Top 10 Go-Betweens songs
Australia’s very own cult band the Go-Betweens forged a career out of catchy, sincere pop music with more than an idea or two for lyrical content. Close friends Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, the latter of whom tragically passed away from a heart attack at the age of 48, held the Brisbane band together for nine albums before going on hiatus after 16 Lovers Lane in 1988. More than 10 years on from McLennan’s death, it’s clear how much of himself he put into the band’s music and how much of it still feels timeless.
It’s time to revisit the Go-Betweens’ top 10 songs.
10. Here Comes A City
Post-16 Lovers Lane is perhaps a strange place to start, but Here Comes A City is without a doubt a standout from this period of the band (alongside Finding You and German Farmhouse). Here the band channels the early Talking Heads sound they so flirted with on their first releases, with angular guitar lines and Byrne-esque vocal delivery pushed to the forefront. Lyrical images of moving cityscapes and train rides give this track an incredibly strong vision, alongside Forster’s memorable left-field literary curveball: “Why do people who read Dostoevsky, look like Dostoevsky?”
9. Lee Remick
Descriptions of early Go-Betweens material tend to chronicle the band’s penchant for a rougher post-punk leaning sound, particularly on Send Me A Lullaby or rougher cuts on Spring Hill Fair. The band’s earliest singles however display an unashamedly simple pop formula, likely as a result of McLennan and Forster’s early days performing bedroom covers of The Monkees. The band comfortably refer to their early work as part of the ‘Striped Sunlight Sound’ that was prevalent in the Brisbane music scene, and on a song like Lee Remick, it’s not difficult to picture the warm afternoon sun smiling at the earnest love song Forster penned for the American actor.
8. Five Words
“It starts with a birthstone, and ends with a tombstone,” begins Spring Hill Fair’s second track, a lyric that stands out among a long list of Go-Between’s one-liners. Five Words is a cut above its peers for a few reasons; perhaps mostly for Lindy Morrison’s incessant percussion and the strange rhythmic feel the song holds throughout. While not the strangest song on Spring Hill Fair (River of Money wears that crown), there’s something about it that hinges on the uncanny.
7. Head Full of Steam
The song writing present on Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express showed a strong shift towards a more simplistic approach, as some of the band saw the album as potentially their last chance to make a name for themselves after lukewarm reviews of Spring Hill Fair. Head Full of Steam finds the band in an especially jangly mood, with Forster and McLennan’s bright guitars framing the steadily paced pop number. Forster’s lackadaisical yearnings are as endearing as they are timid, compounded by the very strange music video of Forster impersonating Prince in a crop top, later discovered to be McLennan’s idea. If you want to call Liberty Belle a transitional album, then the success Head Full Of Steam was the confidence they needed to write the pop anthems to come.
In an interview for the Great Australian Albums documentary series, Morrison spoke about the duality of Forster’s song writing, how it can deal with heavy themes of love-loss and regret, he still manages to find a silver lining somewhere: “That’s the great thing about [Robert’s music], there’s always hope”. This observation feels clearest in the context of Clouds – the understated follow-up track from the band’s biggest single Streets of Your Town. Featuring a peculiar three-and-a-half bar verse, Forster wrote the song in the harbourside Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo, considering the clouds within the room he was staying in at the time.
5. Spring Rain
Morrison sees Liberty Belle as her all-time favourite Go-Betweens record, claiming if they had produced the songs “the way the radio demands” they could have achieved the ever-elusive hit the band could see but not quite touch. Sonically, Liberty Belle aimed to expand on the woody timbre that Before Hollywood had, using a larger variety of instruments such as cello, bassoon and violin. First single Spring Rain kept their two guitars, bass and drums approach, but its simplicity works incredibly well. Forster wrote the song about his teenage years in suburban Brisbane (learning from McLennan’s childhood gaze on Cattle and Cane) with a surprising stop-start pre-chorus in the vein of the song’s lyrics: ‘These people are excited by their cars, I want surprises just like spring rain”.
4. Bye Bye Pride
One of the great Go-Betweens mysteries is why Bye Bye Pride was the fourth single off Tallulah, behind Cut It Out (aka the worst Go-Betweens song, but that’s a conversation for another day). McLennan’s majestically melancholy track is not only one of the best cuts from the album, but arguably holds the best chorus from a non-16 Lover song. Bye Bye Pride is a song that recognises the band’s absolute strengths: lyrical brilliance (“A white moon appears, like a hole in the sky”), sublime classical accompaniment (Amanda Brown’s brilliant oboe playing) and a criminally catchy melody.
3. Cattle and Cane
McLennan’s ode to childhood is undoubtedly one of the best songs the Go-Betweens recorded. Something in the vivid imagery McLennan’s lyrics create elevates in a way that feels incidental and yet so well-executed. McLennan wrote the song using Nick Cave’s acoustic guitar, describing it as a song “to please [his] mother” and in order for her to hear it he had to sing it over the phone to her, as the cattle station she lived on lacked the technology. Critically applauded as a classic Australian song, Cattle and Cane is a song of homesickness (the Go-Betweens had been living in England for a few years) and yearning for the past as a place, with fond memories of a landscape that was but a world away.
2. Quiet Heart
At the time 16 Lovers Lane was released, many fans of the Go-Betweens’ earlier material felt alienated by the polished sound of the new record, thanks to the band’s extensive use of drum machines and digital patches. Despite this initial uncertainty, over time fans began to appreciate the sincerity of the songs with critics believing them to be their most honest and heartfelt to date. The shift in lyrical style from a vague or obtuse take on relationships, to direct and emotionally-charged was no doubt inspired by the relationships in the band going into the album (McLennan and Brown were becoming closer, while Forster and Morrison had recently called it quits). McLennan’s Quiet Heart was written while Brown was away in New York after a long Go-Betweens tour, with a strong sense of yearning present in the lyrics (“And how I miss your quiet, quiet heart”) and vocal delivery. This was the Go-Betweens at their most fragile and confessional – and of course, their best.
1. Dive For Your Memory
One of the reasons 16 Lovers Lane feels so different from other records of its era is the band’s relocation from London to Sydney in 1988. Forster describes the record as existing somewhere between Bondi and Coogee in New South Wales, as the band discovered the presence of beaches in the area they wrote and recorded the album. Dive For Your Memory has always stood out as epitomising that kind of spatial awareness (Forster wrote the song in a Bondi Hotel overlooking the harbour, beach and nearby cliffs). Essentially, the song’s lyrics deal with Forster’s relationship with drummer Morrison, as Morrison would often rail against him, claiming their relationship was never going to work because of the band. Forster’s classic optimism is immortalised in the chorus:
“When I hear you saying that we stood no chance / I’ll dive for your memory / We stood that chance”
This phrase also serves as a metaphor for the Brissy band’s career; that despite never really reaching mainstream success, carved a place for the Go-Betweens as Australia’s finest pop band.
Want to relive the Go-Betweens’ best? We’ve created a Spotify playlist so you can tune in anytime.