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 broke up in 1989.
Forster and McLennan remained friends and reunited The Go-Betweens in the 21st century. They released two worthy but uninspiring albums before 2005’s Oceans Apart. The latter measured up to their 1980s peaks with some great songs. But as The Go-Betweens were regaining momentum, Grant McLennan passed away from a heart attack at the age of 48, ending the career of a brilliant yet overlooked 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 first album. McLennan later told Rave Magazine that “Send Me A Lullaby is to me an inauspicious debut”. Forster, in particular, is trying too hard for weirdness – the “I shot you with my….. camera” line from ‘Eight Pictures’ is particularly cringe-worthy. The iconic cover art is the album’s strongest point. Send Me A Lullaby is the only Go-Betweens album not to follow the standard formula of ten tracks, with five songs from each writer.
#8 Bright Yellow, Bright Orange
The Go-Betweens’ second reunion album is a little monotonous. The largely acoustic Bright Yellow, Bright Orange is well crafted, but it lacks the spark of The Go-Betweens’ best material. The country jangle of Forster’s ‘Too Much Of One Thing’ is one song worth discovering.
#7 The Friends of Rachel Worth
The Go-Betweens’ first reunion album was recorded with members of Sleater-Kinney. Accordingly, The Friends of Rachel Worth is alternative-flavoured and stripped-down, a stark follow-up 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, like the regretful ‘Part Company’ and the scathing ‘Draining The Pool For You’. McLennan’s writing is more scattershot, contributing both the gorgeous pop of ‘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 joined The Go-Betweens, and her skills on oboe and violin help fill out their sound for Tallulah. As with most of the band’s 1980s albums, Forster’s writing is excellent with overlooked deep cuts like ‘You Tell Me’ and ‘I Just Get Caught Out’. McLennan’s writing is more inconsistent – my favourite Go-Betweens track, ‘Bye Bye Pride’, shares space with the awkward and stilted funk of ‘Cut It Out’.
#4 Oceans Apart
The Go-Betweens’ third and final 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) 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.
#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 overdubs. Willsteed plays many of the guitar leads, while Morrison is often absent and replaced by a drum machine. 16 Lovers Lane boasts McLennan’s most consistent set of songs, with ‘Quiet Heart’ and the minor hit ‘Streets Of Your Town’. Forster’s writing is more approachable than usual with ‘Clouds’ and ‘Dive For Your Memory’.
Are you a fan of The Go-Betweens? Do you have a favourite album?
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