Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Go-Betweens – One Wild and Precious Life

John Keats “On Fame”

Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy
To those who woo her with too slavish knees,
But makes surrender to some thoughtless boy,
And dotes the more upon a heart at ease;
She is a Gypsy,—will not speak to those
Who have not learnt to be content without her…
Ye Artists lovelorn! Madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.

If you talk to any Go-Betweens fan or read any article about their music, you will almost immediately encounter a sense of disappointment that they never crossed over from cult status to popular and commercial success.

The Go-Betweens were formed when music was still part of a counter-cultural scene.

Only in the 80’s and 90’s did it morph into a mainstream scene that was diverse enough to embrace commercial pop, overtly alternative bands and music, and independent labels.

However, right from the very beginning, the Go-Betweens were always very concerned about the process of becoming commercially successful.

At the same time, in interviews they clung to ideas of countercultural integrity and definitions of hip or cool.

What emerged was a band that was precious about its integrity, but determined to be commercially successful.

Objectively, perhaps, they had all the ingredients needed to extend their devoted indie audience into the mainstream in the wake of 80’s peers like REM, U2 and Simple Minds.

They were intelligent, creative, worldly, serious, funny, literary, cinematic, curious, informed, informative, interested, interesting – a perfect amalgam for the post-modern 90’s and beyond.

However, they remained a cult band, possibly even a critic’s band.

So what happened? Why did greater success elude them? Did their quest for success somehow eat away at the soul of their integrity? Does it matter? Isn’t it enough that they created a valuable and enjoyable body of work?

We Can Be Fans

Robert Forster and Grant McLennan emerged from Brisbane private schools in the mid-70’s into a world of comfort, frustration and potential.

Comfort, because whatever your financial status, Brisbane was a cheap place to live in and, if you enjoyed the beach and surfing, it wasn’t far from the Gold and Sunshine Coasts.

Frustration, however, because Brisbane was still a country town in the politically and socially conservative state of Queensland that didn’t hesitate to use force to address any form of challenge to the authority of the status quo.

The potential was partly the potential available to any resident of Brisbane and partly the potential Robert and Grant created for themselves.

Politically, Brisbane and Queensland were intent on economic growth, whatever the cost (including corruption).

Ironically, as it happened and Brisbane matured economically, the appetite of its people for culture matured as well.

But Robert and Grant weren’t necessarily to know that at the time.

Instead, they focussed on what was happening elsewhere.

They read widely, they watched European film, they observed Andy Warhol break down the barriers between High Art and Pop Art, they heard Bob Dylan create his Wild Mercury Sound, they witnessed four separate talents combine to form the Velvet Underground and define music and an era.

They listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio on the way to the beach, back in their rooms they learned about what was happening in London and New York in New Musical Express and New York Rocker.

From a base in Brisbane, two boys became fans, and they never really ceased to be a band of fans.

We Can Be Heroes

Suddenly, the fact that Robert and Grant were in and from Brisbane didn’t matter.

Two Brisbane boys, essentially fans, wanted to emulate their heroes, even though they weren’t then musically literate.

Initially, like any adolescents, they dreamed that “we can be our heroes”.

It didn’t take long for their dream to morph into an ambition that “we can be heroes” in our own right.

So part of the dilemma of the Go-Betweens is intertwined with the process of crossing the border from audience or fan to performer.

We Can Be Critics

For anyone whose love of music developed in the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s, there is a sense that music defines life, especially your own life.

We look to it for meaning, but we tend to take it too seriously.

We become walking encyclopaedias of rock, we generate play lists, we make and debate lists of favourite artists, albums and songs, we secretly hope to appear on music trivia programs on TV.

We take our passion, something we should feel at one with, and we adopt a critical approach to it.

Instead of relating to it spontaneously and intuitively, we describe it, we define it, we argue with it, we criticise it.

In a way, our taste in music defines us: we are what we like, we are not what we don’t like.

Both Robert and Grant came from this critical background.

Starting as fans, their ambition was always to go beyond their musical interests into magazine publishing (e.g., Torn Curtain) and critical debates.

They had a very definite ideal of what was hip or cool. Obviously, this definition included themselves. However, it was very judgmental (though possibly no more judgmental than the definition of any critic or fan).

We Can Be Our Influences

In their writing and interviews, the Go-Betweens repeatedly name-check influences and compare their own music to their influences and heroes.

In the absence of a language to describe their own music, they defined it in terms of their inspiration.

In New Musical Express, their interviews are replete with references to antecedents and contemporaries like the Velvet Underground, Creedence, the Monkees, Bob Dylan, the Modern Lovers, Television, Talking Heads, Orange Juice and later the Smiths.

Then you get Grant describing “Send Me a Lullaby” as a 1981 version of the Pixies.

There is nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleave. However, it was all too calculated.

hey seemed to be co-opting influences and piggy-backing their credibility to pursue their own musical and marketing goals.

The band was a chameleon that would change its description of itself and its music to suit the fashion at the time.

Unfortunately, this practice continued the whole way through their career, far beyond the point when any fan would have expected them to have transcended their influences.

Ultimately, there was always an underlying suspicion that they might be making calculated, derivative music, all the time playing some arch join the dots critical game.

That Striped Sunlight Sound

One way they attempted to escape this lack of critical language for their own music was to coin the phrase “That Striped Sunlight Sound”.

It was as evocative of a Queensland upbringing as “Cattle and Cane”.

However, even this phrase is derivative of Bob Dylan’s description of his own music as “that wild mercury sound”, right down to the book-ending of the phrase with the words “that” and “sound”.

Again, they co-opted Dylan and his credibility for their own devices.

No doubt, there’s supposed to be an element of irony in this process. However, ultimately, the constancy of their self-mythologising moved beyond irony into a conscious modus operandi.

Their self-referentialism had become part of a highly deliberate marketing strategy designed to achieve success, at least critical success with the opinion-shapers in the UK music press.

Robert and Grant, always capable of literate criticism themselves, were crafting a critical framework for others to use when talking or writing about their music.

Perhaps, they were being too crafty for their own good.

It wasn’t just funny. They were being overtly manipulative as well. Pretty soon, it just wasn’t funny anymore.

Fortunately, for sympathisers, the music was still there to speak for itself.

Retro Chic Threads

Throughout the 70’s, Robert and Grant adopted the casual sub-hippy surfie dude garb of the sub-tropical uni student.

They didn’t stand out in Brisbane, but ultimately they did when they arrived in London in the wake of punk rock.

Just as post-punk music had become post-modernist, street fashions appropriated second hand and retro clothing.

You shopped in second-hand stores. You wore coats and trousers with cuffs. You avoided labels and marques. It was a proto-No Logo movement.

Oxfam chic was everywhere, at least in London. In Brisbane, it was to become Salvo chic.

While Grant always maintained a casual elegance, Robert identified with the suits.

He never quite managed to look like a businessman. Instead, he hinted more at the colonial man of leisure, a Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene striding up the stairs of Raffles in Singapore in search of his first gin and tonic of the day.

That Andy Warhol Persona

The Go-Betweens were always heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground, at least musically.

However, one way or another, exposure to the Velvets meant exposure to Andy Warhol as well.

If the Velvets were to be a musical inspiration, then Warhol was to be the source of some of the Go-Betweens’ visual style.

For a time, Robert mimicked Warhol’s silver grey hair colour, apparently adding age to the seriousness of his demeanour.

He was creating an authorial presence separately from his music and lyrics.

That Dandy from Down Under

The clothes and the persona meant that Robert had embarked on another journey away from the social and cultural confines of Brisbane.

The man himself was becoming a fabrication, a construct, a work of art, not just on stage, but on the street as well.

The visual persona was a conscious attempt to define not just a “look”, but a sense of perfection.

The self-referentialism of the Go-Betweens had become a self-infatuation.

Although Robert started wearing dresses in private and public, it wasn’t necessarily sexual, it stopped short of gay. It was an attempt by a Brisbane boy to live life as art.

Unfortunately, it was a strategy that would be trapped in its own artifice. It was an affectation, evidence that Robert’s vanity was pushing too hard.

He was no longer just an upstart. He was becoming a poseur, a dandy, a latter day Beau Brummell.

This social style is still quite unfamiliar to most people, including those in the music scene.

In the form of camp, it might be more familiar in theatre, film and comedy, which are more tolerant of artifice.

However, it’s more difficult to get away with it in the audience for indie-oriented rock music.

If it’s difficult anywhere in the world, it’s even more difficult in Australia and Brisbane.

Here, we have finely-tuned bullshit detectors that can spot pretension at 40 paces. We are deeply suspicious of anything that doesn’t appear to be authentic.

If Robert wasn’t careful, this preoccupation with self could come across as superior and condescending to those around him.

There was too much risk that the former private school boy might be construed as a snob.

Those Striped Sunlight Disciples

The Go-Betweens quickly generated an informal fan club, some of whom would form bands that copied and in some cases bettered the Go-Betweens sound (e.g., the Four Gods).

These fans were sensitive new age guys, even before the term had been invented.

They studied creative design or architecture. They were influenced by movements from around the world and they dreamed of leaving Brisbane and exploring that world.

The example of the Go-Betweens showed that you could dream these dreams and that they could take you overseas, even if commercial success still managed to elude you.

The Quest for Fame and Fortune

Robert and Grant were role models that encouraged another generation to create, when everywhere else you looked Brisbane seemed to be a teenage wasteland.

Nevertheless, the existence of the disciples validated and perpetuated the myths that the Go-Betweens had generated themselves.

Because someone believed them, they continued to believe their own publicity.

They never had to do a reality check and adjust the controls in their quest for fame and fortune.

Ultimately, their real quest was fame and fortune, not music.

Music was just the vehicle for achieving a more important goal.

Despite the quality of their music, they might have failed in their real quest, perhaps because they tried too hard.

Their music was precious, but ultimately its makers were a little too precious in how they went about achieving their goals.

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