Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fading Celluloid and Fading Memories -- The Artistic Triumph of The Go-Betweens' "Before Hollywood"

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.

Juxtaposed with McLennan’s introspective poetry are Robert Forster’s pleading, mocking, inscrutable, drama-filled vignettes. The music that powers these songs is harsh and angular, helping to define Forster’s persona as arrogant and ever so slightly ridiculous. Forster is more interested in his immediate surroundings than his past, but gazing at these surroundings he sees traces of past glories and images of beauty in decay. On the album’s title track he uses the idea of the pre-Hollywood American film industry to invoke images of a forgotten past, but of a historical past rather than a personal one:

“The flicker of light,
Piano keys,
A silent screen, A silent star”

These images are intertwined with Forster’s own personal drama which serves to enlarge and elevate his troubles and make them seem gigantic in scope. It’s a ploy which works because of Forster’s fey and aching delivery, which undercuts any notions of ponderousness or Bono-esque grandiloquence. Both ‘By Chance’ and ‘Ask’ strut and fret to wondrous effect, while the latter’s three-note riff is echoed by the opening bars of follow-up number ‘Cattle And Cane’.

The albums penultimate number is ‘On My Block’, and it revolves around Forster’s fascination with a dilapidated mansion near where he lives. While the world in general ignores the fading relic Forster finds enchantment and mystery amid the ruins. If there is some kind of aesthetic catalyst to be found in a situation or location Forster will find it. Before Hollywood closes with another McLennan number, ‘That Way’, and on it he links up with Forster’s showbiz dreams to paint the picture of an actor determined to succeed at his art:

“Inspired by shadows,
Driven by tears,
You won’t rest, ‘til you’re back on the boards”

The obsessive tone of the song encapsulates the romance of The Go-Betweens. Two friends, intellectual dreamers, who seek to escape the humdrum of the everyday by finding poetry in vanishing beauty, in blurry recollections, in long forgotten artistic endeavors. From this swirling cauldron they will concoct their escape, though the fame they seek will never be on the level as that reached in their dreams.

It’s here that I bring in the third element of Before Hollywood, the mesmerising drumming of Lindy Morrison. Her power is such that at several moments she threatens to steal the show. Bringing a tension and control to the entire proceedings, Morrison’s drumming provided the songs with the necessary tautness that allowed the bass and guitar to quarrel and snap. With each album following Before Hollywood The Go-Betweens lost a little of this tension. By 16 Lovers Lane the acoustic Dylan-esque influence far outweighed any other and as such Lindy Morrison’s drumming skills were somewhat underutilised.

I can’t deny my love of 16 Lovers Lane, but to me the special magic of The Go-Betweens is contained on Before Hollywood. Here is Grant as the doomed, romantic introvert; here is Robert as the cracked actor, forever searching for a new occurrence (even the cover shows Forster looking intently at the camera while McLennan looks away, lost in thought), and here too the jittery post-punk feel of the music gives Lindy Morrison the perfect canvas for her art. That’s not to say that it is all downhill from here on in. Every album by the first incarnation of The Go-Betweens is, in its own way, essential and Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express even jostles with Before Hollywood as contender for best Go-Betweens album (and by extension best album ever made).

Only on Before Hollywood, though, does the songwriting sound so unique and thrilling. Only on Before Hollywood do we hear the sound of a band finding themselves and finding their identity. It manages to capture a specific instant when both songwriters were influenced as much by contemporary acts as classic ones. Almost all songwriters gradually move away from more experimental approaches and settle into tried and tested song forms. If we’re lucky, though, there will be a period when youthful arrogance, emerging songwriting skills and a brash disregard for rules will converge to produce something bold and unconventional. If we’re really lucky it will sound as utterly brilliant as Before Hollywood. Its genius remains undimmed.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

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