56. The Go-Betweens – This girl, black girl

March 15, 2010

/ Man o’sand to girl o’sea, Rough Trade, 1983

This girl, black girl

Part two: Grant

Mind, their first phase singles all came backed with intriguing B sides too; Go-Betweens songs with their flaws left in, and in certain lights some of these rough cut gems have more life in them than the highly polished diamonds on the albums.  Take, for example, Grant’s enigmatic ‘Heaven says’ and Robert’s metallic, shellac ‘World weary’, both as angular as anything on Send me a lullaby, and more evidence that the Go-Betweens have been as underrated as a post-punk art band as they are highly rated for what they became: second-to-none purveyors of literate, lyrical romantic-realist pop.  In his essay on the Velvet Underground in The 10 rules of rock and roll, Robert writes:

‘My first great realisation about the Velvet Underground was this: they were the first band I’d ever heard who wrote songs better than they could play them. … And this is exactly what the Go-Betweens tried to do at the start: we wanted to be a band that wrote great songs – but could barely play them.  This was partly due to our primitive musical ability, but also because to us it seemed noble and perverse – an attempt to upset the normal balance of rock’n’roll between what songs you had and how good you were on your instruments.  The kings and queens of this were the Velvet Underground.’

But that’s just the first third of the first phase of the Go-Betweens.  Their musical prowess soon matched their songwriting ambition, and even their offcuts are flush with melody and poetry.  There’s the emotional power struggle of Robert’s ‘Rare breed’, and his ‘Rock and roll friend’, which inverts the anthemic language of the form and loads it with luxurious heaps of self-pity.  Then there’s Grant’s almost-masterpiece, ‘Casanova’s last words’; but for the fact that it’s a little spoilt by the over-insistent gated reverb drum sound, it would have been my choice here.  But it’s still a wonderful song, full of detail and lived wisdom, the wisdom of McLennan and of Casanova; of life lived to the full.

All these offcuts you can find in their best available versions on the two disc editions of the albums.  ‘This girl, black girl’ appears on Before Hollywood though really it belongs to Spring Hill fair, and is notable not only as one half of the first pair of recordings to feature Robert Vickers on bass – it’s great to hear him feeling his way into being a Go-Between – but also as the first flowering of the image-laden and melody-soaked song writing whose impressive shoots had been Grant’s ‘Cattle and cane’ and ‘Dusty in here’.  As an elegy, ‘This girl’ matches Robert’s setting of Marion Stout’s lyric for ‘When people are dead’, and who better to tell us about how it came to be than the songwriter himself, as he did in the sleeve notes for the first ever Go-Betweens compilation, 1978-1990:

‘There is an annual event in north Queensland country life called the Oak Park Races.  People come together to race their horses and to congratulate each other on a good year or to console each other if it has been a poor one.  I had just returned from a trip which included a recording session in Scotland, a close shave in Egypt and a six week hangover in New York.  I found myself in a tent three hundred miles from the nearest bookshop.  My relatives asked me to play guitar for them but I knew it was impossible to dance the gypsy tap to ‘I need two heads’ so I wrote this song.’


55. The Go-Betweens – Girl lying on a beach

March 8, 2010

/ Caroline and I, Jetset / Trifekta, 2003

Caroline and I

Part one: Robert

From the same period as the underrated Bright yellow bright orange set (admittedly it’s somewhat elusive on the ears, but I like that in certain records) it’s a shame that ‘Girl lying on a beach’ didn’t make the cut for that long player.  Possibly Robert thought it was too personal, being the story of how he met his wife.  So he tucked it away, rather like the photo that brackets the lyric of the song, on a CD single few people would have troubled to buy.  ‘Girl lying on a beach’ is parenthetically perfect, in a way few songs are, a masterclass in songwriting economy and art.  The delivery is just so, with Robert adopting the softer tone he would later use to great effect on The evangelist; less arch than usual, more intimate – a performer who knows when to hold off on the performing.  And perhaps too, this late Go-Betweens song closes a bracket opened twenty-five years before by their first B side, ‘Karen’, later a live favourite perhaps precisely because it coincidentally celebrates a girl with homophonically the same name as the woman who would become his wife, Karin.

Robert Forster & Grant McLennan

It’s high time we had a collection which gathers together the Go-Betweens’ post-reformation B sides and rarities; as B sides often do, they have little imperfections or infelicities or a slight sense of incompleteness so that you can see why they didn’t make it onto the associated albums, but of course Grant’s and Robert’s offcuts are trimmed from material of the highest quality.  ‘Sleeping giant’ and ‘Erotic sunshine’ are two more great Forster songs to add to the collection, and ‘The locust girls’ and ‘Instant replay’ are a whisker from being genuine Grant McLennan classics.  His ‘Stone’ is indisputably that, having a lovely, typically yearning melody that once again makes you wish Grant was still with us so that greedily, insatiably, we could have many, many more of them.