Fresh Stream

The Go-Betweens — G Stands For Go-Betweens (Box Set)

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We all know that our friends at the Boston Hassle are focused on bringing you the freshest of the fresh cream on the music scene, but I am glad (and you should be glad too) that they gave me the nod on writing a piece on the new GO-BETWEENS box set, G Stands For Go-Betweens – Volume One (Domino).

Although the intimately conceived set essentially represents the first half of the fabled Australian band’s classic 1980s oeuvre (Volume Two is certainly forthcoming), it also serves up an exotic feast of 70 rarities, including nearly 50 previously unreleased cuts—46 to be exact, according to my research—a number that neither Domino nor the box set’s producer seemed to count.

Perhaps the exact number of new discoveries didn’t matter to Domino because they knew devout fans were going to buy this up no matter what (which they did—the run is already sold out, though it appears as though a small overrun might be made available), or it could be because they were worried that they might not have enough exciting new goodies to offer (all six of the Go-Betweens’ original studio albums from the ’80s have previously been reissued on CD with the best of the rarities offered up already, not to mention the 1999 CD release of 1978–1979: The Lost Album). But whatever the reason, 46 unreleased recordings is good enough for the Hassle to deem this fresh cream for the stream, and for that cause, I am the captain of your team.

The 4 LP + 4 CD set includes remastered editions of the Go-Betweens’ first three albums—Send Me A Lullaby, Before Hollywood, and Spring Hill Fair—plus a new LP containing the group’s first five singles and B-sides (spanning 1978–1982), all complemented with 4 CDs of rarities. To write anything new about any already available Go-Betweens music is just poetry at this point. Therefore we really just need to cut right to the new stuff here. But first don’t you need just a little bit of colorful background on just who these guys and gals were and what they did? Come on, don’t you?

If you don’t really know this band, I envy you. I remember being much like you—one of the small handful of people reading a review written by some passionate fan with questionable devotion, writing about songs written 30 years ago by a band from just about as far away from the US as you can possibly get: Brisbane, Australia. I remember reading a review in the pages of a music zine (probably something dubious like the Toledo City Paper) and thinking, “God, these guys sound really serious and arty and unrelenting and difficult.” Perfect.

To really add some context to this box set, we have to first settle on a framework within which to understand these once young and dilettantish noise-makers. It’s a story that must be told in stages. Stage 1 started off in the late ’70s as a collaboration between ardent young songwriter Robert Forster and newcomer Grant McLennan, a non-musician (actually an aspiring film critic) who learned how to play the bass to Forster’s songs out of sheer determination. The duo would spend the first few years of their existence recording a number of roughly assembled, clever pop songs (about a knowing librarian with great taste in books, or an artist on a Vespa who always stays warm in their own private sun) with a series of sidemen and drummers. The two would play the milk to each other’s cereal for the course of the Go-Between’s career: Forster, the ever-dramatic, almost vampyrish frontman; and McLennan, the starry-eyed, boozing, melodic foil.

Stage 2 began immediately before the recording of their first studio album, the sparse and angular Send Me a Lullaby (1982), with the addition of drummer (and lover to Forster) Lindy Morrison. With her utterly distinctive, choppy rhythmic sense combined with a knack for cutting up time into the oddest numbers, Morrison added an essential component to the group’s sound and development from ragtag pop to angular art-rock. While McLennan was now contributing his own songs, Morrison still is quite arguably the second most important member of the group at this point, much in the same way that Mo Tucker might have been the second most important member of the Velvet Underground in the early stages of that group’s career (a comparison that the Go-Betweens have always courted). This stage would reach its apex on their second studio album, the critically beloved Before Hollywood (which reached #2 on the UK indie charts upon its release in 1983), and would wind down with the more sterile production effort on 1984’s Spring Hill Fair. This is approximately when the romantic relationship between Forster and Morrison ended and is also coincidentally how far this box set goes.

Stage 3 of the Go-Betweens would run through the second half of the 1980s and would include three more albums with an expanded band, an improved consistency in songwriting, and a folkier, more conventional alt-rock sound. (I expect this is what volume two of this box-set should cover.) Stage 4 represented a decade of quasi-estrangement, where Forster and McLennan worked away on their respective solo careers. Stage 5, the finale, represented the reuniting of the two now very accomplished songwriters and three more albums as the Go-Betweens (minus Morrison) between 2000 and 2005, which would all end abruptly with the sad and untimely death of McLennan from a heart attack in 2006.

As a natural consequence of this, G Stands For Go-Betweens comes across as a loving memorial to McLennan. Among its contents are a truly remarkable book largely penned by Forster (oddly, in the third person) that is part scrapbook and part biography. It opens with the handwritten lyrics to McLennan’s “Cattle and Cane,” arguably the group’s most well-known song. It ends with a collection of McLennan’s unpublished poems. Throughout the book, as his friend and partner’s flotsam and B-sides are mentioned in passing, it is always with a glowing qualifier. Fantastic, writes Forster of McLennan’s “Second Hand Furniture.” “This Girl, Black Girl?” Exquisite. It’s not out of character for the Go-Betweens to be their own biggest fans, considering that they are a band formed on a manifesto of extreme fandom of everything from the Monkees’ music (Yes, the Monkees were brilliant. Get over it) to Robert Altman films to Raymond Chandler books. In fact, the very title of this box set refers to the band’s own alphabetical pantheon, in which the letter g stands for their own namesake. While Grant’s spirit abounds, there is far less mention of Lindy Morrison in Forster’s meanderings—no surprise considering her physical and psychological excision from the band so many years ago.

Grant McLennan sports a manly flannel on the cover of 1983's Before Hollywood

A price of $160 for the collection is a bit much, considering how much discretionary income young fans are likely to have. But frankly, this set might not be for them. Rather, this might be more about increasing the legend of the band, much in the way that Robert Harbin’s secret-revealing, limited-edition magic book from 1970 now sells for thousands of dollars. That said, the original Go-Betweens records are pretty much impossible to find (I’ve found just one in the wild—their last album, 16 Lovers Lane, which is one of my great prizes) and go for around 40 bucks apiece. So, three of those early records, plus this new singles/B-sides compilation LP starts to sound like a pretty fair deal when you add in four CDs of rarities and a book that is easily worth $25 on the shelf. As far as the issue of remastering goes, I can’t really say since, to be completely honest, I’ve never heard the original LPs featured here. To me, the songs sound like the same remastering job from the CD reissues of the last 10–20 years, but that probably says more about my audiophilic standards than the actual product here. That said, to hear the first five Go-Betweens A-sides as a cohesive statement is a thing to marvel at. From the early Monkees-esque “Lee Remick” (not everybody is thinking of the Ramones when they do group sing-along choruses) to the jangle-pop classic “People Say” to the Go-Betweens’ own pièce de résistance (more on that later), the turning and twisting “Hammer the Hammer.”

But onto the rarities. Rarities Volume 1 is rich in curiosities but low in overall quality. It begins with a set highlight, the mod-pop “I Wanna Be Today” (which offers a nod to Australian heroes the Easybeats), and interesting but ultimately flaccid rehearsal demos of “People Say” and the dashing “Don’t Let Him Come Back.” We then quickly move into a selection of tracks that overlaps the previously reissued Lost Album CD. Previously heard selections appear here at significantly slower speeds, which begs the question as to whether the Lost Album contained sped-up mixes to make the band sound more sprightly, or if this box set contains slowed-down mixes. Because there can be no logical reason for the latter, we must conclude that we are now hearing the Go-Betweens’ earliest demos at their original speed, and it’s not a flattering discovery. While it could be the result of tape damage, the overall effect reinforces the notion that Forster and McLennan weren’t very picky in the early days when it came to tuning, tempos, and feel. Performances are flat and mistakes are abundant. That said, the songs do have a certain mystique, as a total of 11 unheard tracks from the Lost Album era reinforces. An early version of “Eight Pictures” (officially released on the band’s debut album) shows Forster nervously teetering on the line “I shot you with my Kodak,” conjuring his most obsessive Jonathan Richman persona. An unearthed take of “Help or Something” tumbles with an infectious yet casual energy that most associate with the not-yet-arrived New Zealand pop scene. However, most of the previously unheard Go-Betweens juvenilia is just as it was described by insider David Nichols in his 1997 biography of the band—not terribly worth hearing. Songs like “The Night” and “Beachcomber” are bland and repetitive—and don’t catch Forster and McLennan singing about much of real interest. Perhaps one conclusion to make here is that the compilers of the Lost Album CD did a pretty incredible job both in selecting the very best of the early demos (which they did, with a conclusive yes) and in adjusting the speed to give the recordings a bit of needed luster.

Rarities Volume 2 shows the band metamorphosing into the sound that they would ultimately become known for once Morrison joined the group, yet it still eludes the ultimate mystery of all—where did that disjointed, zig-zag sound come from? Ultimately the answer here is the same one that we find in the birth of any real poet. The transition does seem to come overnight and as if by magic. One day he or she can do something that simply was not possible the day before. This disc finds much overlap with the 1981 bootleg LP release Very Quick on the Eye (never released on CD), which collected several early versions of songs that would appear on the band’s official 1982 debut LP. The recordings previously unheard here include “It Took You A Week” and “Day After Tomorrow” (early versions of “The Girls Have Moved” and “Hold Your Horses”) that, while stiffer and clumsier than their eventual released versions, do hold a little insight into the development of the band. In particular, Forster’s more traditional relationship-focused lyrics in “Day After Tomorrow” (“You wait/Why don’t I wait?”) show how much more he would evolve in a short year toward the vocal direction of his hero-apparent Tom Verlaine. That opening couplet would eventually evolve into the appreciably more evocative “Under blue skies/Under your eyes.” Otherwise, it’s very difficult, as already stated, to mark the shift towards the discovery of their own sound—though it is a fair assessment to say that their post-garage phase found here shows them getting messier, only to get untangled later. The gloomy mass of twang and discord heard on this volume would emerge as the chiseled countermelodies heard live on disc 3. It would just take them a couple more months.

This brings us to perhaps the most interesting part of the set, Rarities Volume 3, which includes a full live concert recorded at the Mosman Hotel (in Mosman, Australia) on April 23, 1982. Recorded just five months after the release of Send Me a Lullaby (and a full year prior to the release of Before Hollywood), this robust and rowdy soundboard-quality recording offers a pristine view into the now fully developed sound of the new professionals (and modest applause to the tune of VU’s Max’s Kansas City dates). Twelve songs here offer five cuts from Lullaby, two from Hollywood, and a trio of songs that never went anywhere and don’t make much of an impression here, plus singles “I Need Two Heads” and the just-released “Hammer the Hammer.” By now the band is operating in lockstep to Morrison’s grooves, with Forster’s lean but crooked guitar figures intersecting in jigsaw patterns with McLennan’s similar guitar-like bass melodies (he was never a real bass player and quickly switched over to guitar with the addition of new bassist Robert Vickers in late 1983). Forster is an overeager but able front man here, fawning over McLennan’s request for more light and introducing “I Need Two Heads” as the song that put the band on the “road to success” when they had yet to have a hit (though Before Hollywood would indeed be a hit for Rough Trade Records).

On “Metal and Shells” (which would become the song “Before Hollywood”), Forster and McLennan are still singing the choruses in unison, but it doesn’t sound like the Monkees anymore—here it sounds more modal and unsettling, as if invented by twins sharing a language. Forster’s “Your Turn, My Turn” has the preening campiness of Television’s “Torn Curtain.” A new attitude and confidence can be heard in the group’s “Careless.” This carries over into “It Could Be Anyone,” which finds the band working in a fuller, funkier, groove-based sound reminiscent of Talking Heads. Without question, though, the standout here is the group’s then brand-new single “Hammer the Hammer,” which comes off as the perfect metaphor for the dueling singers here—one hammer (Forster) pounding against the other (McLennan). The song is the perfect blend of sections, riffs, breaks, melodies, hooks, and deft pop, and shows exactly why they were about to become legitimate underground stars.

Finally we have Rarities Volume 4, which catches the band in between Before Hollywood and Spring Hill Fair. This would prove to be a pivotal time for the band, as they began to embrace a more studio-friendly sound that ironed out a lot of their innate musical weirdness. While this was very bad for Lindy Morrison, who now had to play to a metronome, we have to remember that Loaded was still a great Velvet Underground album—even though Mo Tucker didn’t play on it at all. As history would show, once put to the test of being pop craftsmen, the Go-Betweens would indeed be able to rise to the challenge. And so, naturally for a pop lover like me, disc 4 is a favorite, as it breathes life into a flawed/stiff Spring Hill Fair. In sum, more than half of the Go-Betweens’ third album is revisited here in never-heard demo form, including a funky “Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea,” along with exceedingly romantic, less-polished early takes of “Part Company,” “Bachelor Kisses,” “Unkind and Unwise,” and a Peel Session version of “Five Words” with alternate lyrics that injects much-welcomed fun and swing into the composition. Fans will also soak up the addition of a few more live recordings from Robert Vickers’ first show with the band, including a plenty sweet “Cattle and Cane” that reminds us why this is, for many, the song that launched a thousand ships.

Not many will hear this box set, and the legend of the Go-Betweens continues. Just knowing that a band like them “made it” makes me feel, in no small way, that all of us who have dreamed similar dreams have made it too.

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