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The Go-Betweens, Grant McLennan’s death, almost a year on… April 15, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Music.
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Last May saw the sudden and entirely unexpected death of Grant McLennan (on the right and int the background of the image), singer and guitarist with the Go-Betweens. The Cedar Lounge Revolution wasn’t extant when that happened but the shock of his death still remains and it’s strange and poignant to think it’s been almost a full year.

The Go-Betweens were quite a band, who I first saw in 1987 (yikes – actually I’m now told it was 1986) playing outside the Pavillion in TCD at lunchtime during the TCD Ball week, and then quite a number of times since. Most recently was in 2002 in the Ambassador. The sound was muddy, the acoustics dire, but their enthusiasm was unflagging. Their style was in some respects pop, but with an element of grit that undercut the melodic approach.

I’m very leery of meeting people in bands, but for once, fuelled by a similarly reflective enthusiasm and a fair quantity of pints I went over and said a few words with McLennan in Conways pub after the gig. I had a particular interest because another band I’d rate very highly are fellow Australians, The Church (perhaps best known for being on the soundtrack of Donnie Darko during the party scene where their one and only hit “Under the Milky Way” is playing in the background), whose lead singer Steve Kilbey had worked with McLennan on the “Jack Frost” project which produced two excellent albums in the 1990s.

He was very charming, but I didn’t linger, there was a queue of supplicants there to interrupt what no doubt he hoped would be a quiet pint with the bands latest drummer.

In a way an added tragedy of his death was the way in which they as a band had undergone something of a critical and commercial revival. Both McLennan and his songwriting partner Robert Forster had disbanded the Go-Betweens in 1989, pursued interesting if slightly disappointing solo careers throughout the 1990s and then reformed in 2000 assisted by former riot grrrls Sleater-Kinney. Usually such reformations fail, either due to them being cynical exercises with eyes purely on the money, or threadbare pseudo-nostalgic projects (of which an example of same was the Psychedelic Furs a couple of years back. Those of us who ‘caught’ them in Vicar Street will not soon forget the experience). The Go-Betweens were, thankfully, neither and in the subsequent six years they released three albums of varying but generally very good quality.

There was always a certain something to the band, a combination of intelligence, sensitivity and a sort of arch knowing quality (generally supplied by Forster whose solo gigs are – well – remarkable). And this was reflected in both the music and lyrics, that pop sensibility previously mentioned leavened by a certain degree of grit, a world very slightly askew, either on an emotional level or otherwise. It’s perhaps reaching to suggest that they were a political or even an explicitly feminist band, although the Sleater-Kinney connection would indicate at least something of a shared sensibility. Yet lyrically there was a darkness and, again, this knowing quality as the lyrics of the summer sweet “Streets of Your Town” (a minor hit in the UK) demonstrate,

Round and round, up and down
Everyday I make my way
Through the streets of your town

Don’t the sun look good today?
But the rain is on it’s way
Watch the butcher shine his knives
And this town is full of battered wives.

And with a lyrical concern that centred on relationships and being male without being macho it’s unsurprising, to me at least, that their appeal tended to centre on a very specific, generally male audience. Their gigs were, in latter years, a forest of greying or balding pates.

Forster announced, quite naturally, that the Go-Betweens were finished as soon McLennan died. Since then things have been quiet. Last year he won the Pascall Prize for Critical Writing for columns he writes in the Australian magazine The Monthly. For a flavour of the band, and both McLennan and Forster it’s worth reading his column on their friendship.

A fine band, a lovely man, an enduring loss.

Comments»

1. Wednesday - April 15, 2007

And that was a wonderful tribute to an irreplaceable treasure. Thanks, WBS.

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2. WorldbyStorm - April 15, 2007

Thanks Wednesday. Just looking on You Tube at “Streets of Your Town, and Bachelor Kisses and Bye Bye Pride is sad and exhilarating. Very Go-Betweens.

And it certainly wasn’t just Forster and McLennan back in the day. Lindy Morrison was pivotal up until 89, and Robert Vickers and Amanda Brown really broadened out the sound in the latter part of the 80s.

I’ve noticed that many fans split between the Forster (gritty stuff)/McLennan (sweet stuff), but I always enjoyed the way both played off each other across an album.

Actually Head Full of Steam on You Tube is…memorable…

I recommend it.

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3. Wednesday - April 16, 2007

To be honest, I’d generally be more of a Forster fan, but my favourite Go-Betweens song is a McLennan one (“Bye Bye Pride”) and if he was the only songwriter in the band I’d still adore them. Your comment about them playing off each other is also very well taken.

Another band I never got around to seeing live, I regret to say.

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4. Donagh - April 16, 2007

I was lucky enough to ‘catch’ the Vicar Street gig, thanks largely to the influence of Seán Baite of DO, I have to say. The Go-Between lyrics that have impressed me the most are from Cattle and Cane on Before Hollywood.

“From time to time
The waste memory-wastes
I recall a boy in bigger pants
Like everyone
Just waiting for a chance
His father’s watch
He left it in the shower
From time to time
The waste memory-wastes”

Its a Grant McLennan song.

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5. soubresauts - April 16, 2007

I’m another admirer of the Go-Betweens. The youtube video of “Bachelor Kisses” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_nn90p-tIg) is particularly touching…

It was Dave Fanning who got me (and many others, I’d say) onto the band back in the 1980s, playing their songs on his radio show.

WBS, you touched on some of the band’s connections. I’m reminded of an artist I’ve always admired — Tom Verlaine. No, the Go-Betweens weren’t connected to Verlaine (that I know of), though some people saw similarities and influences. But did you know that The Church had a lot of connections with Verlaine?

As you said, “their appeal tended to centre on a very specific, generally male audience. Their gigs were, in latter years, a forest of greying or balding pates.” The same applies pretty much to Verlaine and Television. Did any of you see Verlaine and Jimmy Rip last year in The Village in Dublin? Actually it wasn’t a forest of pates, it was sparsely attended. But fantastic music.

Wow, I’ve just read Forster’s tribute to McLennan (thanks for the link, WBS). Fascinating, and so beautifully written.

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6. Glenn - April 16, 2007

i’m sharing a Jack Frost live gig from 1990’s on http://www.violettown.net to commemorate Grants passing. Full WAV lossless audio 699 megs to download. Peace!

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7. ryano - April 17, 2007

You say that Forster and McLennan pursued solo careers throughout the 1990s, but I’m 99% sure I saw them play together in Tower Records in London in 1994. It wasn’t as the Go-Betweens, just as Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, although they played Go-Betweens material. I’m pretty sure I didn’t just dream it, but I can’t find any reference to a pre-2000 reunion online.

However I did discover that “McLennan-Forster” is a fictional defence contractor from Series 4 of 24!

“Usually such reformations fail, either due to them being cynical exercises with eyes purely on the money, or threadbare pseudo-nostalgic projects”

Oddly enough, the Pixies reformation was (unashamedly) both, and was a massive success (as far as I’m concerned at least).

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8. WorldbyStorm - April 17, 2007

Didn’t see them but heard it was great. Although a long time ago I saw the Breeders in the Tivoli and they were amazing.

And the Damned weren’t too bad when they passed this way about eighteen months ago. Nor were Killing Joke awful in 2003. The Soft Boys were okay – Robyn Hitchcock is better on his own (or with his good mates. But I’m serious. The Psychedelic Furs were almost beyond belief. And not in a good way.

I think you’re right about Forster and McLennan, according to Forsters piece they met up every eighteen months or so to do live sets.

Soubresauts, I like Verlaine a lot. Meant to get to the Television reunion but couldn’t. As you say Jay Dee Daugherty from Patti Smiths band (now there was another great gig a couple of years back) played drums on Priest=Aura by the Church. And of course Verlaine played guitar on some of Patti Smiths songs (apart from being her paramour at one point).

Oddly enough though I’d given up on radio by the time the Go-Betweens came around. Too much bloody politics back then… Gah! What a waste. *mutter grumble…de Rossa…Rabitte…McCartan…grumble mutter*

Interesting site you have there Glenn… thanks for the linke to Mimesis.

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9. soubresauts - April 18, 2007

WBS, to round out the Verlaine–The Church connections: Verlaine toured with The Church in the late 1980s, and Marty Willson-Piper played on some of Verlaine’s 1990 album The Wonder.

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10. WorldbyStorm - April 18, 2007

Ah, now that I had forgotten about Verlaine touring with the Church, and I didn’t know aobut MWP playing on his album.

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11. soubresauts - April 21, 2007

Came across this fascinating article http://www.furious.com/perfect/grantmclennan.html about Grant McLennan by Robert Vickers, the Go-Betweens’ bassist. Vickers is the guy who looks about 15 in the great video for “Bachelor Kisses”.

Extract:
“I managed to get out of town first, ending up in New York City, in a popular band managed by the owner of CBGB’s and produced by a member of Blondie. It seemed like a dream. When Grant said he’d like to visit, I was happy to share that dream with him. For a month, he shared my tiny apartment and got a dose of the wild, early ’80’s New York. A bar tab at CB’s, free entry into clubs like Danceteria, the art scene, the birth of hip hop and the kind of bohemian urban lifestyle we had only had fantasies about in Brisbane.”

And then I found these reminiscences by Janie Heath, Robert Vickers’ wife:
http://www.mrbellersneighborhood.com/story.php?storyid=1976

But The Church are still going strong:
http://stevekilbey.blogspot.com/
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFOV8hwO448&NR=1

Kilbey has great reminiscences about McLennan — and Verlaine, among others — on the blog. I must check out Jack Frost…

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12. WorldbyStorm - April 22, 2007

Thanks for that. I read Kilbey’s blog once or twice but he had harsh words to say about his experiences in Ireland last year, and he has an – unusual – attitude to the world which can sometimes come across as aesthetically elitist.

Jack Frost were great.

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13. soubresauts - April 28, 2008

Several great vids posted recently, here:

http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=lV369OUxYiE

and at the links…

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14. WorldbyStorm - April 28, 2008

Cool…

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15. Timothy - May 28, 2013

I just learned of Grant’s untimely death this past weekend. Had frankly gone away from the Go Betweens for several years, and just decided to see if I could find a bootleg or two of theirs–then stumbled onto this tragic news. Only 48, too.

Thanks for your excellent article, Wednesday.

Timothy
Lake Oswego, Oregon, USA

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