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Brisbane Australia’s The Go-Betweens are one of my favourite bands ever, but it’s sometimes difficult to explain their appeal. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan were limited as guitarists and vocalists, but they balance each other so beautifully (Forster was a fan of The Velvet Underground, and McLennan a fan of The Monkees), and their songs are literate, graceful, and melodic. Apart from their debut, each of their albums has ten songs, five from each writer, and most of their album titles feature a pair of Ls. They made some great albums during the 1980s, eloquent, literate, melodic, and honest, with the focus on Forster and McLennan’s accomplished songwriting. McLennan is the more straightforward writer of the pair, while Forster writes angular and spiky songs, and the two balance each other very well; their solo records are far less compelling than their group efforts. The Go-Betweens’ career had two tenures; the first between 1978 and 1990, where McLennan and Forster’s main collaborators were drummer Lindy Morrison and bass player Robert Vickers. Amanda Brown joined the band on oboe and violin for 1987’s Tallulah. Over the 1980s, The Go-Betweens consisted of two couples; Forster and Morrison, and McLennan and Brown, complicating band dynamics and contributing to the band’s initial dissolution in 1990.
Forster and McLennan reformed the band in 2000, releasing three more albums before McLennan’s sudden death from a heart attack in 2006; while the reunion albums are weaker overall than their earlier work, Oceans Apart was a fine swansong to their career. Forster’s since carved out a successful career as a music journalist and published several books.

The Go-Betweens’ 1981 debut “Send Me A Lullaby” was recorded as a three piece, with McLennan on bass and Lindy Morrison on drums. The group gradually expanded throughout the 1980s, adding English bass player Robert Vickers, and then multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown on violin and oboe. By 1988’s “16 Lovers Lane”, the band’s sound was lush and layered, a drastic evolution from their austere early albums. But band tensions took their toll, with two pairs of lovers and former lovers, and the band called it a day in 1989.

But Forster and McLennan remained friends, and reunited the band in the 21st century without the other members. They released two passable but uninspiring albums before 2005’s lush “Oceans Apart”, which rivalled their 1980s albums with some great songs. But as their career was regaining momentum, Grant McLennan passed away from a heart attack at the age of 48, ending the band. it’s a good time to go through and rank The Go-Betweens’ albums from best to worst.

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Send Me A Lullaby (1981)

The awkward debut, where McLennan contributes a few nice songs, but Forster’s trying too hard for weirdness. The “I shot you with my….. camera” line from ‘Eight Pictures is particularly awkward, and the iconic cover is perhaps the album’s strongest point. Recorded in Melbourne with the Birthday Party’s producer, Send Me A Lullaby is a mere shadow of the great albums that The Go-Betweens would produce for the remainder of the 1980s. It’s a strange mixture of self-consciousness and weird artiness, and doesn’t often capture the promise of early singles like ‘Karen’, ‘People Say’, and ‘Lee Remick’. It also breaks the group’s template; it’s the only Go-Betweens album to not feature exactly five songs from each writer.

On the positive side, Lindy Morrison’s drumming is already distinctive and interesting, and the group occasionally get an interesting sound from their technically limited three piece, like on the opener ‘Your Turn, My Turn’.
Robert Forster’s ‘Eight Pictures’ is particularly awkward, with its ‘I shot you with …. my camera’ punchline, and a painful five minute running time. Meanwhile, the best material is McLennan’s – opener ‘Your Turn, My Turn’ captures the potential of the weird sounding three piece, while ‘All About Strength’ is robust and muscular.
The Go-Betweens improved significantly after this underwhelming debut – their followup Before Hollywood is a huge step forward, featuring the signature song ‘Cattle and Cane’.

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Bright Yellow, Bright Orange (2003)

I’ve always found The Go-Betweens’ second reunion album a little monotonous – it’s largely acoustic, and well crafted, but it lacks the spark of their best material.

The second installment in the reunion trilogy from The Go-Betweens is also the least noteworthy of the trio. Forster and McLennan recruited a new permanent backing band with bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson. After The Friends Of Rachel Worth dabbled with alternative rock, Bright Yellow Bright Orange returns to more familiar territory, consisting almost entirely of mid-tempo, semi-acoustic folk rock. While this sounds like a step in the right direction, it’s not; it still lacks the lushness that characterised their best period late albums like 16 Lovers Lane and Oceans Apart.

Even more markedly, it’s easily the least interesting set of songs that Forster and McLennan have compiled on a studio record. It’s not surprising that Forster’s verbose, autobiographical ‘Too Much Of One Thing’ was the only song to make the Striped Sunlight Sound DVD that followed Oceans Apart; alternatively titled “The Ballad Of The Go-Betweens”, it’s a likable, jaunty, piece of country rock. But apart from McLennan’s melodic ‘Mrs Morgan’, and the piano-based closer ‘Unfinished Business’, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange is all mid-tempo, acoustic guitar based music that’s meticulously written and crafted, but fails to capture the spark of the Go-Betweens at their best.

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The Friends of Rachel Worth (2001)

The Go-Betweens’ first reunion album was recorded with members of Sleater-Kinney, and it’s alternative and stripped down, a different approach from their lush records in the second half of the 1980s.

Although Robert Forster and Grant McLennan had maintained a friendship and played live together since The Go-Betweens breakup, a fully fledged reunion didn’t occur until 2000 with the recording of The Friends Of Rachel Worth in Portland, Oregon. Understandably, having former lovers Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown back in the band wasn’t a desirable option, so Forster and McLennan recruited bassist Adele Pickvance, a permanent fixture in The Go-Betweens’ second incarnation, and drummer Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, while the other Sleater-Kinney members guest on McLennan’s ‘Going Blind’.

As much as The Friends Of Rachel Worth is a reinstatement of the classic Go-Betweens formula, back to ten songs equally shared between Forster and McLennan, it’s also different from the relatively ornate studio craft that the group pursued on Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane. Instead, the sound is more alternative and stripped down, which can be problematic on some of the acoustic tracks which are more monotonous than necessary.

The record isn’t helped by the fact that it gets off to a slow, low-key start; although McLennan is often sentimental, opener ‘Magic In Here’ is more hackneyed than one would expect on a Go-Betweens album (“Now the coast is clear/You’ve got no time to fear”) while acoustic first drop ‘Spirit’ is pleasant but exposes Forster’s lack of vocal chops. But apart from Forster’s irritating ‘Surfing Magazines’, the rest of the album is surprisingly solid. Forster rocks on ‘German Farmhouse’, a song that explains what he did after The Go-Betweens breakup, while McLennan’s ‘Heart And Home’ has a beautiful melody and joint lead vocal from Forster and McLennan. The more enigmatic pieces that close the disc are also effective – McLennan’s ‘Orpheus Beach’ is melodic and haunting, while Forster’s Patti Smith tribute ‘When She Sang About Angels’ asks “When she sang about a boy/Kurt Cobain/I thought what a shame/It wasn’t about Tom Verlaine.”

You’d have to go all the way back to Send Me A Lullaby to find a less accomplished Go-Betweens record, but it’s a respectable reunion nonetheless, and the start of an ultimately rewarding second tenure.

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Spring Hill Fair (1984)

The band’s first album as a four piece has great material from Forster, but McLennan’s a little scattershot, contributing both the beautiful ‘Bachelor Kisses’ and the awkward experimentation of ‘River Of Money’. But like the next five albums on this list, Spring Hill Fair is an essential purchase for Go-Betweens fans.

The Go-Betweens became a four piece, adding bassist Robert Vickers to the band. With Grant McLennan moving to lead guitar, the band sound much fuller than before, and  Robert Forster’s material is more conventional, forgoing jerky new wave in favour of more conventional pop, although his material is still more fractured than McLennan’s. So conceivably, Spring Hill Fair could have been the album where the Go-Betweens crossed over to the mainstream, spear-headed by the transcendent opener ‘Bachelor Kisses’ (“Don’t believe what you heard/Faithful’s not a bad word”). They didn’t, and never progressed much further than an enthusiastic cult following, but from this point on it gets difficult to see why, beyond Forster and McLennan’s plain singing voices. Spring Hill Fair was recorded in jazz keyboardist Jacques Loussier’s Cannes studio; Loussier contributes Prophet synth to Forster’s ‘Part Company’

The widened sound palette allows the group to try more things, and for better and worse Spring Hill Fair is more diverse than the low key Before Hollywood. Most notably, ‘River Of Money’ features a spoken McLennan vocal over a backdrop of a repetitive bass-line and loud guitars, and it’s one of the weaker pieces on the disc. But elsewhere, McLennan’s ultra-melodic and accessible; as well as the acknowledged genius of ‘Bachelor Kisses’, the more overlooked ‘Unkind and Unwise’ is almost hymn-like childhood reminiscence, a sequel to ‘Cattle and Cane’. But McLennan is eclipsed by Forster on Spring Hill Fair: a fuller four piece version of the single ‘Man O’ Sand To Girl O’ Sea’ lacks the raw energy of the original, but it’s still worth a revisit, while ‘Draining The Pool For You’ tells the tale of a disgruntled employee of a celebrity, and ‘Part Company’ is an ambiguous kiss off, set off by Loussier’s keyboard.

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Tallulah (1987)

Multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown joined The Go-Betweens, and her skills on oboe and violin help fill out their sound. As with most of the band’s 1980s albums, Forster’s writing is excellent with overlooked songs like ‘You Tell Me’ and ‘I Just Get Caught Out’ but McLennan’s is inconsistent – ‘Bye Bye Pride’ is my favourite Go-Betweens song, but ‘Cut It Out’ is awkward white boy funk.

Classically trained multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown joined The Go-Betweens for Tallulah, and her skills on violin, oboe, guitar, and keyboards helped usher in the band’s most commercially oriented era. The Go-Betweens benefited from a lusher, more detailed sound – the richly textured 16 Lovers Lane and Oceans Apart are among their most successful albums.

Song for song, however, Tallulah isn’t the most consistent Go-Betweens album, mostly due to inconsistent writing from Grant McLennan. It’s almost as if he’d put all his effort into one song – the sublime ‘Bye Bye Pride’ might be my favourite entry in the entire Go-Betweens’ catalogue, a warm, enigmatic breakup song (“When a woman learns to walk she’s not dependent anymore/A line from her letter May 24”). But McLennan’s other songs are all flawed – ‘Right Here’ squanders a great verse melody and terrific lyrics on a predictable chorus, while ‘Someone Else’s Wife’ and ‘Hope Then Strife’ mostly come alive on their dynamic choruses. ‘Cut It Out’ is the most awkward song the Go-Betweens ever put on an album, with an unnatural funk rhythm and stilted female vocals. Both ‘Right Here’ and ‘Cut It Out’ were recorded with producer Craig Leon at the behest of the record label, but the stiff feel of these tracks isn’t right for The Go-Betweens.

On the other hand, Robert Forster’s material is becoming more aligned with McLennan’s melodic pop – ‘You Tell Me’ and ‘I Just Get Caught Out’ are hooky and urgent, while ‘The House That Jack Kerouac Built’ is haughty and compelling – only ‘The Clarke Sisters’ really steps into arty territory, and its portraits of three feminist bookstore workers are engrossing.

When this record works it’s amazing, and I’ve probably spent more time listening to “Tallulah” than any other Go-Betweens release.

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Oceans Apart (2005)

The Go-Betweens’ third and last reunion album is easily their best from the 21st century, recapturing the lush sound of 16 Lovers Lane, and with great songs like Forster’s ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ and McLennan’s ‘No Reason To Cry’. Some of the early CDs have poor mastering jobs, however – I’m no audiophile, but it’s bad enough that I notice.

After two worthy, but unspectacular, additions to their canon, The Go-Betweens reunion suddenly clicked to wonderful effect third time around. This is easily Forster and McLennan’s best set of songs from their reunion. Sonically the album returns to the lusher sound of Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane, and it’s a welcome reversion.

The first half of Oceans Apart is loaded with concise, accessible pop songs; Forster contributes the opening ‘Here Comes A City’, reminiscent of early Talking Heads, with lyrics like “Why do people who read Dostoevsky always look like Dostoevsky?” McLennan might be shooting too close to radio fodder with the pretty ‘Finding You’, but his other first half contributions are magnificent; ‘No Reason To Cry’ launches from regret (“fifteen years since we last spoke”) into a soaring guitar solo, while ‘Boundary Rider’ is cut from the same elegant, nostalgic cloth as ‘Cattle and Cane’ and ‘Unkind and Unwise’. The second half of the album is more ambitious and more ambiguous; Forster’s ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ builds over six minutes, eventually overlaying a horn section over Forster’s punchy guitar riff. McLennan’s ‘The Statue’ dives headlong into a hypnotic guitar riff, drum machine and synthesiser based arrangement, before opening into a pretty acoustic bridge (“They say that ice will melt”), while ‘This Night’s For You’ marries bouncy pop and pretty harmonies to outbursts of crashing rhythm guitars. Forster’s low key ‘The Mountains Near Dellray’ provides a suitably enigmatic conclusion.

While the group weren’t aware of it while making Oceans Apart, it proved to be their last album, as McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006, especially sad as prior to McLennan’s death, Forster had stated in interviews that McLennan had been writing some of his best ever songs. Still, it seems unlikely they would have topped this record, which is an extremely satisfying final album and a fitting elegy to one of pop music’s most overlooked bands.

Strangely, the mastering job on the original album is noticeably substandard – there’s obvious distortion, particularly on ‘This Night’s For You’, although apparently there’s a remaster that fixes these issues.

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Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986)

A particularly solid effort from the band’s stellar run in the 1980s, and one which I suspect is a favourite of many hardcore fans. A crop-top wearing Forster emulates Prince on ‘Head Full Of Steam’ (and parodies him in its music video, below) while McLennan writes gorgeous songs like ‘The Wrong Road’ and ‘The Ghost and the Black Hat’.

Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express has the same lineup as Spring Hill Fair and it’s a more mature and more disciplined follow up. Robert Forster has stated that his favourite Go-Betweens albums from the 1980s were the even numbered ones, so fourth album Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express is one of the strong ones.

Forster dominates the record with the singles ‘Head Full Of Steam’ (apparently an attempt to emulate Prince!) and ‘Spring Rain’, both melodic and driving. ‘To Reach Me’ throws in a great lead break, before its memorable “Ruth said/Ruth said/She said/That you once disapproved/How could anyone disapprove of me?” middle eight, while ‘Twin Layers Of Lightning’ emulates Morrissey.

Grant McLennan writes another evocative childhood song, ‘The Ghost And The Black Hat’, while a string section underpins his gorgeous epic ‘The Wrong Road’ (“When the rain hit the roof/With the sound of a finished kiss/Like a lip lifted up from a lip”). Some of McLennan’s second half compositions aren’t as convincing – ‘In The Core Of A Flame’ has a surprisingly banal “that’s the right word/Cos I love you” chorus – and ‘Apology Accepted’ overstays its welcome despite its heartfelt lyric.

Often a fan favourite, Liberty Belle is another excellent entry into the catalogue of an excellent, literate, and over-looked band.

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Before Hollywood (1983)

A huge step forward from the awkward debut from the Australian three piece. McLennan’s terse, autobiographic ‘Cattle and Cane’ is perhaps the group’s signature song, while Forster contributes the jerky new wave of ‘As Long As That’ and ‘Ask’. Bass player Robert Vickers joined in time to appear in the music video for ‘Cattle and Cane’, below.

The Go-Betweens’ second album, and the last the group recorded as a three piece, was their critical breakthrough, containing their signature song ‘Cattle and Cane’. Guitarist/songwriter Robert Forster, bassist/songwriter Grant McLennan and drummer Lindy Morrison had moved to London following their debut, and signed with Rough Trade. Before Hollywood was recorded in Eastbourne’s International Christian Communication Studios, with minimal overdubs, although guest keyboardist Bernard Clarke provides graceful piano on ‘Dusty In Here’ and swirling organ on ‘That Way’.

Despite the thin sound – the group’s other first tier records (Liberty Belle, 16 Lovers Lane, and Oceans Apart) are all much more studio based and lushly produced – Before Hollywood stands up as one of the group’s best records, one of their most consistent sets of songs. It’s McLennan’s childhood reminiscence ‘Cattle and Cane’ that’s the most noteworthy song here, recently voted as one of the ten greatest Australian songs of all time, with its weird time signature and nostalgic lyrics (“I recall a schoolboy coming home/through fields of cane/to a house of tin and timber.”) The organ led ‘That Way’, which sounds like a cross between The Monkees, Bob Dylan, and Television (a conglomeration which sums up the group’s sound pretty well) shows McLennan’s ability in well-crafted, understated pop.

McLennan’s other stunner is the minimalist, understated ‘Dusty In Here’, almost pared down to a lonely piano. Balancing McLennan’s nostalgia and romanticism, Forster’s nervy pop is tense and hooky. ‘As Long As That’ (“I’ve got a feeling, sounds like a fact”) is his most accessible, while ‘Ask’ and ‘On My Block’ throw lots of energy around.

One of the best, and most over-looked, records to come out of late new wave, Before Hollywood is markedly different than the group’s subsequent albums, but excellent nonetheless.

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16 Lovers Lane (1988)

After spending much of the 1980s in the UK, the group returned to Australia and recorded their most accessible album. The recordings were largely based off Forster and McLennan’s acoustic guitars and voices, with Amanda Brown and new bass player John Willsteed adding lushness with their overdubs – Willsteed plays a lot of guitar leads – while Morrison is often absent and replaced by a drum machine. It’s McLennan’s most consistent set of songs, with ‘Quiet Heart’ and the minor hit ‘Streets Of Your Town’, while Forster is less arty than usual with ‘Clouds’ and ‘You Can’t Say No Forever’.

The Go-Betweens had been quietly releasing some very good albums throughout the 1980s, but 16 Lovers Lane is their peak; it features their strongest line up instrumentally, with new member John Willsteed officially the bass player but adding lots of guitar parts, and producer Mark Wallis adding an ornate sheen. The album also contains Robert Forster’s most accessible set of songs and Grant McLennan’s most consistent set. With Wallis working from Forster and McLennan’s acoustic demos, he broadens their range; McLennan’s ‘The Devil’s Eye’ is pared down almost to acoustic guitar, while Forster’s ‘You Can’t Say No Forever’ is given a dance-able rhythm and sassy blaxploitation guitar.

Forster writes his prettiest material ever – ‘Clouds’, ‘Dive For Your Memory’, ‘I’m Allright’ and ‘Love Is A Sign’ are all sweetly melodic, underscored by Amanda Brown’s oboe. McLennan’s five songs are all winners, ranging in mood from the aggressive, punchy ‘Was There Anything I Could Do?’, through the exuberance of ‘Love Goes On!’ and the melancholic resignation of ‘Quiet Heart’.

Quite simply, 16 Lovers Lane is one of the best pop albums by anyone.

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Here we have only covered the original albums, but their 1980s albums have been re-released with bonus discs – I have some of them, and there’s definitely some good material in their b-sides; if you’re a fan you’ll want to hear songs like ‘Second Hand Furniture’, ‘Rock and Roll Friend’, and ‘That Girl Black Girl’. They also released a two disc DVD “That Striped Sunlight Sound” in 2005 – the live set is competent but  unexciting, but there’s a great bonus disc where Forster and McLennan play some of their best loved songs on acoustic guitars and discuss them.

This is the highlight of “That Striped Sunlight Sound‘s” first disc – a gorgeous acoustic version of ‘Clouds’, which incorporates a verse from Dylan’s ‘Love Minus Zero’.

Thanks to Aphoristic Album Reviews

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