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Thursday, June 25, 2009 

Looking back: The Go-Betweens

(In which, let's face it, we're far enough into 2009 that the whole '2008' conceit of this was pretty dumb, and so in the future Ian probably is going to most avoid writing any sort of best-of list in general in favour of writing up, in no particular order, albums from past years he has recently spent time listening to, thinking about or discovering. An occasional series, continued when he feels like it. And from now on we're just going to use a "Looking Back" tag for these.)

The Go-Betweens - 1978-1990

The Go-Betweens are one of those bands unheard of by most but well loved by a small and vocal contingent of fans and critics, although sadly I think more people heard about them since Grant McLennan unexpectedly passed away in 2006. If you look around for what people say about them, there's lots of talk of great songwriting, perfect pop, and so on, and all that is fair enough. It's hard to listen to any well-chosen selection of the best of McLennan and Robert Forster's best work together without noticing just how good a songwriting team the two of them were - hear something like "Cattle and Cane" or "Dive for Your Memory" and it's clear that the two them were/are craftsmen of the highest order. Although it's taken me a while to tell their voices apart (something I still can't do 100% of the time), the two of them do manage to have distinct personalities. Of them, McLennan is arguably the more lovable, especially when you hear a song like "Bye Bye Pride," which is utterly perfect for listening to while you walk around town on a bright summer's day (I know, I checked recently). Sadly, I think part of the reason I adore that mode of McLennan's so much is that I'm probably closer myself to the clenched-teeth Forster of "The House That Jack Kerouac Built" - and part of the genius of the 1978-1990 compilation is that it takes those sides of the band and brings them together in a way that makes perfect sense.

Because whatever their reputation for songcraft, the fact is that the Go-Betweens can be awfully gloomy at times (hell, a song like 1987's "The Clarke Sisters" sounds a bit like Echo & The Bunnymen in terms of grimness). I've been listening and re-listening to this compilation for the past few days; first while walking around town in the best mood I've been in for months, then again over the last night and today when I've been seized with a black and gradual disappointment with pretty much everything in my life. I don't mention that to be melodramatic, as I don't think it's either serious nor, crucially, tied to much of anything real; it's just the same old sluggish struggle against the blunt fact that I don't really know what I want to do next with my life and as a lifelong perfectionist not having a destination in mind is hard for me. It's the old 'if I can't do everything why do anything' thing. And while the Go-Betweens sounded perfect for that bright summer day when I relished just the act of being out and walking, carrying out simple errands and making myself a nice lunch, they've also sounded perfect for the last little while. True, now I'm more likely to skip to the crankily resentful "Draining the Pool for You" or the impossibly aching "You Won't Find It Again" than the cautiously joyous likes of "Right Here" or "Spring Rain," but the fact that Forster and McLennan remain so capable of giving voice to whatever inchoate mood I'm in just means that it's time for me to officially sign up as a member of the cult.

So you should seek them out - and unlike most blog posts, where that 'you' is casual, general, and easily dismissed, I mean you, as you sit here reading this. Go look up "Bye Bye Pride" on YouTube or something, I'm sure it's there. It's an amazing song, with this wonderful wide-open feeling even though the key line is "but I didn't know someone could be so lonesome / Didn't know a heart could by tied up and held for ransom." But when McLennan follows that up with "So take your shoes and go outside / Stride over stride" I'm suffused with this feeling of peace and acceptance. There aren't many songs that make me feel like everything's going to be okay no matter what kind of mood I'm in, but "Bye Bye Pride" is one of them. Of course it's one of their most famous songs, appearing even on the crippled, stunted (but widely available) compilation Bellavista Terrace: The Best of the Go-Betweens. There isn't a single good option to get into the band, seeing as how they made three (good to great) albums after they reformed in 2002, but even if they hadn't reformed Bellavista Terrace is too short and basic to do anyone but an absolutely beginner any good.

I'm tempted to say "Rock and Roll Friend" is half of the reason for that. An old b-side, it's definitely my favourite song by Robert Forster (and one he liked enough to resurrect for one of his solo albums) and it benefits immensely from the rather bitter cast his voice tends (or maybe, after his lovely post-McLennan solo album The Evangelist, tended) to have. I've never focused enough on the song to figure out where exactly it's placed between depicting a romantic relationship and a musical one, but when Forster breathes out "do something about me" on the chorus it's a carefully heartbreaking moment. Great songs about unrequited love are fairly rare, considering how often they're attempted, but the muted desperation in Forster's voice is killer. For whatever reason, his narrator is unwilling or unable to do anything himself, but listen to what he's saying: he's not even really asking for a successful resolution to whatever tangle he's in, he just can't stand the uncertainty of the situation. Whatever the song is actually about, that feeling turns "Rock and Roll Friend" one of the most moving depictions of helplessness I've ever encountered.

And while Bellavista Terrace doesn't come even close to going deep enough into the Go-Betweens back catalog to find it, the now out of print 1978-1990 does. I am deeply indebted here, as elsewhere, to Alfred Soto for my first listen to the comp back when I only knew a few songs and wanted to investigate the band, but the flow and ebb of the single disc, North American version of 1978-1990 proved indelible enough that I recently couldn't take it any more and imported the damn thing from an American Amazon reseller. It was surprisingly cheap considering (although part of me wishes I had the money to spring for the two disc version, I strongly suspect that while the extra material is every bit as worthwhile as a front-to-back listening experience it may be a case of gilding the lily) and while the Go-Betweens are a great enough band I probably should just go and find all of the albums I actually love this one enough as an album (albeit an impossibly stuffed one - 22 tracks!) that owning it isn't just about having as much of them in as small a space as I can manage. Sometimes I fall for band albums, but sometimes I fall for compilations, and if they ever do put together a properly career-spanning anthology I imagine I'll be unable to avoid resenting the fact that they skipped "Rock and Roll Friend" - or "Love Is a Sign," or "Second-Hand Furniture," or "People Say," or...

The point is, if you've ever been tempted to listen to me sound unheard with a band, go order 1978-1990 now. There are few surer bets in rock music. And while the rest of the band seems to be doing well these days (hell, I hear from their old bassist Robert Vickers every so often, he does PR now), give a thought to poor Grant McLennan, whose death is tragic in a way only unexpected, early-in-life heart attacks seem to be. "Don't you know, baby, you won't find it again?"

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Also trough Alfred Soto and an ex-room mate, Alex Segura, I heard bits and singles of the Go-Betweens and what I heard was good indeed. But guess it's time to investigate deep on.

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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