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I missed the Go-Betweens. The peripatetic Australians parted company by the end of the ’80s, and I didn’t get into them until a couple of years later, when I found used cassettes of the last two of their six albums, 1987’s Tallulah and 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane, improbably offered for sale at the MLK Library. They went into heavy rotation on my Walkman. When a co-worker and I decided to play the I’ll-listen-to-yours-if-you-listen-to-mine game, I offered up a track off Side 2 of Lovers Lane. A traditionalist and a fan of a smooth alto, Dan gave me the Carpenters’ “Desperado,” which I immediately pronounced the longest three-and-a-half minutes of my life. His response to “Streets of Your Town” or “Dive for Your Memory,” or “Was There Anything I Could Do?” (I don’t remember which), was no more charitable. “Why do you listen to this?” he asked. “They can’t sing.”
I tried explaining that vocal line, words and tune, was indeed the band’s main draw, but I didn’t get far. After all, Dan was right—they can’t sing, at least not the way most people would like. Principal ‘Tweens Robert Forster and Grant McLennan flatten their melodies beneath varying degrees of Sprechgesang for a number of reasons, not least of which is that their voices are truly limited instruments. So it wasn’t without apprehension that I considered the prospect of Forster and McLennan’s appearing, after a rarely interrupted decadelong hiatus, as an acoustic singer-songwriter duo last week at the 9:30 Club. But it was comforting to find out just how durable their material was, as they took a stripped-down journey, devoid of tricky arrangements and fancy harmonies, two decades back, all the way to their recently unearthed prehistory in a Brisbane bedroom.
The Go-Betweens started out on 1981’s Send Me a Lullaby as a bristly, hard-to-love trio beholden to Talking Heads and Gang of Four, and developed into a lushly produced, entrancing, completely original quintet, complete with oboe, violin, and a piece of hand percussion archly named “Oliver Tambo”; they were that rare band that required a long maturation and was better off polished than prickly. Most groups split up several years too late, but Forster and McLennan cruelly called it quits at their peak. They were disillusioned that 16 Lovers Lane, their first proper major-label stateside release, made so little impact, and after years of thinking that they hadn’t gotten the attention they deserved, they opted for separate careers, each going on to record four solo albums in the ’90s.
I like Forster and McLennan far more than I sometimes think I should. Once they get under your skin you’ll forgive them almost anything—and they’ll grant themselves the license to try it. Occasionally, they come up with something perfectly awful; I’m actually ashamed to play “The Pawnbroker,” from McLennan’s 1993 release, Fireboy, with the car windows down. But for every one of those, there are a dozen you love blindly, never thinking to be embarrassed until you’re introducing it to a neophyte. Bad date band, in other words. And it didn’t look like the far-from-capacity crowd at the 9:30 Club was risking its love life on a couple of perennial also-rans who built their careers with a bunch of anxious tunes about romantic dissolution. I went by myself. If you’re going to enjoy the Go-Betweens with anyone else, you’d better not need to explain why.
Puncture magazine once said that people who like the Go-Betweens don’t consider them an acquired taste, and that goes a long way toward explaining the fevered head-scratching the band’s lack of commercial success has always elicited from the faithful. By that measure, perhaps I don’t deserve to be a fan. I fell hard for the later stuff, but the earlier records can be tough going, and unlike Forster, I don’t consider their career highlights to be one missed hit single after another. His and McLennan’s sensibilities seem tailor-made for cult worship.
The Go-Betweens were pop for people who, to some extent, mistrust pop. When Beggars Banquet reissued the band’s catalog (with the unfortunate exception of the Capitol-held last album) several years ago, Forster and McLennan were secure and generous enough to include substantial quotes from a variety of reviews, not all of them glowing. An amusing pattern emerged: As output sweetened over the course of the decade, whenever the pop/anti-pop mix achieved balance in a writer’s ears, the corresponding release was hailed by that writer as a perfect pop record, the pinnacle of the band’s achievement, or the one that was going to break them out of the underground. This definitely isn’t one of those groups where everyone agrees on the strongest album.
It did seem right to consider Thursday’s pairing a proper reunion. The coming-attractions board at the club held a two-man promo shot, recent enough to have an e-mail address on it—labeled with the group name. Maybe Beggars Banquet was just plugging Bellavista Terrace, the third Go-Bs best-of produced for the American market, but when Forster announced that the one unreleased track they played, “He Lives My Life,” was from an album in progress, he took pains to note that he and McLennan were working on it together. There was a smattering of applause—less than you’d expect, perhaps because fans’ hopes for a new record have been dashed before, but maybe because the working title, Coffeeshop, which breaks the pattern of putting double-“l”s in the name of each Go-Betweens long-player (a rule Lovers Lane bends a bit), seems more appropriate for a solo effort.
The songwriters emphasized their collaborations, splitting lead vocal duties (and thus primary songwriting credit) nearly equally, drawing half their 22-song set from Lovers Lane and 1986’s Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express. They slighted their first LP and scavenged 1983’s Before Hollywood and 1984’s Spring Hill Fair for “Cattle and Cane” and “Bachelor Kisses,” respectively, both McLennan compositions that rate among the poppiest material from the first half of the band’s career. Only “Bye Bye Pride” and “Right Here,” again both McLennan’s, were drawn from 1987’s Tallulah. The set was rounded out with “Rock and Roll Friend,” a B-side Forster later recut as a solo track, and other solo material, including “Suicide at Home,” from McLennan’s import-only Faroutcorporation side project.
The standard comparison is of Forster’s Lennon to McLennan’s McCartney, and on record, in songwriting and temperament, it is generally borne out. Onstage, though, they merged, often singing choruses in unison and sometimes doubling guitar parts. Loose and clearly glad to be playing together, they toyed with their deliveries, Forster going for a touch of humor with a staccato verse of “Baby Stones,” McLennan paring back the melody on the chorus of “Streets of Your Town.” Heavily strummed rhythm guitar held sway throughout, unifying the set with a driving percussiveness and giving “Bachelor Kisses” a chunking, chiming coda. Trademark ruminative arpeggios broke though from time to time, particularly when a seated Forster accompanied a guitarless McLennan on “Cattle and Cane,” providing a fortuitous setting that freed the singer from the obvious bass doubling the vocal usually receives.
A good Go-Betweens song is like a good tape mix licking at the VU meter; it pushes the pretensiometer to red, flirting with the far side of the line. Forster and McLennan display many untrustworthy lyrical habits, among them keenly felt self-importance, obscure setups with bald payoffs, precious imagery, and love interests in the arts. And though many fans rightfully trumpet the duo’s tunefulness, rhyme is often supplanted by declamation, and vocal rhythm trumps melody. But when everything clicks, all these apparent faults have opened you up, made you vulnerable to the coup de grace. The height of their artiness turning back into art is McLennan’s “Was There Anything I Could Do?,” a propulsive version of which—weirdly interpolating a few bars of “Jesus Is Just Alright”—ended the first set of encores: A runaway lover—a painter, naturally—has sent a friend “A picture of her at the pyramids/A knife held to her heart.” The spiritual dabbler has traded “her guru” for “voodoo,” and just when you think you can’t handle any more, “I don’t say that I blame her/People don’t know what they want/If you spend your life looking behind you/You don’t see what’s up front.” There are days when I’ve lived for the way those last two lines, nearly tripping over each other, punch straight into the chorus.
The third and final set of encores closed with “Lee Remick,” from the recent Jetset release 78 ’til 79: The Lost Album. It’s a simple, straightforward piece of pop-punk star lust, a time capsule from the type of band the Go-Betweens chose not to be. Forster and McLennan must rate as two of the most deliberate performers in rock. They knew what they wanted and pursued it doggedly; they might have dallied with country or doo-wop, but neither ever made it past a B-side. With most pop stars, freedom is a thing they inexplicably find themselves awash in, and they wallow in it. With the Go-Betweens, freedom resulted from a choice not to do what anyone else could do. In a medium as filled with compromise and happenstance as rock, it’s an unusual pleasure to see artists being exactly what they like, no matter the cost. CP