The Go-Betweens Pt. 1: 'These Are Central Things To Me'
Robert Forster finishes heating the milk for his coffee and sits down to talk to JODY MACGREGOR about the 18 songs he and bandmates Lindy Morrison, Amanda Brown and Robert Vickers chose for 'Quiet Heart: The Best of The Go-Betweens'. Today: the first nine songs.
It’s like the mellow, Australian version of Travis Bickle. You know, Robert De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver? How he’s driving around saying, “Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” Only it’s a really laidback Aussie version, instead of a borderline psychotic one.
That’s good. I’ll stick with most of that. I wrote that when I was 27 or 28 and I was in London. It’s a little bit – which fits in with the Travis Bickle thing to an extent – it’s me writing about myself when I was about 18 or 19. There’s little snippets in there, it’s sort of Brisbane suburbia when I was 18 or 19 and seeing that from the perspective of being eight or nine years older and in another country.
Is it the Brisbane weather you were thinking of?
Yeah, yeah. Another thing that led to it is I wrote the melody and I really liked it and it reminded me a little bit of Creedence Clearwater Revival, just the music and the way that chorus is especially. And there’s a simplicity to it; a beauty to it. It’s one of those happy things where you really like something like a group and it might take you years and years and years till you write something in that vein and suddenly you see it. I thought, “This is very Creedence-y.” I loved Creedence when I was [younger] – still do – but especially in my teens. And they had these songs – ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’, ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’ – so I liked that word: rain. And so I did ‘Spring Rain’. John Fogerty could sing that song. Creedence could do it. I remember when I was writing the lyrics, I didn’t want … because the song had a simplicity to it and a drive, I didn’t want to get too wordy or clever with the lyrics. Which I think was good for me. It purified me in a way.
It’s interesting you mention that about the rain. I guess we’ll come back to it in later songs. There is a lot of rain in The Go-Betweens’ songs.
There is, there is, there is. The first one I had was a song called ‘The Sound of Rain’ from the late ’70s.
‘Love Goes On’
One of many non-traditional love songs The Go-Betweens did. I especially like those lines, “I know a thing about darkness/Darkness ain’t my friend.” And it is quite dark for a love song.
When I was listening to the tracks back and listening to tracks that might go on it, that’s the line that got me. “I know a thing about darkness/Darkness ain’t my friend.” Which is pure Grant McLennan. He’s writing one of the breeziest pop songs you’re ever going to hear and then he puts a line like that in it. It’s like ‘Streets of Your Town’ with the butchers’ knives in it. It’s a heavy line, but it goes by in a blink of the eye and that’s typical Grant as well. Lots of scattered images. A lot of them up, a lot of them happy maybe, and then suddenly he’ll just drop a big punch. That’s a line that rings with me with Grant, definitely.
‘Bye Bye Pride’
There’s also a single line from ‘Bye Bye Pride’ that really jumps out from me. It’s “A line from her letter, May 24.” Which is a wonderfully suggestive bit of storytelling. It puts everything else in context and it’s a bit of a twist on the line before it, and I love how specific it is with the date.
That’s something that Grant did: he could be quite poetic and obscure and then he’d come in with something that was really quite starkly autobiographical and it hit you more because there’s not five autobiographical lines before it. There’s a line in ‘Boundary Rider’: “To know yourself is to be yourself.” Which is an amazing line when you think about it. It just goes by as well; it’s really quick. It’s a typical, really beautiful, Grant strumming melody. But “To know yourself is to be yourself”: that always leaps out at me too, like “I know a thing about darkness/Darkness ain’t my friend.” It’s the same feeling that comes off him.
Those two songs, ‘Love Goes On’ and ‘Bye Bye Pride’, both have the very specific mentions of street names, which is another thing I associate with The Go-Betweens. In ‘Love Goes On’ there’s Sheridan Street, which is in Cairns, isn’t it?
It is. Yes, yes, yes.
And in ‘Bye Bye Pride’ it’s Shield Street, and there’s a Shield Street in Brisbane.
Yes. Grant had a connection with Cairns; he has family living there. He probably did it more than me. I like it.
‘Bye Bye Pride’ is a bit of a breakup song and ‘Part Company’ is as well, although I’ve heard a theory that ‘Part Company’ is not so much about ending a relationship as leaving Australia?
Um, no. No. There’s parts of autobiography in it, but there’s other parts that are a mixture, are fiction, are invented. I can’t imagine myself ending a relationship and then writing ‘Part Company’. To me that’s just too obvious. But it’s something that was real, even just a couple of lines or a feeling, and then running with it. In a way it’s the opposite of ‘Spring Rain’. Sometimes something is there on the paper and it’s the way that you are and it’s a fairly true remembrance and other times there’s a lot of invention. It’s something I’ve always tried to – and not always consciously – mix. One is so that people don’t get too tight a fix on me and the other [is] I can’t stand songwriters that are relentlessly confessional. It drives me nuts. It’s like, enough already. The great people in that genre – whether they be Dylan or Leonard Cohen or Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, whoever you want to throw into all of that – they’re not relentlessly confessional. They play with things a lot. I do find [that with] some people, I can’t go through the angels and the ghosts and your breakup and this relentless doom for too long. I like to mix it up.
I read in an interview once that you write little snippets of fiction in your diary, and I found that interesting. Most people’s diary is purely a catalogue of their lives, but you write fiction in yours.
Yes, one thing that came off that is [the title] The Friends of Rachel Worth. [It’s] something out of a story I was writing in my diary. There are lyrics and odd facts and stuff in that diary. Especially in the ’90s, I was trying to start stories or a book or something and I was writing it in my diary.
It has another lyrical bit that leaps out at me: “I’m gonna change my appearance every day/I’m gonna star in a movie, I’m gonna write a play.”
I wrote this when I was about 47, my late 40s at that stage, and it’s Darlinghurst in the mid-’80s. We’d come back from tour, we’d be over in Europe, we’d made Before Hollywood or we’d made Spring Hill Fair or we’d made Liberty Belle…, and we’d come back and the Australian tour would be centred in Sydney so we’d spend a lot of time in Darlinghurst. We’d go up to Brisbane and play a couple of shows, then come back and have a couple of days in Sydney. It was always that sort of thing. Also, before we went overseas in ’81 or ’82, we’d tour Sydney. So we knew that Darlinghurst scene, that whole Laughing Clowns – in the city you’d walk down the street and The Triffids would be walking towards you, in 1983 or ’2 – that sort of thing. It’s very much – again like ‘Spring Rain’ – I’m older and I’m looking back at a scene. The “changing the appearance every day,” that’s what it felt like. There were so many possibilities. You’re 25 and we just made Before Hollywood; ‘Cattle and Cane’ is all around. You’re just thinking, “We’re gonna do this” and then gonna write a movie, gonna write a play, climb some mountains in Peru, I might get married to a Japanese woman – all that stuff about “I’m gonna go to Caracas”, it’s just that moment when you’re in your mid-20s or late-20s and you’re living in the city and you haven’t got kids and you haven’t got a house and you haven’t got a mortgage and you haven’t got a car and you’re living on your arse on the street and it’s a pretty funky time. It’s that world.
We’ve got another mention of rain: “The rain surrenders to the town.” Do you remember when this one was written?
Yeah, Grant wrote this. I do. It sounded like a pop song right from the word go. He was a very, very melodic songwriter. Grant was always someone who could play three chords – GCE or ADE or something – and you’d think, “OK, every melody’s been exhausted out of that,” and he’d just continually come up with new little twists. He was very inventive with melody and it came naturally to him, in a way more natural than it does to me. ‘Bachelor Kisses’ was just something that rolled off and felt very natural and beautiful. It’s amazing. There’s a thing up here in Brisbane called the Grant McLennan Fellowship; I won’t go into it but they had the awarding of it the other night and one of the bands that was nominated for it played ‘Bachelor Kisses’. So I heard it the other night played by another band and I’m actually – again, I’m not going to go into this – I’m writing something else about the band and I’m hearing quite a lot of new unreleased Go-Betweens music at the moment and I heard the original first demo of ‘Bachelor Kisses’ two nights ago, which I hadn’t heard since 1984. So talking about this song having heard it twice over the last four or five days is weird. But it felt like a pop song and it felt like a single right from the word go. Melancholy and melodic: Grant McLennan signposts.
I know the Grant McLennan Fellowship: a year ago Scott Spark won it and I was really glad because I love his music. He’s a favourite of mine.
Great! Scott is a very talented man.
I’m looking forward to hearing his new album.
So am I.
I know musicians often hate this word, but it’s a bit quirky. The quirky songs of yours make me think of Custard and the influence that you had on them. How does it feel to see your influence on others? To think of your songs being formative the way other songs were on you?
I enjoy seeing it is the only way I can explain it. It’s a certain strain that is perhaps more identified with Brisbane and still is and I might have had a small hand in that. That is fantastic. But at the same time – and this is really important – I think I don’t do consciously quirky. To me surfing magazines are vital. I read them when I was 17 or 18, in school, and they meant a lot to me. When I was writing that song in the late ’90s, I was living in Germany and the first retro surf magazines started to come out of America mainly. [There was] one called Surfer’s Journal, which was like the Mojo or something of surfing. I was reading that, so to me surfing magazines and songs like ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ aren’t quirky. They’re central, important things in my life. I think at times if you’re writing about how loud you are or how fantastic your car is or how that woman just drives you mad, baby, to me that’s quirky. That’s not in my life. If I started to write clichéd rock stuff, that would be quirky to me because I’d be doing something that doesn’t mean all that much to me, where these are central things to me that I take seriously. So I don’t see the quirk angle perhaps as much as other people do.
On the subject of influence, we go way back to the start with ‘Karen’, which is one of the songs where I can sort of hear the Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman influences. Also, the way the R in “Brecht” is rolled in this song is amazing.
Oh, thank you! I just thought this song had to go on and it was a late addition. I’ve listened to it every now and then since it was recorded and I was listening to it a couple of months ago; it still sounded amazing to me. I just thought, no one is still really doing this. It’s such a unique song. It’s such a one-off piece of work and it’s got so much in it lyrically. It’s really strong and I just thought it had to go on there. It’s a piece of the band and it still sounds out of time, as if it hasn’t been absorbed yet somehow. A lot of stuff that’s more conventional you can see has been absorbed, where this still sounds very fresh and as if no one’s … all that stuff about the library and, you know, “Wish I heard voices/Wish I was a telephone,” all that sort of stuff, no one really has done that all that much since. Anyway, in my eyes.
Is it about the UQ library?
It is, yeah. It’s about that, but I’d have to say this is where invention starts to come in; it’s no particular person. There’s no one called Karen; that’s stuff I make up. But when I was writing that, I was going to the University of Queensland, I was obviously spending a lot of time in the library, I noticed the way these women were there and the relationship between them – they were behind the counter – and how they were helping people. It just seemed a noble thing to me. That’s why it reminds me of nuns or church. There was something there that just caught my eye and grabbed me and found its way into that song.
Much later in the band’s career, a song off The Friends of Rachel Worth. What made you want to sequence songs like this, going from right back at the start to much more recent?
This is conscious sequencing. This is a musical connection: ‘Karen’ ends with that emphatic, rushed, breathless speeding of tempo to reach its climax and then ‘The Clock’ just picks it up. Da-na-na-na na-na! To me it flows on. It was almost the only song in our whole catalogue that I can imagine following ‘Karen’. It just took off, it ran, where if you put something prettier and more produced from the ’80s after ‘Karen’, you’d go, “That’s not as good a fit.” Put something too polished there, it wouldn’t sit. Then putting ‘The Clock’ in suddenly worked. There’s an energy and a drive that’s unfiltered on ‘The Clock’ that matches, to my mind, ‘Karen’.
The songs off that album were done with members of Sleater-Kinney and Quasi. Did that make the process different?
Not really. No, because you have to remember that in the first two or three years of the band’s life, Grant and I were playing with a variety of drummers. Tim Mustapha; we played with Steven Daly from Orange Juice on our third single [and] did some gigs with him; and we had other drummers, a guy called Bruce Anthon. And Peter Walsh from The Apartments played guitar with us, so the line-up became a lot more set in the ’80s but it was almost like, going back to Rachel Worth – although we had Adele [Pickvance] there, who Grant and I had played with and knew – having a drummer there to just walk in and play almost took us back to the late ’70s. Having Sam Coomes [from Quasi] or Corin [Tucker] and Carrie [Brownstein] from Sleater-Kinney come in, it didn’t feel strange because of that late-’70s experience, I think.
PART TWO: Forster on the influence of Prince on ‘Head Full of Steam’, ‘Streets of Your Town’ as a summer radio hit and the song he calls “still one of my greatest achievements.”
Listen to ‘Quiet Heart’: