â€¦ your heart out
THE CURTAIN RISES During the early „90s the Compendium bookshop in Camden Town would stock copies of the „All-British Girls‟ issue of the fanzine That Will Never Be Happen Again. It featured brief articles on a number of „60s British girl singers from Mick Patrick, Malcolm Baumgart, Ian Chapman, and Kris Kirk, and it was an incredibly important publication as this was part of pop music history that was woefully ignored. The fanzine included a reproduction of a short piece by Morrissey about his love for Sandie Shaw, with appropriately enthusiastic nods in the direction of Chris Andrews‟ compositions and Ken Woodman‟s arrangements. Morrissey‟s article had originally been published in the music weekly Sounds in late 1983 just as The Smiths were taking off. One of the more intoxicating things about The Smiths when they burst upon the scene was Morrissey‟s musical reference points. Names like Sandie Shaw, Rita Pavone, Marvelettes, Reparata, Nancy Sinatra, Billy Fury, and Timi Yuro were among those he loved to mention. The significance of all this was that these artists‟ works were records that at the time could really only be found among piles of abandoned vinyl. There was a huge attraction in valuing other people‟s rubbish – the clothes, records, books that they‟ve discarded. And Morrissey was very clever at tapping into that activity, romanticising the rejected. The implication at the time that Morrissey was writing about his love of Sandie Shaw was that he had an abandoned manuscript about girl singers, hidden away in a cardboard box on top of a wardrobe somewhere in Manchester. Pretty much anyone who has had a go at writing will have scrapped manuscripts and rejected projects stowed away in similar cardboard boxes. One of my own is a text on Postcard Records, which was written at the start of the 1990s. It was put to one side for very good reasons, including a sense of becoming bored with other people‟s pasts and wanting to sort out my own future. And, anyway, the waters were to become muddied when Alan Horne reactivated his label. So it was set on one side. That particular manuscript will remain buried, but flicking through it I was struck by the bold assertion in the first line of the chapter on The Go-Betweens: “Of all the Postcard groups only the Go-Betweens went on to better things.”
SEND ME A LULLABY For British audiences a single, available on import, of Your Turn, My Turn was the first that was heard of The GoBetweens after Postcard ground to a halt. The sleeve looked curiously childish and completely at odds with the sound captured on the record. The song itself was a bit of a shock and difficult to place in the context of Postcard and their Scottish single. It had a very formal rhythmic structure. It is still easy to imagine an accompanying video with couples dancing a pavane or tango. It was all very dramatic, rather stately, stern and stony. Your Turn, My Turn had been awarded a Postcard catalogue reference (Postcard 81-9), but it was the first in a run of releases that never actually appeared on the label. This series included debut LPs by Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, and the Jazzateers, as well as singles by The Go-Betweens, Bluebells, and the maybe mythical Secret Goldfish (part of Postcard‟s Holden Caulfield thing). Despite a very brief liaison with the label The Go-Betweens are nevertheless indelibly linked to the myth of Postcard Records. “In October ‟79 Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, The Go-Betweens, decide to leave Brisbane and see the world, searching for adventure. They had released two classic singles on their own Able label and needed new challenges, and so early 1980 found them shivering in London. “Meanwhile in February 1980 Alan Horne and Edwyn Collins were down in London distributing copies of Falling And Laughing, and in the Rough Trade shop saw a copy of The Go-Betweens‟ Lee Remick on the wall next to Subway Sect‟s Ambition. Naturally, remembering having heard Lee Remick on the John Peel show in 1978, they asked about it, and the assistant just happened to be a friend of The Go-Betweens, so she mentioned that they were in London. Alan Horne tracked them down, leaving a message at their hotel along with a copy of Falling and Laughing, saying he wanted to put out a GoBetweens single. “After exchanging correspondence, The Go-Betweens discovered that Postcard was pretty much the same as their own Able label, and Horne discovered that The Go-Betweens listened to pretty much the same music: Velvets, Byrds, Creedence, Lovin‟ Spoonful, though they had never heard Subway Sect. The Go-Betweens were invited up to Glasgow to play some shows and record a single, and they all arranged to meet at Vic Godard‟s Northern Soul Subway Sect shows at the Music Machine. “The Go-Betweens played three performances as part of Funky Glasgow Now with Josef K and Orange Juice, turning heads and recording a great single with Alex Fergusson, showcasing their „striped sunlight sound, guitar bass and
drums producing a thin vulnerable sound based on emotion and melody. Our answer to the tropics‟. “By the time the single was released, Robert and Grant had left for Australia, where they joined up with drummer Lindy Morrison. As Postcard took off, Melbourne‟s Missing Link label opted to release the Scottish single, and after a year‟s delay they put out the follow-up Your Turn My Turn.” It would be well into 1982 before Rough Trade released Send Me A Lullaby, an LP of recordings The Go-Betweens had made for Missing Link. It was one of the underground success stories of the time, and in its way part of a new wave, a distinct movement towards a modern naturalism that took in Vic Godard‟s Songs For Sale, Aztec Camera, Jazzateers, Weekend, The Gist‟s Love At First Sight, Pale Fountains, Felt, Marine Girls, Carmel, Rip Rig & Panic, Pigbag, Maximum Joy, A Certain Ratio, and so on. Dexys were at number one with Come On Eileen. There were lots of great American soul sounds in 1982 from the likes of Patrice Rushen, Marvin Gaye, Evelyn King, Hamilton Bohannon, Indeep, Shalamar, Odyssey, and home grown stuff too from Imagination, Junior Giscombe, Shakatak, Buzzz and so on. The aspirational, luxurious new populism, however, was rapidly becoming old hat. ABC, Adam Ant, Human League, Heaven 17, Altered Images, Japan, Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Dollar et al were losing their lustre, and the appropriately named Blancmange were looming on the horizon. Scritti Politti seemed suddenly to be backing the wrong horse with their academic superslicksterilisation in the „hell-bent for success‟ stakes. Scritti‟s stable owners Rough Trade were undergoing their own identity crisis during 1982, working through how to evolve. Despite commercial pressures the label remained aware of its adventurous roots, and the trusted role as dissenters putting out awkward, contrary, inventive records. Rough Trade were always at their best when defiantly anti-materialistic, doing something for the sake of the soul, releasing classics such as the Blue Orchids‟ The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) 1982 LP which remains a wonderful record, offering the thrill of enjoying something rough-hewn rather than a smooth veneer. With the Blue Orchids came a definite deadpan sagacity, modern day folk songs of urban plight and blight, earthy delight and rare insight. Theirs were songs of the disappeared, the immortal invisibles, the opted-out. They had the frayed elegance and bilious eloquence of betting shop mystics, opposition spokesmen for the indolent and insolent. They were as spiritual in a way as the deepest roots reggae. Martin Bramah‟s insistent incisive guitar was sometimes scratchy, occasional clangourous, frequently flailing and on occasions there were precisely picked out notes of exquisite poignancy. Una Baines‟ fondant, non-fancy organ meditations bore traces of Booker T or Jackie Mittoo. It was as if a Lee Perry-type of dub magician had got tangled up in working with treble rather than bass, attracted by clatter rather than rhythm. The Blue Orchids‟ greatest hits were incongruously catchy, very hummable, very danceable, great fun as well as providing sustenance for the soul.
Sounds‟ Dave McCullough, the most important writer among the music press gang, was the big champion of The Go-Betweens and Blue Orchids in 1982. He would link them with the Nightingales, who had put out Pigs On Purpose. Robert Lloyd‟s outfit played fast „n‟ bulbous, rickety rockabilly for the recession era. He was an obstreperous observer, defiantly West Midlands, leading his Snow Hillbillies with cheese-wire sharpness, sharing wit and wisdom in a sardonic, smart-arse, real ale and Rizlas pub philosopher persona. Like Vic Godard, his „one of the lads‟, „no questions asked‟ simplicity masked a cunning complexity and craft. In high-profile interviews the Nightingales cited Sun Records and the Blue Orchids nodded in the direction of Sun Ra The Go-Betweens, Blue Orchids and Nightingales were huge underground favourites that summer. They sold well, and there was an appetite for something different. This was understandable. The alternative charts were more depressing than the Top 30, and were dominated by the leather and studs punk residue in all its different permutations. The live circuit seemed to be a curious alternative universe, where hordes turned out for the likes of the March Violets, Sisters of Mercy, Sex Gang Children, Crass, Conflict, Discharge, Exploited, Blitz, G.B.H., Theatre of Hate, UK Decay, Exploited, Southern Death Cult, Anti Pasti, Vice Squad, Lords of the New Church, Anti Nowhere League, and so on. In fairness there was the occasional great thing from bands like Zounds, Poison Girls, The Mob, and Rubella Ballet. The Greatest Hit was perfectly complemented by The Go-Betweens‟ Send Me A Lullaby. It was not so much the unpolished surfaces. What remains striking is how strangely Spartan S.M.A.L. is as a recording. This is rare in pop. The trio plays with the restraint of a Jimmy Giuffre or Bill Evans Trio set. It‟s like dub reggae and the use of space – what‟s left out is what matters. The sound separateness is odd, as we are so used to the splurge of instruments. The New York 99 Records thing of ESG, Liquid Liquid, Bush Tetras had similar ideas at the time about using space. Send Me A Lullaby is an atypical GoBetweens record. It is really hard to think of another record like it. It‟s tempting to refer to Wire‟s Mannequin, Slates by The Fall, Pere Ubu, XTC, The Cure of Three Imaginary Boys, Talking Heads ‟77 perhaps, but none of them have the same precise sound or feel. “Robert Forster said: „Success doesn‟t come to bands in Australia who are good as easily as it does here. After a while you begin to realise there‟s no money in it so you start to write and play songs that only you like. You realise it‟s a dead end to an extent so you might as well please yourself, and write the songs that you want to write. That‟s what we do; that‟s where we come from‟.” Send Me A Lullaby is a substantial recording. It has considerable clout. Grant McLennan‟s bass often seems to carry the melody. A good proportion of the
songs have the geometric rhythmic patterns of Your Turn My Turn which require a certain degree of discipline, evoking Mark E. Smith barking: "Don't start improvising, for God's sake." There is a Meters-style metronomic minimalism to the sound, and a tautness to the proceedings. Robert Forster‟s electric guitar is used usually in a choppy rhythmic way, like you might find in an Artie Shaw small group setting or on a reggae record. There are few solos, but when the guitar does break free like on It Could Be Anyone the effect is to create an almost transcendental Velvets style groove. The Go-Betweens of this era were quite aloof, buttoned-up, and nondemonstrative. At this stage of their career the lyrics were certainly cryptic, though the occasional line leaps out: “One thing can hold us, one thing can break us, it‟s the same thing ...”, “Not strong enough, I‟m not brave enough ...” from All About Strength, and particularly Arrow in a Bow‟s “Like Rome, pre-rock „n‟ roll, pre-almost anything”. French Film Blurred was the title of a Wire song which captures a specific image. While in a literal sense a song like The Go-Betweens‟ Eight Pictures was cinematic, there was generally about the group a grainy romanticism and deliberate disjointedness that might be found in the French new wave cinema of Godard, Truffaut, and one of the films that might pop up late in the evening on BBC2 in the early „80s, like Jules et Jim or Breathless. It‟s easy to cast Robert as Jean Paul Belmondo, Lindy as Jeanne Moreau, Grant as Charles Aznavour in Don‟t Shoot The Pianist. There were similarities too with The Go-Betweens as the people who made those films were cineastes in love with pulp fiction and high art. Maybe Robert, Grant and Lindy were a band apart, a band of outsiders like Arthur, Franz, and Odile. But instead of crime they were making an absurd attempt at pop success which could be as exhilarating as that Madison dance sequence in the café. Lindy Morrison‟s drumming on Send Me A Lullaby is exceptional throughout. On occasions it‟s all you hear. The drums clatter along in a crisp, militaristic manner, with occasional dub echo effect, and the impact is generally as special as Topper‟s Tommy Gun spot and Rick Buckler‟s virtuoso display on The Jam‟s always astonishing Funeral Pyre . Many listening would have grown up on drums, having absorbed hits by Cozy Powell, Gary Glitter, etc. Perhaps the drums stand out because there are very few embellishments other than the occasional blast of saxophone from James Freud which gives it a real Manicured Noise feel .
If Send Me A Lullaby had been recorded in the UK The Go-Betweens would have put them with Adam Kidron (Orange Juice, Delta 5, Zounds, Scritti Politti etc.) or maybe a better match might have been Bob Sergeant (The Fall, prag Vec, Haircut 100, The Beat, Monochrome Set and so on.). As it was recorded in Australia, Tony Cohen was at the controls. He may be most closely associated with the Laughing Clowns, Birthday Party, Moodists circle, but beyond The Go-Betweens his best work was with Pel Mel. The Sydney-based group didn‟t make the pilgrimage to London and remain great unknowns, but Pel Mel had considerable impact in Australia, and the 1982 LP Out of Reason is particularly stunning. With vocals shared between Judy McGee and Graeme Dunne, they worked in similar territory to Pylon, Au Pairs, Passions, Marine/Allez Allez. Like close contemporaries the Delta 5 they were wrestling with the challenge of becoming more pop without being wiped out by gloss. Judy‟s blasts of sax suggest the Delta 5‟s Pre label mates Manicured Noise, adding to the impression that their Metronome and Faith singles were enthusiastically snapped up on import in Australia. The Go-Betweens worked with Tony Cohen again to record a single Hammer The Hammer/By Chance during the Birthday Party‟s Junkyard sessions in Melbourne. It brilliantly struck a delicate balance between melodic beauty and hard-boiled obtuseness. By the time it was released by Rough Trade in the UK Dave McCullough had got Robert Lloyd of the Nightingales on the cover of the weekly music paper Sounds in NHS spectacles, and the Blue Orchids had released the Agents of Change 12” EP which came in an appealing plastic bag. This was Martin Bramah‟s idea, having grown weary with cardboard sleeves and wanting something more pop art. The artwork was based on an original painting by Martin, which he had Veneece Roberts make up into a cartoon version for the bag which was made by Bag Fad. The title track of Agents of Change sounded harder, an indication of the direction Martin would later explore with Thirst. The other tracks though had much more of a melodic ache, a bruised tenderness, a thoughtful reflectiveness. Not everyone might have been in the same place as the Blue Orchids, but many would draw something from the songs and leading lines like: “Some people say that nothing ever changes. I say that everything always changes” and “Look at your mothers, get down on your knees,” and “Have you noticed nothing seems built to last anymore? When everything around you is fake who do you turn to? When everything stinks where do you go?” At the time of Agents of Change Rough Trade were struggling with how and what to promote. Perhaps Agents of Change didn‟t get the push it needed. Certainly in 1982 the Stranglers had demonstrated with Golden Brown and Strange Little Girl that the sort of sound the Blue Orchids created could crossover. The idea of hearing the Blue Orchids performing Release or Conscience on breakfast radio shows is particularly appealing, and it is easy to see how the folk melodies at the heart of those songs could connect. That folk aspect is intriguing. Maybe it‟s partly traditional, the lingering influence of family backgrounds, nights spent in social clubs and at folk gigs,
memories of LPs by Pentangle, Steeleye Span or whatever. Maybe it‟s the closeness to Nico with whom the Blue Orchids played for a period of time and her astonishing series of LPs: Chelsea Girl, The Marble Index, Desertshore. Una Baines made more explicit folk connections later as leader of The Fates, a loose collective that made the 1985 LP Furia, which few people heard at the time. At times it suggests the ballads of Paul Giovanni‟s The Wicker Man soundtrack. There are occasional Sun Ra church organ stabs and some great examples of the Raincoats‟ gorgeous lopsided pop. An air of mysticism and poetic Celtic mythography is made explicit on the stand-out Bridget of Ireland, and Una has acknowledged the influence of Robert Graves‟ The White Goddess. Di Cooper who had played fiddle on the Blue Orchids‟ Conscience features, as does Charlotte Bill on flute and pan pipes. Charlotte has longstanding connections with The Fall/Blue Orchids, through to Martin Bramah‟s spectacularly triumphant and vengeful return with Factory Star, where he is still using his guitar as a remorseless threshing machine with occasional moments of tender respite. Back in 1982 the folk roots at Rough Trade were quite deep. Pere Ubu increasingly had that feel, and in his solo work David Thomas made a point of recruiting Richard Thompson early in the proceedings. One-time folk rock fan Green was prompted to tell the magazine Jamming! in the summer of 1982: “The one thing that still worries me is Rough Trade‟s A&R. They missed a lot of opportunities to wise up to the new populism, but instead kept paying for Pere Ubu albums, which weren‟t even selling.” The biggest-selling singles act that year were Dexys Midnight Runners whose sound drew heavily on Irish folk melodies. Kevin Rowland‟s band dominated the charts in the second half of 1982, ending the year in the Top 20 with Let‟s Get This Straight while Scritti Politti struggled to breach the Top 40. -----
BEFORE HOLLYWOOD In 1983 The Go-Betweens released their Before Hollywood LP. The record‟s cover continues to be a source of endless fascination. It displays a certain classicism. The Tom Sheehan cover shot has the group artfully posed in what looks like an antique shop. There is inescapably a nod towards Bob Dylan‟s Bringing It All Back Home in the setting and the way the trio are posing. Robert is standing up looking towards the camera, hair slicked back like a young Jack Kerouac or Phil Ochs. The Dylan reference point is no real surprise. Their section in the Postcard Brochure had plenty of Dylan allusions. And earlier, in the November 1978 edition of Zigzag the singles page had used the classic Go-Betweens shot where Robert stands saluting in front of a Dylan poster and Grant is wearing that Get Outta The Car Ochs t-shirt. In some ways The Go-Betweens‟ reference points at the time were a little arcane, not unlike Tom Waits in 1974 or something saying that he was "musically pulling influence from Mose Allison, Thelonious Monk, Randy Newman, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Ray Charles, Stephen Foster, Frank Sinatra". The Go-Betweens might have looked towards Patti Smith, the beat poets, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, but at the time that was far from the norm. Indeed, one of the few flying the flag publically for the mid-„60s Dylan was Kevin Rowland. He would, for instance, refer to playing Aretha‟s Say A Little Prayer every morning when he woke up, or say that Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited made him cry every time he listened to it. He would also choose Bob‟s Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands as one of his favourite songs. The title of Before Hollywood was important too. It was suggestive of F. Scott Fitzgerald writing about the pre-WW2 Hollywood, Louise Brooks‟ Lulu in Hollywood, or Nathanael West‟s The Day of the Locust (and the song and the film, thus pure Go-Betweens). While the title was ambiguous and almost certainly open to interpretation on purpose, there was a definite connection with the glamour of an old Hollywood, gloriously at odds with the life they would have been living in a derelict London squat or rooms. The Go-Betweens were romantics and it is easy to see how they would be caught up in the whole mythography of Tinseltown. 25 years after the release of Before Hollywood a „lost manuscript‟ Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric was published which was also pure Go-Betweens. It was a collection of Barry Feinstein photographs of old Hollywood, taken in the early „60s, together with accompanying text written by Bob Dylan in 1964. While Dylan‟s commentary is very abstract, very beat, there is very much a sense of being caught up in the romance of it all. And the photos are fantastic. It‟s great to see legends like Betty Davis, Judy Garland, Jayne Mansfield in their twilight years, but it‟s more about the charm of including shots of discarded tombstones, script writers working in offices, photo studios and casting sessions, and a Rolls parked outside an employment office. Before the LP was released there occurred the Cattle and Cane phenomenon. What would become The Go-Betweens‟ most famous song was released as a single, just as Postcard ambassadors Orange Juice had a hit
in the real world with Rip It Up. Cattle and Cane is one of those songs that people can connect with. Grant‟s beautiful song is incredibly personal, lyrically it is specifically Australian, but ironically it has an almost universal appeal. They might not be our memories he is singing about, but his recollections trigger something inside the listener. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” That‟s how the L.P. Hartley book, The Go-Between, begins. It‟s the first line spoken in Harold Pinter‟s script for the 1971 Joseph Losey film, too. But the sense of the song could easily relate to an old Turgenev book or Chekhov short story collection picked up in a junk shop. “I recall a bigger, brighter world. A world of books and silent times in thought”. Grant‟s and Robert‟s passion for books and films is well-documented. It‟s easy to imagine them watching Alan Bates and Julie Christie in The Go-Between on an old TV. It‟s tempting to picture them both sitting, reading paperbacks in a café. That‟s time well-spent. But the booklovers and cineastes sense has always come across in a romantic way, rather than say the dry, academic, cultural theorist sense of Scritti Politti or the Gang of Four reading Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, Gramsci, and so on. Many will imagine a holdall belonging to one of The Go-Betweens in the early „80s containing an old paperback edition of Alain-Fournier, Maupassant, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner. And, of course, a gossipy film or pop biog., and maybe Greil Marcus‟ Mystery Train. Robert Gordon‟s It Came From Memphis would still have been a long way off. Before Hollywood was recorded in Eastbourne‟s ICC studios. A genteel south coast location , out-of-season, and suitably un-rock „n‟ roll. The producer was John Brand who was the right person in the right place at the right time. He wasn‟t particularly „known‟. He had done some work for Virgin. He‟d produced Magazine‟s live LP and engineered the woefully underrated Magic, Murder & the Weather. He‟d worked with The Ruts on West One (Shine On Me), then produced Ruts DC after Malcolm Owen‟s tragic death. John would later work with Lizzy Mercier Descloux, on her final LP Suspense. Rough Trade had already paired Brand with The Go-Betweens‟ Postcard comrades Aztec Camera. The first that was heard from Roddy Frame and Campbell Owens after Postcard fizzled out was the single Pillar To Post which Geoff Travis‟ label put out late into the summer of 1982. It was backed with Queen‟s Tattoos, an unexpectedly uptempo burst of hillbilly swing with Roddy sneering punkily: “That kind of love gets all the biggest kicks, from Martyn Fry to Mills & Boon. But it‟s got no guts. It‟s got no big kicks. ...” Oblivious followed as a single in early 1983, and it was astonishingly perfect pop, with two exquisite songs on the flipside in Orchid Girl and Haywire. Under its own steam Oblivious got to number 47 in the charts, and was Rough Trade‟s second biggest hit at the time. Like Josef K‟s Crepescule recording of Sorry For Laughing it seemed to draw more on the Gibson Brothers‟ Cuba as much as it did the Velvets. It also
showed Roddy was very good with his pop culture references: “Met Mo and she‟s okay, said no-one‟s really changed. Got different badges but they wear them just the same. But down by the ballroom I recognised that flaming fountain in those kindred caring eyes ”. John Brand oversaw the recording of the debut Aztec Camera LP High Land, Hard Rain and got the sound just right. It also was recorded in Eastbourne‟s ICC studios. Dave Ruffy was recruited on drums, presumably through Brand‟s Ruts connections. The cover was provided by David Band, whose brother Keith played bass in The Jazzateers. Actually the abstract painting used on the cover for High Land, Hard Rain is pretty brave given the „new pop‟ climate, but that statement can be turned round the other way to say that David Band‟s artwork was very much at the heart of „new pop‟ as he designed memorable sleeves for Spandau Ballet and Altered Images among others. The Aztec Camera influence on Gary Kemp and the big hits True and Gold is never really acknowledged, but it‟s no coincidence he was very much an early fan of what Roddy was doing. It was always going to be hard for Aztec Camera to follow up the Postcard debut 7”Just Like Gold and for Roddy to live up to the „boy wonder‟ label. That single had been one of those things so perfectly right at the time. But H.L.H.R. succeeds spectacularly, staying close to Alan Horne‟s vision of inventive M.O.R. along the lines of Andrew Gold or Gallagher & Lyle oozing with the romance of Iggy Pop singing about Johnny Yen. Despite its acoustic soul H.L.H.R. sticks pretty closely to its (still relatively recent) punk roots, as befits a group whose name comes from The Teardrop Explodes‟ Camera Camera. It‟s a record clearly made by a fan of The Fall and Blue Orchids, and above all the influence of Vic Godard‟s What‟s The Matter Boy? resonates. That LP‟s closing tracks, Empty Shell and Make Me Sad, are perhaps the closest reference point for H.L.H.R. and Vic was at the time still Postcard‟s patron saint. For all the talk of Roddy Frame as peculiarly precocious, it is easy to forget how young Vic Godard & the rest of the early Subway Sect were when they came up with all those astonishing songs like Nobody‟s Scared, Chain Smoking, Parallel Lines, Ambition, and so on. The same was true for Mark Stewart and The Pop Group. And Paul Weller had massive hits with „A‟ Bomb in Wardour Street, Down In The Tube Station At Midnight and Strange Town before he was 20. Roddy Frame does, however, look ridiculously young in old clips of Aztec Camera on TV in 1983. He has gorgeous Ian McCulloch-style bird‟s-nest bouffant hair and Neil Youngish fringed buckskin jacket playing Oblivious alongside Campbell and new recruit Craig Gannon on Pebble Mill At One. This was a real Postcard moment. Back at the start of 1982 in The Face Glenn Gibson had speculated about whether The Jazzateers would be the first independent group to play on the popular daytime „magazine‟ show. A little later, Roddy with hair grown out like Jackson Brown or like James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop, the group all dressed as rumpled casuals in matching
Sergio Tacchini track suits, on Switch, complete with backing singers promoting the single Walk Out To Winter as ill-advisedly reworked by New Musik‟s Tony Mansfield. And then at the end of the year when Oblivious was a Top 20 hit in the real world thanks to WEA‟s backing the group were on the Old Grey Whistle Test, with Roddy in leathers and Malcolm Ross in on guitar. Roddy was soon talking about diminished sevenths and getting Mark Knopfler in to produce the next LP. Perversity would always be in the Postcard psyche. By that time The Go-Betweens‟ Before Hollywood had become totemic. It was a glorious, progressive antidote to the new dry-iced stadium rock of U2, the Bunnymen, Simple Minds, and Big Country. It provided a very exciting alternative to the chart‟s big hitters like Phil Collins, The Police, Eurythmics, Duran Duran and so on. It was invaluable as a record that could readily be referred to as a better option than just about anything. “And the beat goes on ... yellow, green and orange, purple, red and blue, there are no black or whites in Go-Betweens colour scheme only brightness, passion and intelligence ... this LP is essential breakfast listening. The fact is in 1983 the supposed year of true pop (sic) Kajagoogoo, Thompson Twins, H 2O, etc. Go-Betweens have created a pop that shapes up and threatens to make all the other young (ha! ha!) pretenders redundant”. That was how Alan McGee put it at the time in his fanzine Communication Blur. It was, along with The Undertones‟ masterpiece The Sin of Pride, one of the few records he recommended in his fanzine. The tone of the McGee publication was confrontational. There was a sense of urgency, a feeling that something needed to change. Alan championed the Nightingales, Television Personalities and Pastels as bands people should get behind. He put on acts he liked at his own Communication Club, which evolved into The Living Room, and started his own label Creation Records. He wrote in August 1983: “In a small, but ever-growing, bunch of people the punk ethic „change‟ lives on. Something is stirring.” For others that sense of „change‟ could be found in groups like Felt and Hurrah! These were two groups that the omnipotent John Peel shunned but they produced big underground records in 1983. Felt‟s Penelope Tree was their big perfect pop moment, confident and catchy, smart and strange, and symbolically exactly three-minutes long. “Loneliness is like a disease. Triggers off my sense of unease. I was lonely till I found the reason. The reason was me .” This was a great study in how to mix art and pop. At the time Felt‟s domestic dramas were always entertaining. The Lawrence/Deebank soap opera made them the underground‟s Taylor/Burton: “Can‟t live with/ can‟t cope without”. Hip Hip by Hurrah! was very much a song that caught the new mood. The group looked fantastic in battered old suede jackets, Chelsea boots, white jeans and button downs. They sang: “Look so weak but feel so strong and still get laughed at” and “There‟s one thing we‟ve known from the start, deep down inside we‟re all punk rockers at heart”. The hit single had a Velvets strut
and swing to it. Dave McCullough liked the bside Flowers because it had a jazzy or folksy thing going on, like Pentangle‟s Take Three Girls theme or Light Flight, inadvertently triggering an interest among his readers in the folk rock outfit‟s works. He had previously referred to Hurrah!‟s songs as mini-Chestnut Mare style dramas. Hurrah ! generally, genially, were an odd mix of self-deprecating, cocky arrogance. It was a conundrum how people so morose and maudlin could come up with anthems of optimism and defiance. They were really strange but had an endearing simplicity: “We like the Ramones and Wilko and the Voidoids”. They shared the world weariness and cynicism of James Bolam as Terry Collier in The Likely Lads or Trevor Chaplin in The Beiderbecke Files. Part of the fun of it was that sometimes trying to tell a stranger about the magic and strange dynamics of Hurrah! could seem as tricky as Paul Morley explaining the Fire Engines to Jerry Garcia. Hurrah! had the same melodic toughness as The Go-Betweens. They were similar too in the sense of having two distinct singer-songwriters, equal but different, in Paul Handyside and Taffy Hughes. It seemed significant they shared the twin guitar attack of the Fire Engines, chose the same guitars. Things like that seemed important. The group‟s secret strength was the rhythm section. Damian‟s irregular drum patterns, and Dave‟s melodic bass runs, gave the group irregularity and invention. There was a lot happening in their songs at any one time. As part of a special feature on the group‟s label Kitchenware Hurrah! appeared on TV that summer, playing in the sun on a windy North East seafront, all intensity and poise, tension and magic. The song they performed for The Tube, Around and Around, was like filigree, with harmonies like The Action or Association, and the guitars engaged in a dogfight which had echoes of Television‟s Little Johnny Jewel. With so much rubbish around it was hardly surprising that people sought pleasures elsewhere, in the secondhand shops or in what a new breed of labels were doing in making lost sounds available. Kent Records was getting into its stride in 1983, and Harboro Horace was emerging as a folk hero. The label‟s approach to presenting old soul sounds in an appealing aesthetic context was revolutionary. And titles like On The Soul Side and Floorshakers gave a new audience access to recordings such as Patrice Holloway‟s Love and Desire, Jackie Lee‟s Darkest Days and Dean Parrish‟s Determination that would have a lasting impact. In those dark days a lot of what was being listened to came via unofficial sources. There was a thriving underground network, with people swapping tapes of all sorts. This boom was helped by twin tape-deck radio cassette recorders
become available at a reasonable price. And the unofficial soundtrack consisted of nth generation copy cassettes of Subway Sect‟s Peel sessions and demos, and live performances at the Gibus Club and Music Machine. Other essential tape listening would be Buzzcocks‟ Times‟ Up bootleg, early Television demos, and in particular live recordings of the Velvets, at the Boston Tea Party etc. Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga was essential reading at the time. The Neville Brody design and stark black and white photographs caught the imagination of many. The Go-Betweens‟ Before Hollywood was just right for this climate. It was recorded with the classic trio line-up. Although the added presence of (John Brand‟s foil) Bernie Clarke on organ gave it more of an Al Kooper or Blonde on Blonde feel. But for all the tempting Dylan reference points, the LP is as much about Talking Heads‟ Heaven/Animals as Love Minus Zero/She Belongs To Me. The sound is smoother than on Send Me A Lullaby, and the drums and bass are used in a more conventional way. But the record is still incredibly strange. It couldn‟t have been made at any other time. The rhythmic patterns are still present, the feel still occasionally harsh, particularly on Robert‟s songs Before Hollywood and Ask. Lyrically things are less abstract, and there is a drift towards being less oblique, and more cinematic, very visual, on songs like On My Block and Two Steps Step Out. It was genuinely exciting to witness the progress of Robert and Grant as discrete songwriters. This brought with it a competitive creativity, some contrast and brilliance. Groups such as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and so on thrived on having that writers‟ rivalry. Closer to home, Orange Juice had the same light and shade with Edwyn Collins and James Kirk as composers. Unusually, one of the highlights of Before Hollywood, was As Long As That, with Robert and Grant writing and singing together, bizarrely almost coming across like a beat Bing and Bob, or Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in Vegas. The LP closes with That Way, a perfect example of the group‟s new confidence in their own songwriting and recording. It‟s perhaps one of the best songs about pop process. That‟s something Kevin Rowland has always been very good at, like on Liars A to E, where he beautifully drops in the Van Morrison line about getting your pen and notebook ready. “In search of a new voice You burnt all your lyrics And flew to a new town. “One of the Has-Beens” That was your phrase But what about Show-Biz? That way That Way That Way In my apartment Six white horses Inspired by shadows Driven by tears You won‟t rest, „til you‟re back on the boards. That way That way That way Or nothing at all I hear it‟s cold now The worst one on record
Hope that you keep warm I guess you‟ll be leaving Now is the best time On the Atlantic we‟ll all climb That way That way That way Or nothing at all It‟s only time away On one hand Grant‟s words are pretty straight forward but the more times the song is played the more questions that arise? Who‟s speaking to whom? What about the six white horses? Is it a reference to Bob Dylan‟s Absolutely Sweet Marie? Van Morrison‟s Cyprus Avenue? She‟ll Be Comin‟ Round The Mountain? The Larry Murray song about the death of JFK that was a 1969 hit for Tommy Cash? Waylon Jennings‟ heartbreaking version of the Bobby Bond song? Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys? “The Go-Betweens were genuinely glamorous in a funny kind of way, and of course pop has always been about odd sorts of glamour. Robert Forster certainly should have been a star. He could have been an „80s icon up with Madonna, and there were times when Forster moved that girls swooned and boys just fainted. Forster was the archetypal wayward genius, but the „80s were not a time to be wayward. „That is the way people are. They want talent, which is in itself something out of the ordinary. But when it comes to the other oddities that are always associated with it, and perhaps are essential to it, they will have none of them and refuse them all understanding,‟ wrote Thomas Mann in Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man.” Three groups of a similar stature were booked to play at The Venue near London‟s Victoria station on 15 September 1983. The three acts were Felt, The Go-Betweens and The Smiths. It was almost a beauty contest, and the implication was that the winner would be set for stardom. The jury is still out, really. The Smiths won the toss and were awarded the prime „headline‟ spot. They were rapturously received. The critics went with the flow, acknowledging a wave of support for The Smiths and further stirring up the storm. There, however, was a strong suspicion that the critical consensus opted for something more reassuring than what was on offer earlier in the evening. A number of people watched with disbelief then relief what happened to The Smiths as they took off and found fame. “It should have been me” became “that could have been me ... but thank god it wasn‟t.” Jim Shelley had lit the fuse in the NME by describing The Smiths as being “like some harsh collision between the grand design of Magazine, the strange ways of Josef K, the taut tension of the Fire Engines.” Dave McCullough in Sounds became the group‟s most vocal cheerleader, and compared the debut single to The Nightingales and would often mention Howard Devoto and Magazine in relation to The Smiths. In both cases this was perhaps wish fulfilment.
The writers‟ desperation was understandable. Something or someone was needed, and Morrissey fitted the bill. He, however, was simply the latest in a line of smart Alecks with quiffs like Robert Gordon in The Loveless. There had been Johnny Britton, the one who got away, Bernard Rhodes‟ pinup who had played in Subway Sect and would later reappear in Orange Juice. There was Mick Bevan, frontman of The Decorators, prone to mentioning Rimbaud, cathedrals in France and red skies over Wembley. And there was Paul Quinn, Alan Horne‟s likely lad among the embers of Postcard, crooning with The Jazzateers then Bourgie Bourgie. That night at The Venue there can be no doubt that The Smiths really went for it and really meant to make an impact. Before they came onstage the DJ played the Marvelettes‟ Paper Boy, but The Smiths‟ approach to live performance was rather more square and sturdy. They were a little too keen to succeed. And many present thought there was far more to The Go-Betweens‟ set. It was probably their first prestigious London show with the new four-piece line-up. Robert Vickers‟ presence playing bass gave the group more depth, and allowed Grant and Robert more freedom with their guitars. A number of new songs were played, and The Old Way Out in particular sounded like a potential hit. Perversely they got their best-known number out of the way first. Onstage The Go-Betweens as a four-piece had a very physical presence. There was a nice balance. And there was always a lot going on sonically and visually. Robert, of course, was always the consummate entertainer, but the quietly charming gentleman Grant, the archetypal dark horse, was worth watching closely. He could do more and say more with an arch of the eyebrows, a roll of the eyes or flick of the wrist than seemed feasible. In the background the implausibly cherubic mod moptop bassist Robert Vickers bounced around absorbedly like an Undertone. And in so many ways Lindy the group‟s engine stole the show with a mesmerising performance. Onstage she was remarkable, rather like Palmolive in old Slits live footage. Lindy was very much the beating heart of The Go-Betweens, inventive, vivacious and resilient. She gave the group the boot up the backside they needed. Felt at The Venue had Deebank back in the fold after missing out on the fun of Penelope Tree. Lawrence more than anyone was desperate for fame, in direct contrast to his big hero Vic Godard, but he made no concessions to crowd pleasing. Somehow Felt seemed ill at ease with live performances. Deebank always insisted on playing songs exactly as they were recorded, with no deviation, nor extemporisation. They tended to be static and noncommunicative, too. At The Venue fate also conspired against Felt. There was a problem with stage lighting and guitar strings. So while on one hand it seemed fantastic to see Felt at their sulky best play an improbably short set silhouetted on a blacked out stage it‟s perhaps not the best way to please a crowd. Mark E. Smith would later say Felt were too subtle for the masses.
With most of Rough Trade‟s resources now concentrated on The Smiths, The Go-Betweens took a final bow at the end of their time with the label by releasing a new single in the autumn of 1983. Robert‟s song Man O‟ Sand to Girl O‟ Sea began “I feel so sure of our love I‟ll write a song about us breaking up”. It was suitably perverse and electrifying. Robert Forster said at the time: “There was a desperation to find a hit maker. We were caught while Rough Trade were shifting from co-operative to corporation”.
SPRING HILL FAIR In the 1980s there was a tradition for the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in The Mall to host a series of showcases for up and coming acts each January. Orange Juice, Josef K and the Blue Orchids were on the same bill in 1981. The likes of Haircut 100, Aztec Camera, Prats, 23 Skidoo, Dislocation Dance and Maximum Joy appeared in 1982. In 1983 Paul Weller made his first live appearance after The Jam disbanded, joining Everything But The Girl onstage, with Wah! And King also on the bill for a show hosted by Jamming! magazine. The 1984 shows included a Kitchenware Records showcase, and the response very much reflected the way things were going. The Daintees were witty and charming, Hurrah! were exhilarating and stole the show, while headliners Prefab Sprout were prissy and stuffy. And yet it was the Sprouts that wore the laurels, with inevitably Elvis Costello fawning backstage, and so on. It was a funny thing with Prefab Sprout and Paddy Mc. It was partly a matter of taste, as in some say yes to Subway Sect, no to Steely Dan, yes to an old Rodgers & Hart musical, no to more modern fare like Follies, Cabaret, Hello Dolly. But it was an awful lot more to do with Paddy McAloon really not being as smart or as gifted with a melody and a verse as critics liked to make out.
But that‟s how the media works. If something‟s said and sticks, and is repeated often enough, it becomes some sort of accepted fact. This would later become known as the Jarvis Cocker Syndrome. The Smiths released their debut LP in early 1984, and it was a work of arid plainness with any interesting features ironed out. But there were less orthodox options. Felt released another pop classic in The World Is As Soft As Lace, which was as beautiful as the ballads on Television‟s Adventure, with Lawrence at his elegantly confessional best: “If I could I would change the world. You know my visions they‟re absurd.” It was followed by The Splendour of Fear, Deebank‟s great work, an LP that really is like nothing else around in pop music, with its Chelsea Girls Warhol cover and unashamed virtuosity. The single and the LP featured the instrumental Mexican Bandits which shared an opening guitar motif with Who‟d Have Thought, the live Hurrah! favourite. This was spectacularly strange synchronicity, particularly as both groups shared a bill in March 1984 at another prestigious and pivotal event at King‟s College in The Strand. The search in early 1984 for new pleasures led to what was almost a proxy Go-Betweens and the Frontier Scouts‟ single When Daddy Blows His Top/Out Of Your Shell, an import on the Australian Au Go Go label. It sounded so wonderfully close to being a lost Go-Betweens single from 1982 that it was outrageous. But the group‟s leader Andrew Wilson turned out to be a close companion from Brisbane with links going back to the Able label. In interviews at the time Andrew stated that he wanted the Frontier Scouts to be like a cross between Vic Godard and the Fire Engines. Through the autumn and winter of 1983 REM‟s reputation had gained momentum. After the release of Murmur the whispers were gradually getting louder, fuelled by an invigorating live TV appearance on The Tube. In certain circles curiosity was piqued by what seemed to be similarities with what The Go-Betweens and Hurrah! were doing. There was a lot to like in REM‟s soaring lightness and melodic depth, the strangeness and the unobvious Rickenbacker tintinnabulation. They were clearly rooted in post-punk, and won bonus points for referring to Pylon as an inspiration. With the release of the glorious So. Central Rain (almost that Mexican Bandits motif again at the start) and the second LP, Reckoning, in April 1984 they continued to fascinate. At The Marquee in Wardour Street at the start of May that spring they were majestic and mischievous. Stipe came across perhaps knowingly as a tousle-haired Chris Bailey who with The Saints had appeared in the same venue on the TV adventure series The Return of The Saint. The thrilling part was the exuberant nods to the very recent past. Stipe‟s sudden bursts of Ian Curtis flailing, Peter Buck‟s Weller style swoops and leaps, Mike Mills bouncing around like the Undertones‟ O‟Neills. Indeed the group seemed closer to the spirit of Julie Ocean and Wednesday Week than anything else. The encores made explicit the links between Velvets/Byrds and Abba/Fleetwood Mac. And somehow it felt like an event to mark the end of innocence as the group soon became public property.
Within 18 months the audience‟s idiot dancing had been replaced with flag waving and lighters held aloft at the Hammersmith Palais. By then Dave McCullough, exiled to the London listings magazine City Limits, welcomed the zest of mod outfit Makin‟ Time as an antidote to REM‟s traditional rock solidity. He also wrote that Makin‟ Time‟s singer and organist Fay Hallam was god, just as a few years earlier he had declared Vic Godard was god when Stop That Girl was released on Bernard Rhodes‟ Oddball label through Rough Trade. It would be the summer of 1989 before REM had a single in the UK Top 30. The group was hardly struggling, but the British media had a prevailing preoccupation with the importance of hit singles. The charts have never been a true indicator of how well records are selling in Britain. In 1984, for example, reggae was really successful, and independent UK labels like Fashion and Ariwa were thriving. Greensleeves was as strong as ever. Lovers rock still had a massive audience. A new generation of UK toasters or MCs were developing a fast chatting style. Smiley Culture‟s Cockney Translation and Police Officer became hits in the real world. The likes of Papa Levi, Ranking Ann, Lorna Gee, and Asher Senator also had an impact. The massively popular 1984 Reggae Sunsplash was held at Crystal Palace‟s ground featuring Aswad, Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru, Prince Buster, King Sunny Ade, and sponsored by Capital Radio. The London lovers rock turned soul group Cool Notes began a series of hits in 1984 on the Abstract Dance label, as label mates with The Redskins. This was an off-shoot of the punk label Abstract that was home to The Gymslips, Hagar The Womb, Joolz, Three Johns and Five Go Down To The Sea. And there were the phenomenally successful electro Street Sounds compilations which found an audience beyond the kids with a ghetto blaster and a roll of lino behind the shopping centre. So the hollow victory of The Smiths making the Top 20 on Rough Trade meant very little, apart from creating a climate suggestive of the suffocating smugness of students‟ halls of residence, where The Smiths‟ records nestled next to tapes of Prefab Sprout‟s Swoon and Lloyd Cole‟s Rattlesnakes. The ascent of Madonna was far more fun and the Style Council‟s My Ever Changing Moods and You‟re The Best Thing were wonderful examples of perfect radio pop. But, against a backdrop of the Miners‟ Strike and the Government‟s war on left-wing local governments, there was a new earnestness abroad, which benefitted the likes of The Alarm, Redskins, New Model Army, Billy Bragg, Chameleons, Red Guitars, Easterhouse, Spear of Destiny and Three Johns. For those already depressed by such developments, things got far worse when Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA. As if the bombast was not wearisome enough, the sight of drunken yuppies bellowing along with Dancing in the Dark was enough to send many scurrying for something spikier and rougher. That summer Alan McGee‟s Creation label and his venue The Living Room became a focal point for a burst of frantic „back-to-basics‟ pop activity. A number of groups were coming through that had been shaped by early Rough Trade and Postcard singles, but were looking further afield for inspiration, and most crucially each featured very talented songwriters who were beginning to find their own voices. The Jasmine Minks, for example, off-
set blasts of aggressive mod eloquence with a Television style of elegance. The group had two distinctive, distinctly smart songwriters in Adam Sanderson and Jim Shepherd. On occasions Jim would use a clear Plexiglass guitar like Tom Verlaine. Adam played a black Rickenbacker. Another group on the scene The June Brides tended towards the clatter of Step Forward-era The Fall and Josef K, but the use of violin and trumpet set them apart and gave the sound an added richness and a certain strangeness that suggested The Raincoats more than the Velvets. Front man Phil Wilson adopted an unassuming air but wrote irresistible songs that had a subversive spring in their step and could be infuriatingly catchy. June Brides compositions often contained killer lines like: “To swagger is worse than to stumble “. On their day they created the most danceable music around. The Loft revealed their cards by covering Time by Richard Hell & the Voidoids. The song had first appeared on an EP put out by the Shake label, which paired two new Richard Hell recordings with a couple of old performances by the early Hell/Verlaine outfit Neon Boys, including a still astonishing trebly take on Love Comes In Spurts, high on irritant factor and Thirteenth Floor Elevators influence. Time itself could easily be identified as the song that defined Richard Hell‟s career. His words are at their most straightforward on Time, and Robert Quine‟s solo is pure McGuinn circaNotorious Byrd Brothers. It‟s a good starting point when considering The Loft. The group was only around on the scene for a short time, but generated considerable excitement. Their hit Up The Hill & Down The Slope contains one of the great lines in pop: “Showing off in the rain in last year‟s jeans”. Charismatic singer Peter Astor could sound thoughtful and detached at times, but then a savage Robert Quine or Malcolm Ross style solo would shake things up. The Loft‟s hit had been recorded with John Rivers, the producer usually most closely associated with Felt. Lawrence had become a fan of the group after being attracted to The Living Room by the buzz around Creation and was impressed seeing The Loft and the Jasmine Minks perform to a small but enthusiastic crowd. Around the same time Felt released another big pop statement of intent in Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow, produced by John Rivers, with the great line: “You‟re trying much too hard to make your world seem like a dream”. It should have had an Ivor Raymonde string arrangement, and it would have been intriguing to hear what he would do with the almost-mathematical Motown-like Felt formula. Chris Heath was prompted to write his first Felt feature in Jamming! and described Lawrence as “the strangest person I have ever met”. By the end of the summer Kitchenware Records had finally got round to releasing Hurrah!‟s Who‟d Have Thought as a single. The production was, appropriately, by John Brand and he caught the way Hurrah! should sound pretty astutely. Maybe more groups should have used Brand. They would
have been aware of him, as The Go-Betweens were just about the one act that all the new groups seemed to like. Ironically while things were livening up in London The Go-Betweens were busy with recording a new LP and preparing it for release. They‟d finally found a new home with the UK extension of Sire. The Sire brand seemed ideal for The Go-Betweens, on paper, with the Madonna connection and memories of Seymour Stein‟s New Wave output from Talking Heads, Voidoids, Ramones, Flamin‟ Groovies, Dead Boys. The new Go-Betweens LP was recorded in comfort at Miraval Studios in the south of France, owned by the composer Jacques Loussier. John Brand was at the controls again. But this was not to be the record some Go-Betweens fans were hoping for at the time. It was not the record some Go-Betweens were expecting to make. And it‟s not the record some critics write about. For all the mentions of traces of The Band and Creedence, it is easier to detect The Clash of Train in Vain or Lost in the Supermarket, even The Jam of Pretty Green or Monday. And as for the comparisons to Television, why not go for Wings‟ Band on the Run or Jet? Any initial disappointment was perhaps fuelled by lingering punk Postcard intolerance and spite, which can be a good thing. And yet while the LP is polished it still packs more of a punch than pretty much anyone else around from that time. Yes, the record is luxurious but it is far less congested than most recordings of that era. The problem was really the delay. Some songs were almost too familiar. Dexys‟ Too-Rye-Ay faced similar responses on its release. And things had moved on. It was all too easy to get caught up in the frenzy around The Jesus and Mary Chain, all the shenanigans, the propaganda, the irresistible sweetness at the heart of their wall of noise. Even The Go-Betweens came along to check out what all the fuss was about when the group played with The June Brides at The Ambulance Station, a squat on the Old Kent Road. The Mary Chain, for all the covers of old songs by Standells and Syd Barrett, Buzzcocks and Subway Sect, oddly looked like Birthday Party fans and probably were. The group‟s problems escalated when the Birthday Party‟s old audience caught up with their gigs. One look at video footage of the March 1985 North London Poly rumpus reveals a crowd that could easily have been the Banshees‟ a few years earlier. And the crowd was there to have a bit of a ruckus. It was a massive distraction and quite wearisome after the initial thrill had worn off. The group deserved better. The Go-Betweens‟ own Birthday Party links went way back, and coincidentally another group suggested by the glorious row The Jesus and Mary Chain made during the autumn of 1984 was the 1977 incarnation of The Saints who perhaps more than anyone were the initial inspiration for Robert Forster. As a teenager he‟d tried to work out ways of removing the wall with (I‟m) Stranded sprayed on it. He then sang: “I come from Brisbane and I‟m quite plain”. But The Saints took it once stage further, recording Brisbane (Security City) for their greatest work, the third LP Prehistoric Sounds:
“I don‟t want to let down my own hopes for this town It‟s so hard to get around Lots of cars but not much sound in town Lots of junk on the radio Just take a look and you will know I start to feel I‟m being used In a scheme that‟s been hidden from the public view It‟s almost guarded by the sea A prison island, it‟s not free I hope it goes, but it‟s still there It doesn‟t alter if you stare Living room isolation, extraordinary situation I see the police, but where‟s the crime? We‟re just like convicts doing time” In many ways Spring Hill Fair was overshadowed by the two singles it generated. These were, presumably, deliberate attempts at making perfect pop singles. One, Part Company, by Robert. The other, Bachelor Kisses, by Grant. They are very self-aware songs. They‟re reminiscent of someone like Ruth Rendell prepared to work with structure, enjoying the challenge of being inventive within certain formal frameworks and seeing what can be got away with in a popular format. The Go-Betweens were always lovers of pop. The Monkees were always a consistent source of fascination, and probably got mentioned in every interview The Go-Betweens ever did. So these singles would have been conscious statements. Part Company contains another one of those lines that leap out from the song: “That‟s her handwriting, that‟s the way she writes”. It‟s easy to imagine Robert‟s delight at coming up with a line so right, so certain to appeal to his audience. And Grant must have pretty pleased with the punch line of Bachelor Kisses: “Don‟t believe what you‟ve heard. „Faithful‟ ‟s not a bad word”. The song itself is swathed in tenderness, and the addition of The Raincoats‟ Ana da Silva‟s backing vocals is a beautiful touch, not least because of the significance of who she was and the musical background she came from. Appropriately for lovers of the pop tradition these two singles came with exceptionally songs on the flipside, which actually made it worth overcoming principles and paying extra for the often irritating practice of putting one additional song on a 12”. Part Company had the old live favourite Newton Told Me and Grant‟s heartbreaking ballad Just A King in Mirrors, the saddest thing in pop. Bachelor Kisses had the prickly Rare Breed and Secondhand Furniture, which has a touch of the Howard Devoto and Magazine about it and certainly something of a Raymond Carver feel to it. There was often something of the short story art about The Go-Betweens‟ songs. One of the absurdities of a critic‟s role is to make snap judgements about a record, when in real life it often takes a good long while for secrets to be revealed. Some records need to be lived with. They need to be ignored and rejected then rediscovered and explored anew. The instant reaction can be all wrong. Time is needed to find out what a record is really all about. Sometimes they need to be looked at or listened to in an entirely different way. Spring Hill Fair is one of those records.
The secret to Spring Hill Fair is perhaps on the cover. The group were photographed by Sheila Rock in one of the ornate boxes in the glamorous setting of London‟s Richmond Theatre. They look like the leading cast members of a new production, posing reluctantly for promotional shots. Robert F., for example, looks as wonderfully cadaverous as Jeremy Brett in Sherlock Holmes. And there is about Spring Hill Fair a sense of drama, a whiff of the theatricals, a rather thespian air. Forget about the guitars and drums. This is vaudeville and variety. Imagine instead the songs performed onstage, a big cast, a chorus line, the orchestra in the pit, and definitely dance routines, slapstick and pathos. That‟s when it starts making sense. Five Words may be a deconstruction of religion and its place in society, but with its call-and-response delivery it‟s easy to picture Grant and Robert centrestage, doing the old soft-shoe shuffle, wiseguys wisecracking, trading insults, an unseen part of the Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra collection, singing smart lines: “Hail to the generals. But hell for the public. Bows for the bishop. And bones for believers”. The Old Way Out suggests the full ensemble onstage, arms linked, stomping away in the background, driven by Lindy‟s glam racket drums, everyone joining Robert in the chorus, with lots of Glitter Band style pointing. It always seemed a bit odd putting that song where it was on the LP. It would have made a fantastic finale. Spring Hill Fair was the first LP The Go-Betweens made as a four-piece, and it‟s interesting that Robert Vickers plays bass in a more rhythmic way than Grant had done. Slow, Slow Music is perhaps the nearest The GoBetweens got to the dancefloor. It is tempting to imagine the group sat outside the château, enjoying the region‟s fine wines, listening to Prince, Cameo, Womack & Womack, and admiring the archness and articulateness of songs like Love Wars and She‟s Strange, studying the technique and sound. That mental image makes for one hell of a contrast to the poverty and distractions of the daily getting-by in a King‟s Cross squat. Bohemian demi-monde it may have been but that doesn‟t make it any the warmer in winter. Robert sang, appropriately, in Draining The Pool For You: “Your interest in freaks. The side show, the low life holds nothing for me. Because I have seen it. Almost been it, and it‟s not my cup of thrills”. One of the more absurd things ever said about The Go-Betweens was that they were too Australian . It‟s a curious point of view. In Britain alone in 1984 Rupert Murdoch was increasing his stranglehold over the media, Clive James was still the nation‟s Brilliant Creature, and Barry Humphries was everywhere. Neighbours had yet to arrive, but The Go-Betweens being Australian was not an issue per se. Exposure probably was more of an issue. It‟s one of the riddles of the „80s that the great writers like Vic Godard or The Go-Betweens didn‟t find an outlet for their songs, someone to popularise them. Their compositions may have been strange, but Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman were never straight forward. Writers that are probably favourites of The GoBetweens, like Joe South, Mickey Newbury, Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, all had someone immortalise their songs and get the royalties rolling in. Fred Neil had Midnight Cowboy to help pay the bills. If Part Company or Bachelor Kisses had been featured in a film, perhaps The Go-Betweens‟ story would be rather different to the one normally told. Who knows?
After the release of Spring Hill Fair, a couple of interesting things did begin to happen. One was that a „new wave‟ of groups began to appear that clearly had been inspired by The Go-Betweens. Mostly they didn‟t get it right. All the groups that looked to Orange Juice and Buzzcocks around the same time had the same problem. One label seemed to specialise in The Go-Betweens sound and it was neatly named after a film starring the other Robert Forster. Generally these groups lacked character (collectively or individually) or colour, and had little of The Go-Betweens‟ personality or punch, electricity or eccentricity. Nevertheless the arrival of all these groups reflected the impact The Go-Betweens were beginning to have. The other development was that The Go-Betweens gradually became huge on the live circuit. As The Smiths‟ fans seemed increasingly to be getting younger, so The Go-Betweens attracted a more mature audience. As word spread after the release of Spring Hill Fair, they caught the attention of people who might buy a new Tom Waits or Elvis Costello record, liked what The Pretenders and Talking Heads were doing, and would go and see Bob Dylan or Van Morrison out of curiosity. These were people who wanted something new to get behind, but who would not know or care about old 7”s by Article 58 or Restricted Code. “The Go-Betweens were not a good-time gadfly group, but pop need not exclusively be by or for the young. Vic Godard said: „I‟d much prefer to play to older people. Eventually I‟d like to have an older audience. Like the sort Peter Skellern has. I went to see him last night, and me and my girlfriend were easily the youngest people there. I want to get played on Radio Two and do cabaret gigs.‟ That aside, many of the great pop stars have been not particularly young or classically good-looking. Pop transcends such conventions.”
T HE C URTAIN C OMES D OWN So, I thought it would be fun to write something about The Go-Betweens‟ first few LPs, and the time in which that sequence was made and first heard. In some ways all you need to read about The Go-Betweens is Robert Forster‟s essay A True Hipster: Remembering Grant McLennan. But there is also David Nichols‟ book on The Go-Betweens. For a modern pop biog. it is very readable. I‟ve got the 2003 edition with Jonathan Lethem‟s lovely endorsement on the front cover. I quite like the fact that it was David who wrote a book on The Go-Betweens. I sort of knew David from when he had a fanzine called Distant Violins. We shared interests and sent letters to one another by air mail. I still have a C90 cassette David put together for me in I guess early 1984. It was a collection of current-ish sounds from Australia and New Zealand, the sort of thing he was covering in his fanzine. There was a lot of this kind of activity happening at the time, pen pals, and perhaps that was part of the appeal of songs like Aztec Camera‟s We Could Send Letters and REM‟s Letter Never Sent. The cassette featured a Go-Betweens interview and some live songs, from I think the Fast Forward tape „zine. The interview is where Grant and Robert tell the story of their European trip and how they got involved with Postcard Records. David‟s tape had a number of Triffids songs on as well, but I was never really a fan. Far more my cup of tea were Gargoyle by the Lighthouse Keepers, and in particular Bits of Wood by The Particles. In fact, those songs still sound incredible. The Moodists‟ Pure Gold Flesh and the Laughing Clowns‟ Eternally Yours were on there too. The cassette also had a couple of songs on by The Clean, which was the first time I came across the group. Getting Older and Oddity were the tracks David included, and they sounded fantastic. There was a real Velvets thing going on, and for someone still obsessed with The Feelies‟ Crazy Rhythms it was just the thing. Those two songs were the first I heard from the Flying Nun label but it wouldn‟t be until later that the parts started fitting together, and it was only then that it was possible to get more of a feel for all the incredible music the label put out: The Clean, Chills, Bats, Verlaines, Bird Nest Roys, Able Tasmans, Look Blue Go Purple, and so on. One thing I like very much is where The Clean get a mention in a novel by my favourite writer, Shena Mackay. In the book, appropriately called Dunedin, there is a busker playing something by The Clean in a London tube station. It just seemed a perfect touch. Mentions of music in novels can be tricky, and novels about the music business even trickier. Jonathan Lethem knows all about that. He did, however, mention The Go-Betweens in his great work, The Fortress of Solitude. My favourite song on David‟s tape was When Daddy Blows His Top by the Frontier Scouts. This was a group David was particularly keen on, and I have only realised recently that he was behind a compilation that gathered together all the recordings of the group‟s guiding light Andrew Wilson,
including the Four Gods single that featured the GBs‟ Grant and Lindy. There was some suggestion of doing a shared flexi, for David‟s fanzine and the new one I was planning, featuring one Frontier Scouts song and maybe a live one from Hurrah! Nothing came of that plan though. Sometime later I actually saw a copy of the Frontier Scouts‟ single in the Talbot Road Rough Trade shop. Judith behind the counter seemed delighted at my choice, and I said I knew of the group through a friend and thought they were going to be the next big thing. She said she‟d pass that on to Andrew the singer whom she knew. This exchange gave me a bit of an inner glow as it reminded of another story. And it‟s stuck in my mind. It‟s the sort of thing that my mind is filled with. I remember for example Sounds (and it must have been Dave McCullough) mentioning in a gossip column that Postcard Records had a new „back-to-basics‟ group on its roster called Scattered Cushions. That was probably made up anyway, and I‟ve never seen another mention of it. But it‟s stayed with me, for some reason. I lost touch with David, and didn‟t really hear from him again until many years later when he briefly followed up an old article I‟d written on Steve Walsh and Manicured Noise. Anyway, one of the things I like about his Go-Betweens book is that he uses a great quote of Robert Forster from around the time of Bachelor Kisses, where he compares The Go-Betweens to character actors: “People like Thomas Mitchell, Thelma Ritter, Ned Beatty. They don‟t have all the stuff the stars have, but they make a body of work that is often a lot more substantial, a lot more real than the stars.”