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.

34. The Jam – Tales from the riverbank

March 19, 2009

/ Absolute beginners, Polydor, 1981

I know I come from Woking and you say I’m a fraud
But my heart’s in the city, where it belongs

– The Jam, ‘Sounds from the street’

If in 1981 you were to pick one group which epitomised fantasy, and one to oppose them on the side of reality, you could probably make no better pairing than Duran Duran and the Jam.  Despite the young Paul Weller’s faux pas in his first NME interview as to his voting intentions, it was clear by the mid-point of the new Conservative government’s first term that – stung into politicization by his gaffe – he was developing a red core, while Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and the unrelated posse of Taylors were seemingly unconcerned about the state of the nation, and were therefore Thatcher’s perfect children.  While Duran Duran went swanning on beaches in Sri Lanka (as the very reverend Pete Wylie would later put it in ‘Weekends’), Weller concerned himself with the double-edged joys of working class life as inventoried in ‘That’s entertainment’ and ‘A town called Malice’.  Obviously Le Bon et al were seeking – and found – fame and fortune, while Weller chose to make musical art, often as pointed as it was pleasurable.  What he sought was artistic perfection, of a kind – the instinctive desire and lifelong dedication required to craft a pop song that could not be improved upon.  Reaching for something tantalisingly out of grasp; the creative equivalent of naïve political idealism.  Except that what Paul Weller reached for, he often came to hold in his hand.

It was a surprise to be reminded recently that he participated in both Band Aid and Live Aid.  But compare the sequence of songs that the Style Council aired at Wembley (‘You’re the best thing’, ‘Big boss groove’, ‘Internationalists’, and ‘Walls come tumbling down’) – with those that Duran Duran performed in Philadelphia (‘A view to a kill’, ‘Union of the Snake’, ‘Save A Prayer’, ‘The Reflex’).  True to form, Weller did not let party spirit get the better of him.

You could take this contrast as far as the women each sings about – on the one hand ‘Girls on film’ and ‘Rio’, and on the other ‘English rose’ and ‘Liza Radley’, with Weller charmingly croaky on both and famously bashful enough about the former not to let the song be listed on the sleeve of All mod cons.

So how do we explain that it was fantasists Duran Duran who were mundane, ordinary, everyday, while the songs of Paul Weller, though more than occasionally heavy with the ballast of social realism and idealism, were exciting, extraordinary and magical?

At the time, and throughout the eighties, the decade which saw new heights of political conflict within modern Britain, no fan of the Jam or the Style Council would be likely to admit that Weller’s songs as much as Duran’s were an escape from precisely the reality that he often wrote about, or at least the intimation of the reality that was waiting for you upon leaving school.  Even as he reeled off his list of doubtful delights in ‘That’s entertainment’ – ‘sticky black tarmac’ and ‘slashed-seat affairs’ – we dwelt not so much on the portrayal of reality as on Weller’s wordplay, his melodic gifts, the liberty espoused by his vocal delivery, the heights that his guitar could reach when set against the solid foundations of Bruce’s bass and Rick’s drums.  These were things which on one level had nothing to do with external reality, nothing to with the world.  They were cerebral, and of the heart.  Consciousness and emotion – the essence of what it means to be alive.  They set many of us dreaming of a time when we would have the confidence to express ourselves in the same way; about what, it almost didn’t matter.

Yet conversely it took me a long time to come out of the bellicose mindset the eighties bequeathed me, a long time to drop the notion that music must be connected to reality to be meaningful, and well, real.  I got there in the end.  There is of course a place for mental escape, a place for escape from drudgery and the harshness of reality.  There’s possibly even a place for Duran Duran.

‘Tales from the riverbank’ was certainly a step aside from social realism.  Recorded in August 1981 alongside its spectacular if over-fussy A side, it’s a water-coloured slice of Rickenbacker-fuelled psychedelia, and after so many sounds from the street, one of Weller’s first paeans to nature (they’ve come thick and fast over the years since), specifically an early eulogy to the countryside of childhood, to the particular Wonderland rabbit hole that the young Paul fell down.

That open space you could run for miles
Now you don’t get so many to the pound
True it’s a dream mixed with nostalgia
But it’s a dream that I’ll always hang on to
That I always run to
Won’t you join me by the riverbank

Bruce walks his bass through the song while Paul’s guitar meanders in perfectly executed oxbow curves.  Initially Rick’s rhythm seems to be rather too urgent, but it transpires that urgency is required to back the oncoming message; the song writer could not yet let himself entirely forget his somewhat self-inflicted role as spokesperson for a generation.  So he anticipates and defends himself against a charge of nostalgia, that heinous crime in the eyes of punk, before finally – masterstroke – turning the argument around and going on the attack:

Now life is so critical, life is too cynical
We lose our innocence, we lose our very soul

Weller throws his stone into the smooth surface of the current; waves of sustained guitar lap the banks of the river in response.

The original riverbank in question almost certainly belongs to the Wey, which runs eastwards to the south of Woking before heading north to join the Thames at Weybridge.  Though we have led very different lives – I went to school with boys who went on to become real-life Eton Rifles – I was also born in Woking, a Gemini ten years younger than Paul Weller.  That connection has always felt to me like it counted for something, even though I would almost certainly have been no less a Jam fan and Weller follower had I been born anywhere else in Britain.

There’s a not dissimilar notion at work on the Go-Betweens’ ‘Caroline and I’, on which Robert Forster sings about the Princess of Monaco, with whom he shares the same year of birth:

It gave me something small that I could feel
That maybe as you grew you knew how I’d feel

So you could say that Paul Weller is my Princess Caroline of Monaco.  Now there’s a line you thought you’d never read.