Striped sunlight sound.
G Stands For Go-Betweens (Vol.1) is a four-LP, four-CD box set from (now defunct) Australian indie band the Go-Betweens. Retailing at around US$280 and in limited edition, it seems unlikely that any reasonable person would attempt to acquire this without hearing firsthand what the band sound like and whether the contents are going to appeal in any way. If you already know of the Go-Betweens but are teetering on the brink (as to the making of a purchase as opposed to more generally), a critic may help you in making a decision, but otherwise (as the standard disclaimer goes) it would be perilous to rely on a review to decide whether to spend such a significant amount of money. In the case of this release, there are also other matters to be considered - like the accompanying hardback book about the band, poster and vintage press release and the box itself, but again, no sensible person would be persuaded by the aesthetics of such things without some personal experience of appreciating the band’s work. All that matters is the music, and may there be a curse on speculative investors who cynically buy music artifacts to re-sell at inflated prices; it’s no better than ticket scalping.
So what’s the purpose of a review in these circumstances? If you’re not already a fan of the Go-Betweens, it’s possible, but unlikely, that you will be reading this for pure entertainment purposes, or (more likely) have a vague interest in finding out about a relatively obscure Australian indie band. If the latter, here’s a short biographical burst, as is considered de rigueur for such articles: formed in Brisbane in 1977 by Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, they recorded a series of singles for Australian labels as well as for UK independent, Postcard, before releasing their 1981 debut album Send Me a Lullaby for the Australian label Missing Link. Their debut brought them to the attention of Rough Trade, and the band re-located to London in 1983 for their “breakthrough” album Before Hollywood. They followed this up quickly with Spring Hill Fair, and went on to record three albums for Beggars Banquet (to be documented in Volume Two), Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane. After disbanding in 1989, they reformed from 1996 onwards for three further albums (to be documented as Volume Three), until McLennan’s death in 2006.
What we have in front of us now is the first volume of the box set, capturing the band’s output from 1978 to 1984. It includes vinyl re-pressings of the first three studio albums (all re-mastered from the original analog tapes), a fourth vinyl LP (The First Five Singles) made up of, as the title suggests, their early singles, four CDs of rare and unreleased demos, recordings, radio sessions and a live concert radio broadcast from 1982. Unusually, the first 600 orders (now sold out) also received a randomly selected book from Grant McLennan’s personal literary collection and a specially printed bookmark signed by Robert Forster. That’s a whole lot of goodies for the fans. Or is it? There have been some murmurings amongst Go-Betweenies (surely the correct nomenclature for a gaggle of Go-Betweens fans) that they already own all the officially released material, sometimes on 2-CD re-issues, so do they really have to buy it all again to obtain the extra stuff? At the time of writing there is no individual release planned of the “rarities” part of the package due to licensing issues, so for the moment anyway it looks like you have to acquire the whole caboodle, if indeed, you can find any boxes left for purchase.
The officially released albums have been reviewed elsewhere before, but it would be remiss not to consider them now. The sound of the new re-mastered vinyl is good, the band starting out on Send Me A Lullaby like a cross between Talking Heads and the Cure, experimenting with spiky, dissonant chords. The band take a relatively minimalist, New Wave approach, so it comes as a surprise when some squawking saxophone appears on “People Knows”. For the benefit of über-fans and train-spotters, the album re-released here is the 12-song British version that came out in 1982, rather than the eight-song 1981 Australian version.
Before Hollywood is decidedly more melodic with fuller production, and as you would hope from the title, somewhat cinematic. This is perhaps where the “striped sunlight sound” took off with McLennan’s “Cattle and Cain”, a hit on the UK indie charts. It’s a doom-ridden highlight, with at times dramatically spoken vocals, extolling a “bigger, brighter” world of books on an Australian cattle station. In complete contrast, Forster’s “By Chance” follows - angular, slightly scruffy, but equally entertaining. The developing musicianship and partnership between Forster and McLennan from the first album to the second is impressive, and they apparently operated by two rules: each was to have the same number of songs on Go-Betweens albums, and they both had to agree on something before they did it. Sometimes democracy is easier to manage when there are only two of you.
Spring Hill Fair gained in further sonic confidence, and there are some catchy pop songs (“The Old Way Out”) as well as more idiosyncratic material (“You’ve Never Lived”, “Part Company”). Although by 1984 a sheen of gloss had descended upon the world, there are still signs of their initial jagged style (“Slow Slow Company”) and the daringly experimental (“Rivers of Money”). Lovers of indie guitar jangle will appreciate this album, and there are also moments strikingly reminiscent to Lloyd Cole’s work (for example, “Draining the Pool For You”).
The First Five Singles is a good place to start for the “rare” material. The first three tracks on Side A are “non-album” singles, “Lee Remick”, “People Say” and “I Need Two Heads”. They are simply recorded, with the band at this stage sounding a little like the Velvet Underground covering some obscure Monkees or Mersey-beat songs. “Hammer the Hammer”, another non-album single released by Rough Trade in July 1982, also makes an appearance, intense with a hint of punk. Appropriately, Side B is made up of the “B” sides including “Karen”, about a helpful librarian-come-Goddess, who in the line of duty lends out Hemingway, Genet, Brecht and Chandler books, and “Don’t Let Him Come Back”, which humorously mythologizes one of the band’s early guitarists, Peter Walsh. There’s also “By Chance”, which is dramatic and dissonant, like some moody teenagers having a nervous breakdown in their parent’s garage.
The first CD of the rarities collection, “Life As Sweet As Lemonade”, covers 1978-79 with a whopping 22 tracks, and with this period of the band’s musical history we’re back to a VU ‘60s feel again. Some of the material on this CD appeared on ’78 ‘Till ’79 – The Lost Album; whatever the source here and whether re-mastered or not, the quality of sound for outtakes and demos is remarkably good. In terms of content, highlights are “The Sound Of Rain”, with a great spoken word interlude, and “Long Lonely Day”, which could be a Rolling Stones outtake. There’s an overall sense of this being music for introverted and bookish young men who should probably stay indoors (“Summer’s Melting My Mind” and the doom-ridden classic of “Love Wasn’t Made For You And Me”). The tales of intense male angst (“Obsession With You”) extend to occasional gothic drama (“Rare Victory”), and there is a humorously dark tinge, such as the inventive, deranged planning of “I Am An Architect”. This was a band trying out everything from punk (“Big Sleeping City”) to pure pop (“Beachcomber”), with much understated literacy (in “The Night”, we walk underneath a sky that’s “bleeding blue”).
CD2, “Skeletons that Cry” (1980-81), shows a band in transposition from singles to first album. Again, some of this material has been heard before (this time on a record licensed and issued without the band’s approval, Very Quick On the Eye). As that release, these tracks are very much in demo form, but fans will want to hear the additional songs like “Day After Tomorrow” and “I Know Why”. The band combine bookish frailty with rakish charm in tracks like “All About Strength” and “Red Epaulettes”, and the hipster instrumental of “One Word” certainly works up some steam.
The live representation on CD3 is from a 1982 Sydney radio broadcast, although the sound is so good you wouldn’t believe it was a concert recording until the audience tentatively start clapping after opener “Metals And Shells”. The jerky rhythm guitar of “Careless” and “Distant Hands” is relentlessly infectious despite the band struggling with lighting issues on stage, and they continue at mostly full pelt on songs like “Hammer the Hammer” and “One Thing Can Hold Us”. The angular, playful spirit in concert again resembles early Talking Heads, and performances of “By Chance” and “It Could Be Anyone” demonstrate the Go-Betweens could put on an energetic and lively show. The single “I Need Two Heads” is introduced as putting the band on the road to success; in the accompanying essay to the box Forster negates the common assertion that the band were “unsuccessful”, having taken a “two-piece Brisbane bedroom band out to the world”.
The fourth CD, “A Suicide Note To Satan” (1982-1984), is ambitiously lengthy, with 23 songs packed on to one disc, starting out in the Before Hollywood era and extending out to Spring Hill Fair. The heat of “Heaven Says” and urban angst of “On My Block” sprawl into tight, exciting live recordings of “Cattle And Cane” and “Hammer The Hammer”. There are two versions of “Man O’Sand To Girl O’Sea” (the second version more determined than the first) and its dreamy B-side, “This Girl, Black Girl”. The intellectual allusion of “Newton Told Me” takes off with extra twang, and “Attraction” is equally fast-paced, if not a product of the ‘80s. There are additional versions of album tracks “Part Company”, “Bachelor Kisses”, “The Old Way Out” and “Five Words” with different, more commercial production than the “official” versions. And then there’s yet more, including the sensitive-boy pop of “Unkind And Unwise”, the melancholic “Just A King in Mirrors”, and the idiosyncratically catchy “Rare Breed” and “Secondhand Furniture” (the latter perhaps a sophisticated update on “I Am an Architect”). By the time we get to the final track, the rhythmic anthem of “For Him”, it seems like the band had finally found its’ own particular groove.
G Stands For Go-Betweens Vol.1 tirelessly catalogues the beginning of the story for this band, and it will be a delight for enthusiasts. It is however almost certainly not the place to start for absolute beginners; it would be an overwhelming introduction, a little like going on a first date with someone you know is going to stalk you. On the face of it, obsession can be impressive, but it’s unlikely to constitute a healthy lifestyle. It’s all in the details baby, and this is only the first of three big woolly mammoths to track down. If you’re going to indulge yourself, you better clear some shelf space.
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