I WAS SCROUNGING for records in a little store in Brisbane's West End the last time I saw Grant. We were both regulars there and it was no surprise at all to see him wander in, bending to pick up a street magazine at the door as he entered. He ended up buying a Dylan album – Bob's latest, Love and Theft, which he knew and loved, but didn't own – and I bought a Dave Graney CD, My Life on the Plains, which I've barely listened to since.
It had been a while since we'd run into each other. We were friendly, but not really friends. I'd known him for ten years, but it was rare for me to talk to him without a tape recorder sitting between us. The longest time we'd ever spent together was a couple of hours, when I interviewed him about his band, the Go-Betweens, for a book I was writing based on Brisbane's music history, Pig City (University of Queensland Press, 2004). That was a few years ago now.
We weren't doing anything much at the time, and our chance meeting extended into coffee, then lunch. That was good. Like I said, we weren't friends – not really. But Grant was sweet that way. He always had time, was always interested in what was going on in your world, and he was an excellent listener and conversationalist. It was the first time we'd really talked to each other outside of our respective roles.
Grant cut quite a figure, not that he looked like a rock star at all. He dressed down, even on stage: faded jeans and sneakers and crumpled t-shirt, and he played mainly acoustic guitar with few fancy frills or poses. But he had an innate style, and was a proud snob. We watched a man cross Boundary Street – shirtless, in shorts and thongs, a heavy beer gut hanging over his hips. Grant didn't bother to conceal his disgust. "Look at that," he muttered, shaking his head. "What a barbaric country we live in!"
A few weeks later, I heard Grant had died.
HERE'S THE FIRST thing you should know about Grant McLennan: he wasn't a genius. Neither is his friend and songwriting partner Robert Forster, with whom he formed the Go-Betweens in late 1977. Rather, both were artisans of the first order: talented songwriters who worked diligently at their craft and believed completely in the value of what they were doing. Their aesthetics were finely tuned and they understood – first intuitively, then by experience – what it took to make great records.
They were also determinedly different, and recognition for their achievements was a long time coming, especially at home.
The Go-Betweens, as critic and friend of the band Clinton Walker has noted, introduced poetry to Australian music. They were unabashedly, proudly literate. Karen, one of Forster's first songs, was a tribute to a librarian who educated him in all the "right" authors: Hemingway, Genet, Brecht, Chandler, Joyce. Their name, of course, also alludes to the classic novel by L.P. Hartley, although Forster claims he simply liked the word "go".
This was no small thing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the internationally accepted Australian sound was defined by AC/DC: bar-room boogie with libidinous lyrics. Nothing wrong with that – there is, in fact, much to admire about the care and wit that went into the late Bon Scott's endless supply of double– and triple-entendres – but the Go-Betweens always aimed higher than your belt buckle. They were unafraid to make demands of their audience. For that, they inspired passion. Their fans were loyal, often obsessive and – thirty years after the band's formation – there were more of them than ever.
That they hailed from Brisbane, at the height of the anti-intellectualism of the Bjelke-Petersen era, underlines their importance. Along with local peers the Saints, the Go-Betweens arguably did more than anyone to change perceptions about their home town, both inside and out. But, although the Saints came first – as Forster told me, "I think we all felt a little bit brushed by the Saints' wings" – the Go-Betweens' reaction to their surroundings was more subtle and subversive. They were sensitive, at times almost effeminate, and they didn't play loud.
It wasn't only musicians who were influenced by the Go-Betweens. Nick Earls, whose second book Bachelor Kisses took its name from one of McLennan's most seductive songs, noted it was the band's third albumSpring Hill Fair which convinced him that coming from Brisbane (albeit, in his case, via Ireland) need not prevent him from having an impact as an author. He added that it was interesting it was a band that convinced him of this, and wondered why it was not David Malouf, Brisbane's most famous expatriate author.
Earls was far from the only Queensland-based writer of his generation touched by the Go-Betweens. In Forster and McLennan, the band had two superb lyricists. Pig City was in part an attempt to describe what it was like to be young in Queensland during the Bjelke-Petersen years, but I doubt that anyone has captured the experience of growing up in the state more evocatively than McLennan in his most celebrated composition, Cattle and Cane, where he passes through a series of vignettes drawn from his childhood in far north 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
From time to time the waste – memory wastes
The narrative traces McLennan's shift to Brisbane, where he attended boarding school:
I recall, a bigger brighter world
A world of books, and silent times in thought
And then the railroad, the railroad takes him home
Through fields of cattle, through fields of cane
IT TOOK MCLENNAN time to find his feet as a songwriter. His preferred medium was cinema, and he made an early name for himself reviewing films for the University of Queensland student newspaperSemper Floreat. When he recommended that a film was "not to be missed", readers took him seriously. Upon finishing his Arts degree, told he was too young to enrol in film school, he finally acquiesced to his best friend's repeated entreaties to form a band, picking up the bass guitar.
The first Go-Betweens single, Lee Remick – Karen was the B-side – opens with the line "She comes from Ireland, she's very beautiful/I come from Brisbane, and I'm quite plain". Like all the earliest Go-Betweens material, this was a Forster song – naïve, poorly played, but immediately distinctive. It was perhaps the first example of the kind of place-specific irony that, many years later, was captured in the term 'Brisvegas'.
It wasn't until a rather tentative first album, Send Me a Lullaby – by which time the Go-Betweens had been joined by their longest-serving and most original drummer, Lindy Morrison – that McLennan felt confident enough to begin contributing songs of his own. Released in 1981, it now sounds very much of its time: jerky, influenced by all sorts of even jerkier-sounding British post-punk bands like Gang of Four, the Raincoats and the Slits.
The Go-Betweens moved to Melbourne, but were already receiving better reviews in England. There was neither precedent nor place in Australia for a band like them. "In search of a new voice/you burnt all your lyrics/moved to a new town", McLennan wrote, pointing a way forward: "That way, or nothing at all". They moved to London, where they cut their first great album, Before Hollywood, which included Cattle and Cane. McLennan was twenty-four.
Among fans of the Go-Betweens, there's a school of thought that every second album they made was better than its predecessor: the first exploring a style, the second perfecting it, before they would immediately move on to a new form. In this way, the Go-Betweens' parameters kept expanding, like Chinese boxes. I have a lot of time for this idea. On Before Hollywood, the template for all later Go-Betweens releases is established. All of the ensuing albums – even after we enter the routinely bloated digital age of CDs – contain a concise ten songs, Forster and McLennan contributing five tracks apiece.
Robert Vickers, who played bass with the band throughout the 1980s (allowing McLennan to accompany Forster on guitar), points out that the Go-Betweens weren't trapped in any genre: they had somehow found a space that was entirely their own, and this allowed them to move in any direction they wanted. It's also a clichéd but accurate observation that Forster and McLennan were decisively different writers and singers: Forster wry, arch, dramatic; McLennan classical and generally more obvious, both in his lyrics and his melodies. Yet each complemented the other.
This was important. Forster and McLennan were the ultimate fans of each other's work, but they were also filters. When I saw him that last time in West End, McLennan was excited about new songs he was working on, thinking them some of the best he had written, but he was perhaps even more excited that Forster felt the same way about them. Look through the Go-Betweens' catalogue: after that first, hesitant album, there are remarkably few duds. Quality control was among the Go-Betweens' great strengths.
WHEN THE GO-BETWEENS moved to London, they found themselves part of a great push of Australian musicians into Europe. All of them featured songwriters who would make their marks in the ensuing decade: the Birthday Party (Nick Cave), the Laughing Clowns (led by former Saints cofounder Ed Kuepper), the Triffids (David McComb), the Moodists (Dave Graney) and the Scientists (Kim Salmon). All had been rejected by Australia, where the rock landscape was dominated by Countdown and covers bands.
These artists paid a heavy price for their self-imposed exile. None – with the exception of the persistent Cave – ever sold great quantities, and even now they remain relatively little known at home. Most broke up amid acrimony, poverty and drugs, with their leaders going on to solo careers, achieving varying degrees of success. David McComb tragically died of a heart condition in 1999; he was just thirty-six.
Yet, beyond the fleeting but massive commercial success of the likes of INXS and Men at Work, it was these brave groups which succeeded in establishing a critically respected Australian voice in the almost entirely Anglo-American world of popular music. Next to a begrudging acceptance of those old leers AC/DC, it is their albums that are occasionally granted admission to the ever-expanding rock'n'roll canon, in those lists beloved of music obsessives and affectionately satirised in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. (Most recently, the Go-Betweens' 16 Lovers Lane was one of very few Australian albums included in the massive coffee-table compendium 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.)
The Go-Betweens, in fact, were the only one of the above bands to survive and endure after their time in London. They eventually returned to Australia in 1988, where they signed to Mushroom Records and recorded 16 Lovers Lane. It was their sixth album, the most expensively produced, and the closest the band ever came to a hit, with the single Streets of Your Town grazing the lower reaches of the charts.
Streets of Your Town was one of McLennan's simplest and most direct songs, and in years to come it was frequently licensed for advertising purposes, usually by local media outlets: the Courier-Mail was using it to promote its shift from broadsheet to tabloid format at the time of McLennan's death (although the lines "watch the butcher shine his knives/and this town is full of battered wives" were always edited). The song's circular chorus captures suburban humdrum with effortless ease – recognising that mundanity and the comforts of home often go hand in hand – and although it's open-ended enough that anyone could hum it in any city in the world, it's not hard to recognise Brisbane. The song refers to the destruction of the city's architectural heritage:
They shut it down
They closed it down
They shut it down
They pulled it down ...
The Go-Betweens broke up in 1989. Both Forster and McLennan went on to solo careers, making records so different that, for a time, it became hard to reconcile how they could ever have worked together. And, although both were lauded, they sold fewer records than ever.
I MISSED THIS first, classic phase of Go-Betweens: I was only just old enough to start sneaking into pubs (oh, those were the days!) when they undertook what became their final tour in 1988-89. Instead I first saw them – Forster and McLennan backed by a new rhythm section – in late 1995, in venerable Fortitude Valley venue The Zoo, where they laughingly dubbed themselves The Australian Go-Betweens Show. I saw better performances in the years to come, but none with such a sense of occasion. An entire city was turning full circle.
Time was good to the Go-Betweens: it vindicated them. They were not a popular group, but they were very much loved, and that was far more important. The gospel had spread. There were substantial inducements for the two songwriters to work together again – not least their faltering solo careers – and after they toured as a duo to promote a best-of release, there was a sense of inevitability that a second act was imminent, especially when both songwriters returned to live in Brisbane.
When Grant McLennan died, he was more successful than he had ever been. The band's last album Oceans Apart – the third of their reincarnated phase – had sold better than any of their previous offerings. Their back-catalogue had been purchased for reissue by EMI, which regarded them as one of its most prestigious signings. McLennan was writing songs constantly, and he was also deeply in love with his girlfriend, actress Emma Pursey. There was a sense it could go on forever.
McLennan enjoyed his status as one of Brisbane music's genuine tribal elders. He revelled in the attention, and although he was gracious and humble, he accepted the praise he received as all he was ever due – overdue, in fact. Perhaps it was that feeling – that acceptance had been so long in coming – which made him a frequent sight in the city's bars and venues, where he offered endless encouragement to new bands and writers. I was fortunate to be among them, and have no hesitation in saying I would not have followed the path I have were it not for his and the Go-Betweens' influence.
My favourite song of Grant's was not Cattle and Cane, but another drawn from his childhood. His father died when he was four, a sadness which inspired some of his greatest songs – the beautiful Dusty in Here, fromBefore Hollywood, is one. But to me the best of them was The Ghost and the Black Hat, from the Go-Betweens' fourth album, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express. Here he conjures an event, atmosphere and environment in thirteen precisely written lines, as the ghost of his father calls on his mother to wear a favourite item of clothing to his funeral:
A widow's life's no life at all
Look, said the ghost, there in the hall
Big brown eyes and northern beer
Pulled her through her living years
The gravedigger's work is almost done
A hole in the ground spits dirt at the sun
The water tank is dirty and dry
Dust from the creek covers the sky
Five years without a sound
The railroad's melted down
Ten years further on
A husband in the ground
Won't you wear the (black hat)?
I JUST WISH I'd told him what it meant, that last day in West End.