Robert Forster – The sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday
Their terse, streaming rhythms seemed drawn from the sound of people talking, while their sculpted lyrics eschewed love-song convention for open-ended narratives and poetic reflections on time and place. Boasting elusive melodies, or none at all, the songs could be deceptively simple, like the bounding “Spring Rain”, or treacherously complicated, like “Someone Else’s Wife”, the uneasy shifts of which belie McLennan’s declaration that “There’s a fine line between love and despair.”
Forster and McLennan embraced unlikely influences including the Monkees, the Mamas and the Papas and Jonathan Richman, which may explain their ability to both plug into and stand outside of the post-punk/new-wave aesthetic of bands such as the Talking Heads, Television and Gang Of Four.
A fascinating study in persistence and adaptability, the Go-Betweens somehow thrived on both adventure — they recorded in England and Australia and France and the United States — and misadventure. They endured difficult times in London, where they lived in the shadow of Brit bands after moving there in 1982 to take a run at commercial success. They endured busted record deals, dire financial straits, internal strife, and health problems (Forster couldn’t sing during the sessions for 1986’s Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express and had to add all his vocals later in a mixing studio).
In 1989, a year after recording 16 Lovers Lane back in Sydney, the burnt out Go-Betweens went through what Forster called a “savage and abrupt” breakup. At the time, Forster was less fond of the band’s increasingly polished productions than he is in retrospect. He and McLennan talked about continuing as an acoustic duo, which is how they began. But McLennan, devastated over the band’s dissolution and a simultaneous romantic breakup, decided to go it alone. A decade of solo projects by Forster and McLennan began, with Forster mostly living in Berlin, where his future wife lived, and McLennan in Australia.
When they got back together in 2000 under the Go-Betweens banner to record The Friends Of Rachel Worth in Portland, Oregon, with a cast including three members of the American indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney, Forster and McLennan were refreshed and recharged as a team. It can be argued that they never reached greater heights than during their second coming, which gave us the chiming lyricism of “Magic In Here”, the driving urgency of “Here Comes A City”, the mantra lift of “Too Much Of One Thing”, the rich moonlit reflection of “Darlinghurst Nights”.
McLennan saw even better times ahead for the band. “If you’re a Go-Betweens fan, I really think in the next couple of years we’re going to vindicate your love of us,” he says on the DVD companion to That Striped Sunlight Sound, in a charming segment where he and Forster discuss the history of the band and survey their songs on acoustic guitars. For him, the possibilities were endless. “We could end up doing the soundtrack for a five-hour French movie,” he says, “or end up writing songs for ‘The O.C.'”
There’s a tendency, in considering great songwriting collaborations, to assign opposite roles to partners — in this case to see Forster as the band’s Lennon figure with his confessional rock leanings, and McLennan as McCartney with his pop sensibility. Forster and McLennan did, indeed, have very different personalities. But over the years, their distinctions as artists blurred as they exerted a strong influence on each other.
“We took things from each other into our own work,” said Forster. “On The Evangelist, I wanted the pop songs to be pop, carried on from Grant. I wanted a little bit of a homage to him. Grant was more melodic, in a traditional way. I learned from him not to be afraid to search for hooks, to make it sound like the Monkees, like the Mamas and Papas, like David Bowie, to carry on in that direction.”
It took “Cattle And Cane”, McLennan’s 1983 masterpiece about a schoolboy and “a bigger brighter world,” to open Forster’s eyes to the possibilities of “doing childhood” and writing in the past. “Up until then, all my songs were now, now and me, me,” Forster says on the Striped Sunlight DVD. “I heard ‘Cattle And Cane’ and immediately thought, why didn’t I think of that?”
McLennan’s fondness for country music, which Forster had little use for when they first teamed up, also became a shared influence. By the time Forster recorded his first solo album, Danger In The Past, in 1990, he was looking to old-school Nashville and upstart Austin for inspiration. “Wondering who sings better in the dark/Is it Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark?” he sings on “Dear Black Dream”. His 1995 covers album I Had A New York Girlfriend includes songs by Clark, Mickey Newbury, Bill Anderson and Rick Nelson.
“I got into a sort of wild Texan country folk thing,” he says. “I go for a lot of lyrical oddities, people who are very strong lyrically and a little bit mad who go into areas pop music doesn’t go into. I also like Shel Silverstein and Steve Goodman and Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine.”
Even as they point to different albums and phases of the Go-Betweens, Forster’s solo efforts are more relaxed and more stylistically varied. Like the Go-Betweens’ albums, they were recorded in various countries, but with different producers and supporting players. Danger In the Past was made in Berlin with Mick Harvey and two other members of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. Calling From A Country Phone (1993), never released in the United States, was recorded in Brisbane with a band of young unknowns. Warm Nights (1996) was done in London with an old friend of Forster’s, Scottish pop artist Edwyn Collins of the cult band Orange Juice, who used brass and strings.