The visit earlier this year to the cinema to enjoy Right Here led to me going on a bit of a Go-Betweens binge immediately afterwards; I even managed to slip Bye Bye Pride into a pre-matCh play list at a Raith Rovers game not too long ago.
It also got me looking again at the two previous ICAs in November 2016. I still think they stand amongst the best in the entire series, but it also made me realise just how many superb songs had been left off. This was partly down to me trying really hard to stick by my first principle of an ICA, namely that it shouldn’t necessarily comprise what I think are the ten best songs, nor should it be my ten favourites songs, but instead should hang together as a ‘perfect’ LP with five tracks on each side. Oh, and I also wanted to ensure there were five songs from each of Robert Forster and Grant McLellan.
Thus it is that the landmark 200th ICA is my stab at a third volume for possibly the greatest band to ever emerge from Australia….sometimes I do think it is them but on other days I can’t see past The Bad Seeds. This time around there’s a co-composition, which I really should have found room for previously but in looking at both volumes, I’m still struggling to see where it would have fitted in and at what other song’s expense. But there’s five lead vocals from each of them.
Lee Remick (debut single, 1978)
The one which made it all possible. My thinking behind it not being included on either of the previous volumes is that, by the time I made my own discovery of the band some five years later with the release of Before Hollywood, they had developed a more sophisticated and less jarring sound. Lee Remick, and indeed its superior b-side Karen, are both great little numbers but in the grand scheme of things have the feel of demos rather than finished products.
Robert’s autobiography and the documentary helped shed a bit more light on things and made me appreciate just how much of an achievement it was getting the band and new label up and running in Brisbane in the late 70s given how in so many ways the city and the state of Queensland was ridiculously insular and backward-looking, with a particularly oppressive police regime which wasn’t slow in using violence against anyone wanting to be creative in a modern way; not that Robert, Grant or record-label owner Damien Nelson ever really got caught up in such stuff, but Brisbane in the late 70s was the least likely of the big Australian cities to spawn a band like The Go-Betweens and it was no real surprise that before too long they were on the move to elsewhere in the country and then to the UK.
To Reach Me (from Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, 1986)
The fact the band had two main singer-songwriters was both a strength and a weakness. On the upside, it allowed listeners to enjoy two quite different approaches to work with Grant for the main (but not exclusively) being the arch-exponent of great pop songs, often about love and life while Robert was a bit more celebral (but again, not exclusively). This one kind of crosses the two in that it’s a love song (of sorts), set to a complicated yet catchy tune with a lyric that is almost Cave-esque with its imagery. It’s all quite magical.
The weakness? The music press, lazy in extreme, wanted a sole focus of attention for the interviews and profiles. The band didn’t play the game and lost out.
The Clock (from The Friends of Rachel Worth, 2000)
I wasn’t too sure about Robert and Grant’s decision to reform the band after more than a decade. I had my doubts about whether they were capable of recapturing the magic of the golden era, especially given that the other key members were nowhere to be seen. I certainly haven’t listened to the three final albums anywhere near as much as I did the earlier material, and indeed would still say I wasn’t wholly familiar with them in comparison in particular to Before Hollywood, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, and 16 Lovers Lane. The binge of recent weeks, however, has seen them get more airings than any others, and while I’m still not sure about Bright Yellow Bright Orange (2003), the albums on either side are now much more appreciated.
The Clock, on first, and indeed subsequent early listens, seemed a little bit inconsequential, but it’s one of those from which an exposure to repeated listening reveals a bit of musical depth, even although it is not really close to much of the 80s output.
Hammer The Hammer (single, 1982)
The band’s fifth single, but the first to feature Grant on lead vocal (and as such, the first of his own compositions to be chosen for a 45). I hadn’t until reading the book quite realised how little interest Grant had in music until he was pestered to form a band by Robert, a point also reinforced by the film. This meant that Robert, having been keen to pursue such a career had more than a head start in terms of having sufficient songs of quality to issue as early singles with Grant first of all learning the rudiments of bass and acoustic guitars before really turning his attention to song writing.
There’s a great bit in the film where Robert describes the song writing issue it as being akin to him driving a car, and he’s away ahead of Grant, but out of nowhere his friend appears in the rear view mirror, getting ever closer and eventually passing him, which he felt happened with the writing and recording of Hammer the Hammer, and which would continue thanks to the likes of Cattle and Cane, That Way and Dusty in Here, all of which were among the strongest and most enduring songs on the band’s sophomore LP.
Robert’s response was to seek to up his own game and start penning songs that would have him catch up……………….
Part Company (single, 1984)
The band had been very unlucky timing wise with the debut album. Rough Trade had been very enthusiastic but then along came The Smiths and the label decided to put all its eggs into that particular basket. The Go-Betweens were offered to, and accepted by Seymour Stein at Sire Records. It proved by a poor fit, with the label not quite sure exactly how best to pitch the band to the record buying public. An expensively produced album, Spring Hill Fair, was recorded in rural France but it wasn’t a terribly happy experience for all concerned. Despite this, the album still manages to incorporate some of their finest moments, including Part Company, which was Robert’s attempt to compose a song that was more literate than before and the first stage in catching-up to the quality of the songs of his mate. But it was bonkers of the label to have it as the lead single.
Robert still plays this at solo gigs….and it never fails to be met with huge acclaim.
Head Full Of Steam (From Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, 1986)
Don’t Let Him Come Back (new version, 1986)
The opening track to side-B of this ICA is one of the great long-lost singles of the 80s. The bitter experiences around the recording of Spring Hill Fair had made the band determined to get it right next time around, which they more than did with Liberty Belle….the album which was certainly the high point of the band’s time as a four-piece. They also brought in a few friends to assist on some songs, and Tracey Thorn supplies a wonderfully understated backing vocal which perfectly complements that of Robert, whose deadpan performance is just perfect.
The b-side to the single was a real treat. It was a superb re-recording of a very early song, originally issued as the b-side to 1979 single People Say, and in which Grant, Robert, Lindy and the other Robert give us something which could easily be held up as the definitive indie-jangly song of the era.
Apology Accepted (radio session 1986)
The original version closes Liberty Belle….and as much as I loved it when I first heard it in the mid 80s, nothing prepared me for just the majesty of this radio session, broadcast on the Janice Long Show on BBC Radio One in May 1986 and made available when the parent album was released in an expanded 2-CD form in 2004. It has a slightly faster tempo than the original, but for me its the way that the piano solo in the middle of the song is brought to the fore that makes it the superior version….but it was a close run thing.
Bachelor Kisses (from Spring Hill Fair, 1984)
The NME review of this, when it was released as the second 45 from the album stated:-
“Song of the week. Only when we’re confronted with a song so perfectly turned, lines so finely balanced and a melody so achingly sweet as Bachelor Kisses are we forced to notice how hollow most contemporary pop rings.”
High praise indeed, particularly when you recall that for the NME in 1984, contemporary pop in their eyes had an indie-bent and included bands such as The Smiths, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Scritti Politti and Prefab Sprout. I’m not sure I’d go as far as the NME reviewer did as I’ve long felt that Bachelor Kisses gravitates towards soft-rock territory in some ways but it’s a song of which I grew increasingly appreciative of in later years as bitter-sweet love songs came to mean something in my life.
Finding You (from Oceans Apart, 2005)
If nothing else, reading the book and watching the film brought the realisation that I had been so wrong to have dismissed Finding You simply as a mid-tempo piece of sombre sentimentality.
It wasn’t widely known, but at the time Grant was battling all sorts of demons in his life. The Go-Betweens had reformed but, and this comes out especially in the film, he was a desperately unhappy and lonely man. It’s really little wonder that it was tunes and lyrics such as this which were pouring out of him, although it did take a contribution from Robert to provide the final touch, thus delivering one of the few genuine Forster/McLennan compositions.
And its chorus captures my own issues with this blog after all these years….don’t know where I’m going, don’t know where it’s flowing…………but the thing is, these ICAs, and in particular the stuff it has enabled me, and hopefully you as readers, to find over the now 200 efforts, makes it worth it.
PS : ICA 201, a guest contribution, will appear tomorrow.