It’s difficult to explain the appeal of Australian indie band The Go-Betweens; Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are neither strikingly talented guitarists nor vocalists. But despite their limitations, they made some great albums during the 1980s, eloquent, literate, melodic, and honest, with the focus on Forster and McLennan’s accomplished songwriting.
McLennan is the more straightforward writer of the pair, while Forster writes angular and spiky songs, and the two balance each other very well; their solo records are far less compelling than their group efforts. Apart from their debut, Send Me A Lullaby, each Go-Betweens album featured precisely five songs from each writer, while most of their albums featured “LL” in the title.
Forster’s described their sound as a hybrid of The Monkees and The Velvet Underground; a good description of the way the group deliver accessible and literate pop songs with an amateur enthusiasm and an adventurous spirit. The group originated in Brisbane, where Forster and McLennan studied literature, but spent much of the 1980s in England.
The Go-Betweens’ career had two tenures; the first was between 1978 and 1990, when McLennan and Forster’s main collaborators were drummer Lindy Morrison and bass player Robert Vickers. Amanda Brown joined the band on oboe and violin for 1987’s Tallulah. Over the 1980s, The Go-Betweens consisted of two couples; Forster and Morrison, and McLennan and Brown, complicating band dynamics and contributing to the band’s initial dissolution in 1990.
Forster and McLennan reformed the band in 2000, releasing three more albums before McLennan’s sudden death from a heart attack in 2006; while the reunion albums are weaker overall than their earlier work, Oceans Apart was a fine swansong to their career. Forster’s since carved out a successful career as a music journalist and published several books.
I’ve only covered the original albums, but their 1980s albums have been re-released with bonus discs – I have some of them, and there’s definitely some good material in their b-sides; if you’re a fan you’ll want to hear songs like ‘Second Hand Furniture’, ‘Rock and Roll Friend’, and ‘That Girl Black Girl’. They also released a two-disc DVD That Striped Sunlight Sound in 2005 – the live set is competent but unexciting, but there’s a great bonus disc where Forster and McLennan play some of their best-loved songs on acoustic guitars and discuss them. This is the highlight of That Striped Sunlight Sound‘s first disc – a gorgeous acoustic version of ‘Clouds’, which incorporates a verse from Dylan’s ‘Love Minus Zero’.
The Go-Betweens Album Reviews
Send Me A Lullaby | Before Hollywood | Spring Hill Fair | Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express | Tallulah | 16 Lovers Lane | The Friends Of Rachel Worth | Bright Yellow Bright Orange | Oceans Apart
Robert Forster solo
Send Me A Lullaby
Recorded in Melbourne with the Birthday Party’s producer, Send Me A Lullaby is a mere shadow of the great albums that The Go-Betweens would produce for the remainder of the 1980s. It’s a strange mixture of self-consciousness and weird artiness, and doesn’t often capture the promise of early singles like ‘Karen’, ‘People Say’, and ‘Lee Remick’. It also breaks the group’s template; it’s the only Go-Betweens album to not feature exactly five songs from each writer. On the positive side, Lindy Morrison’s drumming is already distinctive and interesting, and the group occasionally get an interesting sound from their technically limited three-piece, like on the opener ‘Your Turn, My Turn’.
Robert Forster’s ‘Eight Pictures’ is particularly awkward, with its ‘I shot you with …. my camera’ punchline, and a painful five-minute running time. Meanwhile, the best material is McLennan’s – opener ‘Your Turn, My Turn’ captures the potential of the weird sounding three-piece, while ‘All About Strength’ is robust and muscular.
The Go-Betweens improved significantly after this underwhelming debut – their follow-up Before Hollywood is a huge step forward, featuring the signature song ‘Cattle and Cane’.
The Go-Betweens’ second album, and the last the group recorded as a three-piece, was their critical breakthrough, containing their signature song ‘Cattle and Cane’. Guitarist/songwriter Robert Forster, bassist/songwriter Grant McLennan and drummer Lindy Morrison had moved to London following their debut, and signed with Rough Trade. Before Hollywood was recorded in Eastbourne’s International Christian Communication Studios, with minimal overdubs, although guest keyboardist Bernard Clarke provides graceful piano on ‘Dusty In Here’ and swirling organ on ‘That Way’.
Despite the thin sound – the group’s other first-tier records (Liberty Belle, 16 Lovers Lane, and Oceans Apart) are all much more studio-based and lushly produced – Before Hollywood stands up as one of the group’s best records, one of their most consistent sets of songs. It’s McLennan’s childhood reminiscence ‘Cattle and Cane’ that’s the most memorable song here, recently voted as one of the ten greatest Australian songs of all time, with its weird time signature and nostalgic lyrics (“I recall a schoolboy coming home/through fields of cane/to a house of tin and timber.”) The organ-led ‘That Way’, which sounds like a cross between The Monkees, Bob Dylan, and Television (a conglomeration which sums up the group’s sound pretty well) shows McLennan’s ability in well-crafted, understated pop. McLennan’s other stunner is the minimalist, understated ‘Dusty In Here’, almost pared down to a lonely piano. Balancing McLennan’s nostalgia and romanticism, Forster’s nervy pop is tense and hooky. ‘As Long As That’ (“I’ve got a feeling, sounds like a fact”) is his most accessible, while ‘Ask’ and ‘On My Block’ throw lots of energy around.
One of the best, and most overlooked, records to come out of late new wave, the austerity of Before Hollywood is distinct from the group’s subsequent albums, but excellent nonetheless.
Spring Hill Fair
The Go-Betweens became a four-piece, adding bassist Robert Vickers to the band. With Grant McLennan moving to lead guitar, the band sound much fuller than before, and Robert Forster’s material is more conventional, forgoing jerky new wave in favour of more conventional pop, although his material is still more fractured than McLennan’s. So conceivably, Spring Hill Fair could have been the album where the Go-Betweens crossed over to the mainstream, spearheaded by the transcendent opener ‘Bachelor Kisses’ (“Don’t believe what you heard/Faithful’s not a bad word”). They didn’t, and never progressed much further than an enthusiastic cult following, but from this point on it gets difficult to see why, beyond Forster and McLennan’s plain singing voices. Spring Hill Fair was recorded in jazz keyboardist Jacques Loussier’s Cannes studio; Loussier contributes Prophet synth to Forster’s ‘Part Company’
The widened sound palette allows the group to try more things, and for better and worse Spring Hill Fair is more diverse than the low key Before Hollywood. Most notably, ‘River Of Money’ features a spoken McLennan vocal over a backdrop of a repetitive bass-line and loud guitars, and it’s one of the weaker pieces on the disc. But elsewhere, McLennan’s ultra-melodic and accessible; as well as the acknowledged genius of ‘Bachelor Kisses’, the more overlooked ‘Unkind and Unwise’ is almost hymn-like childhood reminiscence, a sequel to ‘Cattle and Cane’. But McLennan is eclipsed by Forster on Spring Hill Fair: a fuller four-piece version of the single ‘Man O’ Sand To Girl O’ Sea’ lacks the raw energy of the original, but it’s still worth a revisit, while ‘Draining The Pool For You’ tells the tale of a disgruntled employee of a celebrity, and ‘Part Company’ is an ambiguous kiss-off, set off by Loussier’s keyboard.
I’d rank Spring Hill Fair behind the more coherent albums that bookend it, but it’s still a fine effort.
Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express
Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express has the same lineup as Spring Hill Fair and it’s a more mature and more disciplined follow-up. Robert Forster has stated that his favourite Go-Betweens albums from the 1980s were the even-numbered ones, so fourth album Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express is one of the strong ones.
Forster dominates the record with the singles ‘Head Full Of Steam’ (apparently an attempt to emulate Prince!) and ‘Spring Rain’, both melodic and driving. ‘To Reach Me’ throws in a great lead break, before its memorable “Ruth said/Ruth said/She said/That you once disapproved/How could anyone disapprove of me?” middle eight, while ‘Twin Layers Of Lightning’ emulates Morrissey.
Grant McLennan writes another evocative childhood song, ‘The Ghost And The Black Hat’, while a string section underpins his gorgeous epic ‘The Wrong Road’ (“When the rain hit the roof/With the sound of a finished kiss/Like a lip lifted up from a lip”). Some of McLennan’s second half compositions aren’t as convincing – ‘In The Core Of A Flame’ has a surprisingly banal “that’s the right word/Cos I love you” chorus – and ‘Apology Accepted’ overstays its welcome despite its heartfelt lyric.
Often a fan favourite, Liberty Belle is another excellent entry into the catalogue of an excellent, literate, and overlooked band.
Classically trained multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown joined The Go-Betweens for Tallulah, and her skills on violin, oboe, guitar, and keyboards helped usher in the band’s most commercially oriented era. The Go-Betweens benefited from a lusher, more detailed sound – the richly textured 16 Lovers Lane and Oceans Apart are among their most successful albums.
Song for song, however, Tallulah isn’t the most consistent Go-Betweens album, mostly due to inconsistent writing from Grant McLennan. It’s almost as if he’d put all his effort into one song – the sublime ‘Bye Bye Pride’ might be my favourite entry in the entire Go-Betweens’ catalogue, a warm, enigmatic breakup song (“When a woman learns to walk she’s not dependent anymore/A line from her letter May 24”). But McLennan’s other songs are all flawed – ‘Right Here’ squanders a great verse melody and terrific lyrics on a predictable chorus, while ‘Someone Else’s Wife’ and ‘Hope Then Strife’ mostly come alive on their dynamic choruses. ‘Cut It Out’ is the most awkward song the Go-Betweens ever put on an album, with an unnatural funk rhythm and stilted female vocals. Both ‘Right Here’ and ‘Cut It Out’ were recorded with producer Craig Leon at the behest of the record label, but the stiff feel of these tracks isn’t right for The Go-Betweens.
On the other hand, Robert Forster’s material is becoming more aligned with McLennan’s melodic pop – ‘You Tell Me’ and ‘I Just Get Caught Out’ are hooky and urgent, while ‘The House That Jack Kerouac Built’ is haughty and compelling. Only ‘The Clarke Sisters’ steps into arty territory and its portraits of three feminist bookstore workers are engrossing.
When Tallulah works it’s amazing, and I’ve spent more time with it than any other Go-Betweens release.
16 Lovers Lane
The Go-Betweens had been quietly releasing some excellent albums throughout the 1980s, but 16 Lovers Lane is their peak. It features their strongest lineup instrumentally, with new member John Willsteed officially the bass player but adding lots of guitar parts, and producer Mark Wallis adding an ornate sheen. The album also contains Robert Forster’s most accessible set of songs and Grant McLennan’s most consistent set. With Wallis working from Forster and McLennan’s acoustic demos, he broadens their range; McLennan’s ‘The Devil’s Eye’ is pared down almost to acoustic guitar, while Forster’s ‘You Can’t Say No Forever’ is given a dance-able rhythm and sassy blaxploitation guitar.
Forster writes his prettiest material ever – ‘Clouds’, ‘Dive For Your Memory’, ‘I’m Allright’ and ‘Love Is A Sign’ are all sweetly melodic, underscored by Amanda Brown’s oboe. McLennan’s five songs are all winners, ranging in mood from the aggressive, punchy ‘Was There Anything I Could Do?’, through the exuberance of ‘Love Goes On!’ and the melancholic resignation of ‘Quiet Heart’.
Quite simply, 16 Lovers Lane is one of the best pop albums by anyone, a superb final statement before 12 years of silence.
The Friends Of Rachel Worth
Although Robert Forster and Grant McLennan had maintained a friendship and played live together since The Go-Betweens breakup, a full-fledged reunion didn’t occur until 2000 with the recording of The Friends Of Rachel Worth in Portland, Oregon. Understandably, having former lovers Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown in the band again wasn’t a desirable option. Forster and McLennan recruited bassist Adele Pickvance, a permanent fixture in The Go-Betweens’ second incarnation, and drummer Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney. The other Sleater-Kinney members guest on McLennan’s ‘Going Blind’.
As much as The Friends Of Rachel Worth is a reinstatement of the classic Go-Betweens formula, back to ten songs equally shared between Forster and McLennan, it’s also different from the relatively ornate studio craft that the group pursued on Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane. Instead, the sound is more alternative and stripped down, which can be problematic on some of the acoustic tracks which are more monotonous than necessary.
The record isn’t helped by the fact that it gets off to a slow, low-key start; although McLennan is often sentimental, opener ‘Magic In Here’ is more hackneyed than one would expect on a Go-Betweens album (“Now the coast is clear/You’ve got no time to fear”) while acoustic first drop ‘Spirit’ is pleasant but exposes Forster’s lack of vocal chops. But apart from Forster’s irritating ‘Surfing Magazines’, the rest of the album is surprisingly solid. Forster rocks on ‘German Farmhouse’, a song that explains what he did after The Go-Betweens breakup, while McLennan’s ‘Heart And Home’ has a beautiful melody and joint lead vocal from Forster and McLennan. The more enigmatic pieces that close the disc are also effective – McLennan’s ‘Orpheus Beach’ is melodic and haunting, while Forster’s Patti Smith tribute ‘When She Sang About Angels’ asks “When she sang about a boy/Kurt Cobain/I thought what a shame/It wasn’t about Tom Verlaine.”
You’d have to go all the way back to Send Me A Lullaby to find a less accomplished Go-Betweens record, but it’s a respectable reunion nonetheless, and the start of an ultimately rewarding second tenure.
Bright Yellow Bright Orange
The second installment in the reunion trilogy from The Go-Betweens is also the least noteworthy of the trio. Forster and McLennan recruited a new permanent backing band with bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson. After The Friends Of Rachel Worth dabbled with alternative rock, Bright Yellow Bright Orange returns to more familiar territory, consisting almost entirely of mid-tempo, semi-acoustic folk-rock. While this sounds like a step in the right direction, it’s not; it still lacks the lushness that characterised their best period late albums like 16 Lovers Lane and Oceans Apart.
Even more markedly, it’s easily the least interesting set of songs that Forster and McLennan have compiled on a studio record. It’s not surprising that Forster’s verbose, autobiographical ‘Too Much Of One Thing’ was the only song to make the Striped Sunlight Sound DVD that followed Oceans Apart; alternatively titled “The Ballad Of The Go-Betweens”, it’s a likable, jaunty, piece of country-rock. But apart from McLennan’s melodic ‘Mrs Morgan’, and the piano-based closer ‘Unfinished Business’, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange is all mid-tempo, acoustic guitar-based music. It’s meticulously written and crafted, but fails to capture the spark of the Go-Betweens at their best.
After two worthy, but unspectacular, additions to their canon, The Go-Betweens reunion suddenly clicked to wonderful effect on the third time around. This is easily Forster and McLennan’s best set of songs from their reunion. Sonically the album returns to the lusher sound of Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane, and it’s a welcome reversion.
The first half of Oceans Apart is loaded with concise, accessible pop songs; Forster contributes the opening ‘Here Comes A City’, reminiscent of early Talking Heads, with lyrics like “Why do people who read Dostoevsky always look like Dostoevsky?” McLennan might be shooting too close to radio fodder with the pretty ‘Finding You’, but his other first-half contributions are magnificent; ‘No Reason To Cry’ launches from regret (“fifteen years since we last spoke”) into a soaring guitar solo, while ‘Boundary Rider’ is cut from the same elegant, nostalgic cloth as ‘Cattle and Cane’ and ‘Unkind and Unwise’. The second half of the album is more ambitious and more ambiguous; Forster’s ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ builds over six minutes, eventually overlaying a horn section over Forster’s punchy guitar riff. McLennan’s ‘The Statue’ dives headlong into a hypnotic guitar riff, drum machine and synthesiser based arrangement, before opening into a pretty acoustic bridge (“They say that ice will melt”), while ‘This Night’s For You’ marries bouncy pop and pretty harmonies to outbursts of crashing rhythm guitars. Forster’s low key ‘The Mountains Near Dellray’ provides a suitably enigmatic conclusion.
While the group weren’t aware of it while making Oceans Apart, it proved to be their last album, as McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006, especially sad as prior to McLennan’s death, Forster had stated in interviews that McLennan had been writing some of his best-ever songs. Still, it seems unlikely they would have topped this record, which is an extremely satisfying final album and a fitting elegy to one of pop music’s most overlooked bands.
Strangely, the mastering job on the original album is noticeably substandard – there’s obvious distortion, particularly on ‘This Night’s For You’, although apparently there’s a remaster that fixes these issues.
Ten Favourite Go-Betweens Songs
Bye Bye Pride
Cattle and Cane
Dive For Your Memory
Twin Layers of Lightning
Unkind and Unwise
I Just Get Caught Out
The Wrong Road
Robert Forster Solo Albums
Danger in the Past
Robert Forster and Grant McLennan had already recorded demos for a seventh Go-Betweens album, with the working titles Freakchild and Botany. But in 1989 they instead decided to split. Robert Derwent Garth Forster relocated to Germany, moving to Bavaria to be with future wife Karin Bäumler. For his solo debut, Danger in the Past, Forster worked with Mick Harvey, in Berlin at the time, who acted as producer and multi-instrumentalist.
Harvey bought in fellow Bad Seeds Hugo Race and Thomas Wyndler, and the resulting album has a country-tinged, spartan elegance that’s markedly different from the lushness of the preceding Go-Betweens records. The band worked quickly, recording 3-4 songs a day based on Forster’s demos. The cover shot was based on a photo of James Joyce that Forster had noticed at Ravensburg University, adding to the air of elegant austerity.
Danger in the Past is the most loved of Forster’s solo albums from the 1990s. With a cache of material left over from the Go-Betweens, Forster already had a strong set of songs. The six strangled minutes of ‘Dear Black Dream’ are quintessentially Forster, with the memorable line “Wondering who sings better in the dark/is it Townes Van Zandt, or is it Guy Clark?” ‘Baby Stones’ is a fine opener, with the line “You say, you want to take a lover/Although you’re satisfied with me.”
Forster’s haughty nerviness is one-dimensional without McLennan to balance him, but Danger in the Past is still a fine solo debut.
Calling from a Country Phone
1993, not rated
Recorded in Australia, with a band that included Glenn Thompson, future drummer in The Go-Betweens Mk II. Features the country-ish ‘Falling Star’.
I Had a New York Girlfriend
1994, not rated
A covers album. Forster interprets some songs from obvious influences: Guy Clark’s ‘Broken Hearted People’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Tell Me That Isn’t True’. He also takes on some less expected writers, like Neil Diamond and ‘Locked Away’ from Keith Richards’ Talk is Cheap.
1996, not rated
Forster’s fourth album was produced by Edwyn Collins, leader of the Scottish band Orange Juice, and a contemporary of The Go-Betweens in the early 1980s indie scene. Collins had recently enjoyed a huge hit with ‘A Girl Like You’. The album contains a re-working of the excellent 16 Lovers Lane b-side, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend’.
Intermission (Robert Forster disc)
In 2006, the two chief Go-Betweens each compiled 13 of their solo tracks from the 1990s for a joint compilation, a few weeks before McLennan’s death. While McLennan’s disc features songs that sound like hits, Forster’s isn’t as radio-friendly, and not necessarily suited to a compilation.
Forster’s solo material from the 1990s tends towards plain-spoken, stately country. Danger From The Past is generally reckoned as Forster’s best record of the 1990s and its material is strong. Other highlights include the dramatic cabaret of ‘Crying Love’, with Forster posturing like Nick Cave’s joyful twin, and the country of ‘Falling Star’.
Intermission is a good summation of The Go-Betweens’ solo careers, but Forster’s disc is a less satisfying listen than Danger in the Past.
Forster and McLennan had started writing eight songs for the sequel to The Go-Betweens’ Oceans Apart when McLennan passed away in 2006. Forster completed three of these songs for The Evangelist, while the shadow of McLennan hangs over on the rest of the album; his amp and guitar were set up during the recording sessions. The Evangelist was recorded in the same London studio as Oceans Apart, with producer Mark Wallis and The Go-Betweens’ rhythm section, as well as some of the string players from Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express. The Evangelist is more akin to a Go-Betweens’ album than anything else in Forster and McLennan’s solo discographies, with a warm sincerity that McLennan usually bought to the band.
‘If It Rains’ is a beautiful start to the record, with the gentle intro setting the scene. ‘Don’t Touch Anything’ is the most overtly Dylanesque that Forster’s ever sounded, with the Hammond organ straight from Dylan’s mid-1960s prime. Of the McLennan co-writes, the wistful and melancholic ‘Demon Days’ sounds outside of Forster’s vocal comfort zone, and the way he has to strain the notes makes it more affecting. The mandolin strum of ‘Let Your Light In, Babe’ is beautiful, with a touch of gospel.
If you’re a Go-Betweens fan wanting to explore the group’s solo careers, The Evangelist is an ideal place to start, carrying on the spirit of Oceans Apart.
Forster’s released two more albums that I haven’t heard, 2015’s Songs to Play and 2019’s Inferno. He’s also enjoyed a career as a music writer, including the book 10 Rules of Rock and Roll: Collected Music Writings 2005–09; his piece on fellow Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly turned me on to a great artist. He’s also written a book named Grant and I about his time in The Go-Betweens, and his son Louis Forster has enjoyed success with his band The Goon Sax.
THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME
In 2021, Robert Forster’s wife Karin Bäumler was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was a relatively serious case, too large for surgery, and she had to undergo seven rounds of chemotherapy to shrink it. The couple turned to music as therapy – working with their son Louis Forster, formerly of the Goon Sax, and Adele Pickvance, who’d served as the bassist on the 21st-century Go-Betweens’ records. Forster had already written a lot of these songs, although opener ‘She’s A Fighter’ was only a riff and was given lyrics to fit the situation. Happily, music as therapy seems to have worked – Forster posted on Facebook that “one night, when sitting cross-legged on the couch, after we had played a song, Karin looked up from her xylophone and said, ‘When we play music, i[t’]s the only time I forget I have cancer’”.
Even though Forster had most of the songs written before his wife’s diagnosis, ‘Tender Years’ hits hard in its evocation of a happy relationship.
Her beauty has not withered
From her entrance in Chapter One
I’m in a story with her, I know I can’t live without her
I can’t imagine one
I know it’s growing daily, lately I see how far we’ve come
With most of the instrumentation coming from the Forster family – daughter Loretta also plays some guitar – Candle is a quietly dignified record. There’s some lovely violin on fiddle – normally Bäumler would have handled the violin part, but her teacher had to substitute for it.
Rock and pop music’s usually a young person’s game, but Forster’s 8th solo album, released at the age of 65, largely breaks free of the diminishing returns of ageing.
I covered all of McLennan’s albums, enough for him to qualify for his own page.
Return to Punk and New Wave Reviews
More from Aphoristic Album Reviews
Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:
I add new blog posts to this website every week. Browse the archives or enjoy these random selections: