When Lee Remick b/w Karen was released as a debut single, I was barely attuned to the music of the wind-up mobile above my crib. The Go-Betweens started their slow but steady ascent up music mountain during the tiny years of my life spent mesmerized by The Jackson Five and The Beatles lp’s spinning on my plastic Fisher Price. I had hardly heard of them, much less heard them until their 2000 release of The Friends of Rachel Worth, yet upon pressing play, I knew I needed more.
The band history is scopic and is well-fleshed out in the recently updated and expanded biography written by David Nichols (and available here) but by means of introduction for the uninducted here is a brief summary:
The Go-Betweens formed in 1978 in Brisbane and subsequently expatriated to London. The band first consisted of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan and saw their first full length release, Send Me A Lullaby (where they were joined by drummer Lindy Morrison), on the supersonic Rough Trade label in 1982. (Though, in 1999, former bassist Robert Vickers’ molto fabulous label Jetset released ex post facto “78 Til ’79: the Lost Album consisting of the aforementioned single and other home recordings). Send Me A Lullaby is redolent with the post-punk shine of state-side bands such as the Gang of Four and the Talking Heads. The Go-Betweens also have general similarities shared with New Zealander bands The Bats/The Clean. There must be something extra tasty in the water that side of the southern hemisphere (Though that does not account for horror shows such as the Outfield and Men and Work).
The band enjoyed skirting the shoals of notoriety for 12 years, splitting in 1988 to focus on solo efforts (though Robert and Grant continued to play together) and reuniting in 2000 to release their incredible comeback, Friends of Rachel Worth. Friends incorporated indie rock stalwarts Sleater Kinney as backing musicians. This release was followed by 2003’s solid Bright Yellow Bright Orange. Rumor has it they are currently writing and gearing up for a third post-comeback cd.
Honestly, the history is such that I could fill pages just getting the unfamiliar up to speed. Their lore is filled with interesting quirks, such as the double LL inclusions on early album titles and the tasteful arrogance paramount in their brushes with media. One of the most compelling charms is the bands two distinct songwriters, Forster and McLennan. Each has quite different strengths and style that allow The Go-Betweens to go from racing in songs like Man O Sand to Girl O Sea, to a more meandering in Clouds.
Robert Vickers appeared as bassist for Liberty Belle and Tallulah, though upon moving to the States was replaced with multi-instrumentalist John Willsteed for 16 Lovers Lane. Also in the line-up for these releases was Amanda Brown, providing lush orchestration on strings.
1986’s Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express is graced with Grant McLennan’s lyrical quill (as opposed to the more chisel-etched of Forster) with a set of songs more along the lines of Cattle and Cane, which was nominated in 2003 by the Australian Performing Rights Association as one of the ten best Australian songs of all time, and the equally beautiful Bachelor Kisses.
Liberty is a strong album; enhanced by Vickers’ return-to-the-roots bass playing. Highlights include the pastoral opener Spring Rain and the thick-with-desire Head Full of Steam. Liberty Belle, while not my favorite release (Spring Hill Fair earns that title), is consistently praised as the most accessible of Go-Betweens releases (a position I would delegate to 16 Lovers Lane)
Spring Rain is a buoyant song, the guitar plinking like clean drops of rain. “Falling like just sheets, coming down like love, falling at my feet”. Toothy and melodic soloing as bouncy as is titularly suggested. Head Full of Steam is poptasticly laden with lustful unrequited love; “I never met her type she ignored me and that’s all right, never to be friends ah my body lie on her floor” This song is sexy and tormented, “104 degrees with a head full of steam”- a trademark of my favorite Go-Betweens’ songs.
Don’t Let Him Come Back (here in new form) is another favored tune, it reminds me much of early Bat’s material; sunny yet blistering with a darker melty interior. Pleasantly veiled lyrics (“Lookout for that mouth it will make you jump from the roof”) and potent guitar soloing worthy of Sterling Morrison (or at least Sean Eden). The battleship is almost sunk by the unfortunate 80’s keyboarding, though in this case it’s forgivable.
Tallulah has not been treated well by time’s revisionist musical ear. Much of the orchestration belongs along with Green-era REM- banished to some circle of hell reserved for bad choices made by otherwise good bands (though REM is banished entirely post-Automatic). Saturated with seagull-flocked synth and sticky with the sheen of that decade.
When People Are Dead is sufficiently bittersweet to counter balance the saccharine Right Here and I Just Got Caught Out. It is as much of a dirge as the title suggests, with a lyrical load of funereal reference. The House that Jack Kerouac Built is the real winner of the cd, blatantly sexy at the start “You and I together, with nothing showing at all, in a darkened cinema, I’ll give you pleasure in the stall” it melds into more of a lust drenched torch song of the kind that thrills as much as it sends you to your knees. Much of Tallulah is entrenched in 1987, but it is worthy of purchase if not for The House alone.
A Little Romance, is a light song with simple chords and structure that betrays wickedly funny lyrics such as “It was winter, no summer we swam in Veronica Lake with your friend the male model who I tried to burn at the stake” making it another meritable song.
16 Lovers Lane is a pillow sack of candy treats. The guitaring is so glossy and bright, it is downright edible. Streets of Your Town, despite it’s Shiny Happy People backing vocals, is a damn catchy gem. It has a haunting choruses you’ll whistle on your way to work and “Round and Round, Up and Down, through the streets of your town”. Rock and Roll Friend is another number best left along with legwarmers and Bon Jovi; though I can imagine it would take well to a re-working to remove the curse of the Casio.
It always amuses me to have songs of heartbreak such as the shimmery Clouds, but to have them so damn beautiful you almost don’t care about the ring of fire around your heart. Bittersweet and tender, the lyrics say it all “I have to see straight, that will make me unkind. Visions of blue, I’m angry and wise and you, you’re under cloudy skies”. Love Goes On! has what may be the most fantabulous bass lines of any song on 16 Lovers Lane. It sticks in my craw until I must get home and play along, and even then it taunts me in my sleep. This is easily the hookiest song in their entire catalog, so catchy you even sing along to the “ bah bah bah’s”.
“Lovers want the moon”, indeed. Dive for Your Memory is mournful and trenchant; a lover pleading for reconciliation and reconnection: “When I hear you saying, that we stood no chance, I’d dive for your memory, we stood that chance”. Awash with subtle yet aching guitar, this song rival’s Cattle and Cane for the most lauded Go-Betweens song. 16 Lover’s Lane, while shattered and laced with melancholy, remains romantic and opulent. Another album standout is the serene lullaby, Quiet Heart.
If you are already a Go-Betweens fan and an owner of the original versions of these cds, Jetset is offering some tasty additions as incentive to add the re-mastered versions to your collection. Each title (inclusive of the earlier re-released Send Me A Lullaby, Before Hollywood, and Spring Hill Fair) is a two-cd set bolstered by an extra cd of rare and previously unreleased songs, a 28 page book with extensive liner notes and photos, and if you are the sort, 3 videos per release. Jetset’s Go-Betweens re-releases, unlike the Camper Van Beethoven re-releases, are not preceded (and smartly so) by an expansive box set, so this material will be the first released bonus/archive material of these three titles.
If you are completely new to the group, I suggest starting with 16 Lovers Lane (and then greedily buying up all the other releases).