On 25 March, music critic Ken Tucker reviewed the new solo album by Robert Forster on the NPR program, Fresh Air. In the review, Tucker said, “Along with his fellow songwriter Grant McLellan, Forster led the Go-Betweens starting in the 1990s.”
In one sentence, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic managed to get a couple of things completely wrong. Firstly, The Go-Betweens didn’t start in the 1990s. They broke-up in 1989 and reunited in 2000. The 1990s was, in other words, the only decade in which no one was leading the Go-Betweens. Oh, and Grant’s family name was McLennan, not McLellan. Today, 6 May, is the day he died back in 2006, which seemed like a good time to shine a bit of light on both his and Forster’s solo careers — which tend to be unfairly overlooked, even by the band’s fans.
Forster and McClennan weren’t creatively inactive during The Go-Betweens’ hiatus. In the 1990s, the songwriters began releasing a string of exceptional but overlooked solo albums. A 2007 sampler of work culled from their solo efforts, Intermission, made a strong case for seeking out their solo albums on vinyl, aluminum, shellac, or whatever format you prefer.
If you need more convincing, I’ve made a playlist of their solo compositions.
For those not familiar, The Go-Betweens were a rock band formed in Brisbane, Australia in 1977. Along with The Birthday Party, The Church, Crime & The City Solution, The Moodists, and The Triffids, they were part of a crop of excellent Australian bands who sought fame and fortune in the UK and were rewarded with glowing reviews and fervent but fairly small, dedicated cult followings.
The core of The Go-Betweens was Forster and McLennan, who met one another at a theater arts course at the University of Queensland and were the band’s only constant members; drummer Belinda “Lindy” Morrison (ex-Xero), who played with them from 1980-1989, and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown (ex-Tender Mercies), who was an essential member from 1986–1989, were essential during their years as members. Other musicians came and went including drummer Temucin ‘Tim’ Mustafa, guitarist Peter Milton Walsh, and bassists Robert Vickers (1983-1987) and John Willsteed (1987-1989). The Go-Betweens released six albums, Send Me a Lullaby (1981), Before Hollywood (1983), Spring Hill Fair (1984), Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986), Tallulah (1987), and 16 Lovers Lane (1988) before disbanding in 1989.
Although The Go-Betweens were Forster and McLennan’s primary musical concern throughout that band’s existence, they did sometimes work with outsiders. In 1982, Forster, McLennan, and Morrison jammed with Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, and Rowland S. Howard. A 45″ “After the Fireworks” was released, credited to The Tuff Monks. After The Go-Betweens’ break-up, Brown and Morrison continued to collaborate musically in Cleopatra Wong, who released the albums Egg (1992) and Cleopatra’s Lament (1993) (which I still haven’t heard). McLennan later joined The Church’s Steve Kilbey as Jack Frost, who released two enjoyable albums, Jack Frost (1991) and Snow Job (1996).
In 1996, Forster and McLennan again played together in Paris, but it was only in 2000 that the two revived the Go-Betweens name — albeit with the members of Sleater-Kinney and other musicians — and without Brown and Morrison. The Go-Betweens went on to release The Friends of Rachel Worth (2000), Bright Yellow Bright Orange (2003), and Oceans Apart (2005) before McLennan’s death in 2006 at the age of 48.
ROBERT FORSTER – DANGER IN THE PAST (November 1990)
After the break-up of the Go-Betweens, Forster moved to Germany and was the first of songwriting team to release a solo album, 1990’s Danger in the Past. It begins auspiciously with “Baby Stones.” The album was recorded at Berlin‘s Hansa Studios and the backing band includes several Bad Seeds — including guitarist Hugo Race, drummer Thomas Wydler (also of Die Haut), multi-instrumentalist/producer Mick Harvey (also Crime & the City Solution), and vocalist Karin Bäumler (Baby You Know). “The River People” was later covered by Seattle band, The Walkabouts, which are another band I’d personally like to see reunite.
GRANT MCLENNAN – WATERSHED (1991)
Watershed, Grant McLennan’s solo debut (attributed to G.W. McLennan) was recorded nine weeks after the dissolution of The Go-Betweens — but following the Jack Frost debut in January 1991. McLennan, like Forster, surrounded himself with a stellar collection of musicians, mostly from Australian bands. Performers included the legendary Paul Kelly, New Zealander singer-songwriter Dave Dobbyn, ex-Go-Between/then-girlfriend Amanda Brown, and Phil Kakulas (Martha’s Vineyard, The Blackeyed Susans)
As with Forster’s debut, its sound and quality suggest that The Go-Betweens break-up had nothing to do with either creative differences or diminishments of ability but rather, perhaps, because half a Go-Betweens album wasn’t enough for either.
GRANT MCLENNAN – FIREBOY (1992)
McLennan’s second solo record, Fireboy, (again attributed to G.W. McLennan), was released in November of 1992. As with Watershed, it was produced by Dave Dobbyn (who co-wrote the track, “Things Will Change“). His musical collaborators included bassist Ian Belton (Q E D), studio drummer Michael Barclay, keyboardist Peter “Pedro” Bull (Paul Kelly And The Messengers), and several background vocalists.
The opening track, “Lighting Fires,” was one of McLennan’s best solo moments. It was released as a single and a promotional video was duly made. Had it been included on a Go-Betweens album, it may even have provided a modest hit. As a solo artist, however, it was mostly ignored — even supported as it is by one of McLennan’s poppiest solo efforts.
ROBERT FORSTER – CALLING FROM A COUNTRY PHONE (1993)
It’s somewhat ironic that Robert Forster’s most American-sounding album, Calling from a Country Phone, was the first of his albums not to be released in the US. The collection was recorded at Sunshine in Brisbane (to which Forster had returned to live), was self-produced, and released in June 1993. Forster was joined by David McCormack on guitar and drummer Glenn Thompson — then both in the Brisbane band, Custard. McCormack would later serve as the drummer in the re-formed Go-Betweens. It’s not exactly Country (but then neither is Country anymore) but is what I call “pritnear country” — like Felt‘s Me and a Monkey on the Moon, The Magnetic Fields‘ The Charm of the Highway Strip, Bill Drummond‘s The Man, or Simon Bonney‘s Eyes of Blue — which is to say it’s more country to this Kentucky-and-Missouri raised country music fan than, say, anything to have come out of Nashville in the last thirty years.
GRANT MCLENNAN – HORSEBREAKER STAR (1994)
McLennan returned with Horsebreaker Star, in December 1994. The 24 tracks were recorded in Georgia over the course of just nine days with a group of musicians with whom McLennan had just been acquainted: Andy Carlson, Bill Holmes, Dwight Manning, Joel Morris, John Keane, Steve Venz, and Tim White. It was produced by John Keane. The album was then mixed in Nashville. Despite its being a double album, the album is free from filler and frequently regarded as McLennan’s best.
ROBERT FORSTER – I HAD A NEW YORK GIRLFRIEND (1994)
In August 1994, Forster released an album of covers by the likes of Bill Anderson, Bob Dylan, The Dealians, Grant Hart, Guy Clark, Heart, Keith Richards, King Candy, Martha and the Muffins, Neil Diamond, Ricky Nelson, Scott Walker, and Spirit. Joining him were quite a few Australian musicians including members of the Triffids and Blackeyed Susans (Warren Ellis, Rob Snarski, and Evil “Graham” Lee), some Moodists (David Graney and Clare Moore), some Bad Seeds (Mick Harvey and Conway Savage), Charlie Owen (The Beasts Of Bourbon, Divinyls, The New Christs, Tendrils, and Tex, Don & Charlie), Rod Hayward (Dave Graney & The Coral Snakes, Little Murders), and Susie Ahern (Broken Voices). It was apparently recorded during a period of creative inactivity and although the listener gets the sense that it was a lot of fun to make, few perhaps would rank it as essential listening.
ROBERT FORSTER – WARM NIGHTS (1996)
In September of 1996, Robert Forster returned with Warm Nights. Although the songs were largely inspired by Foster’s life in Brisbane, he recorded the album in London. It was produced by Edwyn Collins (formerly of former Postcard labelmates, Orange Juice), who also led the backing band and played guitar. Rounding out the rest of the band was Clare Kenny (bass), Dave Ruffy of the Ruts (drums), J. Neil Sidwell (trombone), Martin Drover (flugelhorn, trumpet), M.K. Daniel (tuba), Neil Pentelow (saxophone), Oliver Kraus (cello), and Sean Read (organ and formerly of Birdie, Dexys Midnight Runners, Famous Times, and the Mockingbirds). It was the last of Forster’s solo albums before he and McLennan briefly reunited for a series of live performances.
GRANT MCLENNAN – IN YOUR BRIGHT RAY (1997)
Grant McLennan’s In Your Bright Ray, released in July of 1997, was the last of his solo albums. It also followed the last of his Jack Frost albums, released in 1995. On it he was joined by Brett Myers (Died Pretty, The End, No Dance, Noises And Other Voices), Maurice Argiro (Underground Lovers), and Tim Powles (The Church). It was recorded in Sydney and produced by Wayne Connolly.
ROBERT FORSTER – THE EVANGELIST (2008)
In 1997, Forster moved back to Germany with his wife, Karin Bäumler. He’d been dropped by Beggars Banquet. In 1999, McLennan suggested reforming the Go-Betweens and in 2000 they recorded The Friends of Rachel Worth in Portland. It was followed by Bright Yellow Bright Orange (2003) and Oceans Apart (2005), the final release before McLennan’s death.
Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson, the final rhythm section of the Go-Betweens, joined Forster in London to record an album, several of the songs of which had been co-authored with McLennan for what would’ve been the tenth Go-Betweens record. They were joined in the studio by Audrey Riley (cello), Chris Tombling (violin), Gill Morley (violin), Greg Warren Wilson (violin), Seamus Beaghen (keyboards), and Sue Dench (violin). In April 2008 expectedly somber The Evangelist was released.
ROBERT FORSTER – SONGS TO PLAY (2015)
Forster had a set of more upbeat tunes completed in 2010 but felt it was too soon after the Evangelist for the shift in tone. Adele&Glenn, the rhythm section of the reunited Go-Betweens, moved to Sydney. Forster recruited his wife on violin and backing vocals along with Matt Piele (drums) and Scott Bromiley and Luke McDonald of The John Steel Singers on various instruments. Songs to Play finally appeared in 2015. Recorded on the cheap at Wild Mountain Sound, it has a decidedly analog feel.
ROBERT FORSTER – INFERNO (2019)
In June 2017, Kriv Stenders‘s documentary The Go-Betweens: Right Here was released. In August of that year, Forster’s book, Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens, was published. To record Inferno, Forster returned to Berlin, this time producer/engineer Victor Van Vugt‘s studio. The rest of the band, this time, was dubbed “the Magic Five” and included, again, Bäumler and Bromiley — this time joined by Earl Harvin (keyboards) and Michael Muhlhaus (drums).
To be continued…