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 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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