It’s easy to forget Australia has brought us great bands. I’m not talking INXS. No, the politically aggressive Midnight Oil, the sunny melodies of Crowded House (okay, they’re Kiwis, but the point stands), the gothic and borderline psychotic The Birthday Party, momentary rock saviors the Vines- Australia has brought us great music. These bands have all got at least devoted followings in North America.
The Go-Betweens have a following in North America. It’s miniscule. Try and find another Go-Betweens fan within a five hundred kilometre radius. You’re more likely to hit someone who knows all the words to a Glass Tiger song.
The Go-Betweens should have been the biggest band in the world. They had the pop sensibility of Crowded House with a less scary version of the darkness of Nick Cave. 16 Lovers Lane is one of the loveliest albums you will ever hear in your life. It’s also one of the saddest.
The Go-Betweens had been going for a decade by this point, and the two couples that formed the core of the band were at different stages. Bassist-singer-songwriter Robert Forster and drummer Lindy Morrison were crumbling like Buckingham-Nicks, while guitarist-singer-songwriter Grant McLennan and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown were as lovey-dovey in love as two hormone driven teens. McLennan and Forster were a songwriting team like Lennon-McCartney who wrote complimentary tracks while writing separately. Here, the heartbreak is supplied by the mopey Forster, on the lyrically overcast “Clouds” and the drowning metaphors on “Love Is A Sign”. McLennan wrote the bouncy “bah-dah-dah” chorus of “Love Goes On!” (easily my favourite track on the record- this is coming from the most unromantic, cynical human being to ever walk the earth people. There is a spanish guitar inspired bridge! Work with me!). It’s a moment of perfection in the late eighties sound scape that is almost completely ignored. It pains me, because it is possibly one of the most perfect records ever created.
See, it’s this balance that the McLennan-Forster team brought to the mix. They had distinct POV and styles, but the album never sounds choppy or uneven. They both sang lead, and their voices are dissimilar to be recognizable, but similar enough not to make you notice. The album is thematically cohesive, but it spans the entire expanse of love. Nothing is easy on this record, but it’s one of the few albums I own that is welcomed simply because it doesn’t arouse negative emotions. It’s a mass of contradictions with acoustic guitars, an oboe, and harmonica. Essentially, on paper, nothing about the Go-Betweens is supposed to work. But EVERYTHING does. It’s an album that shouldn’t exist. I will be eternally grateful it does.
I was fourteen when I heard this record for the first time and it came at the same time I had my first real heartbreak. The guy I had spent a year and a half madly crushing on had outright dismissed me- in public and I was devastated. I went to the town library, where I came across this record in the recently added area. It was used, which meant is was most likely a donated record, but the most shocking thing to music nerd me was that someone in my small Canadian town had the taste level to buy a critically acclaimed indie band’s best album. I had heard of the Go-Betweens, and ” Streets of Your Town” was a song that had been passed around on bootleg tapes in town. I took it out, and proceeded to play it non-stop for a week. Then I renewed it and played it non-stop for another week. It healed my soul. Robert understood how I felt. Grant understood how I wanted to feel. And it was done with gorgeous melodies and poetic lyrics.
Again, my favourite song on the album is the brilliant “Love Goes On!”, the McLennan composition that’s all about being so in love with someone it physically hurts. “I know a thing about lovers” is the constant refrain in the song, and the line “I know a thing about darkness, darkness ain’t my friend” is the one time on the record where hope and light is absolute.
The soap opera of “You Can’t Say No Forever”, where pleading and cajoling is mixed with a perverse understanding the reasons why no is even being said (stalker much?) is one of the truly moving songs on the record. I mean, we’ve all been in the position of trying to convince someone to forgive us even when we know why we shouldn’t be given the privilege.
The band’s biggest hit internationally (well, even in Oz, come to think of it) was “The Streets of Your Town”, with its dark view of small town living, is a gem and a half. If Jimmy Eat World could write a song half as good as this just once, I’d forgive them their new record. The gentle acoustic guitar parts matched with the strong rhythm section and the delicate touches of Amanda Brown’s harmonies belie the dark lyrics. Small town living ain’t easy anywhere, you know.
Forster’s morose lyrical masterpiece “Love Is A Sign” is probably my second favourite song on the album, the antidote to the joy of “Love Goes On!” With its off-kilter vocal melody on the chorus and the insistence that he will stop being crazy as soon as all the memories fade is probably one of the most accurate accounts of what happens when on suffers a painful breakup.
Truth is, I tend to forget the Go-Betweens often in my own writings and lectures of music, simply because they were so good for so long, and then they came out with this little masterpiece, and followed that up by essentially imploding, going their separate ways for a decade, coming back together, still neglected by the larger audience, and then Grant McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006 and then music fans everywhere realized ” wait a sec. Half of the greatest songwriting team of the 1980s just died. Why isn’t the world devastated?”
Simple. Rectify this tragedy. Listen to 16 Lovers Lane and realize just how much better your life is now you have heard it. Then mourn the fact that it will never, ever happen again. And that you didn’t appreciate it when it was there. Then spread the gospel according to prophets of Brisbane.