Posts from May 1999
A coin in a jukebox, a basement that smells of piss and rust, full of vinyl at ten pence a time, a tape in a cheap cardboard sleeve, bought in a train station, a green courier bag holed where the corners of 12″s poked through, a radio aerial, queuing behind a couple of 13-year olds in WH Smith’s, buying the same thing as them. Dust, static, tape distortion, CD pop: what’s not to love about singles?
What was that phrase? Grace under pressure? No pressure here any more, twenty years into the game and playing in front of an audience that’s more like a congregation, but Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are still gracious enough and more so. Forster looks as handsomely out-of-place as he ever has, aquiline and arch in a white linen suit. McLennan remains the most lovable musician in the world, beaming with enthusiasm and joy for his partner, his audience, his words. He sings ‘Cattle And Cane’ after we’ve been calling for it all night, and the look on his face is saying: “I wrote this?? Hey! Not bad!”. After ‘People Say’, he looks at Robert and tells us that the song is still one of the best he’s heard in his life. Yeah, well, mine too.
In a drunken hour I once called the Go-Betweens “the Smiths for grown-ups”, and apart from the fact that they still make me feel anything but grown up, I’d probably stand by that. Again and again they pull off the same trick Morrissey did when I was 16 – they legitimise what I’m feeling without making it seem crappy and banal. Nowadays, standing packed with a bunch of sensitive guys in a slickly ‘intimate’ venue, there’s a lot of nostalgia in that feeling, but when Grant and Robert come on and strike up ‘The Devil’s Eye’, my smile breaks my face in two.
In other words, the Go-Betweens (or their records, or their songs) feel like mates. Which is apt, since these days a Go-Betweens gig is a parable of friendship, a story about two men who got together in Brisbane when they were 19 to write a few songs – not a desperately unusual story, that – and then found that the songs they wrote wouldn’t leave them or their listeners alone. Why didn’t they ever have a hit? the critics would ask. Because they never wrote one. The Go-Betweens weren’t and aren’t a public band. I probably couldn’t explain to my own best friend why a line like “She’s never had a nickname / But then neither have I” sets my brain tumbling and makes my heart glow.
And cold on the page, lines like that don’t do the band justice anyway. On record, they spring out at you when you’re not looking and suddenly take you over – I heard the Go-Betweens first when I was drunk, lying on a student bed living out the arrogant defiance that seeps through every note of ‘Draining The Pool For You’. It was like one of those conversations, the rare ones, the ones which start friendships, where your tongue unlocks and for once everything you say and hear works. The tape in question didn’t leave my walkman for a week: there are times (like now) when they seem to me the most wonderful band to ever put fingers to wire, and I check my critical head at the door.
The songs were there for us when we needed them, and now we’re here for Grant and Robert – the only performers I’d even consider following from gig to gig. That’s partly loyalty, partly pragmatism: live and acoustic, these two are magnificent. They know each other’s solo songs by heart, when one breaks a string the other takes over, they play almost anything you might want to hear and lots you didn’t know you had to hear, they go on for a good two hours and a great three encores, there’s an empathy between them you can’t catch on paper. It’s not that their interpretations of the songs are especially different from the records, it’s just that those songs feel richer and more lived-in. Our life or theirs? Don’t ask me.
Nitty-gritty: the highlights. Grant plays The Wrong Road, Robert tells us we’re privileged to hear it (too many words, apparently). It’s Grant at his most Robert-ish, for sure: a grey cyclic swell of a song about being an exile in London. It’s also my favourite Go-Betweens song: I want to shake the man’s hand so hard he can’t play guitar for days. Robert plays two standouts from his Danger In The Past album, which I don’t know yet: the jaunty Baby Stones has a career-best lyrical hook(“Every man for the rest of your life will be less than me”) and goes down well, the sublime Danger… itself is something else entirely. Forster turns down the lights and stalks the stage like a great camp bat, lacing one of his darkest, richest songs with a hard-won humour. “We had friends / we had friends who didn’t make 25” he growls at the same time as he’s making ridiculous Jarvis Cocker hand gestures. It’s compelling, thrilling, theatrical. From Grant we get the romance, songs like Clouds and Head Full of Steamas quietly perfect as songwriting gets, tiny studies of contentment and infatuation. If I could write like Grant McLennan, you think, I could be with any girl I wanted.
They’ve got a Best-Of out, and cheaply: Bellavista Terrace, on Beggar’s Banquet. It won’t change your life quite as much as the previous compilation, 1978-1990, which quixotically stuffed half its disc space with B-Sides and out-takes: you banged your fist against your skull in horror that a track as remarkable as Rock’n’Roll Friend (top-notch gender tourism with Robert playing a musician’s girlfriend) had met such a fate, but there you are. But Terrace does at least go beyond the wannabe hits and delves into the meat of the matter, finding room for The Wrong Road and the lush Bye Bye Pride and Robert’s evergreen break-up epic Part Company. And of course, all six of their studio albums are still in print (with vilely generic inner sleeves thoughtfully designed to keep the band’s fanbase as small as possible). But really, if you get the chance, see these two men live and remind yourself of all the good music can do you.
If he had been born in any pop era, Brian Wilson would’ve flourished at least to some degree with those mad skills of his. He wrote and co-wrote cunning songs about surfing, hotrods and teenage autonomy without any firsthand experience; doubtlessly he could’ve come up with good murder ballads or novelty hits for racoon-fur-wearing college students if the need came up. But Brian’s genius (and greatest influence, probably) came from his production work: