Go-Betweens by Bleddyn Butcher
As we near the release of Right Here, a documentary tracing the many lives and many versions of the much loved by fans/much ignored by the rest of the world, The Go-Betweens, here is the first of a two-part interview with the film’s director Kriv Stenders.
This week, the myths and legends, and how to get around them; next week, the people, and how to survive them.
SEND ME A LULLABY, OR A HYMN
No matter what everyone who loves the band might think about how good those songs were and how it is inexplicable why The Go-Betweens were not bigger, it isn’t really that hard to see why it didn’t happen.
It’s partly timing, partly luck, but also and crucially the kind of band they were.
They were two, then three and four musicians from Brisbane (and later one from Sydney) at the arse end of the arse end of the world, making pop music that wanted to be both The Monkees and Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Television.
They were fronted by two oddly interesting but hardly typical men without great voices and unexpected melodic turns and a drummer whose rhythmic invention kept many songs fascinatingly askew.
This was not Culture Club. Or Cold Chisel. Or even Orange Juice, The Church and R.E.M.
As drummer Lindy Morrison says in Kriv Stenders new documentary, Right Here, they weren’t pretty enough, weren’t conventional enough, weren’t enough of whatever it is that makes a band stars.
One of the smartest moves of Right Here is not approaching this story as an “if only” one for the cognoscenti, or “stupid world, here is what you missed” tale for the rest. This ain’t no pity party.
“I really wanted to approach the story I guess from a universal level,” says the multi-tasking Stenders who was making this documentary around the time he was finishing his feature film,Australia Day, beginning the TV series Wake In Fright and waiting on the release of the sequel to his hugely successful 2011 film Red Dog.
“I think The Go-Betweens story is really the story of any one of us who embark out on life with dreams and ambitions and sometimes those dreams and ambitions are thwarted. Some are realised and some are not, some friendships last and some don’t. To me that story is fundamental to youth.
“That’s what always haunted me about The Go-Betweens: the tragedy and triumph of their story. And the songs and the career were sort of secondary to that, though they gave context and conflict. Ultimately I really wanted to tell the story about choosing to live a creative life and the price you pay for that.”
Among those prices being friendships and relationship, “a myriad of sacrifices” for Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, who started the band (and reformed it on their own a decade after breaking it up), Morrison, bassplayer Robert Vickers, who joined the trio three albums in, Amanda Brown who was there for the two last albums of the first phase of the Go-Betweens, and John Willsteed who joined as that band drew to its end.
Lindy Morrison & Amanda Brown in Right Here courtesy of Essential Media
So does The Go-Betweens story provide a “how not to” for another generation?
“That’s a funny question,” a laughing Stenders says. “I interviewed Clive Miller, who is not in the film, who was their manager in the ‘80s, and we were talking about their behaviour and what happened and he said he thought this should be a rock ‘n’ roll high school class where you go there to learn what to do and what not to do.
“It’s a cautionary tale, definitely, but ultimately what makes a band and art wonderful are those mistakes. I think music and art of any kind is beautiful because it’s made with passion and it’s made with love. That’s what I love about The Go-Betweens: their music to me is all about passion and love and being true to your creative self.”
The question of whether theirs is a successful story starts from an incorrect premise, I would argue: that success is about hits and money. That is a measure of success, sure, and one McLennan and Forster wanted to achieve. But their story of achieving their creative goals, a lot of them at least, along the way, is also a story of winning.
“Exactly, and that’s something I’ve learnt in my life, that success is a very relative notion and that success can be just as dramatic as failure,” Stenders says. “To me the band’s hugely successful in terms of the body of work they created in the body of work that Robert and Grant continued to create after the band reunited. It’s sort of an absurd notion when you apply success to a band like The Go-Betweens.
“Look at that body of work, it’s an extraordinary canvas that they created.”
Accepting that though does buy into another possibly false premise for artistic creation: the mythology of the near miss, the tragic failure caused by others and circumstance. That something else that takes away from appreciating the creativity.
“Again, to me The Go-Betweens are a classic example of being greater than the sum of their parts. I don’t think there is anything that they could have changed or done differently to become something else,” he says.
“That’s the beauty of the band, that Robert and Lindy were in a relationship that imploded at a critical point, that Amanda joined and Amanda and Grant fell in love, that Robert [Vickers] left and John Willsteed came on board. When I looked at it it was an amazing melodrama, you couldn’t write it.
“So all of those things that ‘could have’, I’m glad they didn’t because the things that did happen were wonderful for me is a storyteller. That’s what all great bands have, these legends that are built around it and an incredible narrative that comes along with it.”
But then to contradict my argument, the incredible thing about a band like The Go-Betweens that no amount of truth telling and fact gathering can capture is that mythology, is the fact that we all - from Robert and Grant and Lindy and Robert Vickers to Amanda when she joined the band (but maybe not John), to us as fans and listeners - want to buy into and need to buy into the belief in the sanctity of the artistic drive and personal mission.
Take that out of the story and you have a band who wrote songs in this way and had chord changes that were odd in this way and this was the sound of that year etc etc. And that doesn’t tell the story of the band either.
“I also didn’t want to make a documentary that was a dry, chronological fact sheet: you can go to their website and their discography [for that],” says Stenders.
“I wanted to tell the emotional history of the band rather than the factual history of the band, because that’s what we responded to when we listened to their music.”
Come back next Tuesday for part two of this story.
Right Here will air on Tuesday, November 21 at 9.30pm on ABC, and ABC iview