Platonic homosexuality is the term Robert Forster used to describe the friendship he initiated with Grant McLennan more than 20 years ago in provincial Brisbane, Australia. And today it seems like the perfect metaphor for the kind of precarious, nuanced relationships that became the chief subject matter of their band, the Go-Betweens. Spanning the years 1977 to 1990, the group tested the limits of pop sentimentalism with impossibly catchy tunes, bathing them in a rich, airy chamber-pop sound and spiking them with obtuse lines like "I feel so sure about our love, I'm gonna write a song about breaking up."
In fact McLennan and Forster (who'll play an acoustic set together at the 400 Bar on Tuesday) began the band as a Dylan-inspired duo before expanding into a Wire-meets-Cure art-punk trio in the early Eighties. After honing their sense of craft, and taking on oboist-violinist Amanda Brown in 1986, they continued as the most exhilarating (if overlooked) pop band of the decade--too lush for their pals in the U.K. postpunk scene yet too effete for the mainstream with which they occasionally flirted. Today the Go-Betweens remain vacuum-sealed in indie-rock lore as an anachronism cherished by their aging cult.
Now that cult has regrouped, not only around the Forster-McLennan reunion tour (their first outing in a decade) but two just-released Go-Betweens reissue packages, Bellavista Terrace: Best of the Go-Betweens (Beggars Banquet) and The Go-Betweens 1978-1979: The Lost Album (Jetset). Long after the fact, these discs rescue the guitar band from a synthesizer-soaked era that largely passed them by, and acquaint new listeners with the group's still worthwhile project: to revive the classically opining singer-songwriter in the supple context of bare-naked balladeering. While most of their similarly guitar-based contemporaries--R.E.M., the Dream Syndicate, XTC, the Jesus and Mary Chain--chased their own romanticism into obscurantism (jangling or fuzzed-out), the Go-Betweens remained far more musically straightforward while grappling with eternal pop topics on their own unusually rarefied terms. Paired with elegiac melodies and elegant guitar riffs, lines such as "I got hired but I got tired of cleaning the pool for you/I got tired but not so blue to see the cracks in you" might sound forced or cloying to the cold ear. But that chorus of 1984's "Draining the Pool for You" is nonetheless the knockout of Bellavista Terrace--albeit light years away from the cathartic immediacy promised by their early work.
Still, as with so many indie bands hit by the Newton's apple of late-Seventies punk, this group's early rough drafts hold vital clues to the mystery of what made their later, sweeter stuff so unique. On The Lost Album, we nestle with Forster in his teenage bedroom, where he and McLennan fell in platonic love to the sound of Jonathan Richman records and out-of-tune guitars. We hear two fey young fellows, full of post-"Roadrunner," hey-we-can-do-this vigor, both ready to go pop like a neon zit. Kicking off the collection is their first single, "Lee Remick," a cheeky ode to a reigning pop-cult icon that sounds, on the surface, terribly precious. The song takes obvious pride in lines like "She was in The Omen with Gregory Peck/She got killed, but what the heck," as guitarist Forster and bassist McLennan (who later switched to guitar) strum madly, and first-drummer Tim Mustafa tries to hold them together. But when Forster and McLennan triumphantly sing, "I love Lee Remick!/She's a darling!" the performance defrocks from vampy to campy, transforming itself into a personal ode of identification with a glossy, feminized version of cool. Remember that the Go-Betweens came from a conservative town that is roughly the Australian equivalent of Dallas and you have the secret of what made their strident pretentiousness so subversive.
The Lost Album--which bookends its nine embryonic demos with "Lee Remick" and its buoyant followup, "People Say"--now feels like a snapshot of two isolated young men finding each other. On the album cover, Forster tries to embody his idea of how Verlaine might have dressed had he been an Aussie new waver, and McLennan wears a T-shirt that reads, "GET OUTTA THE CAR, OCHS"--in reference to a famous fight between Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. Bellavista, by contrast, pictures them taking their dandyish individuality to its gussied-up extremes. The two voices that develop over its 14 cuts couldn't be more dissimilar: Forster's is an arrogant, edgy croon that gives songs like the lachrymose "Part Company" and the rave-up "Man o' Sand to Girl o' Sea" an air of viscous aggression; McLennan's is pining, wistful, and even light, working in the tradition of lyric ballads. Two of McLennan's songs--the angelically pretty breakthrough track from 1983, "Cattle and Cain," and 1988's heart-stopping dream of a would-be hit, "Streets of Our Town"--represent the band's most canonic moments.
But while these voices grew stronger and more assured with time, the Go-Betweens never confused maturation with growing up, even as later recordings--especially 1988's 16 Lover's Lane--saw them abandon their mush-pop sensibility for an ostensibly commercial one they never fully believed in. At their best, on 1986's Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express and 1987's Tallulah, they never lost their unguarded naiveté--they simply expanded upon it. Consider The Lost Album's Velvets-like moper "The Sound of Rain" against Bellavista's 1986 cut "Spring Rain." Both are by Forster, yet the latter is written and sung with a naturalist sense of detail and an ebullient melody that the younger singer barely seems capable of imagining.
Both collections are essential but still seem only suggestive of the band's potential. Spinning through the entire 1996 reissue of their Beggar's Banquet catalog, you can see their later form emerge in time-lapse, as they amusingly fill out a handful of wonderful records with godawful, overwritten attempts at baroque ballads and late-night confessionals. (Take Liberty Belle's almost inexcusably maudlin "The Wrong Road," which opens with the line "The rain hit the roof like a Finnish kiss" and goes south from there.) What fans loved about the Go-Betweens was watching them grow, stumble, and pick themselves up again, like fallible, ultimately enduring old friends.
Robert Forster and Grant McClennan perform Monday, June 14 at 9:00 p.m. at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis; (612) 332-2903.
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