Robert Forster and Grant McLennan: Intermission

It's impossible to think of modern Australian folk-pop without the two singer-songwriters of the Go-Betweens. Their solo work proves almost as rewarding as the best of their work together.

Robert Forster and Grant McLennan


Subtitle: The Best of the Solo Recordings 1990-1997
Label: Beggars Banquet
Australia release date: 2007-06-16
US Release Date: 2007-06-19
UK Release Date: 2007-06-19

My memories of Australia in the 1990s are all innocence and sun: summers at the beach vaulting small waves; sailing Northbridge Juniors on Sydney's Middle Harbour; following the exploits of David Boone and the handlebar moustachioed heroes of the Aussie cricket team as they took on the West Indies' lethal pace. My grandparents lived in Queensland not too far from where Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, the singer-songwriting team behind the Go-Betweens, met at university. In the scorching summers, a hideous cane toad took up residence in the relative cool of their letter box and he became almost a part of the family. Was it all magical innocence? Even looking back now, the empty suburban misogyny of Don's Party, written some two decades earlier, seems the worst that could be twisted out of that nonchalant habitation – and those characters have their pleasures. While the schoolkids were busy understanding This Fortunate Life, the bush thundering of Peter Sculthorpe's programmatic compositions, or Peter Carey's inimitable Lucinda Leplastrier, everyone missed the real Australian artistic statement being made by two unassuming musicians in a voice everyone in the country could have understood, if they'd have listened.

Oh well: The regret-tinged critical appraisal of the Go-Betweens is old at this point. But that doesn't mean the (now presumably fewer) chances to celebrate the band's output should be passed up. From the still stinging loss of Grant McLennan to a heart attack last year, we have both a tribute album (a musical love-in of current Australian musicians of note) and now this collection of the best of both Forster and McLennan's solo work. Calling this an "intermission" is characteristic of the band's modesty, but it does correctly place both songwriters' output directly in the context of their main band. I was too young to really know anything about the Go-Betweens prior to their 2000 comeback album, The Friends of Rachel Worth. But for anyone curious about the band and in a similar position, there's no problem in that: The music of both artists is timeless, the poetry and emotion of the songs encased in modest, pleasant pop forms.

We may be paying more attention to Grant McLennan's music now we know there will be no more of it, but there's something in his easy insight that is both vital and identifiably Australian. His speak-sing delivery on songs like "Black Mule" will bring Paul Kelly to mind, but (as with most of the Go-Betweens songs) the difference is that the morals and images aren't as obvious, the Australiana not quite as blatant. McLennan knew that self-doubt's as much a part of being Australian as mateship and the bush – it echoes so strongly through his music. "The Dark Side of Town", an exquisite slow-jangle pop song, tackles the loneliness in the wreckage of a broken relationship. "Hot Water" turns the realization that every life ends into a swaying folk ballad under a sweeping violin line.

Like McLennan, Forster favours simple language and short melodic lines that somehow hold the power of aphorism. More musically adventurous, his songs can have more of a brooding presence or menace than his partner's generally cheerful, major melodies. In addition, Forster's persona comes across as a fascinating marriage of bravado and insecurity. Both "Baby Stones" and "Cryin' Love" address a lover who has moved on with similar outrage: In the former, Forster says, "Every man for the rest of your life will be less than me"; then later, "He cannot be as good looking as me". There's more than a hint of self-deprecation here; that's new, and refreshing, in a singer-songwriter – not just self-pity, but the realization that it can be ridiculous. But Forster can be descriptive with the best of them. "I've Been Looking for Somebody" gives the image of walking alone through Sydney streets on a Sunday morning, the loneliness and desperation that accompanies his realization: "I used to think there was no woman in the world for me … but now I've changed my mind".

It's impossible to think of modern Australian folk-pop – the Josh Pykes and Darren Hanlons that are so popular in the country today – without Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. That they'll never again come together to share their modest but powerful voices is a great (though inevitable) tragedy; but what we can do is continue to look back into their solo and combined work. Intermission shows us that we're likely to keep finding new songs to love – examples of the power of casual poetry and an acoustic guitar. "In the house, the smell of tulips and peppermint", McLennan sings on the opening of "One Plus One". The simple image lingers with a strange persistence. Let's hope our memory of these songwriters does too.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.