📚 The Go-Betweens (David Nichols)

Read The Go-Betweens
David Nichols’ book on The Go-Betweens was first published in 1997. Capturing their rise in the late 70’s until their initial demise in the late 80’s. I read the third revision published in 2011, which included a postscript discussing the reforming of the band in the late nineties until McLennan’s death in 2006. My review can be found here.


McLENNAN: Oh; we were driving along in a car one time; going to the Exchange Hotel. We drove over the bridge there and we were just thinking of a few names and 1 think Rob came up with the Go-Betweens. Because, we since found out, we went between two types of music, maybe, or …
FORSTER: Basically there’s night and there’s day, and you try and go between that, and you find the twilight zone—and there lies the Go-Betweens. – Page 20

Brisbane’s dance clubs in the 1960s—which were generally called discotheques, though in fact they featured live groups—must have been remarkable, especially the Sound Machine, which promoter and Brisbane patriot John Reid aka “the Brisbane Devotee,” remembered ten years later as having “fluorescent posters, red and black decor, telephones on the tables so you could ring other tables.” – Page 29

To follow the kind of lifestyle that people in other Australian cities took for granted—going out for the night, hearing a few rock bands who played music relevant to your world, drinking—was infused, in Brisbane, with a special kind of danger. The police could arrest you at any time, and effectively they could do what they wanted with you. – Page 30

Forster recalled that McLennan “was carrying a film mag and a Ry Cooder record” when they first met. “The film mag I approved of, the Ry Cooder record I was cool on.”

This kind of cultural flag-waving was a legitimate way to make friends in Brisbane in the late 1970s, according to Robert Vickers, who moved in the same circles as Forster and McLennan.

ROBERT VICKERS: If you walked down the street with a Nico album, and somebody who was interested in Nico saw you, they would probably stop. Oh. definitely, without a doubt. You really did judge people quite quickly by their tastes and that was very important. And you needed other people to be involved. Just someone to share it with. And if you did see someone walking down the street with a Nico album or Big Star 3, that was enough. If you saw someone on a train even dressed in a certain way, you might talk to them. – Page 38

McLennan has often characterized his relationship with Forster as a nonsexual homosexuality:

McLENNAN: We were in Queensland, which is a very macho state, and Brisbane symbolizes everything which is disgusting about Queensland. We were pushed together at university in our foppish attitudes towards theater as well. – Page 40

FORSTER: I’d been extremely successful at school; at school, I found a lot more freedom than later at university. I could do anything I wanted at school. It was a lot more creative, a lot more satisfying, a lot weirder, if you like. Which I thrived on. And as soon as I got into university and started handing in assignments, I was called aside and told, “If you want to do creative writing, we have little courses… but we don’t want creative writing.” And of course this is the way I’d written through school. And got good grades. I used to hand in schoolwork with photos. I’d take photos a lot. At university you were supposed to hand in a paper. I handed it in in a box—a cardboard box. It was rejected. And so there was a bad spiral. From being the schoolboy genius, I go to university and become the town dunce. – Page 41

MCLENNAN: At the end of 1977 he rang up and said, “You’re finishing [university], have you changed your mind, do you want to start a band?” And I said yes.
You know, it was: “Why not?” It wasn’t like: “Oh, yeah, let’s get a band together!”
It was just: Why not?” – Page 42

VICKERS: It was certainly perfect for the time. It had columns, wooden columns, all through it; you were always up against a post. It looked like there were walls everywhere that had been taken down except for the uprights. A little tiny stage, and you couldn’t see anyone playing onstage because everyone could stand up front. You couldn’t hear anything—but you were there. – Page 46

Recalling the Curry Shop in Brisbane

To be a go-between was far from a negative role in McLennan and Forster’s eyes. They were in between so many places, swamped by a cultural flood. While they faced the reality of Brisbane, the heat, parental pressure, and the influence of punk rock, they also yearned for New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Paris in the 1920s and 1950s, and were fascinated by Timothy Leary Bob Dylan, Tom Verlaine, Françoise Hardy, Samantha Eggar, Richard Hell, Blondie, and the Erasers. All of this was siphoned through a strange, anomalous Brisbane rock group called the Go-Betweens. – Page 52

PETER WALSH: They’d never say it, but you could tell which part of the record collection he’d listened to in the two minutes it took for him to write that song. – Page 60

FORSTER: Grant and I used to look at products. As a game, I’d go round the kitchen and pick up something like Vegemite. And we’d rattle off five or ten advertising slogans. Products around the kitchen. We were flying! We thought we were geniuses. The band was always the flagship: “If the band becomes famous, everyone’s going to be interested in these ideas. We’ve got to get famous.” The group was the get-famous thing—once that happened, we could go. ‘‘Surprise, surprise, everybody, yeah, we’re pop stars but we’ve got all these other ideas and we’re goddamn flickin’ geniuses. You thought you were only getting two moptop pop stars, what you’re getting is Truffaut and Godard! We’re the Orson Welles of rock.” It didn’t happen. – Page 70

MICHAEL O’CONNELL: John Willsteed virtually showed Lindy Morrison how to play the drums. In the performing process the spotlight was mainly on Irena and myself. – Page 79

Michael O’Connell on Zero

MORRISON: We went to Stradbroke Island for a Zero gig and we had our first fuck, and he was so overcome by losing his virginity and the joy of sex, that he went for a walk down to the beach and he didn’t return in time to get the bus back. I went back to Brisbane on the bus and he had to stay overnight, didn’t have any money, had to sleep on the beach. We all went back on the bloody bus which he missed because he wandered off to contemplate nature and the mysteries of the universe—because he’d had his first fuck. I didn’t hear from him for three days. Here I am. I’d finally got his pants off, and—the bloody guy—as soon as he does it he disappears down the beach and when he finally gets back to Brisbane doesn’t even ring me for three days! – Page 83

FORSTER: We arrived in London with acoustic guitars. We were the first people walking around London with them … this is late ’79. You could virtually be booked and put in jail for having an acoustic guitar. I don’t know who the last people were in London who had acoustic guitars or played acoustic songs to A&R people. They just thought we were completely nuts. They’d say “Oh, yeah. Send us a demo tape.” We’d go, “We don’t have a demo tape, we’ve got our acoustic guitars, we’ll come and play you some songs.”
I thought it was fantastic. Completely immediate. You can see that they play, they’re sitting on two chairs and they’re playing you the songs. If I was an A&R person I’d think: “I wish every band would come and do this.” But we were just laughed at. No one was interested. We went to Virgin. We went to Rough Trade and played “People Say” for Geoff Travis and he said “It’s too commercial.” I was just: “Whai does ihai mean? ” Too commercial? You just kept running up against these orthodoxies. ‘”No, you have to sound like the Gang of Four. You have to sound like the Fall. You have to sound sort of scrapey and scrappy, [with] the lyric way down in the mix.”
They thought it wouldn’t fit into what was going on. We arrived at a good moment and a bad moment. We only had half a dozen good songs in 197S. So if we’d gone over then, we would’ve— whatever time we’d gone over, it would’ve been the wrong time, we wouldn’t have been able to fit in. You know the week that “Lee Remick” came out? If we’d been there that week, it would have done really well. We would have been famous. Then. In England. – Page 85

Forster said, “In Brisbane, musically, we’re [enrolled] in a school, but we’re just doing it by correspondence, and then suddenly you go over to London and you’re actually at the college.” – Page 86

Dave Tyrer, Forster explained, ‘’has a Roland guitar synthesizer.” And, he continued, “Grant will be joining us, playing bass, when he gets back from New York.” – Page 97

There are so many aspects to the Go-Betweens story where one is left thinking ‘what if’, I can only imagine that a guitar synthesiser would have changed their sound.

MORRISON: I cooked this fabulous Christmas dinner, and half an hour before Christmas dinner everybody hit up. So when Christmas dinner came, nobody could eat. And everyone was just sitting around, the gravy was congealing in thick lumps over the chicken, the green vegetables were going stiff and the potato was hard. And the plates just sat there all day, it was a tragedy. It was that constant “straight” thing, that constant thing that I was very straight, and I could never move in that other world. Well, I didn’t want to. I didn’t need to. – Page 120

But although they were relieved, the group were determined to trust their instincts on their next release, and to return to the kind of music that had originally influenced them, rather than follow the rhythmic or fractured “art” influences that punctuated Send Me a Lullaby. – Page 121

The days ‘before Hollywood” were adventurous times. Before the era of sound; films could be made without the hindrance of language differences, in Europe, the USA or Australia (for which claims have been made, with some justification, as the birthplace of the feature film). The ruined European economy after the First World War gave Hollywood the boost it needed to cement its grip on film production; some loose parallels can be drawn with the music business and its perceived domination by Americans. The Go-Betweens, however, with their love and respect for the Monkees, Dylan, the Velvets, Jonathan Richman, etc., would be the last to criticize American cultural domination. – Page 121

There is obviously no love lost between McLennan and Morrison, but he pays her the tribute of conceding that “Cattle and Cane” “had a great rhythm, which I don’t think any drummer the world could have played except Lindy Morrison. Never ceases to amaze me, that rhythm thing.” – Page 124

The album is certainly very different from Send Me a Lullaby. Musically, it is closer to the work of Forster and McLennnan’s earlier heroes, such as Television. Lyrically, songs like the poignant “Dusty in Here” and “Cattle and Cane” (both McLennan compositions) initiated an approach, usually perceived as one of innocent sentimentality and nostalgia, that the group would still be embracing (and ultimately perverting) at the end of the decade. – Page 125

MCLENNAN: With “Cattle and Cane” I wanted to write an autobiographical song, and I was aware of that, and I say in the lyrics “Memory wastes.” That’s perhaps a little clever, but memory can be a wasteland where you wander around and live the rest of your life. – Page 126

Grant McLennan in an interview with Clinton Walker in 1982.

In keeping with McLennan and Forster’s “McCartney and Lennon” dynamic, Forster’s songs are far more bombastic, particularly the title track, “By Chance” – Page 129

NICHOLS: The big thing with Postcard seemed to be all these comparisons with the Velvet Underground. How do you think you fitted in with that?
McLENNAN: I don’t know. I know NME said that Josef K were the Velvets [in] 1967 and that Orange Juice were Velvets ’69. If we were anything, the Go-Betweens were the Velvets at their first rehearsal. Not quite grasping the songs, but the initial draw was there. – Page 142

NICHOLS: It’s [Send Me a Lullaby] not as coherent as the second one. Some songs don’t exactly fit together. I thought it was strange the way you chopped it up for Australian consumption. – Page 142

MCLENNAN: Keith saw me as being a more commercial writer than he was. I think that’s unfair, because Robert’s melodies you just have to absorb more than mine, that’s all. – Page 143

I think Robert Forster has the capacity to sing a song in a variety of ways. I sing it in a way that is always close to the heart. It’s a very intangible thing, I can’t explain it in any other way. – Page 146

McLennan’s “This Girl, Black Girl”—probably the first of his Go-Betweens songs to take on the Australian bush-ballad form that has since become a favored style for him – Page 148

[T]he Go-Betweens would. But the Go-Betweens were trying to flourish within a foreign culture—one they couldn’t tap into in the way Morrissey, to their evident frustration, apparently effortlessly could. – Page 151

I have agreed to donate all my interview tapes and other research materials to the National Film and Sound Archive (maybe writing this sentence will make me finally knuckle down to the task of fishing the tapes out from under the house). – Page 271

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