Brisbane’s The Go-Betweens are one of my favourite bands, but it’s sometimes difficult to explain their appeal. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are limited as guitarists and vocalists, but they balance each other beautifully; the edgier Forster was a fan of The Velvet Underground, while McLennan was a fan of The Monkees. Their songs are literate, graceful, and melodic. Apart from their debut, each of their albums has ten songs, five from each writer, and most of their album titles feature a pair of Ls.
The Go-Betweens’ 1981 debut Send Me A Lullaby was recorded as a three piece, with McLennan on bass and Lindy Morrison on drums. The group gradually expanded throughout the 1980s, adding English bass player Robert Vickers, and then multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown on violin and oboe. By 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane, the band’s sound was lush and layered, a drastic evolution from their austere early albums. But band tensions took their toll, with two pairs of lovers and former lovers, and the band called it a day in 1989.
Forster and McLennan remained friends, and reunited the band in the 21st century. They released two passable but uninspiring albums before 2005’s more ornate Oceans Apart, which measured up to their 1980s peak with some great songs. But as their career was regaining momentum, Grant McLennan passed away from a heart attack at the age of 48, ending the career of a great and over-looked band.
Here are The Go-Betweens’ nine studio albums, ranked from worst to best:
#9: Send Me A Lullaby
After some promising early singles, The Go-Betweens released an awkward debut album, where Forster in particular was trying too hard for weirdness. The “I shot you with my….. camera” line from ‘Eight Pictures’ is particularly cringe-worthy, and the iconic cover art is the album’s strongest point.
#8: Bright Yellow, Bright Orange
I’ve always found The Go-Betweens’ second reunion album a little monotonous – it’s largely acoustic, and well crafted, but it lacks the spark of their best material. The country jangle of Forster’s ‘Too Much Of One Thing’ is one song worth hearing.
#7: The Friends of Rachel Worth
The Go-Betweens’ first reunion album was recorded with members of Sleater-Kinney, and accordingly it’s alternative and stripped down, a stark followup to 16 Lovers Lane. Forster explains his post Go-Betweens’ activities on ‘German Farmhouse’, while McLennan shines on the haunting ‘Orpheus Beach’.
#6: Spring Hill Fair
The Go-Betweens’ first album as a four piece has great material from Forster, but McLennan’s writing is less consistent, contributing both the beautiful ‘Bachelor Kisses’ and the awkward experimentation of ‘River Of Money’. But like the next five albums on this list, Spring Hill Fair is an essential purchase for fans of the Go-Betweens.
Multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown had joined The Go-Betweens, and her skills on oboe and violin help fill out their sound. As with most of the band’s 1980s albums, Forster’s writing is excellent with overlooked songs like ‘You Tell Me’ and ‘I Just Get Caught Out’ but McLennan’s is a little inconsistent – ‘Bye Bye Pride’ is my favourite Go-Betweens song, but ‘Cut It Out’ is awkward white boy funk.
#4: Oceans Apart
The Go-Betweens’ third and last reunion album is easily their best of the 21st century, recapturing the lush sound of 16 Lovers Lane, and with memorable songs like Forster’s ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ and McLennan’s ‘No Reason To Cry’. Some of the early CDs have poor mastering jobs, however – I’m no audiophile, but it’s bad enough that I notice.
#3: Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express
Liberty Belle is a particularly solid effort from the band’s stellar run in the 1980s, and it’s a favourite of many dedicated fans. A crop-top wearing Forster emulates Prince on ‘Head Full Of Steam’ (and parodies him in its music video, below) while McLennan writes gorgeous songs like ‘The Wrong Road’ and ‘The Ghost and the Black Hat’.
#2: Before Hollywood
Before Hollywood is the great step forward for The Go-Betweens after their awkward debut. McLennan’s evocative ‘Cattle and Cane’ is the group’s signature song, while Forster balances his partner’s sweetness with the jerky new wave of ‘As Long As That’ and ‘Ask’. Bass player Robert Vickers signed up in time to appear in the music video for ‘Cattle and Cane’, below.
#1: 16 Lovers Lane
After spending much of the 1980s in the UK, The Go-Betweens returned to Australia and recorded their most accessible album. The recordings were built up from Forster and McLennan’s acoustic demos, with Amanda Brown and new bass player John Willsteed adding lushness with their overdubs – Willsteed plays many of the guitar leads – while Morrison is often absent and replaced by a drum machine. It’s McLennan’s most consistent set of songs, with ‘Quiet Heart’ and the minor hit ‘Streets Of Your Town’, while Forster is less insular than usual with ‘Clouds’ and ‘Dive For Your Memory’.
Are you a fan of The Go-Betweens? Do you have a favourite album?