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 (Forster was a fan of The Velvet Underground, and McLennan a fan of The Monkees), and 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.
But Forster and McLennan remained friends, and reunited the band in the 21st century without the other members. They released two passable but uninspiring albums before 2005’s lush Oceans Apart, which rivalled their 1980s albums 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 band. I’ve recently reviewed their debut, so it’s a good time to go through and rank The Go-Betweens’ albums from best to worst.
#9 – Send Me A Lullaby (1981)
The awkward debut, where McLennan contributes a few nice songs, but Forster’s trying too hard for weirdness. The “I shot you with my….. camera” line from ‘Eight Pictures is particularly awkward, and the iconic cover is perhaps the album’s strongest point.
#8 – Bright Yellow, Bright Orange (2003)
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.
#7 – The Friends of Rachel Worth (2001)
The Go-Betweens’ first reunion album was recorded with members of Sleater-Kinney, and it’s alternative and stripped down, a different approach from their lush records in the second half of the 1980s.
#6 – Spring Hill Fair (1984)
The band’s first album as a four piece has great material from Forster, but McLennan’s a little scattershot, 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 Go-Betweens fans.
#5 – Tallulah (1987)
Multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown 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 inconsistent – ‘Bye Bye Pride’ is my favourite Go-Betweens song, but ‘Cut It Out’ is awkward white boy funk.
#4 – Oceans Apart (2005)
The Go-Betweens’ third and last reunion album is easily their best from the 21st century, recapturing the lush sound of 16 Lovers Lane, and with great 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 (1986)
A particularly solid effort from the band’s stellar run in the 1980s, and one which I suspect is a favourite of many hardcore 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 (1983)
A huge step forward from the awkward debut from the Australian three piece. McLennan’s terse, autobiographic ‘Cattle and Cane’ is perhaps the group’s signature song, while Forster contributes the jerky new wave of ‘As Long As That’ and ‘Ask’. Bass player Robert Vickers joined in time to appear in the music video for ‘Cattle and Cane’, below.
#1 – 16 Lovers Lane (1988)
After spending much of the 1980s in the UK, the group returned to Australia and recorded their most accessible album. The recordings were largely based off Forster and McLennan’s acoustic guitars and voices, with Amanda Brown and new bass player John Willsteed adding lushness with their overdubs – Willsteed plays a lot of 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 arty than usual with ‘Clouds’ and ‘You Can’t Say No Forever’.
Are you a fan of The Go-Betweens? Do you have a favourite album?