The cassingle had a picture of a movie star I didn’t know on the front, a bit like a Smiths record. Black and white, tinted blue. It had four songs on it.
This was good. This was the Go-Betweens. Was it faux-naïve or genuinely work-experience songwriting? I wasn’t sure, but I really liked it and was instantly inspired to write one of my first pop songs. About the cold, demurely alluring Jana Wendt.
This would be 1987, a numerical inversion of 1978, the year ‘Lee Remick’, the song on that cassette was released. I’ve moved to Brisbane to go to university, thinking I might want to be an actor when I grow up. (Before I realise it’s not possible to do both). I’m writing and playing my own music, but nobody knows it.
I immediately went in search of more Go-Betweens. They’d been going for ages by the time their music found its way to me. They’d released ‘Tallulah’ which included the sublime pairing of Grant McLennan’s songs Bye Bye Pride and Right Here. Me and Susan, best friends at the time, sing ‘Right Here’ in shy harmony across the sticky laminex of a share house kitchen table.
Both songs were simultaneously mysterious, grand and catchy. The first few albums are more angular, but not needlessly so – you can sense that as their writing and playing develops they’re pushing at the edges of what a song can be and do. It’s not always easy listening, but by Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express it’s getting more accesible to my ears. Maybe it’s the taking of the long road (wrong road?) around that lends these more striaghtforward tunes of their later career the depth that I love. As I went deeper into the music I started to get a closer sense of the two voices at work across all the songs.
Grant McLennan’s pop sensibility and vulnerability. The domestic poetry of a songwriter who tells us that he both Turned the fan off (Bye Bye Pride) and mentions later (in Quiet Heart) that “…the heater’s on”. Though surely the songs were composed elsewhere geographically, I draw a line between them. To me there’s a sub-tropical Brisbanity to those lyrics, the ceiling fan slicing the humid air in summer, and the cheap bar heater reddening a winter lounge room, as the temperature plunges to levels that would have most English people headed out to the park.
The tragic detail of a lyric like: his father’s watch, he left it in the shower.
These songs tell me that it’s OK to come from Brisbane (or even Townsville) and write music. You don’t have to pretend to be from anywhere more important, and you can write, sing, play and channel influences with your own voice. They tell me poetry shares a bed with music, and it’s more than friends with benefits. Other writers have commented that the very isolation and underratedness of places like Brisbane result in low expectations of success but a high originality quotient. A leaf litter where where innovation and originality thrive. A musical Galapagos.
Pre Youtube, itunes etcetera, you’re looking for music in record shops. It seems such a quaint pastime now. And there are good ones in town then, staffed by young groovers who are haughty or chatty, depends who you get. Kent Records. Skinny’s. Now only Rockinghorse remains. But you have to put on clothes, brave the elements and forage for records. Clack through the rows of cassettes. There’s 16 Lovers Lane. I’ll have that.
How do you find out how these bands look and move? Black and white pictures in street press. A rare appearance in Rolling Stone. To see them live you’ll have to stay up late, watch them on Rock Arena or Rage. And there they are, playing up like a cross between Fleetwood Mac and the Monkees. Horsing around in a TV studio. It’s the clip to ‘Was There Anything I Could Do?’ The band seem alive and interested in upstaging each other – I can recognise that impulse, and sense the two personae of the frontmen.
If a musician with any level of public profile doesn’t have a persona, their public will rip them one. Contemporary singer-songwriters know this but seem content with titling themselves with two random words, usually with some kind of rustic or nature connotations and popping on a vintage dress or growing a beard. But a performance persona goes deeper than that.
Robert Forster, teaming a flannelette shirt with a slash of lippy. But it works. Apart from writing songs that seem at once droll and yet deeply felt, Forster has the ability to carry off a rock persona that’s mystifying. As if he’s daring you to take him seriously. Like someone unexpectedly turning up to a fancy dress party in an exotic national costume. Everybody laughs except the wearer, who then claims they really do come from Bhutan. A silence. Audaciously arch. Superciliously sincere. Or something like that.
McLennan has a less stable character. Probably because he’s not interested in playing one. He can seem to reveal so much in the awkward intimacies of a song like Apology Accepted yet he’s clearly less at home performing in these artificial video set-ups. Then a video clip of an earlier tune. With his hat shoved back on his head he looks boyish and uncomfortably sincere he sings his sublime Cattle and Cane. Robert Forster carries of the spoken word passage with panache. He makes it work.
This is a band, though. There’s a woman on drums, which unfortunately remains an unusual staffing in rock. Try air-drumming to Lindy’s part in Cattle and Cane. Just try it. Maybe somewhere private. Robert Vickers (be)suits the part of stylish bass player. Amanda Brown’s work is all over my favourite Go-Betweens songs, further dignifying them with oboe, violin and vocals and I may not be alone in having had a crush on her. In film clips she’s clearly framed as eye-candy, but it’s the ear candy that does it for me. Later John Willsteed, playing a kind of geeky hoon brings multiple textures to their gentle masterpiece 16 Lover’s Lane. And though he’s been self-deprecating about it, that guitar solo in Streets of your Town is utterly beautiful.
Some of us have bands or music that are kind of like a life ‘tag’. Mention them and you can instantly search your own life and locate moments where the music was present or active.
Gems. The Go-Betweens are like this for me. What about you?
1990-something Some awful breakup. Robert Forster seems to share my languid despair: a kind of Rock and Roll Friend. But I’m Alright. I’ve just read that Everything But the Girl used Rock N Roll Friend to close their sets for a while there. I wish I’d heard that.
1992 There’s a red-capped Grant McLennan with double bassist Phil Kakulas playing for around fifty people in a tiny Brisbane pub promoting his first solo album. Why isn’t he huge?
1996, standing in an Irish field, waiting for Radiohead to come on, and whoever’s at the desk blasts Spring Rain out across the crowded greenness. I turn to the stranger next to me, point to the sounds and tell her this band’s from my town. And she says (Irish accent) Wha’? Reydioohed? You from Oxford are ye?.
1990-something I’m waiting at the bar at Ric’s. Grant McLennan is seated beside me having a quiet one. I say hello and little more. It’d be weird to do more. Or less.
2000-something I play ‘Right Here’ to Susan with a scratch band in a little hall we’ve hired out for her 40th.
2007 an art gallery. Floating silver pillows. Susan. Free beer. Robert Forster and Band playing Velvet Underground songs probably better than the Velvet Underground did.
2011 I’m touring central western Queensland, charged with writing songs with primary school students about where they live for the Queensland Music Festival. In the brief 60 minutes I have in their classroom we need to be focused and settled before we can start work.
I’m racking my brains to find a song I can play to start the workshop that might mean something to a primary school class, or at least capture what I’m aiming for. Australian songs of place. You can probably imagine the front-runners, but I’m not much of a singer and need something that’s going to draw them in and create a thoughtful mood.
The room is quiet. They’re ready to make art. I will sing the first verse of this song before we write our own.
What do I play? I recall…