Because of pop culture’s proclivity for recycling, few underappreciated artists from the past stay ripe for rediscovery very long. In the last year alone, reissues and comeback albums have resurrected Burt Bacharach and Cream from the ’60s and Captain Beefheart and Can from the ’70s. Two of this summer’s high-profile tours feature acts that hit their mainstream stride as recently as the ’80s: Blondie and the Go-Go’s.
Robert Forster and Grant McLennan
Crocodile, Tuesday, June 29
Also disinterred, with less fanfare, is the Go-Betweens, a band that started its solid run in Australia during the late ’70s and broke up in 1989. Led by a pair of brainy singer-songwriters, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, the Brisbane group bobbed up toward the popular consciousness several times during the ’80s, achieving near-hits with catchy, minimalist rock tracks like “Cattle and Cane,” “Spring Rain,” and “Streets of Your Town.”
The Go-Betweens’ jaunty, melodic songs, laced through with biting wit (attributable primarily to Forster) and dazzling imagery (McClennan’s contribution), should have placed the group on the road to fame alongside peers like R.E.M. and the Smiths. Instead, McLennan and Forster disbanded the latest incarnation of the Go-Betweens and went on to similarly productive and underappreciated solo careers.
Earlier this year, the Jetset label unveiled a collection of unreleased songs from the Go-Betweens’ first recording sessions, calling it The Lost Album. Beggars Banquet followed with a best-of compilation, Bellavista Terrace. This twin blast from the past sparked a bit of nostalgia in the band’s primary players, who signed on for a 10-week acoustic tour that began in Australia and will end in Los Angeles two nights after their stop in Seattle (on Forster’s birthday).
Speaking from New York the night prior to the duo’s first stateside show, McLennan says that the outpouring of support for the tour’s first two legs, in Australia and the UK, atones for any lack of recognition during the Go-Betweens’ career. “I’m not bullshitting you,” he barks. “Every place we’ve gone has been wonderful.”
Still, the question hangs over this band, whose practically unknown back catalog continues to reverberate a decade after the last chord was struck: why didn’t the Go-Betweens become rock stars? McLennan shoots back that there are “tons of reasons,” but he boils ’em down to three:
1. “The music scene was very different then.”
For many music fans, the prevailing image from the ’80s is a musician bedecked in leather or denim, with accessories such as bandannas or hoop earrings peeking out from a mane of gravity-defying hair. When the Go-Betweens released their 1982 debut, Send Me a Lullaby, McLennan, Forster, and drummer Lindy Morrison looked and sounded like a group of archly intellectual Velvet Underground fans. Certainly on the opposite end of the spectrum from what was topping the charts, but this and subsequent albums like Before Hollywood, Spring Hill Fair, and Tallulah could have placed the Go-Betweens on the same map as like-minded bands in the proto-alternative stable, many of which benefited from the onset of MTV. But while fluke hits by the Cure might have made stardom seem within reach, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Def Leppard sold millions of records and dominated the scene. “It was very fake,” McLennan says of the period, then adds: “Come to think of it, it’s not that different today.”
2. “We used a different vocabulary.”
It might seem a snobby thing for McLennan to say, but he does have a point. Even before the Outback Steakhouse brought Australian stereotyping to a new low with its boomerangs on the wall and fried fabrications (the “bloomin’ onion” is not native cuisine), Americans tended to embrace only the most cartoonish aspects of the massive country. Men at Work’s silly “Down Under” and Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee were lionized, while innovative and intelligent artists such as the Birthday Party and even a young film director named Peter Weir merited only fringe recognition across the Pacific. The curse continued into McLennan’s and Forster’s solo careers, as both have turned out consistently smart and appealing records in the ’90s that only seem to impress American critics. “The fact that we are from Australia,” McLennan notes glumly, “is an important part of the answer.”
3. “We never played the game.”
By this, McLennan means the music-biz game. The Go-Betweens’ label problems started shortly after the band first emerged from a studio. The US indie label Beserkeley, known for releasing Jonathan Richman’s records, wanted to sign the Aussies but the deal fell through when the company ran out of cash. The ill-fated Rough Trade issued the first two Go-Betweens discs, but that label folded too. McLennan and Forster’s insistence on maintaining artistic control narrowed their options, and had them landing at similarly troubled labels such as Sire and Elektra, both of which closed their UK offices before records were released.
Beggars Banquet stepped in posthumously, reissuing the Go-Betweens’ six albums in 1996 and serving up this year’s Bellavista Terrace as an encore. But McLennan doesn’t see this or any of the recent adulation surrounding his and Forster’s live shows as retribution; he’s content with his oeuvre and what it means today.
“In a way, it’s worked in our favor,” he says of the band’s modest status. “We’re not connected with any one scene, or any kind of musical era. Our songs haven’t been used in ads or become part of a different audience’s psyche. As a result, our songs still sound fresh.”