|The Go-Betweens back in the day - Forster front left, McLennan middle rear.|
This book is only available as a part of The Go-Betweens box set: The Go-Betweens Anthology Volume 1: 1978-1984, although such is the quality of the writing I’m sure at some stage after the third volume is released it will all be published as a stand alone tome. The Go-Betweens formed in Brisbane in the late seventies and were nurtured within the punk/post-punk scene before emerging to become one of the most influential pop-rock bands of the nineteen eighties. Although mostly commercially unsuccessful at the time the band were the critics darlings and have since been rightly remembered as a great Australian band.
The Go-Betweens were a very literary band, so it was no surprise to learn that the two founding members, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, met whilst attending an English course at Queensland University in 1975. Inside the pages of this beautifully presented book the story of The Go-Betweens is cleverly retold by Forster in the third person with an immediacy and poignancy that is addictive to read. There’s a kind of romantic innocence about two awkward outsiders creating themselves as the rock equivalent of cult fiction. Whilst most Brisbane bands practiced noisy punk or rancid metal they wrote songs about librarians and faded movie stars. They casually self mythologized, labeling their music as “That striped sunlight sound”, giving them a certain level of pretension that worked both for and against them.
The book features archival photography from the band’s earliest days and ephemera such as gig posters, critical reviews and single covers. There are many choice items, such as a reproduction of a review of Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall (1977) written by McLennan whilst at university. There’s also a post-card sent by McLennan to Forster commenting on some demos the latter had sent hoping to pique the former’s interest. Forster’s brilliant anthology notes ends in 1984 and is followed by several essays by people who were associated with the band. There’s the obligatory detailed discography and then most surprising of all a section of Grant McLennan’s poems from that era, some of which are actually pretty good.
The music featured in what will be the first of three vinyl box sets is the sound of a band growing up in public; initially ramshackle but sometimes oddly brilliant, then flowering into sublimely evocative songs that connect both intellectually and emotionally. As brilliant as this box set is I’m slightly disappointed that I didn’t manage to get my hands on one of the first 600 copies that contained a book from Grant McLennan’s massive personal library, all verified and signed by Forster and some with notes in the margins from McLennan himself (apparently there are another twelve hundred for the next two sets...). Sadly Grant McLennan died aged 48 in 2006. A few weeks before his death Forster and McLennan met for the last time, as recalled by Forster in this piece for The Monthly. As Forster was leaving McLennan’s house he pulled from the letterbox an issue of the New York Review of Books and commented that he didn’t know that McLennan had subscribed to that particular literary magazine. As Forster drove away he thought that McLennan was probably the only singer-songwriter or rock star who had such a subscription. I have no doubt that Forster’s assumption was correct, after all The Go-Betweens were that kind of band.