Argue the toss, if you like, over the pre-eminent genius of the first three Go-Betweens albums, or the two recent reunion sets. But when the tossing’s over, the three Go-Betweens albums composed circa 1986-88 in a rush of creative late youth and London poverty will always be the beauties, the gold standards. The ones you reach for to convert others to the fond and tender charms of Brisbane odd couple Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. Almost two decades on, these records aren’t ‘interesting’, or ‘influential’, or ‘era-defining’, or whatever reissuers-on-the-make intone while feeling for your wallet. This is music fresh as the first time you played it; glorious, literate, lovelorn, unforgettable.
Indeed, if we could all age as gracefully, there’d be nothing to fear from being 90. From the heel-kickingly flirtatious “Spring Rain” and McLennan’s heart-shredding “Apology Accepted” to the cello-led dignity of Forster’s “The Clarke Sisters” and a peerlessly yearning “Bye Bye Pride”, to the sun-soaked chromatic peaks of “Streets Of Your Town”, it’s startling to remember these albums span a mere three years. Of their contemporaries, only The Smiths worked as much magic in the same short time. Essentially, this is where it all went right, or righter:the wise, lugubrious Forster and bittersweet, lump-throated McLennan on peak songwriting form, and a band hitting its uncluttered stride thanks to Lindy Morrison’s nimble drums and Amanda Brown’s oboe, strings and harmonies. In hindsight, it seems irrelevant that Tallulah was nobody’s favourite at the time, or that 16 Lovers Lane, all radiant crescendos and dark elegies, was thought worryingly ‘glossy’ by the elect.
In fact, the only Go-Betweens releases better than these records are their generous new configurations. Each lovingly assembled reissue comes twinned with a 10-track bonus disc that gets it right all over again. Covetable B-sides and rarities leap impishly from the sublime (a sorrowful “When People Are Dead”, a lilting “You Won’t Find It Again”) to the sweetly ridiculous (McLennan’s sturm und drang freakout “Reunion Dinner”, Forster’s wonkily oddball ‘Little Joe’), and very nearly feel like three whole extra Go-Betweens albums.
They never had hits. It doesn’t matter.