Wallace Wylie

Fading Celluloid and Fading Memories – The Artistic Triumph of The Go-Betweens’ Before Hollywood

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by Wallace Wylie

The friendship of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, which began in 1976, was forged in the fires of passionate youth when shared tastes can create unbreakable bonds even among the most unlikely individuals.Forster was tall, handsome, hip and obsessed with Dylan, The Velvet Underground and the flourishing New York punk rock scene. McLennan was short, stocky, prematurely balding and in possession of an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. Beneath these superficial differences lay a similarity in thought and approach that created an indestructible friendship that would continue until the death of McLennan in 2006 aged 48. For most of that friendship Forster and McLennan were members of the Australian group The Go-Betweens.

After a batch of early recordings, a single on Postcard and a debut album consisting of songs which did not quite match the ambition behind them, The Go-Betweens recorded their second album Before Hollywood in the English seaside resort of Eastbourne. It is here that the genius of The Go-Betweens truly came to life as the distinctive personalities of Forster and McLennan produced equally distinctive songwriting techniques. For Forster, life was a series of cryptic dramas with himself cast in the lead role. His fascination was in looking outward and seeing where some commotion could be found. McLennan’s creations felt more like poetic mood pieces. Never nostalgic, his songs were instead attempts at recreating lost emotions as opposed to yearnings for times gone by. Forster played the extrovert and McLennan the introvert, though they could easily switch roles when the mood took them.

Grant McLennan’s father died when he was four years old and his loss left McLennan with a gaping hole in his emotional inner life. With a parent wrenched from his world at such a young age it seems almost inevitable that McLennan’s lyrics would dwell on the eternal search for lost time, none more so than on his most famous song ‘Cattle And Cane’. Despite generally being considered one of the greatest songs ever written, it manages to not overshadow the album.

I recall, a schoolboy coming home

So begins ‘Cattle And Cane’, and from then on each line constitutes an attempt to bring up some fading memory from the outer reaches of the subconscious, only to be met with the repeated refrain of the chorus, “From time to time the waste, memory-wastes”, as if these precious windows into McLennan’s emotional centre were in the process of slipping away. As the song closes something wonderful happens as McLennan hands the microphone over to Forster and our hearts reach breaking point as he intones “I recall the same, a reply”. The story goes that McLennan wrote the song in the London flat he shared with Nick Cave, on Nick Cave’s guitar, while his fellow Australian lay unconscious from exorbitant drug use. One wonders whether, at that moment, Cave was recalling the same things, half the world from home and lost in narcotic daydreams.

The haunting and haunted ‘Dusty In Here’ is almost unbearable, as McLennan converses with the ghost of his long dead father. The song feels like a hallucinatory, otherworldly visitation as the author continues to struggle with his unbearable sense of aloneness. The album’s opening two numbers ‘A Bad Debt Follows You’ and ‘Two Steps, Step Out’ are extraordinary creations, classic songwriting mixed with post-punk edginess. McLennan retains his sense of poetics but the guitars, bass, organ and drums crackle and spark with unbounded energy and friction. There’s nothing quite like the sound The Go-Betweens conjure up on Before Hollywood and placed against Grant McLennan’s more traditional songwriting approach it creates a startling sensation of freshness and new possibilities.

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3 Responses to Fading Celluloid and Fading Memories – The Artistic Triumph of The Go-Betweens’ Before Hollywood

  1. Darragh July 5, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Wallace – this was a good read. Interesting to read about something you actually like for once!! 🙂

  2. David July 5, 2011 at 10:48 am

    One of my favourite albums ever. Amazing writing.

  3. Donat July 5, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Just a little note about this reflection on Before Hollywood which I found rather touching. I thought I’d add a couple of missed points if that’s alright.

    ‘That Way’ was written about a Bob Dylan fan Grant and Robert knew from Brisbane (“six white horses” a line from ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ from Blonde on Blonde) who went to New York in 1982 for a couple of years and who did play and now plays in the Apartments – Peter Milton Walsh. And hence the line “in my apartment” etc.

    Lindy Morrison was absent from the bulk of the recording sessions of 16 Lovers Lane as her father was dying at that time. She did however program the drum machines that make up the rhythm tracks for the album.

    Lindy and Robert spent many hours working on rhythmic arrangements from her joining the band in the spring of 1980 to around the time of Spring Hill Fair four years later when their relationship soured and the band’s producers weren’t too thrilled with live drums on (the bulk of their) recordings.

    And yes, Before Hollywood is certainly my favourite Go-Betweens album for all the reasons you’ve mentioned and more. Well done.

    Their debut Send Me A Lullaby and Before Hollywood are the two Go-Betweens albums that show the importance of Lindy’s contribution to the band both as a drummer and arranger. The percussive rhythms heard on these two LPs echo that of her previous band Zero.

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