original click-track. âDave, who was doing some programming and some keyboard overdubbing, had this rhythm that heâd written that we were playing along to that sounded so good that we kept it,â Robert says. âBecause he took the song ninety degrees that way â suddenly itâs got this reggae beat and we just really liked it. It took us all by surprise.â
Another interesting offering is the track âMountains Near Dellrayâ which, apparently, was McLennanâs idea, but Forsterâs song. âI wrote a folk toon,â Forster begins again. âI had come up with the lyric and I went over to see Grant, as I do, and Grant had just come back from Tasmania.â McLennan related his Tasmanian travel experiences and Forster âimmediately went home and wrote them downâ. Now hereâs the interesting bit: Robert thought Grant had mentioned âDellrayâ â âI misheard âthe mountains near Dellrayâ and thought, âthatâs fantastic! Thereâs the song title!â â when McLennan was actually talking about âDeloraineâ. The former (in fact, Delray Beach) is in Miami, Florida, while the latter, as youâd expect given the context of Tasmanian travel experiences, is indeed in Tasmania, near the Derwent River. Scintillating, isnât it! But thereâs more:
âWhat I particularly like about the song,â Grant adds, âis that Robert says âDerwentâ and itâs one of his middle names. I think itâs one of Robertâs greatest lyrics, and the fact that thereâs that parallel makes it even better.â
There is a pensive sadness to many of the lyrics, if not the actual music on Oceans Apart. âDarlinghurst Nightsâ begins with âtearsâ, and even though another backward-looking song tells us with its very title that thereâs âNo Reason To Cryâ, by its end, we are urged to âfind a reasonâ. If, as it appears, Oceans Apart is the album with which The Go-Betweens look back upon themselves as a band, itâs worth noting the biggest difference between the âclassicâ line-up and its current one. Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown served not only as Robert Forster and Grant McLennanâs former musical partners; they were also their respective romantic partners. Thereâs 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.
âWell I think Robertâs dating Adele, and Iâm going out with Glenn at the moment, so weâve managed to solve that problem,â Grant deadpans before offering a serious appraisal:
âWeâve always played with women in the band and thereâs a certain island mentality that comes into being in a band â itâs like being in a gang. In my case, a relationship with a band member wasnât something that I was looking for; it just presented itself and Iâm very happy that it did. Thereâs 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 weâve always believed in the songs. The most important thing has always been, making the songs as good and as clear as we can.â
With Oceans Apart The Go-Betweens have managed to do that again.