Susan Chenery on The Go-Betweens’ rocky path
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.”
“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.