Franklin Bruno, author of our excellent Elvis Costello book, has written one of the best pieces I’ve read so far about Grant McLennan. The piece, on Moistworks, comes with 4 songs to download, and you can link to it here. But here’s the main text of it, without the MP3s.
As many readers already know, Grant McLennan, who co-founded and co-led The Go-Betweens with Robert Forster from 1978 to 1990 and, in their second incarnation, from 2001 until two weeks ago, died in Brisbane on Saturday, May 6th, at the age of 48. He had been making preparations for a party that evening, complained of not feeling well, went to bed, and never woke up. In the brief interval since the news appeared on the band’s official website, nearly 1,500 fans and friends have posted condolences and tributes to the site’s message board. Many are from fellow musicians, ranging from Luke Haines (of The Auteurs, whose debut album New Wave is audibly indebted to The Go-Betweens mid-’80s recordings) to Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail. As for me, not just my musical endeavors but probably my personal life would be unimaginably different if not for the 20-plus year relationship I’ve had with The Go-Betweens’ music, so I’m grateful to Alex for inviting me to contribute this note.
In 1977, McLennan was a film-and-literature-obsessed arts student who had never played guitar; he first picked up the bass to learn the songs that the slightly more seasoned Forster had begun writing. (He switched to guitar when the band became a quartet.) But he quickly found his feet as a songwriter: from 1981’s Send Me a Lullaby to last year’s Oceans Apart, every Go-Betweens full-length was evenly split between the leaders’ compositions. In fact, he eventually emerged as the more prolific partner: during the band’s 11-year hiatus, he released four solo albums, including the 17-song double-disc Horsebreaker Star, and collaborated on two with The Church’s Steve Kilbey as Jack Frost. When he wrote about romantic entanglements, it was with a freshness and specificity that the term “love song” doesn’t quite capture. (You could say this of Forster’s songs as well.) McLennan’s autobiographical songs, evoking his fatherless childhood on a farm in Queensland (“Cattle and Cane,” “Unkind and Unwise,” “The Ghost and the Black Hat”), were utterly his own, not merely in their subject matter, but in their unconventional, unforced rhythms. In recent blog entries, here, Kilbey recalls the insights into McLennan’s methods he got from their writing sessions: “he’s got all his songs/written out in one big exercise book/that he musta had since high school…when I first met him grant said he had/thousands of songtitles ready to go.” Making songs, it seems, had become one of McLennan’s primary ways of responding to the world.
In picking a handful of McLennan songs from the dozens that have been in my head for the last two weeks, I have to begin with the first one I ever heard. “Just A King In Mirrors” is one of his two b-sides to “Part Company,” from a 12″ single bought at Claremont’s Rhino Records in, I think, 1985. (The other, “Newton Told Me,” is a cryptic number based on the chord progession to “Lay, Lady, Lay.” I have no doubt that McLennan, an avowed Dylan nut, knew this.) I had never so much as heard of the group – and certainly wasn’t aware of the awful “critic’s band” label they labored under for so many years. I was drawn to their absence from Bleddyn Butcher’s cover photo (the skylight of what might be a rural train station, or a sheep-shearing barn), to the uninflected, un-“rock” plainness of their name (I’d never heard of L.P. Hartley’s novel or Joseph Losey’s film adaptation), and to the lyrics to the a-side (which are Forster’s: “that’s her handwriting, that’s the way she writes”) printed on the back. The sleeve had – still has – a slight tear; it cost me 37 cents. The song itself is a bit of a pastiche, as Go-Betweens songs go: the changes and the barstool-hero portrait, too static to be called a narrative, read as country-influenced. But it’s also idiosyncratic: the extra two beats in each line of the verse, the way that the leads trouble the harmony (a trademark of the band’s first decade, however the guitar duties were split up), the suspended quality of the brief bridge. And, of course, the vividness of the imagery and even the off-rhymes (“scepter”/”spectre”) – all these touches make the song’s melancholy feel achieved, like something of its own, rather than a quality read off of genre.
Backtracking slightly, “Near the Chimney” is one of the many early songs left unreleased until 2002’s reissues of the band’s catalog. This one shows up on the bonus disc to 1983’s Before Hollywood (the band’s second album, and first masterpiece). Musically, it captures the Go-Betweens at their most oblique and enervated, with McLennan still on bass, Forster doing his best to obscure whatever the original chord progression might have been, and the great Lindy Morrison splintering the beat. It’s the sound of a band trying to make every moment of what they do a reinvention – or, perhaps, attempting to fit their pop imaginations to the post-punk manners of the time. It takes a few listens to grab hold, but behind the spikiness – and McLennan’s urgent art-rock vocal, so different from the even-tempered half-croon he eventually adopted – there’s a vivid, vulnerable, and surprisingly well-formed cheating song: “So this is what it comes to/dressing like spies/he won’t sleep where another man lies.” The reluctant lover who “comes from the long grass” can only be McLennan himself – the wondering country boy of “Cattle and Cane,” still disoriented by the ways of the adult world.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated by some of McLennan’s later, smoother work: it could sometimes seem as though his formal facility at tying a strum pattern, a sharp opening couplet, and a pleasing chorus hook into something song-shaped could lead to pat results. (I suspect he was also finishing one song so he could start the next, which might, every time, turn out to be the one. I know the feeling.) But all the solo records contain gems (“Haven’t I Been a Fool,” “Riddle in the Rain”), and reuniting with Forster on the three post-hiatus Go-Betweens albums seemed to rekindle his ambition. “Statue” is my favorite from his half of Oceans Apart, an chorusless Symbolist vignette that finds (as I wrote in a Village Voice review) “the singer struggling to bust through some ice maiden’s reserve, to say nothing of his own.” The arrangement’s au courant programmed opening and lush synth oscillations are a world away from the records above – as well they might be, two decades on – but again, the song’s heart lies in a vintage McLennan/Forster rhythm/lead division of guitar labor, and in the pockets of unexplored detail – “the songs of Sacha”? Sacha Distel? – tucked into corners of the lyric.
“Black Mule” first appeared on 1991’s Watershed, McLennan’s first solo album; this solo acoustic version is the first track from That Striped Sunlight Sound, The Go-Betweens’ recent, career-spanning live record, on which McLennan appeared satisfied in his achievement and comfortable in his skin. (This bears mentioning because it wasn’t always the case: in the mid-’90s, I saw both Forster and McLennan play dispiriting, ill-attended solo shows on separate occasions at Los Angeles’ Luna Park. McLennan’s ended with a painfully bitter and accusatory song called “Charlatan,” which, to my knowledge, he never released.) By way of closing, I’ll let the song tell its own story; if there’s one thing McLennan knew, it was the power of small mysteries. His songs were his work, his love, his way of understanding the world’s strangeness, and of adding to it. Robert Forster has already said that he will no longer use the name he and his partner appropriated from the book that famously begins: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The Go-Betweens, as such, are now citizens of that country. McLennan’s songs still reside in ours.
– by Franklin Bruno