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Monday 18 November 2019

Top tunes from a land down under

One of Australia's great bands, The Go-Betweens were once seen as Brisbane's answer to Lennon and McCartney. Founding member Robert Forster tells John Meagher about the loss of bandmate Grant McLennan and his special bond with the Irish capital

Writing the past: Forster’s new book revisits The Go-Betweens’ heydey
Writing the past: Forster’s new book revisits The Go-Betweens’ heydey

On the day Review meets Robert Forster, he has just contributed to a new documentary honouring the great Cork band Microdisney. It's apt, perhaps, that this rangy Australian - a founding member of the much-loved Go-Betweens - would have contributed to such an enterprise. After all, Microdisney never quite reached as many people as the exceptional talents of Cathal Coughlan and Sean O'Hagan deserved, and Forster's own band also failed to worm their way into the hearts of as many music lovers as they should have.

But talk to people of a certain age - many of them critics who first cut their teeth in the 1980s - and the Go-Betweens are held in the highest regard. For many, they are the finest band to ever have emerged from Australia and, jointly, Forster and co-writer Grant McLennan were seen as Brisbane's answer to Lennon and McCartney. There weren't many songwriting partnerships from the late 1970s until the end of the 1980s that were delivering songs as consistently great as that duo.

And while Go-Betweens fans rejoiced when the pair restarted the band in 2000 after an 11-year hiatus, there was devastation when McLennan died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006. He was just 48. Now, Forster has written an illuminating book about the Go-Betweens and his friendship and complicated working relationship with McLennan. Grant & I is already being hailed as a milestone rock biography, and there are few stones left unturned, including sobering accounts of Forster's battles with drugs and his shock at being diagnosed with Hepatitis C.

"I wanted to write it in such a way that even people who weren't that familiar with the Go-Betweens might want to read it," he says. "But I also wanted those people who really loved our band, and know the songs extremely well, to feel that they were learning something new and getting an insight into the way we worked creatively."

Unlike Morrissey's memoir, for instance, Grant & I is a joy for those who want a blow-by-blow account of how such great songs as 'Cattle and Cane' and 'Part Company' came about. His writing is such that you will want to reacquaint yourself with old favourites or simply listen to the songs for the first time.

"I feel very fortunate to have met Grant," he says. "It's impossible to know what sort of songwriter I would have been had our paths never crossed, but I'm certain that I'm a much better songwriter than I would have been having worked with him for so many years. And I think the same can be said of Grant. We complemented each other really well and we pushed each other to be as creatively strong as we possible could be. I think when there's so much mutual respect there, it's to be expected that you're both going to raise your game."

Their body of work was - is - remarkable, but it didn't connect with a mass audience like they might have hoped for. And it wasn't for want of trying: Forster and McLennan wrote intelligent, hook-laden pop songs but none troubled the charts (until the release of their masterwork, 16 Lovers Lane, in 1988 - but even then, songs like 'Streets of Your Town' could only find a low chart-placing).

"It's very hard to work out what's going to be a hit and what isn't," he says. "Luck probably plays a part. Maybe being in the right place at the right time. But I'm not bitter about it because I got to make music with someone whom I cared deeply about and we left a legacy behind. And, I always thought our band was an albums band, rather than a singles band. The album was paramount for us."

Grant & I doesn't shirk tricky subjects, such as Forster's romantic relationship with band member and drummer Lindy Morrison. The pair split in acrimonious circumstances towards the end of the band's first innings.

"I had to write about it," he says. "Obviously, I'd censor myself about some things, but that was something that was part of the Go-Betweens story." He says relations are cordial with Morrison today and insists she would have contacted him had any detail in the book bothered her, but that hasn't happened.

To complicate matters further, McLennan embarked on a relationship with Amanda Brown, who had just joined the band as violin player. "Having relationships in a band can change the dynamic a bit, but if you've got five guys in a typical band, you're going to have all sorts of tensions there, too."

For much of the 1980s, the Go-Betweens did what all ambitious bands from Australia - and Ireland - did: relocate to London. It was there that Forster became acquainted with Cathal Coughlan and Microdisney, when the two bands shared practice rooms in Camden.

"There were times when it was really grim," he says. "There's the cost of living there - which, of course, is astronomical now - but even in the mid-1980s, we existed on a hand-to-mouth basis and that was very tough. And then there's an impersonality about it, too - despite all the great things there, and all that's been gained in terms of food and culture."

Dublin is important to him. "This city has always appealed to me," says the lifelong fan of Joyce and Beckett, "and ever since first coming here in 1987, there's been a special bond."

That same year, the Go-Betweens left London, and returned to Australia - to the bright lights of Sydney. It was there that 16 Lovers Lane was made and one can almost sense the sunny optimism emanating from every verse. "We had a unified group of songs, and we really knew what we wanted to do. The only person who had lived there before was Amanda but for Grant, Lindy and I, it was a new city, waiting to be discovered. It was a joy after London - and you can hear that release on that album."

Listening to it three decades on, it's hard to believe it didn't become as globally popular as that of Woodface, the big-selling third album from Antipodean counterparts Crowded House, and released a few years later. English producer Mark Wallis worked hard to make the gorgeously penned songs sound as pristine as possible - even replacing Morrison's drumming with drum machines on occasion - but to little avail. The huge Australian album of 1988 was INXS's Kick, but the much smaller audience who did hear 16 Lovers Lane were almost certainly smitten.

Forster says that when the band went their separate ways the following year, he and McLennan took very different courses. "I settled down to a degree, met my wife, started a family, but Grant sort of went the other way - he was drinking more, he didn't have the sort of stability I was lucky to have." That excess would eventually come calling in March 2006.

Forster writes movingly about his friend's death, about the shock of it and how it spelled the end of The Go-Betweens (even though the band has played some post-McLennan shows).

"I miss him every single day and I think about him all the time," he says. "But I'm at peace with it. I'm lucky to have met someone who had such a positive impact on my life and who continues to inspire me as a songwriter."

Grant & I is published by Omnibus Press

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