Image: Robert Forster by Stephen Booth – supplied.
Author: Jackie Olling
When most people think of iconic songwriting partnerships, there is often an assumption of rivalry or ‘friendly fire’ between songwriters. One only has to think of the Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards partnerships to conjure up this image. But for one of Australia’s most revered bands, I learnt that this surprisingly was not the case, but rather a tale of true kinship with little complication or conflict. The Go-Betweens hold a peculiar position in the Australian music cannon, sitting somewhere between indie-darling and national legend. But it is a comfortable place at that, and one in which the band has always maintained an anti-establishment integrity that few other bands have managed.
In Robert Forster’s memoir, Grant and I, we read about the birth and brunt of a band against the backdrop of Joh Bejelke-Peterson’s autocratic Brisbane in the tumultuous 1970s. Queensland at the time was essentially a police-state – mass protests and police oppression were the norm during Bejelke-Peterson’s 19-year reign. Forster’s vivid description of these circumstances provides the catalyst for the resistance – a flourishing anti-government music scene across Brisbane. Similar political unrest in London and New York also gave birth to their own scenes. Forster does not underestimate the political pre-conditions, and integrating them only enables one to understand the ethos of the Go-Betweens all the more so. But the Go-Betweens were never punk. Nor were they entirely new-wave, or indie for that matter. It is interesting that as Forster notes, they were born out of a music scene they didn’t actually fit in with. Many familiar bands also have parts to play in the story of the Go-Betweens – there’s punk pioneers The Saints, a supporting slot on a tour with The Smiths, and an unexpected albeit unsurprising friendship with REM.
At its core, the book is a heartfelt tribute to Grant McLennan who died unexpectedly in 2006. Of course, there is much musical storytelling, but the focal point of the narrative is between its two titular characters. We see them form the Go-Betweens amidst McLennan’s initial misgivings, mingle in the post-punk scenes of London, Sydney and Melbourne, mature as songwriters, and eventually find success on their own terms. Forster’s resounding argument is that although the Go-Betweens’ never reached the heights of fellow Australian bands like INXS or Cold Chisel, being the band on the fringe was the way they always wanted it to be.
Beyond recording the history of the band, Forster’s witty and refreshingly honest voice is both engaging and humorous, and his writing ability must be commended. A self-proclaimed poet by trade, he describes Grant and other characters in an obsessive detail reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel. Although these characters are all real people, the reader is left to dream them up in their own mind. Forster places due emphasis on both his and Grant’s transitions from studious university students to musical mavericks – we learn that Grant was initially intent on becoming a film-maker and had no musical aspirations. Forster toyed with the idea of studying law, but did not find its prospects too appealing and retreated to the theatre where he met McLennan. It is also interesting to mention Forster’s self-analysis, as everything he puts his pen to is garnished with his own hindsight and does occasionally etch on being too subjectively sentimental, running the risk of detracting from the story itself. Nonetheless, the narration of fact intertwined with feeling lends itself to still enter the ranks of rock music or at the very least, Australian music’s greatest autobiographies.
However, any fan of the Go-Betweens would feel amongst all this an uneasy sense of foreboding, knowing that tragedy looms. And then finally, the Go-Between’s story is brought to a premature and grinding halt – and in Forster’s own words, then they are gone. In many ways, the Go-Betweens’ seem to have been consistently ahead of their time – in 1977, when punk was taking over the musical landscape, the Go-Betweens’ were in their own corner crafting pop songs. Perhaps the product of Forster and McLennan’s musical romance is best described as consistently being on the brink of stardom, but being inevitably outshone by their own integrity.