Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express The Go-Betweens

10 Best Go-Betweens Songs

Robert Forster and Grant McLennan met at the University of Queensland. Despite McLennan’s lack of musical experience, they formed a band, combining the tunefulness of The Monkees with the edge of The Velvet Underground. Their first album was recorded as a three-piece, with drummer Lindy Morrison. After an uncertain debut, The Go-Betweens recorded a string of terrific albums in the 1980s before breaking up in 1989. Forster and McLennan reunited without the rest of the band in 2000, releasing three more albums before McLennan’s sudden passing in 2006.

Naturally, this ten-song selection is divided equally between McLennan and Forster – apart from their debut, all of The Go-Betweens’ studio albums followed this format. The pair embarked on solo careers but were never as good apart as together – McLennan’s warm romanticism complemented Forster’s angular artiness.

With only ten songs, there’s a ton of great stuff missing. Forster’s particularly unlucky, both with singles like ‘Spring Rain’ and ‘Head Full of Steam’, and beloved deep cuts like ‘You Can’t Say No Forever’ and ‘To Reach Me’, and the b-sides ‘Karen’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend’. I also couldn’t squeeze in the band’s biggest hit, McLennan’s ‘Streets of Your Town’, or the gorgeous ‘Bachelor Kisses’.

10 Best Go-Betweens Songs

#10 – The Wrong Road

Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express The Go-Betweens

from Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, 1985

Started out Oliver, ended up Fagin

Grant McLennan

‘The Wrong Road’ is an atypical track from The Go-Betweens. McLennan’s singing in a low register in the verse, and the strings give the song a portentous feel that’s different from their usual jangle. It has some of my favourite Go-Betweens lyrics though – “With the sound of a finished kiss/Like when a lip lifts from a lip” is poetry.


#9 – I Just Get Caught Out

Tallulah The Go-Betweens

from Tallulah, 1987

She wiped the hair right out of my eyes.
Tempted me through with desire.
I was trying my best at this stage.
To set myself on fire.

Robert Forster

My favourite Go-Betweens lineup – Forster, McLennan, and Morrison, along with Robert Vickers and Amanda Brown – only lasted for one album. 1987’s Tallulah is inconsistent, but that’s mainly because of McLennan’s uneven contributions like ‘Cut It Out’. Tallulah also boasts ‘The Clarke Sisters’, Forster’s tale of three sisters who sleep in the back of a feminist bookstore. My favourite Forster song on Tallulah is the urgency of ‘I Just Get Caught Out’. Barely over two minutes, it rides a great bassline from Robert Vickers and veers close to power-pop.


#8 – Unkind and Unwise

Spring Hill Fair The Go-Betweens

from Spring Hill Fair, 1984

The salt in the wind moves over the mudflats
Sticks to your skin and rusts up the lights,
Blows through the ferns that breathe in the dark,
I try to forget but it’s so hard.

Grant McLennan

Grant McLennan wrote a trilogy of songs referencing his childhood in Northern Queensland. They’re spread over three albums and they’re all excellent – ‘Cattle and Cane’ on Before Hollywood, ‘Unkind and Unwise’, and ‘The Ghost and the Black Hat’ from Liberty Belle. The lovely pre-chorus is the key part – “I turn to hold you but you’re gone”.


#7 – That Way

The Go-Betweens Before Hollywood

from Before Hollywood, 1983

In search of a new voice
You burnt all your lyrics
And flew to a new town

Grant McLennan

‘That Way’ was written for Peter Walsh of The Apartments, leaving Brisbane for New York. Like a lot of Before Hollywood it’s raw yet tuneful. Australian keyboardist Bernie Clarke contributes the lovely organ part that makes the song a little less austere.


#6 – Twin Layers of Lightning

Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express The Go-Betweens

from Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, 1985

Bouncers got no brains
He said both of you are barred
I had to set him straight
Listen Jack, don’t you know, I’m a star

Robert Forster

This deep cut is archetypal Forster, walking the line between sassy and awkward. There’s a lot happening in the arrangement too – there’s a muted out-of-tune piano in the background. ‘Twin Layers of Lightning’ is not unlike the post-punk of The Cure with the robust bass propelling the song underneath the haunting guitar lines.


#5 – Darlinghurst Nights

from Oceans Apart, 2005

Oceans Apart The Go-Betweens

Joe played the cello through those
Darlinghurst Nights

Robert Forster

Of The Go-Betweens’ three reunion albums in the 21st century, 2005’s Oceans Apart is easily the strongest. It’s Forster’s turn to wax nostalgic on ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, intoning his thoughts in a deeper, elder statesman voice. The horns are a great arrangement choice, transforming the song into a joyful celebration by its conclusion.


#4 – Dive For Your Memory

16 Lovers Lane The Go-Betweens

from 16 Lovers Lane, 1988

If the cliffs were any closer
If the water wasn’t so bad
I’d dive for your memory
On the rocks and the sand

Robert Forster

The final song on the final Go-Betweens album of the 1980s, ‘Dive For Your Memory’ is an elegiac end to their stellar 1980s output. Like a lot of Forster’s songs from the era, it’s presumably about the end of Forster’s relationship with Lindy Morrison. It’s a simple arrangement, with Amanda Brown’s oboe adding colour.


#3 – Cattle and Cane

from Before Hollywood, 1983

I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber

Grant McLennan

After a tentative debut album, The Go-Betweens’ artistic breakthrough came with sophomore effort Before Hollywood. The best-known song is McLennan’s ‘Cattle and Cane’. Like ‘Unkind and Unwise’ it references McLennan’s childhood in rural North Queensland, written when he was homesick in London. The verses are in an unusual 11/4 time signature, and the song was written on Nick Cave’s guitar while Cave was comatose after injecting heroin.


#2 – Clouds

16 Lovers Lane The Go-Betweens

from 16 Lovers Lane, 1988

Visions of blue
I’m angry I’m wise and you.
You’re under cloudy skies.

Robert Forster

On 16 Lovers Lane, the differences between Forster’s angular songs and McLennan’s melodicism are less pronounced. The tuneful and breezy ‘Clouds’ could easily be a McLennan song, bright but tinged with a touch of melancholy. John Willsteed only lasted one album in the band, but his bass and lead guitar provide a lusher sound than the band had enjoyed previously. Produced by Mark Wallis, 16 Lovers Lane was built up around demos of Forster and McLennan playing acoustic guitars and singing together.


#1 – Bye Bye Pride

from Tallulah, 1987

When a woman learns to walk
She’s not dependent anymore
A line from her letter
May 24

Grant McLennan

‘Bye Bye Pride’ is extremely simple, with most of the song cycling through two chords. But it’s effective, with a warm melody, typically excellent lyrics, and Amanda Brown adding colour with her oboe part. Robert Forster, who’s pursued a sideline as a music writer, states that “Grant’s majestic ‘Bye Bye Pride’, with one of the best opening lines ever, was a ten-foot wave driven by Lindy’s snare, with Amanda’s piping oboe the froth on top.”

Did I miss your favourite Go-Betweens songs? Apart from ‘Cattle and Cane’, there’s seemingly little consensus on what their best songs are – the run from Before Hollywood to 16 Lovers Lane, in particular, is stuffed with great songs.

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18 Comments

  1. Oh what a great post and so very cool tracks as your ten!
    I did post my own top 10 a couple of years ago, it was non-numbered:
    Karen
    Hold Your Horses
    Cattle And Cane
    Draining The Pool For You
    The Wrong Road
    The House That Jack Kerouac Built
    Dive For Your Memory
    Surfing Magazines
    Darlinghurst Nights
    Finding You
    but now I think, I would just have to take out that last song and swap for Here Comes A City.
    Also I was thinking about bring back my own top 10 posts but still don’t know?
    Cheers 🙂

    • I think I commented on your list back a couple of years ago. Four songs in common is pretty high for the Go-Betweens – there’s not a whole lot of consensus on their best work. I like Here Comes A City just for the line “And why do people who read Dostoevsky always look like Dostoevsky?” My brother-in-law totally looks like Dostoevsky.

      • Oh yeah, you did comment on that! Yeah again, 4 songs making both or each 10 we have selected is very bloody high but you really can’t go wrong with this band and I just love them to death! Oh yeah yet again, that line is totally wicked songwriting in Here Comes A City but more reasons for me: would be it’s got that punk rock vide which is right up my street, does even sound like a moving train, if you know what I mean? Epic opening album track tooo for an album which I think was one of the best and maybe even the very best but, off course know their 80’s should be higher or the best but like you’re saying no-one can really agree? Anyway most would say now it would have to be one the very best reunions of all-time or comebacks or whatever you call it? Has your brother-in-law read any Dostoevsky? Sorry for late reply, internet troubles etc. Have good weekend and cheers again mate 🙂

        • Oceans Apart is really good – it’s up with albums 2-6 for my money. I’m not super-keen on Finding You though – almost sounds like writing a hit to order.

          • Oh yeah, I guess that’s a very fair call! I didn’t think of that way before? Just wicked great songwriting plus have to say I do totally love Ed Kuepper cover, have you heard it?

            🙂

          • McLennan did have this natural warmth that allowed him to get away with some slightly cheesy stuff.

  2. The more I hear them the more I like them. The Monkees and Velvet Underground. That is an interesting combination…and it works. The Wrong Road is the one I know the best out of these…and Streets of Your Town that didn’t make it.

    • Yup, Before Hollywood has their best-loved song (‘Cattle and Cane’) and Liberty Belle is often the fan favourite.

    • Yup, they were never huge so you have to dig a bit to find them – they are featured on 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

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