The Go-Betweens, established and led by longtime friends Robert Forsterand Grant McLennan, became one of the most consistent songwriting teams to emerge from Australia. Rendering melodic songs about love and loneliness throughout the 1980s that earned the adoration of critics, the Go-Betweens, driven by the influences of 1960s folk and 1970s punk, nevertheless only managed to capture a limited following of fans. Although they were always expected to cross over into the mainstream, the Go-Betweens continually went unnoticed, an unfortunate outcome that the band eventually came to accept. "Oh that doesn't worry us unduly," McLennan, referring to the group's lack of success in the pop business, told Stuart Maconie of New Musical Express (NME) in August of 1988. "We no longer expect our records to be massive hits. Within the pages of the music press there exists a kind of willful pursuit of the new and whilst that can be exciting, over the last couple of years it's meant a celebration of the ephemeral, music as supermarket trash. And we are not part of it. I'm into writing classic songs that will last forever...."
Forming as a somewhat Bob Dylan-inspired duo in Brisbane, Australia, in late 1977 (some sources say January of 1978), the Go-Betweens initially involved Brisbane University students Forster on vocals and guitar, and McLennan on bass and vocals, with no permanent drummer. From the beginning, Forster intended to eschew universal songwriting themes in favor of more personal revelations, such as "my feelings in the bedroom, Brisbane, driving my car and anything from overheard conversations," as quoted by Andrew Mosley in the Rough Guide to Rock. Early on, the Go-Betweens' output centered mainly around Forster's frank songwriting and at times out-of-tune singing. Later, however, McLennan's influences would come into the picture, as he began to discover his own compositional and stylistic voice. Together, the duo would develop complementary songwriting and singing stylescLennan's extroverted minstrels balanced by Forster's poetic odes. While both men embraced different ways to express themselves, they nonetheless wrote about similar subjects, namely strange people, strange situations, and love, loading their gentle, yet moody melodies with intense emotion.
The pair, along with various guests on drums, recorded a few singles in Brisbane before traveling to England for the first time in early 1980. Here, with Steven Daly taking on drumming duties, the Go-Betweens recorded a single called "I Need Two Heads" for the Scottish record company Postcard Records, as well as the Dylan-sounding songs "Lee Remick" and "Karen," both released on the Abe label. Around the same time, the Go-Betweens recorded the keyboard-dominated single "People Say," one of Forster's personal favorites. Soon thereafter, they returned to Brisbane and enlisted drummer Lindy Morrison, who brought more variation to the band's music, as a permanent member. With their introspective lyrics and music resonant of the Velvet Underground, the Cure, the classic 1960s rock of the Byrds, and the folk-rock leanings of Dylan, the Go-Betweens quickly found a loyal, though cult-sized following in their homeland.
Augmented by Morrison, the Go-Betweens recorded their debut album, 1981 's Send Me a Lullabye, toured throughout Australia, and in 1982 moved to London, where they signed a contract with Rough Trade Records. In 1983, the Go-Betweens released their second album, Before Hollywood, marking the emergence of McLennan as an important songwriting force. Two songs penned by McLennan for the record included the haunting "Cattle and Cane" and the tear-jerking "Dusty In Here." That same year, after recording Before Hollywood, the Go-Betweens introduced bass player Robert Vickers into the lineup, allowing McLennan to serve as a second guitarist. The addition of Vickers also coincided with the band's 1983 signing with Sire Records.
In 1984, the Go-Betweens released the acclaimed album Spring Hill Fair, which included praiseworthy songs like "Bachelor Kisses" and the bitter "Draining the Pool for You." Despite the critical acceptance of Spring Hill Fair, new fans in Europe and North America, and successful tours, the band's label, Sire, fired the Go-Betweens because of low record sales. Subsequently, in 1985, the group signed with True Tone in Australia and with Elektra in Europe and in the United States, but never recorded anything for these two companies. Instead, they signed a new contract in January of 1986, this time with the Beggars Banquet label. Three months later, the Go-Betweens hired a fifth band member, a classically trained musician named Amanda Brown. For the Go-Betweens, Brown played violin, oboe, and keyboards and sang back-up vocals.
Prior to the addition of Brown, the other band members had already recorded their next album, 1986's Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express. One song from the project, a breezy pop tune entitled "Spring Rain," earned radio airplay and brought the Go-Betweens to the brink of chart success. However, the follow-up singles "Right Here" and "Bye Bye Pride," failed to initiate a major sales breakthrough. It appeared as though popular notoriety would continue to elude the Go-Betweens. Rumors circulated that the group, feeling disillusioned, was thinking of splitting up. The group's next single, "Streets of Your Town," a sunny-sounding song that condemned domestic violence and appeared on the band's subsequent effort, also received airplay, but again the Go-Betweens failed to make the pop charts.
In early 1988, Vickers left group to move to New York City, hoping to form a new band. He cited "geographical differences as opposed to the time-honoured 'musical' ones," as quoted by NME in February of 1988, as his reason for leaving band. A new bassist named John Willsteed, who also occasionally played organ and piano, stepped in as Vickers' replacement, and the band recorded their next album, 16 Lovers Lane in Australia. As before, the 1988 release won stellar reviews. Bob Remstein and Daniel Durchholz of MusicHound Rock, for example, named the work a "mini-classic," while Mosley described 16 Lovers Lane as "a polished affair with effortless driving pop like 'Love Is A Sign' and 'Dive For Your Memory.'"
After playing together for more than a decade and writing some of the highest quality pop music, Forster and McLennan disbanded the Go-Betweens in the fall of 1989 (some sources say early 1990) following a United States tour with Lloyd Cole. "We started as teenagers in 78," McLennan told Boston Globe writer Jim Sullivan at a "reunion" performance with Forster in June of 1999 to support the release of two Go-Betweens compilation albums that year. 'Twelve years together is a long timeven the Beatles didn't last that long. We hit our 30s and, though it's a bit American to say this, we grew up and it was time to experiment, time to be an adult. You can't be in a gang all your life. That's why bands are so good when they're younghey have that fire and dignity."
Following the demise of the Go-Betweens, both McLennan and Forster pursued solo careers, though McLennan received the greater acclaim. Forster settled in southern Germany and recorded Danger in the Past, released in 1990, in Berlin at Hansa Studio with several members of Nick Cave's group The Bad Seeds. His other solo projects included the country-influenced Calling From a Country, released in 1993, and an album of covers entitled I Had a New York Girlfriend, released in 1994. McLennan made his home in Brisbane and recorded two experimental/collaborative albums with Steve Kilbey of the Church as Jack Frost: 1991 's Jack Frost and 1996's Snow Job. Under his own name, McLennan released the albums Watershed in 1991, Fireboy in 1993, and the impressive Horsebreaker Star in 1995.
In 1996, Beggars Banquet re-issued all of the Go-Betweens' albums. Although the group separated over a decade ago, the Go-Betweens remained a critical favorite and McLennan and Forster performed together from time to time. "Hiding their hooks in arrangements and lyrics as often as they brandished them in tunes," recalled Robert Christgau in the December 31, 1996, issue of the Village Voice, "they were modest, affectionate, funny, cheerful, never too oblique or ironic pop for the ages if anything is."
Send Me a Lullabye, Rough Trade, 1982.
Before Hollywood, Rough Trade, 1983.
Spring Hill Fair, Sire, 1984.
Metals and Shells, PVC, 1985.
Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, Big Time/RCA, 1986.
Tallulah, Beggars Banquet, 1987.
16 Lovers Lane, Beggars Banquet/Capitol, 1988.
1978-1990, Capitol, 1990.
78-'79/The Lost Album, Jetset, 1999.
Bellavista TerraceThe Best of the Go-Betweens, Beggars Banquet, 1999.
Danger in the Past, 1990.
Calling From a Country, 1993.
I Had a New York Girlfriend, 1994.
(With Jack Frost) Jack Frost, Arista, 1991.
Watershed, Beggars Banquet/RCA, 1991.
Fireboy, (U.K.) Beggars Banquet, 1993; Beggars Banquet, 1994.
Horsebreaker Star, Beggars Banquet/Atlantic, 1995.
(With Jack Frost) Snow Job, (U.K.) Beggars Banquet, 1996.
MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Nichols, David, The Go-Betweens, Puncture Publications, 1997.
Billboard, December 10, 1988; January 21, 1995; February 3, 1996
Boston Globe, October 25, 1996; June 25, 1999.
Fortune, July 19, 1999.
Magnet, April/May 1999, p. 12.
Melody Maker, October 15, 1988; June 23, 1990; October 27, 1990.
New Musical Express (NME), August 6, 1988; February 27, 1988.
Rolling Stone, February 23, 1995.
Stereo Review's Sound & Vision, June 1999.
Village Voice, January 28, 1992; December 31, 1996; June 22, 1999.
Washington Post, June 18, 1999; June 26, 1999.
"Bonniers Rocklexikon, 1993," (March 5, 2000).
"The Go-Betweens," Rough Guide to Rock, (March 5, 2000).
The Robert Forster Homepage, (March 5, 2000).
Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com (March 5, 2000).
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