The Go-Betweens – the inbetween years
Accepted wisdom has it that The Go-Betweens were the ultimate critics’ band. With every album, reviewers would proclaim their loveliness before going into a gloomy rant about their lack of commercial success. But when Robert Forster and Grant McLennan embarked on a trial separation in 1989, eventually releasing four solo albums apiece before reuniting in 2000, even the critics – well, most of them – lost interest.
It was not the strictest of divorces. They intermittently toured together, and McLennan even turned up at Forster’s solo London debut in 1990. As they played “Danger In The Past” that night, it was easy to stereotype the pair: Forster the capricious prima donna, vamping his way through a set of grand rock star delusions; McLennan the modest artisan, content to play his acoustic guitar.
But as this handsome 2CD collection of their solo work proves, those character sketches were some distance off the mark. Grant McLennan’s disc reveals him to be the nakedly ambitious one, applying mainstream gloss to his bright jangles. In general, much here hasn’t aged too well, and you get the impression someone convinced McLennan that he should be competing with Crowded House, not Forster.
Forster’s arch and wired influence would have probably given McLennan’s songs the settings they deserved: “One Plus One”, especially, cries out for The Go-Betweens’ wild mercury charm. But Forster, interestingly, was capable of sustaining that magic on his own. In fact that first solo album, Danger In The Past, is as good as any by The Go-Betweens.
While McLennan moved anxiously towards the mainstream, Forster had a much better understanding of his true peers, often recruiting them as producers: Mick Harvey for Danger In The Past; Edwyn Collins for 1996’s Warm Nights. Twanging, playful melodrama remained Forster’s forte, though Intermission wisely omits some of his dafter conceits (a 1994 version of Heart’s “Alone” is not missed) and cherrypicks the fabulously rich likes of “Beyond Their Law” and, yes, “Danger In The Past”.
Intermission, conceived just before McLennan’s death in May 2006, isn’t really the best way to remember his shining talent. But as a neglected chapter in the Go-Betweens’ tale – one where the desire for success became a camp gag for Forster and a professional imperative for McLennan – it’s fascinating. They really should have been superstars, you know. . .
Q&A with Robert Forster:
UNCUT: Your solo careers took radically different paths.
ROBERT FORSTER: I wanted to work with people I really admired. Grant didn’t want to get totally involved in the sound of the records, he didn’t really conceptualise sound or sculpt it as much as I did.
U:Was Grant more conventionally ambitious than you?
RF: That’s true. I was ambitious, I thought our potential was limitless. But I thought we had to stay true to ourselves. Grant had a lot of people in his ear saying, “Why aren’t you in the Top Ten?’ I always knew why I wasn’t, but the pop star dream was something that he always chased. The strange thing is that the pop star thing never really suited him. But I guess he had to go through that to find out.
U:What are you doing now?
RF: I’m working as a music critic down here. I’d like to make another record, and I’ve got some songs. But no matter how much I push, it always comes down to about two songs a year.