Next month it will be ten years since Grant McLennan passed away in his late forties. It wasn’t big news – I remember sitting at my desk and idly flicking into The Go-Betweens band website to be confronted by the days old notice. I have rarely felt loss at the passing of people I don’t actually know – I did with McLennan because his music had formed a backdrop to my life and had found a place in my heart.
Yesterday it was 30 years since I finally got to be in the right place to see the Go-Betweens live – a small, dingy and long defunct venue in deepest Essex where the view was appalling, the sweat was running in buckets and the experience was uplifting.
At the end of May Robert Forster will be playing a solo gig in Whelans… The stars are aligned, I should write this piece!
The Go-Betweens were essentially a band built around the contrasting and blending talents of songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster. Their career came in two chunks late 70’s to late 80’s and then from 2000 until Grant’s untimely death in 2006. They started in the era of Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, predating The Smiths and REM (and influencing both). Famously renowned as “the greatest band never to have a hit record” – pretty much any group that has picked up a couple of guitars and played them in any sort of harmony since the early 80’s has been influenced in some way, either directly or indirectly, by The Go-Betweens.
All well and good – but are they a band of their time or a band of today. Here’s a few reasons why I suggest you track down their music.
Two heads are better than one
A band with two songwriters who both sing could be a tough one to get right. It might become disjointed – a stylistic battle that grates on the ears. In this case the pair work together to expand the horizons of the band whilst staying close enough together to keep it whole. MacLennan seems more wistful and Forster seems more angular and edgy, reflecting the way they looked physically. I suspect the dynamics were more complex in real life. MacLennan always seemed more assertive in the live arena – in my memory he always took the first song. This may be me making the history fit the story, but it plays out in this clip.
A good tune is timeless.
A memorable punch line to a Morecombe and Wise sketch went along the lines “I’m playing all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order!” The beauty of any band at its best is that as the songs go along they play the notes and make the progressions you want to hear next. The Go-Betweens could pull together a tune with the best of them. Here’s an example of how to put two guitars together to make one seamless and simple tune
Lyrics that paint a picture
“There’s a cat in the alleyway, dreaming of birds that are blue”. I defy you to listen to those words and not get a picture in your head. Sometimes the songs tell a story, sometimes they capture a moment, always the language is crafted to give you an image of what is happening. Listen to the first fifty seconds of this song – you see the woman, you get a sense of the life. All done in simple and very few words.
An Edge and a soul
Putting together good tunes and good lyrics is a great start, but if you are going to make truly magnificent music you have to get people to feel something in the way that Mumford and Sons don’t. That means getting personal and opening the soul occasionally. There’s no video here, but if there is one clip that you play from this article – make it this one!
Music for a mood
I’ve always wanted to visit Brisbane in Australia, where the band hail from, because if it is like their music it must be a great place. You can play Go Betweens on murky rainy days to give you warmth, but try them when the sky is blue. Last year I happened to drive the old coast road from Larne to Portrush on a calm sunny day with the windows down and music blaring. That music had to be The Go-Betweens. It was a day to be at peace with the world and just live in the moment.
Here’s what they looked like in a rare video produced to promote a song.
I’ll let you judge on my “still relevant” question for yourselves. Start your Go-Betweens journey with the 16 Lovers Lane album.
Actually, there is only one choice. If you don’t find something to like, you frankly have no soul!