There are two men and one of them is bald and the other is wearing sandals, and this is the sweetest, bestest pop band of the 1980s and they are making a new record--and who will care? This was no small question as Aussie icons Robert Forster and Grant McLennan broke out their acoustic guitars for a little three-song set at the offices of a Manhattan music-biz dotcom in mid-August. Both seemed a little nervous, but as one group of Go-Betweens acolytes, Beat Happening, once sang, "Look around!" Look around--the mean age of the crowd here is, wow, 23. All little indie kids in their too-small sweaters and requisite tennies. And they are rapt, even when the bald one misses notes and both seem a bit post-traumatic. And what would the kids' current faves like Sleater-Kinney or Quasi think of all this? Well, they're fans just like the ones in that room, only really lucky fans, 'cause this past year both found themselves playing and singing on the legendary Go-Betweens' first record in 12 years.
The story of Go-Betweens is one of slipping through the cracks. A spin through their six critically adored records (spanning university days in 1977 Brisbane through label-hopping struggles in Eighties London up to their "final" amicable split in 1989) chronicles their strides and tumbles into self-discovery, even as the larger world inevitably misplaced them. It's a saga spiked with several artistic triumphs and professional near misses. The last time they coulda been contenders was 1988, when Capitol Records (apparently under advisement by Toonces, the cat who thought he could drive a car) tried to market them as smooth romantics, releasing an ill-advised "real" record, 16 Lovers Lane, which was just too damn polished and lush (read: commercial) to reflect the band's real struggles with craft and maturation.
After all, here was a group that began with the root integers of punk-jittery tempos, grim, skeletal arrangements, and stalkerish love letters to the likes of Lee Remick and a librarian named Karen. As they progressed, the band's spare sound would prickle and mutate into even less classifiable forms. Before Hollywood (1983) contained the first trademark single, the airy, nostalgic "Cattle and Cane," a spacious exhale following the earlier music's tense inhale. After 1984's Spring Hill Fair crossed the threshold into chamber pop, 1986's Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express showcased a rhythmic drive a la R.E.M. and a lyrical lift all their own. Tallulah (1987) was as sui generis as it was seminal, with beefed-up drums pounding home unflinching lyrics like "I know you're 32 but you look 55/You walk around with your eyes wide open but you're barely alive."
This summer's barely alive incarnation aside, what the sultans of slant lent to inheritors like the next generation critical darlin's who currently fill out their band or the young'uns who turned up to see the two old men play is a strange conflation of primacy and privacy that only the best indie music ever figures out. Even Sleater-Kinney hasn't figured it out. (Corin: Do you really wanna be our Joey Ramone?)
The Go-Betweens sang hard and wrote delicate. They still do. But with S-K's mighty Janet Weiss rocking the drums, The Friends of Rachel Worth (released on Jetset, the label of their Eighties bass player Robert Vickers) is punchier than anything in the back catalog--hell, it's even flat-out hard at points. We may open with McLennan's stately strummer "Magic," which clears a clean, well-lighted space for the rest of the record, but we get moving with "Clock Turns," which coaxes the old breezy lyricism to play inspired tag with the next verse or chorus. These are people who sound almost happy to be where they are; maybe their newfound total lack of context was the missing ingredient for liberation all along.
Forster came to this project with some songs he had been working on over the years. One is an angst-rocker about two years spent in a German farmhouse "with a phone in London and a seasick girl." Another tells of an odd doppelgänger he keeps seeing in the mirror. A third, "Surfin' Magazines," recasts Queensland wanderlust as dreamy nostalgia. McLennan, though, just sounds blissed out--he wrote for the record and it shows. When he sings "It's magic," it's because it is. When he sings "Then the clock turns," he's smiling because, for a second, the clock has stopped.
The high point for melodious McLennan is a sweet, satisfied nothin', "Going Blind," where Janet gets tom-tom giddy, Corin chirps kindly, and the tune itself is just damn glad to ride the jangle. Forster's best is moodier, the kind of thing you write in a German farmhouse. It's about rock and roll, that thing Jonathan Richman used to play that changed little Robert's life forever. It's a simple tune about Patti Smith, about how he went to see her sing one night. It was corny--she was corny, all epic chutzpah bullshit gesturing that only she can get away with 'cause she's still the queen of all his dreams: "When she sang about angels/She looked at the sky/Anybody else, anybody else/But I let it go by."
What punctures the moment is that mix of dread and acceptance that always looms even in the earliest Go-Betweens music--the specter of age. They seemed to anticipate the gravity of passing years all along, even back when they started playing together as callow school chums. Forster sings of Smith, "When she sang 'About a Boy'/Kurt Cobain/I thought, 'What a shame/It wasn't about Tom Verlaine.'" The message is quite simple: Patti, Kurt Cobain wasn't for us. Ours is Tom Verlaine. Sing about angels, look at the sky, lift up your arms ("like she was pushing back cotton on some Midwestern farm"). But when you sing about rock and roll, sing about our rock and roll. The less contemporary context the better.