G Stands For Go-Betweens: Volume 2 – 1985 -1989 by The Go-BetweensRelease date: December 6, 2019
The second volume of what will no doubt eventually be an encyclopaedic three part set, G Stands for Go-Betweens makes an ideal, if rather lavish, Christmas gift for devoted fans of the Brisbane pop aesthetes. Gathering together the three albums of their golden mid-late 80’s run, until their initial dissolution in 1989 and, naturally, a wealth of additional period material. There’s the three studio records, a double live album and five CDs worth of demos, B-sides, outtakes and radio sessions plus archive materials and liner notes by Robert Forster himself. It’s a lot!
Usual box set rules apply; it is both a celebration and a tombstone, it is shiny and beautiful, the quantity of additional material is exhausting and the cost prohibitive. Listening to the whole thing in one go is likely to take up a full day and probably not advisable. That said, the best of it is completely glorious.
History, it would appear, has popped The Go-Betweens awkwardly on the ‘cult band, also-rans’ shelf. The title G Stands for Go-Betweens acknowledges in typically arch manner the status of such collections as dusty library relics. The box set as an unsteady pile of dry academic research materials rather than the shaking electric thrill of music that first brought us to it. The Go-Betweens always believed you could have both of course, in their songs the drama of everyday life becomes widescreen adventure. Taking their name from L.P. Hartley’s novel their first single featured a paean to a librarian. The other side was a love letter to a movie star. They got more sophisticated about it but there from the very start was the idea that literature, cinema, and music were a constant friend woven into the fabric of life. That art was part of life and that you could turn your life into art.
On third album Spring Hill Fair The Go-Betweens had blossomed from the sparse angular trio of their early days into something more relaxed and wide ranging, had become the band we more usually think of them as. These next three albums Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah, and 16 Lovers Lane are the core of their remarkable discography. They’re all great and as distinct from one another as they are bound by common threads. I’m not sure I really need to sell them in this context but these are literate, melodic pop songs pulling on a strand that runs from the Velvet Underground through the Modern Lovers and Television, given a uniquely sunlit Australian twist.
Liberty Belle… was how I first heard them, an awkward tale of slowly unfolding love such as might feature in one of their songs. There are some who say it is a little uneven. I do not heed them. Tallulah is, I think, my favourite of their records. It’s warm and lush and poppy, the addition of multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown to the band bringing a range of extra colours to their sound. Her violin is great but it’s the oboe on ‘Bye Bye Pride’ that lifts an already wonderful song in the heavens. It’s a magical song, it never fails me. 16 Lovers Lane turned out to be their last for a while and finds them taking a softer, more acoustic, even more commercial approach once again with wonderful songs.
The live album Fountains Of Youth captures the five piece line up on the eve of the release of Tallulah. It’s radio broadcast quality and shows them to be a pretty proficient outfit if not exactly the sort of band to lose themselves in the moment. They start with a slightly stiff ‘Bye Bye Pride’ gradually relaxing into the set and playing over half the new album and a good selection of earlier tunes. There’s a nice three song run of b-sides in ‘This Girl, Black Girl’, ‘Don’t Call Me Gone’ and ‘When People Are Dead’ which is quite a bold setlist decision and also underscores the quality of material that didn’t make it onto their albums. Gaining strength as they go they hammer through ‘Man O’Sand To Girl O’Sea’ and turn in great versions of ‘Apology Accepted’ and ‘Spring Rain’. A cracking reading of ‘Karen’ (the previously mentioned ode to a librarian) is perhaps the absolute pick of the bunch.
Each of the three albums has an accompanying set of outtakes. These are more extensive than the bonus discs from the 2004 reissues although in general the better tracks will already be familiar to fans and are merely fleshed out with additional rough demos. The sketchy drum machine take of ‘Cut It Out’ being a particular low point. It also seems some of the previous bonus tracks haven’t made it onto these sets meaning even this huge collection isn’t quite definitive. The most notable exception to this tendency comes at the end of the extras disc for 16 Lovers Lane, Trying To Be A Strong Person. After a wealth of acoustic demo versions and the album’s four associated b-sides is a radio session recorded as a trio by Forster, McLennan and Brown. In a hushed, intimate setting they give delicate, note perfect, performances of five songs, ‘Quiet Heart’ in particular is absolutely gorgeous.
The final bonus collection Loving Shocks is a double set of early demos for the next album which, on deciding to call it a day, turned out to be sketches for Forster and McLennan’s first solo records. Both good but quite different sounding albums. I incline more to the spare darkness of Forster’s Danger In The Past than McLennan’s brighter Watershed myself. According to internet lore some keener Go-Betweens fans spent the years they were apart making new albums by combining their favourite tunes from each songwriter’s respective solo efforts. Here that idea bears sweet fruit as songs from those first two records sit side by side, the demo versions erasing the different production choices of the albums.
The first disc is very pleasing, I think I prefer Grant’s songs here without the high sheen of Watershed although I’ve not compared them yet. Sadly, the second disc falls prey to the general problem of overabundance and is mostly the incredibly prolific McLennan singing and playing into a tape recorder, the guitar slightly too loud, and it all rather merges together. Breaking this up is a loose piece from Forster called ‘Art Cinema’ that verges on self parody. Who makes it all the way to the tenth disc anyway though, right?
This sprawling anthology gathers up all you could want and more from the band’s most imperial phase. It was during these years that the possibility they should really crossover to mainstream acceptance was constantly touted. It’s almost compulsory in writing about them for me to lament their failure to do so and grumble about the public doing their songs a massive disservice. This article of faith is rooted in how melodious the songs were, in the band’s lack of sonic difficulty, but with the benefit of 30 years hindsight it seems clearer than ever how singular and odd they are. They now seem further apart from peers like the Postcard bands or The Smiths than they perhaps did then and the idea of Forster speak-singing his words into a Top of The Pops camera feels slightly absurd. Who writes songs like this now? Who even wrote songs like these then? It’s 15 years since these records were last re-issued. While this box set is obviously for collectors and hardcore fans it’d be nice if the wonderful albums it celebrates were once again made available for that wider audience we still believe they deserve.