Su­san Chen­ery on The Go-Betweens’ rocky path

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They have a bridge named af­ter them in their home town of Bris­bane. There are books, doc­u­men­taries, al­bum rere­leases. They didn’t be­come fa­mous. Or rich – es­pe­cially not rich. They never had a hit record. They broke up 28 years ago.

It is hard to think of a more heroic mu­si­cal fail­ure than The Go-Betweens.

And yet the band lingers. They echo down the decades, a frag­ment of a chord, a snatch of song in the heat of a hu­mid af­ter­noon, an en­dur­ing cult sta­tus, com­fort­able on the mar­gins. They were “bril­liant in their ob­scu­rity”, says Kriv Sten­ders, di­rec­tor of the new doc­u­men­tary The Go-Betweens: Right Here.

Mu­sic writer Toby Creswell agrees: “There are prob­a­bly two dozen or more songs that are as good now as they were then. There was a poetic in­tel­li­gence un­derneath every­thing, some kind of depth. More peo­ple lis­ten to them now than they did then.”

And there were the strug­gles com­mon to an artis­tic en­tity: the crush­ing dis­ap­point­ments, love af­fairs, breakups, be­tray­als, booze, drug ad­dic­tion, hubris, egos and emo­tions. “It was lit­er­ally a clash of the ti­tans,” says Sten­ders. “You couldn’t have had a more ego­cen­tric band ever in his­tory. There is still an in­cred­i­ble amount of emo­tion there. And it is still very alive.”

The story be­gan in Bris­bane in 1976, when two stu­dents met in the drama depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Queens­land. They were both in­ter­ested in po­etry, film and mu­sic. Robert Forster in­tro­duced Grant McLen­nan to ’60s Dy­lan; McLen­nan talked to Forster about French New Wave cin­ema.

“We be­came Go­dard and Truf­faut. Bris­bane didn’t know it at the time,” Forster later wrote in The Monthly, “but there were two 19-year-olds driv­ing around in a car who thought they were French film di­rec­tors”.

By 1977 Forster had per­suaded McLen­nan, then purs­ing a ca­reer in film, to start a band with him even though McLen­nan didn’t play an in­stru­ment. They be­gan writ­ing songs – McLen­nan quickly learnt bass gui­tar – and re­leased the post-punk pop sin­gles “Karen” and “Lee Remick” in 1978. A deal was dan­gled by the Cal­i­for­nian record la­bel Be­serkley, which never ma­te­ri­alised, pref­ac­ing a pat­tern of be­ing signed and dropped by record la­bels that would con­tinue for the next decade. Con­vinced of their own great­ness, they flew to Lon­don think­ing that by walk­ing through the city with acous­tic guitars they would set the world on fire. They didn’t.

By then, back home Forster had met Lindy Mor­ri­son, a fem­i­nist so­cial worker who was em­ployed by the Abo­rig­i­nal Le­gal Ser­vice, and was a drum­mer in the Bris­bane punk band Xero. Mor­ri­son, a colour­ful, larg­erthan-life per­son­al­ity, had al­ways liked “in­tense, nerdy” men, and they fell in love. With the two song­writ­ers re­grouped in Aus­tralia in 1980, Mor­ri­son joined The Go-Betweens. “We had a deep be­lief in art – I be­lieved the only sal­va­tion for my­self lay in art. For many cre­ative peo­ple there seems to be no other life avail­able,” she says now. But she ad­mits she had al­ways had “a terrible re­la­tion­ship with Grant”.

The band re­leased their first al­bum, Send Me a Lul­laby, be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to Lon­don in 1982. There they shared a house with Nick Cave and his co­horts, amid loads of drugs and scenes of de­bauch­ery.

The doc­u­men­tary por­trays it as a tough pe­riod. “It was in­cred­i­bly gritty,” says Mor­ri­son. “We were im­pov­er­ished, we had to keep on the road in shitty lit­tle vans, trav­el­ling all the time in Europe and Amer­ica to keep feed­ing our­selves. The early ’80s were drug-fu­elled days and that was in­cred­i­bly edgy.”

Out of this came the al­bum Be­fore Hol­ly­wood, in­clud­ing the clas­sic song “Cat­tle and Cane”, which es­tab­lished their in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion. Evoca­tive, poignant, uniquely Aus­tralian, “Cat­tle and Cane” was writ­ten by a home­sick McLen­nan on Nick Cave’s gui­tar, with lyrics about grow­ing up on a farm in north­ern Queens­land:

I re­call a school­boy com­ing home/through fields of cane/to a house of tin and tim­ber/and in the sky/a rain of fall­ing cin­ders.

Mor­ri­son re­calls the song evolv­ing. “The men were the writ­ers. When they put a great song to­gether like ‘Cat­tle and Cane’ we had to come up with a re­ally fabulous beat. I had to record that and re­hearse it for hours and hours on my own to find the beat.”

“They are one of the most cin­e­matic bands I know,” says Sten­ders. “They write sto­ries, they write im­agery, they write emo­tion. Their mu­sic is very evoca­tive, you can smell it, taste it, feel it.”

“They were po­ets,” says Creswell, “with guitars.” But even though “Cat­tle and Cane” was en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­ceived by press and ra­dio, it didn’t be­come a hit sin­gle, start­ing an­other pat­tern that would char­ac­terise the band’s ca­reer. It was al­ways to be crit­i­cal rather than com­mer­cial suc­cess.

Mor­ri­son says com­mer­cial suc­cess and fame were not the point; it was the art that mat­tered. “For me, the fact that we were slowly build­ing an au­di­ence around the world was enough. I was the one who knew there would be a legacy. I knew the work was go­ing to last – that’s why I was not con­cerned. The songs are time­less.”

Sten­ders had known of McLen­nan and Forster since he was a 16-year-old school­boy. “They were my he­roes, they were out there. They moved to Lon­don, they were mak­ing records, get­ting crit­i­cal ac­claim. But at the same time they were pay­ing a price for it – they were broke. They never knew when the next gig or the next al­bum was go­ing to hap­pen. That di­chotomy of the per­cep­tion of the band and the re­al­ity of them freez­ing and starv­ing in Lon­don for their art is to me a re­ally re­mark­able story.”

With Spring Hill Fair (1984) and Lib­erty Belle and the Black Di­a­mond Ex­press (1986), they con­tin­ued build­ing their body of work; fiercely in­de­pen­dent, orig­i­nal, un­com­pro­mis­ing, un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated.

“We were ex­ist­ing for this mu­sic,” Mor­ri­son says. “To make great mu­sic, to do shows and to keep on do­ing that re­quired an enor­mous amount of will and en­ergy, de­ter­mi­na­tion and grit.”

For her the eu­pho­ria was on the stage. “Noth­ing can de­scribe the feel­ing when you are great on stage: it is in­cred­i­ble.”

Creswell says the band “kind of strug­gled for­ward, re­ally”.

“They just didn’t fit the mould of what you need to be a great suc­cess. They would have a com­mer­cial record and Robert would do these weird-arse things like wear dresses and shoot them in the foot com­mer­cially. Grant was dis­tracted by heroin a lot.”

The volatile dy­namic changed again when Mor­ri­son broke up with Forster and brought Amanda Brown into the band. Brown brought an­other di­men­sion in the form of a multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist who was clas­si­cally trained. “Amanda gave us a sec­ond life,” Mor­ri­son says. “As the shows got big­ger and the records got bet­ter, Amanda just gave so much more to the mu­sic.”

Brown re­mem­bers ev­ery­one read­ing nov­els on the tour bus: “It was high­brow all the way.” She and McLen­nan fell in love. Now it was re­ally com­pli­cated. John Will­steed, also for­merly of Xero, joined the band as bass gui­tarist, re­plac­ing Robert Vick­ers who had played on three al­bums. Will­steed de­scribes the new group dy­namic: “There were two peo­ple who were a cou­ple, two peo­ple who had just split up, these two boys who had been to­gether since they were teenagers… a whole bunch of du­al­i­ties there.” Brown de­scribes it as “fraught with mess – typ­i­cal Go-Betweens drama”.

Will­steed was an­other ac­com­plished mu­si­cian, and a more pro­fes­sional sound won the band a de­cent deal with Mush­room Records in 1988. “His mu­si­cal­ity pro­vided a whole new layer for the group,” says

Mor­ri­son. “I felt like for me it was a very pos­i­tive, fruit­ful time,” says Will­steed.

Af­ter five years in Lon­don the band had come back to Aus­tralia and stepped into the sun­light. “It was about light, op­ti­mism, hope,” Brown said in the Great Aus­tralian Al­bums doc­u­men­tary de­voted to the new con­fig­u­ra­tion’s first record, 16 Lovers Lane. McLen­nan’s re­la­tion­ship with Brown brought an out­pour­ing of love songs. He had been a man of short in­tense re­la­tion­ships, the spec­tac­u­lar end­ings of which had spawned many ear­lier songs. Now here was the real thing. But be­ing a muse is never a com­fort­able place to be, as Mor­ri­son ac­knowl­edges: “We cer­tainly wanted to be more mu­si­cian than muse. We were aware of that fal­lacy that men will use women in a way that the woman is den­i­grated by the very fact that she is called a muse. But we were mu­si­cians enough to ob­jec­tify the fact the songs were about us.”

Will­steed also added to the cre­ative ten­sion and the fac­tional ar­gu­ments. He had not been a fan of the band’s past work, and by his own ad­mis­sion was a “terrible drunk and mouthy with it”, dis­parag­ing the oth­ers in the stu­dio.

Mor­ri­son was no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult in that time.

Her fa­ther was dy­ing, she felt scape­goated for the ten­sions and side­lined. “To­wards the end I was def­i­nitely rail­ing against the use of drum ma­chines. There were just cre­ative dif­fer­ences; ev­ery­one thinks they can tell the drum­mer what to play. I was just very un­happy in that year. I was 38 years of age, I was des­per­ate to have a baby. I had a lot of stuff on my mind. I am go­ing to say it: I just wasn’t a very nice per­son. I felt ex­cluded, and when you feel re­jected and ex­cluded, you be­come hos­tile and you make your­self more unlov­able. I was prob­a­bly slightly un­man­age­able.”

With 16 Lovers Lane, an in­tri­cate, delicate, melodic al­bum that in­cluded the much-loved but again com­mer­cially dis­ap­point­ing sin­gle “Streets of Your Town”, the band had reached their apoth­e­o­sis. They had pro­duced what Forster called “a jewel of a record”, and what oth­ers have de­scribed as one of the most lit­er­ary al­bums ever pro­duced in Aus­tralia, a clas­sic. But by then it was too late.

Still, they toured the al­bum across Europe. For Will­steed, who had never been out of Aus­tralia be­fore, it was “a fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence. There was an es­tab­lished au­di­ence and peo­ple treated you re­ally well. There were avid fans who would buy you din­ner.” But for the found­ing mem­bers there had al­ready been nearly a decade of gru­elling tour­ing. “You were in the van all the time, you were backstage all the time,” Mor­ri­son says.

“On stages, in re­hearsal rooms, locked in stu­dios for end­less months, like caged an­i­mals. It was very, very in­tense.”

Back in Aus­tralia The Go-Betweens had “writ­ten six lauded al­bums and the band was broke”, as Forster wrote in The Monthly. “We were do­ing Syd­ney pub gigs to pay our­selves wages.” In the doc­u­men­tary, he says they were “back on our ar­ses. We were beat.”

When he and McLen­nan de­cided to break up the band in 1989 it was “sav­age and abrupt”, Forster wrote.

Brown packed her bags and moved out, leav­ing McLen­nan dis­traught.

Mor­ri­son and Brown would spend an­other decade fight­ing to be paid roy­al­ties, “for us to get recog­ni­tion as co-sign­ers of all the con­tracts”, Mor­ri­son says. “I was fu­ri­ous for decades. When they dumped us they treated us like ex-wives, and that was the great­est in­sult. We sorted it out in the end but not with­out a fuck­ing huge fight.”

Ten years af­ter the break-up McLen­nan and Forster re-formed and made an­other three al­bums, with­out the two women. Creswell re­calls an awards evening when he was talk­ing to Mor­ri­son and Brown, and Forster and McLen­nan showed up. “Robert and Grant walked past them with an im­pe­ri­ous head-held-high look. Over the course of an evening Lindy was a mess. Grant and Amanda had a chat, quite civilly. He died soon af­ter that.”

McLen­nan’s death af­ter a heart at­tack in 2006 was the end of the band.

Mor­ri­son and Brown are still great friends, and Mor­ri­son says there is a dis­tant friend­ship with Forster, “but I would never be in­vited over for a bar­be­cue”, she adds, chuck­ling.

Will­steed says, “They are re­ally im­por­tant in a par­tic­u­lar part of a par­tic­u­lar gen­er­a­tion. They were a band that should have been big.”

To Sten­ders, di­rec­tor also of Red Dog and Aus­tralia Day, The Go-Betweens “stand as one of the greats.

Their body of work is one of the most beau­ti­ful and most orig­i­nal that ex­ists in Aus­tralian mu­sic. I think as the years go by their mu­sic be­comes more and more beau­ti­ful, more and more mean­ing­ful, and the legacy

• be­comes more and more im­por­tant.”

Lindy Mor­ri­son

“I was the one who knew there would be a legacy. I knew the work was go­ing to last – that’s why I was not con­cerned. The songs are time­less.”

SU­SAN CHEN­ERY is a jour­nal­ist who has lived and worked in Syd­ney, Lon­don, New York and Italy.

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