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Clip: The Go-Betweens

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  • Carl Zimring
    Mighty oceans Well-read and back from the dead, the Go-Betweens opt for the lush life. By Johnny Ray
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 16, 2005

      Mighty oceans
      Well-read and back from the dead, the Go-Betweens opt for the lush life.
      By Johnny Ray Huston

      HOW BOOKISH ARE the Go-Betweens? So bookish they make Belle and Sebastian
      seem ready for the short bus. It's possible they took their name from the
      Joseph Losey film, but more likely it came from the film's source material,
      a novel by LP Hartley. Either way, if band names are indeed prophetic, then
      the Go-Betweens could be used as Exhibit A. Over the course of close to
      three decades, they've gone between continents (Australia and Europe),
      record labels, and even birth, death, and rebirth as an entity. So it makes
      sense that when I call Grant McLennan, one of the group's pair of superb
      singer-songwriters, I catch him in transit. "We're in London," a chipper
      McLennan says from his hotel room. "We got back from Germany yesterday, and
      we leave for New York tomorrow."

      As for a certain upcoming date on the itinerary, McLennan is looking
      forward to it. "We love San Francisco, absolutely love it," he says. He has
      good reason to - a little over five years ago, SF was host to a night that
      proved crucial in the band's reformation. During a halcyon period in which
      the city seemed a favorite international pop underground port of call
      (while visiting the Aislers Set's Amy Linton, Belle and Sebastian's Stuart
      Murdoch had led an oceanside campfire musical gathering), Robert Forster
      and McLennan were joined by Sleater-Kinney and some local musicians at the
      Phoenix Hotel for a late-night, sing-and-strum get-together.

      The group's official comeback LP, 2000's The Friends of Rachel Worth -
      featuring Janet Weiss on drums and some contributions by Carrie Brownstein
      and Corin Tucker - emerged from this fateful meeting. "That was a great
      night," McLennan remembers. "Janet - what a hoyden! And it was great to
      play with Carrie and Corin. Their new record is just another step, another
      stratosphere. I'm glad that they're into Led Zeppelin."

      Majestically melodic, the Go-Betweens' new album, Oceans Apart (Yep Roc),
      is another step too, though of a more familiar nature: One of every three
      albums by the group embraces lush, wide-screen atmospherics. When McLennan
      sings that there's "No Reason to Cry," the song's synth-string finale is so
      beautiful, what else can a listener do but prove him wrong? For their third
      album since coming back (their ninth overall), Forster and McLennan
      reunited with British producer Mark Wallis, who brought a levitating
      splendor to the guitar work on their sixth long-player - and first farewell
      effort - 1988's 16 Lovers Lane. "I've said to Robert, 'Do you think our
      third, sixth, and ninth albums are our posh albums?' " McLennan explains,
      going on to read meaning into the group's occasional major-label ties.
      "When you look at it, [1984's] Spring Hill Fair was with Sire Records, 16
      Lovers Lane was with Capitol, and with Oceans Apart we're on EMI in

      Spring Hill Fair was my introduction to the band, and you could say I
      became married to them upon hearing McLennan's "Bachelor Kisses," a
      yearning ballad - and sterling example of their complex female portraiture
      - that remains one of my all-time favorite songs. "We were down in the
      south of France," McLennan says when asked about the track's origins. "It
      was great being in a ch√Ęteau - [French jazz pianist] Jacques Loussier's
      studio. After recording, we came back to London, and [Sire Records
      president] Seymour Stein really liked the song. It was a favorite of his,
      ho ho. But he said, [adopts high-pitched, East Coast nasality] 'I think it
      needs a middle-eight.' So we rerecorded it and got Ana da Silva from the
      Raincoats, who's a friend, to sing vocals."

      Da Silva's harmonies on "Bachelor Kisses" are a typical Go-Betweens touch;
      after their early days in Australia singing the praises of Lee Remick on a
      debut single of the same name (sleeve image: an autographed head shot),
      they moved on to not only write about women well, but also to play music
      wonderfully with them. The Phil Spector-like majesty of 1987's Tallulah
      owes plenty to the unconventional rhythms of then-drummer Lindy Morrison -
      a model of Bloomsbury-like butch chic - and the backing vocals and string
      and horn work of Amanda Brown. These days bassist, keyboardist, and backing
      vocalist Adele Pickvance brings a similar balance to the band. "I've always
      liked the Mamas and the Papas," McLennan says. "I like the beautiful
      reality of men and women singing together and playing together. There's not
      enough of it."

      McLennan isn't averse to discussing his lyrics. "Oh yeah, we get a lot of
      undertakers at our shows," he jokes when I resuscitate an old fanzine rumor
      that his 1987 song "Right Here" is about people addicted to chemicals used
      in funeral parlors. He embraces my suggestion that the older, damaged
      "Boundary Rider" of Oceans Apart and the schoolboy of 1982's "Cattle and
      Cane" (from Before Hollywood) are the same person, identifying those tracks
      and a few others ("Unkind and Unwise" and the sublime "Bye Bye Pride") as
      "north Queensland songs." Nonetheless, he doesn't kiss and tell when I ask
      about the air of the mystic that suffuses so many of his ("The Clock,"
      "Magic in Here") and Forster's lyrics. Forster has created characters such
      as the Clarke Sisters, raised in a feminist bookstore and prone to midnight
      vigils with crystal balls, and if tracks such as "Spirit of a Vampyre"
      (from Tallulah) are any indication, he seems drawn to vamps; on Oceans
      Apart's "Lavender" he sings of a woman who got a foreboding welcome - "They
      poisoned her water / And nailed her door" - upon visiting Sydney.

      On "Lavender," Forster also rhymes "well-read" with "good in bed" to
      describe the same woman. The group's audience tends to fit at least one of
      the above categories; novelist Jonathan Lethem, for example, deems the
      Go-Betweens his favorite band. "I must admit that we were on the bus going
      through Europe the other day, and I looked around and saw the four of us,
      all with our heads in books," McLennan says, adding, "I guess that's better
      than having porn on." What has he been reading? "A lot of contemporary
      Australian fiction. I'm also thoroughly enjoying a collection of Anthony
      Lane's writing about film for the New Yorker. It's a good tour read,
      because War and Peace can be tough going after a couple of vodkas - or
      maybe not."

      One book that apparently isn't on McLennan's reading list is David
      Nichols's biography of the band, The Go-Betweens, which if nothing else
      illustrates the powerful cult that's formed around a self-declared pop
      outfit that has yet to have a chart hit. "I'm not fudging the point, as you
      West Coasters say - I haven't read it," McLennan claims when asked about
      the book written by a fan who had a group of his own Down Under (the
      Cannanes). "I know people within the band who've read it, especially the
      updated version, and they were disgusted with it. But other people who have
      read it have said they thought it was very good. They're outside of the
      'inner circle' [of the band], but knowledgeable enough about us, and they
      said it was a good, quick summary."

      A good, quick summary that takes its time airing the grievances and
      romantic entanglements of former drummer Morrison, The Go-Betweens
      apparently still isn't comprehensive enough to fulfill the wishes of
      McLennan's songwriting partner. "Robert Forster has always said," McLennan
      explains, "that if you're going to write a biography of the Go-Betweens, it
      has to start with Robert at the age of four walking around a golf course
      picking up golf balls for five cents a ball. But then Robert is a great
      lover of Proust and Tolstoy and George Eliot."

      McLennan is prepped for his SF visit because of one recent purchase. "I
      just found a wonderful book in Heidelberg, Germany, of all places," he
      says. "A hardcover first edition of The Haight-Ashbury: A History, by
      Charles Perry." Considering this tidbit, the group's Bay Area plans aren't
      very surprising. "I know Robert's looking forward to going to his favorite
      health food shop," McLennan says. "We'll also go to the bookshops."

      The Go-Betweens play Fri/17, Slim's, 333 11th St., SF. $17. (415) 255-0333.
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