In 1996, French magazine Les Inrockuptibles voted The Go-Betweens' 1988 album 16 Lovers Lane the third best album of the 1980s (behind The Smiths' The Queen is Dead and The Pixies' Doolittle). Such is the band's standing in European music circles that its memory remains cherished nearly ten years after splitting. Here in Australia, the band's passing was mourned by only a dedicated few.
The one thing that eluded The Go-Betweens during their 12 years together was commercial success. As with a number of Australian independent bands over the last 20 years (The Saints, The Birthday Party, Laughing Clowns and Scientists to name but a few), The Go-Betweens' record sales never equated to their position in the first division of credibility.
When two would-be singer/songwriters (Forster and McLennan) formed The Go-Betweens in Brisbane during December 1977, their only concern was to amuse themselves. Yet, within two years, The Go-Betweens were living and recording in England. Although inspired by the British punk explosion, Forster and McLennan took more from such disparate sources as Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Jonathan Richman and The Monkees than the Sex Pistols. With Forster on guitar and McLennan on bass, the band's first, temporary drummer was Bruce Anthon from fellow Brisbane band The Survivors. With help from guest drummer Dennis Cantwell (on loan from The Riptides), The Go-Betweens recorded `Lee Remick'/`Karen'. (The Apartments' leader Peter Milton Walsh was a member of The Go-Betweens briefly over the 1978/1979 summer.)
A year later, with help from the band's first permanent drummer, Tim Mustafa (drums), Malcolm Kelly (organ, piano) and Candice and Jacqueline on tambourine and go-go dancing, The Go-Betweens recorded `People Say'/`Don't Let Him Come Back'. Both singles were issued on the Able label (in September 1978 and September 1979 respectively). Incidentally, Candice and Jacqueline were Forster and McLennan's little in-joke; they were the pair's imaginary girlfriends, or more likely their alter-egos.
Both singles were sparsely produced, poorly played yet passionately performed folksy, post-punk pop songs. They were sunny, catchy and hopelessly romantic, earning the band immediate local and international acclaim. The UK office of US independent label Beserkley offered the band a deal on the strength of `Lee Remick'. True Tone/PolyGram repackaged the singles as the 12-inch EP The Able Label Singles in 1986.
Encouraged by the UK response, Forster and McLennan left Australia in November 1979. They eventually signed a deal with Scottish neo-pop independent label Postcard (run by Alan Horne and home to Josef K, Aztec Camera and Orange Juice). Postcard reissued `People Say' in the UK, followed by `I Need Two Heads'/`Stop Before You Say It' (November 1980), which was recorded with Orange Juice drummer Steven Daly. `I Need Two Heads' reached #6 on the UK independent charts. Missing Link issued `I Need Two Heads' in Australia upon the band's return (February 1981).
With a permanent drummer, Lindy Morrison (ex-Zero), on board, The Go-Betweens cut `Your Turn My Turn'/`World Weary' (September 1981), `Hammer the Hammer'/`By Chance' (March 1982) and Send Me a Lullaby (February). The album was tentative and clumsy, its brittle, rough-hewn sound hardly setting the charts alight. Morrison also played drums on fellow Brisbane band Four Gods' single `Enchanted House'/`Restless' (September 1981), which appeared on the Able label. Two years on, and after returning to the UK, Before Hollywood (May 1983) was a lot more world-weary. It was full of deceptively simple yet accomplished songs like `A Bad Debt Follows You', `Dusty in Here', `On My Block', `That Way' and the title cut. The album's centrepiece was `Cattle and Cane', a brilliant evocation of McLennan's youth over subtle yet powerful backing. It was issued as a single backed with `Heaven Says' (also May 1983).
Spring Hill Fair (September 1984), for the Sire label, was another quantum leap, boasting such exemplary Go-Betweens moments as `Bachelor Kisses', `Part Company' and `Man O' Sand to Girl O' Sea'. With the addition of Robert Vickers (bass; ex-Numbers, Colors), McLennan had moved to guitar so the sound was bolder and more confident. `Man O' Sand to Girl O' Sea'/`This Girl, Black Girl' (November 1983), `Part Company'/`Just a King in a Mirror' (August 1984) and `Bachelor Kisses'/`Rare Breed' (November 1984) were lifted as singles.
After being on six different record labels over the previous eight years, The Go-Betweens signed a substantial deal with True Tone (through PolyGram) in 1985. Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (March 1986) remains the band's most cohesive and finely crafted statement. Tracks like `Spring Rain', `Head Full of Steam', `Twin Layers of Lightning' and `The Wrong Road' positively glowed with beauty and atmosphere. Liberty Belle spawned the singles `Spring Rain'/`Life at Hand' (February 1986) and `Head Full of Steam'/`Little Joe' (June 1986).
Tallulah (June 1987), while not quite so cohesive, contained two of the band's most winsome and hummable songs, `Right Here' and `Bye Bye Pride'. New member Amanda Brown's violin, oboe, guitar and keyboards added extra lustre. The album yielded three singles, `Right Here'/`When People are Dead' (March 1987), `I Just Get Caught Out'/`Don't Let Him Come Back' (May) and `Bye Bye Pride'/`Time in the Desert' (August). In November 1987, The Go-Betweens relocated to Sydney after spending six years in London.
Vickers left at that time to be replaced by John Willsteed (bass, guitar, organ; ex-Zip, Zero, Catchcry). 16 Lovers Lane (September 1988) was the band's most polished and accessible release. `Love Goes On!' was lush and transcendent pop, the breezy sound of `Streets of Your Town' belied its subject matter (domestic violence) and Forster's pastoral `Love is a Sign' was as eloquent as he ever got. The album actually registered #81 on the UK mainstream charts in September. The album's two singles were `Streets of Your Town'/`Wait Until June' (August 1988) and `Was There Anything I Could Do?'/`Rock and Roll Friend' (October). To coincide with the album's release in Australia, the band undertook The Birds and the Bees national tour.
Throughout 1989, The Go-Betweens played headlining shows in the UK and USA, and toured the world as support to R.E.M.. In October 1989, Michael Armiger (ex-10,000 Guitars, Paul Kelly Band, John Kennedy's Love Gone Wrong, Johnnys) replaced Willsteed. Then, in December 1989, Forster and McLennan decided to split the band. There was no warning, no acrimonious bouts of feuding, just a decision to stop the band. Forster and McLennan went solo, while Morrison and Brown formed Cleopatra Wong.
Interest in The Go-Betweens has increased over the years. The album The Go-Betweens: 1978–1990 (December 1990) was a double compilation put together by the band's main protagonists, Forster and McLennan. In March 1996, the Hippy Knight label issued The Go-Betweens' tribute album Right Here, which featured contributions from bands as diverse as Frente!, Snout, Pray TV, The Earthmen and The Meanies. In June 1996, the Silk Screen label (through MDS) issued remastered CD versions of the band's six albums. The sound was immaculate, and each CD featured a detailed booklet plus a separate insert with the original artwork. In April 1997, Allen & Unwin published David Nichols' book The Go-Betweens. Forster and McLennan reunited The Go-Betweens for a series of showcase gigs in the UK during mid-1997.
Grant McLennan was back touring Australia in late 1998 with his new band, Far Out Corporation: Ian Haug (guitar; on loan from Powderfinger), Adele Pickvance (bass; also worked with Robert Forster and Dave Graney) and Ross MacLennan (drums; ex-Turtlebox). McLennan formed the band with Haug when he was commissioned to create a one-off soundscape for the music/arts project, Occiput Hammerings, held at Brisbane’s Metro Arts Theatre.
This conceptual art group with a pop orientation was then snapped up by Polydor to record an album, Far Out Corporation (issued in October 1998). Featuring the CD single ‘Don’t Blame the Beam’ (September), the album successfully blended a pop sensibility with a more cerebral orientation (reminiscent of Underground Lovers, New Order or Velvet Underground).
McLennan and Forster toured Australia together during April and May 1999. The tour coincided with the release of the new Go-Betweens ‘Best Of’ album, Bellavista Terrance: Best of The Go-Betweens (April). Compiled by McLennan and Forster, it contained 15 tracks (with one hidden/unlisted track, ‘Lee Remick’). The pair also issued 78 ‘Til 79: The Lost Album (June), another Go-Betweens retrospective collection that included five early single tracks (such as ‘Karen’ and ‘Lee Remick’), plus eight previously unreleased songs from a 1978 bedroom recording session featuring McLennan, Forster and drummer Tim Mustafa.
In the meantime, former Go-Betweens members Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown had joined a new band in 1999 called That Carnival Sound. The band came together around singer Ian Venkataramiah, and comprised Morrison, Brown, Peter Jones (guitar; ex-Cosmic Psychos) and Clyde Bramley (bass; ex-Hoodoo Gurus).