The Go-Betweens were one of those bands you call a “critics’ darling”. The broad outline of their career trajectory was not unlike that of Big Star. The critics loved them but they didn’t sell a whole lot of albums, they eventually disbanded because they were broke and disheartened, and years later they reformed and started to get some of the attention that eluded them the first time around without ever quite becoming a household name. Grant McLennan’s sudden death of a heart attack in 2006 cut the resurgence short, though Robert Forster continues to make music (he also wrote a moving and eloquent tribute to his absent friend and musical other half).
My first Go-Betweens album was the first one they made, Send Me a Lullaby. Robert Forster himself has instructed fans new to the group to get at least three of their other albums first (claiming Lullaby “wont make any sense otherwise”), but I was a little too early to catch that bit of advice. I think it was early 2000 when I first heard about the band, which meant the reunion hadn’t happened yet, and the liner notes containing that bit of guidance had yet to be written. I read some gushing praise for the band’s music when I was neck-deep in my self-imposed musical re-education and grabbed Send Me a Lullaby because it seemed like as good a starting point as any. It was also one of the few Go-Betweens albums I could find in the city.
I liked it, but some songs didn’t do a whole lot for me. Most of the time I would listen to “Careless” and “It Could Be Anyone” and skip a lot of the rest. I have a vivid memory of listening to the second of those two tracks while sitting in the car, trying to stifle a nosebleed, in the summer of 2000. I was wearing a blue bandana and an aqua-blue sleeveless T-shirt I lost track of some years back.
See? I’m not kidding when I say strange details hang around in my brain.
Maybe things would have worked out different if I picked a different album to serve as my introduction to the band, but I’ve yet to really dig into any of the others. Part of it is not knowing where to start. Another part of it is that the albums from the later 1980s that are routinely called their best are a lot more glossy and polished, and in some cases the production sounds a little bit dated — which is not a huge stumbling block for me, but it’s still a bit of a shock coming after the sound of the first album.
I got a similar surprise when I finally heard some music by the Triffids — another critically celebrated but somewhat obscure Australian band. I read all about how dark and weird their music was (“looked like your neighbours, sounded like psychotics” Mojo magazine told me, and I was sold), only to find whatever darkness was there in the lyrics was mostly subsumed beneath some pretty shiny, commercial (over)production that buffered all the raw power away. No surprise, then, that my favourite album of theirs is In the Pines — the least-produced, and most-neglected.
Send Me a Lullaby, on the other hand, is so stripped-down and free of studio trickery it will probably always sound like it was recorded yesterday. It’s grown on me a lot over the years, to the point that there isn’t a song on it I don’t like anymore, and when I pulled it out about a week ago for my first listen in years I found myself laughing at the absurdity of ever ignoring anything. Some of my favourite songs are now the ones I used to skip. The whole thing is great.
I find it kind of amusing that my favourite Go-Betweens album by far is the one most other fans don’t like at all. You’d be hard pressed to find a positive review from anyone on the internet. I guess some people don’t like what happens to music when you strip away the candy coating. Me, I live for that stuff.
There are no string parts here, very few arrangements that are even remotely layered or ambitious, and almost no guitar solos at all. Nothing superfluous. The bass is more of a lead instrument than the guitar, and I miss that interplay on later material when the band expanded and Grant switched from bass to guitar. It’s also a Robert Forster-dominated affair. Seven of the twelve songs are his, and he sings lead for almost the whole album — even on some of the songs he didn’t write himself.
I’ve always had a slight preference for Forster’s writing. He kind of struck me as being the Lennon to McLennan’s McCartney, for lack of a more original comparison. Maybe his songs weren’t as melodic, but they were often more interesting to me (listen to Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express and tell me “Twin Layers of Lightning” doesn’t stand out by a proverbial mile).
Don’t get me wrong. Grant was a wonderful songwriter, and I think “Cattle and Cane” is one of the best Go-Betweens songs from any period. By and large, I just prefer Robert’s unique songwriting voice, and it was never more audible than on their first album.
Obvious reference points are early Talking Heads and Television, and in places Forster sounds a bit like the offspring of a tryst between a more refined Tom Verlaine and a less histrionic Robert Smith. But the music is very much its own thing. Grant McLennan would later call it “metallic folk” and joke about how it sounded like the document of a band breaking up when it was only their debut and they would go on to record five more albums before parting ways for a while. It’s wonderfully angular, jagged, and unpredictable throughout.
Lindy Morrison’s drumming is a huge part of that. I think she’s one of the most woefully unappreciated drummers to come out of that whole “post-punk” movement, playing off-kilter time signatures with ease while hammering out fills that are somehow aggressive and melodic at the same time. I’ve always loved the bit in the middle of “Eight Pictures” when she suddenly goes completely nuts out of nowhere, just bashing the hell out of the drums like she isn’t even in the same room with Grant and Robert, expressing all of the latent aggression that’s been coiled just beneath the surface. And her work on “One Thing Can Hold Us” drives the whole song.
I think the production is pretty great as well — nothing fancy or too slick, but just what the songs need. On “Eight Pictures” and a few other tracks the drums sound gigantic, but not very ’80s-like at all, almost as if they were recorded by Steve Albini. I’d be willing to bet both Steve and certain members of the Pixies were fans of the album, or at least they would have been if they’d heard it.
The group didn’t completely shrug off this sound right away. They remained a trio for at least one more album. But there was a gradual shift away from the austerity and weirdness of Send Me a Lullaby, and by the time of 1987’s Tallulah it was gone altogether in favour of a more radio-friendly sheen. It’s a shame more people haven’t dug into the first few albums (and this one in particular), because for my money they’re edgier and more interesting than some of the more celebrated things that came later on. I still need to get into those albums, though, because I know there’s good stuff there as well.