There was, as ever when talking to Robert Forster, a lot to say when we spoke about the Go-Betweens and the release of a substantial box set which covers the first tranche of their recordings.
There was in the end, not as much room to say it as had been planned, even for the smaller than I would have liked story. And of course I thought every word was sacred, its loss tragic.
So here is a fuller version of the story which ran in the SMH Spectrum section on January 31.
The south is calling Robert Forster. The deep south.
Forster is the remaining founding member of Brisbane’s seminal independent band of the 1980s, the Go-Betweens, who along with Nick Cave’s Birthday Party and the Triffids proved – to Australians as much as the British and Europeans – that intellect and visceral adventure existed here, and in Bjelke-Petersen’s Brisbane of all places, alongside beer, blokes and brutally simple rock.
He was also the other half of the songwriting partnership of Forster/McLennan with Grant McClennan (though like Lennon/McCartney, this forever-linked partnership almost always wrote individually); and, since McLennan’s death in 2006, the keeper of the Go-Betweens’ archives which this month delivers a box set of the band’s first three albums and early recordings.
Forster grew up in Queensland, and returned there after quite a few years in Europe to resume a musical career and begin a journalistic one that saw him win the Pascall Prize for criticism. He was there, with the Go-Betweens’ original and defining drummer, fierce foil and his former partner, Lindy Morrison, when the city named a crossing over the Brisbane River, the Go-Betweens Bridge.
Yet Forster admits that “Brisbane is getting tougher. It’s got to the point where it’s an inferno and I look at the city temperatures and I look at the temperatures in Hobart. I think everyone is.”
They don’t have a Go-Betweens bridge in Hobart. Yet. But in 50 years it’s likely there’ll be a particularly rocking music environment down there as global warming-affected Australia migrates down to cooler climes and the music scenes in Brisbane, Sydney and maybe even Melbourne revert to ukelele, calypso songs and other styles more suited to days when you’re too hot and bothered to play fast.
Surprisingly perhaps, this shift south won’t be the emotional wrench you might expect for the Brisbane boy.
“I have family here but I’ve never been a Brisbane patriot,” says Forster. “I mean the Go-Betweens were proud to come from here and to say Brisbane was our home at a time when some people from Brisbane didn’t, but I’ve lived overseas for stretches and I’ve still got places I want to see.”
Now, music and real estate have little common ground, not least because these days most musicians couldn’t afford to buy a cupboard let alone a house on their download-diminished earnings. Yet if it’s accepted that the three foundations of a successful property portfolio are location, location, location, then surely we can we make a similar claim about the foundations of a particular musical career, whether it be the portside-influences of Liverpool’s Beatles, the downtown milieu of New York’s Lou Reed or the mixed race confluence of any act from Memphis.
How much of the Go-Betweens was a reflection of Brisbane, especially Brisbane of the 1970s? And could they have emerged from somewhere else?
“I think we could have, because basically it was just myself at the age of 20 and I’d written some songs, just started, including Lee Remick and Karen, the band’s first single, and I met Grant who couldn’t play any musical instrument,” says Forster. “I taught him to play bass and he sang to these early songs and you’d think that you could transfer that to almost anywhere.”
But that isn’t the whole story of course as Forster immediately clarifies, beginning with their distance from the bigger and tougher Melbourne and Sydney music scenes.
“I think what Brisbane gave the band was a sense of isolation. And time to develop,” he says. “There was a certain charm, country town charm, to Brisbane and there wasn’t much pressure. The other thing is it made us dream.”
In his words, Forster and McLennan were always dreamers for whom “New York seemed really big and Rome seem very romantic and Paris was a destination” and you could hear it not only in their sometimes deceptively gentle music influenced by Patti Smith and Television, the Monkees and Lou Reed, but their lyrics with nods to film and literary figures.
“Certain films just seemed bigger and certain books did, Television’s Marquee Moon was very glamorous,” says Forster. “I think coming from Brisbane we dreamt a lot of foreign places. I wonder whether we would have been so wild in our heads with thoughts if we had been in Sydney or Melbourne.”
Isolation and dreams, related and conjoined as the basis of GoBs, in a sense means they could have come from other creatively vibrant outposts such as Akron (from whence came Devo) or Glasgow (Orange Juice and their Postcard label which first released the GoBs in the UK) or Christchurch (the Flying Nun label’s many bands).
“In a way it was when we went over to the UK and we met up with Orange Juice, and they were in Glasgow, it was the same thing,” agrees Forster. “We really felt an affinity with Glasgow’s relationship with London or even Glasgow’s relationship with Edinburgh, the capital, the metropolis and the more refined, prettier city. The Orange Juice people and the Postcode [label] people had the same attitude that the Go-Betweens and friends of ours from Brisbane had. There was an affinity straight away.”
The other affinity was an intellectual curiosity, a group of well read, curious and youthfully pretentious types looking for stimulation from outside their environment and from the imagined cities of their imaginations.
“It was a very romanticised view of it,” says Forster. “Grant held these places in very high regard, more than I did, through film and he read more widely than I did. We had to get to Paris, we had to get to New York. And when we got to New York we thought Shirley MacLaine would be there to meet us and when we got to Paris, Juliette Greco would walk by. We were 20, 21 and fuelled through university, Queensland University, the one citadel in the city.”
The university was where people lived a little larger, a little wilder, and was an important oasis, “a hiding place” which also brought forth Lindy Morrison and Geoffrey Rush, among others. It also gave them the freedom to develop an intellectual base for themselves, dreaming or otherwise, which would prove to be useful over the next 30 years. They did not start out trying to be dumb punks or pretending to be dumber than they were.
“And we got some stick for it.” says Forster. “The fact that the Go-Betweens were pretentious was thrown at us early on; people looked at us in Brisbane with a cocked eye. We were, admittedly, accepted within the punk community but for Grant and I at that time this is what we had. We clicked it enough that what we were learning, what we were learning at university, if we turn that off and tried to pretend to be someone else, it would put us back in the pack. We would be writing about things we didn’t know about.”
What, as distinct from writing about New York and Paris and London when they hadn’t left Brisbane?
“Yeah, yeah yeah,” he chuckles. “We couldn’t deny it, there we were from university. Grant had a degree, I didn’t get one, but Grant was working at the campus cinema, writing for the cinema papers, he had this whole thing going. I was taking courses in 19th century literature and it just seemed like that would be a fun thing to throw at rock ‘n’ roll. What could we put into rock ‘n’ roll that no one had done?
“We also had a big affinity and love for what was known as low culture: we were the generation of Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart too. And rock ‘n’ roll itself at that time was low culture. So it was a mixture and not being afraid to put in one side of the mixture.”
Being something else was at the core of their dreaming though. Being someone other than Brisbane suburban boys. It was important to have both the truth about who they were (smart kids who were reading, seeing films, thinking about the world but still from Brisbane) and the aspirational “truth” (worldly men just waiting for that conversation with Truffaut and Patti Smith at a Left Bank cafe).
Which is as any 20-21 year old should be of course. It’s the only time in your life when you can get away with claiming yourself as an intellectual purely on your say-so and affectations. You don’t know any better and people tolerate you more.
“That’s exactly it. There was a lot of taking on of affectations and Grant and I were virtually egging each other on and people found that intriguing and found it amusing and some people found it infuriating. And these were friends,” he laughs.
Speaking of pretentions, Forster’s description of the band’s sound as “that striped sunlight sound” – soon widely used in any story about them – was not merely coincidentally close to Dylan’s description of his mid ‘60s style as that “wild mercury sound”.
“It was from that,” says Forster. “I’d read that Playboy interview and I thought we needed something like that for our band. I’d like that Dylan named the sound/ you know/ and I couldn’t think of anyone who had ever named their sound. I thought I would come up with something for our band.”
And there you have the knowledge, the fandom, the ambition, the cockiness, or arrogance, which says yeah, ok, we’re from Brisbane but if Dylan did it, why can’t we?
“Yeah, yeah,” Forster says, with a laugh that is in no way embarrassed. “That was just the way we were operating.”
G Stands For Go-Betweens. Volume 1, 1978-1994 is out now
And an extra bit about a vital bit.
Alongside Brisbane, the other crucial factor in the beginnings of the Go-Betweens was their drummer. How vital was it connecting with Lindy Morrison, with her individual sense of rhythm’s place in these songs and strongly feminist and unequivocal social politics? Could the band have happened, as it happened, without her?
“I really don’t know,” says Robert Forster after a pause. “A part of all this is that Lindy and I were romantically involved. That played a part in the whole thing as well, especially as we were in Brisbane and it was 1980 and Lindy was very ambitious.
“She could see her [previous] band weren’t going to get out of Brisbane and she could see, besides the romantic involvement, she always recognised the ambition in Grant and I. Believe me, at the time, it looked very, very strange – probably still does – these two younger guys and this older, politicised [woman] and people knew her personality so it was a very odd matching.
“But initially she was very much where we wanted to go and she was a dynamic, strong person. Grant and I were into bands with strong personalities and it was always like, you’ve got to have the best team. As easy as it might be on some level to have some floating person who is easy to handle, for Grant and I it had to be someone that completed [things], like the cast in a play or movie.”