The Go-Betweens’ Streets Of Your Town is the winner of Guardian Australia’s Songs of Brisbane poll. But is it even about Brisbane? Separate interviews with the surviving members of the band reveal very different viewpoints and memories about the song’s genesis, recording and legacy.
Streets Of Your Town was written in Sydney shortly before the recording of the Go-Betweens’ sixth album, 16 Lovers Lane, in 1988. Grant McLennan was in a relationship with multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown when he wrote it. It was unusual in that the band’s co-founder, Robert Forster, had not heard the song before it was brought to the group. McLennan died in 2006.
Amanda Brown (violin, guitar, oboe): “Grant and I were living together in Bondi Junction in Sydney, and that song was written very quickly in our sunny top-floor flat … It was written in, I would say, 10 minutes. I was singing along and I sung that ‘shine’ line, which is like the call and response answer in the verses, and that’s pretty much it – that’s how it came about. And I don’t collect any songwriting royalties for that song, because that was a condition of my joining the band.”
Lindy Morrison (drums): “We were in a park in Glebe when Amanda and Grant played the song to us for the first time, and I guess I was hearing it through Robert’s reaction, because Robert was so shocked. So I was feeling his pain, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t see how magnificent that song was.”
Robert Forster (singer-songwriter, guitarist, band co-founder): “The fact that I hadn’t heard the song, it did miff me … Every other song from every other album that we’d done before that, and every album that we did after, I knew all the songs that Grant had. This was the one song that I didn’t. But a week later it was fine. That was the thing with Grant and I, we didn’t yell and scream at each other. There’s things that I did to him that he must have just had to swallow, too.”
Amanda Brown: “What I do remember is sitting down with [producer] Mark Wallis somewhere and Grant saying, ‘And we’ve got this one’, and then just singing it with me, and Mark hearing it and going, ‘Oh, we have to record that song.’ Probably everybody concurs that it was a late addition to the album. And, I hasten to add, everybody [else] was dead against recording it as well.”
Lindy Morrison: “We all knew that it was going to be the single.”
Robert Forster: “You don’t go into an album thinking this is going to be the single. It just felt like one of the other songs. It’s only really in the studio, [when] you get to the end of the session, that you go, ooh – we’ve got this, this is the single.”
Lindy Morrison: “Oh no, that’s rubbish. Because it was so good, I mean, come on Robert! It was so hooky! It was such a standout. And to see the two of them play that together, and Amanda doing that backing vocal ‘shine’, you know, she composed that, and it’s a hook.”
Amanda Brown: “It’s kind of pointless to bear grudges about it. The band gave me lots of good things that I’m very grateful for, but at the same time there was a pretty concerted effort to erase, in particular, mine and Lindy’s contribution to the band.”
Robert Forster: “The one person who could really speak to that isn’t here to defend himself.”
16 Lovers Lane was recorded with English producer Mark Wallis in Studios 301, Sydney, in May.
Lindy Morrison: “Because it was the single, there was an enormous amount of pressure on me to use a drum machine. And that was fine by me because I understood that a single had to be treated differently. It was my beat that I programmed into it, so it’s exactly as I would play it.”
Amanda Brown: “I remember multi-tracking the vocals and Mark always telling me to sing it softer. We did several takes that were just really whispered, and at the time I was a bit suspicious of that process, because I didn’t want to sound like some fey Jane Birkin-esque ingenue.”
Robert Forster: “Streets was always difficult to play live, if only because the flamenco guitar solo is done by [bass player] John Willsteed, and when we were playing live he was on bass. So it was much more of a studio construction, and maybe the best version of it ever is on the album.”
Amanda Brown: “John’s bass line was actually played on a guitar, on an octave pedal, so that’s why it has such a distinctive sound. It was a nylon-string classical guitar he played the solo on – it might have even been a crappy old guitar of mine that just happened to be lying around.”
John Willsteed (bass, guitar): “It was Amanda’s guitar … I probably did a couple of takes. I know that the ending got fucked up – I didn’t have an end, so had to kind of glue an ending on. I’ve never been happy with the ending.”
Robert Forster: “John Willsteed and Amanda were the great musicians in the band … Not every great musician gets that opportunity of being in a world-class studio, with a world-class engineer-producer with good songs, and that came to John, which I’m really happy about.”
Streets of whose town?
Streets Of Your Town has long been identified with Brisbane, and has featured in an advertising campaign by Queensland newspaper the Courier-Mail (with the darker lyrics omitted). The Go Between Bridge, spanning the Brisbane river, is also named after the group. Yet it remains a source of passionate conjecture which “town” the song refers to.
Lindy Morrison: “I always thought it was about Brisbane, because of the buildings being torn down; the nostalgia expressed for a town that once was. The most important thing I want to say is that Brisbane took it on as their own, so the Brisbane community grabbed it and ran with it, and because of that, for me, the song is about Brisbane. It’s owned by the Brisbane community. But Amanda will have a different story, and Amanda was a lot closer to Grant than I was.”
Amanda Brown: “Well, I’ve got a few things to say about that. Firstly, is it important? It’s quite a universal thing, which is how the controversy or perhaps the misconception has come about, because everybody thinks it relates to their town.”
Robert Forster: “It was written in Sydney, and a lot of the songs that Grant was writing around that time involved Amanda. Streets Of Your Town, it could be Sydney, because that was Amanda’s town. But I really don’t know.”
Amanda Brown: “There’s reasons for and against. First is the title, Streets Of Your Town, the possessive noun there being, I think, in relation to me. But the song’s bridge – They shut it down, they pulled it down – Brisbane people of that generation would feel that keenly, with Cloudland and other beloved buildings being torn down in the dead of night by the infamous Deen Brothers. In Sydney, it was the beautiful Regent Theatre. There’s also the line I ride your river under the bridge, and I take your boat out to the reach – it could relate to Brisbane, of course, being a river town, and Sydney more commonly being known as a harbour town, although it does have rivers as well.”
John Willsteed: “I don’t think it’s really centred anywhere. I know Grant wrote it in Sydney, and if he wrote it about running around after Amanda in her town, then I guess that’s Sydney. But at the same time there’s the river, and the bridge. Maybe it’s a beautiful amalgam of Grant’s experiences!”
Amanda Brown: “It’s a widely misunderstood song, in the same vein as something like [Bruce Springsteen’s] Born In The U.S.A. – people think it’s that kind of patriotic, parochial sentiment. It’s actually very dark, with the lyrics about butcher’s knives and battered wives. There’s a lot more awareness of domestic violence now, so it’s a very relevant song.”
Lindy Morrison: “It’s really funny. It’s always the same, everybody’s got a different perspective, haven’t they?”
Despite being the glossiest production of the Go-Betweens’ career, Streets Of Your Town wasn’t a hit, stalling at 70 on the Australian charts and 80 in the UK, and the band broke up amid acrimony in late 1989.
Robert Forster: “[It wasn’t the hit] that the band needed at that stage of our career. But before we went [into the studio], no one would have seen what it became, in terms of its commercial accessibility.”
Amanda Brown: “It’s probably the closest thing to a hit we ever had. It certainly generated the most income of all the songs, and it’s the song that everybody knows.”
John Willsteed: “It doesn’t matter how many fucking great songs you make. There’s a whole range of twists of fate that lead you towards something being popular or just disappearing. But obviously, it’s retained some kind of place in people’s cultural memory.”
Amanda Brown: “That duality inherent in the lyrics is really emblematic of Grant as an artist and human. He was charming, affable and loved by all who had the good fortune to know him.
“But privately he was also melancholic, with an ever-present awareness of loss, absence and loneliness, and these qualities are all in his best work. If Streets did not have this, it might be too saccharine, too sweet.
“Sometimes, when the stars align, we come together in unlikely formation and create something that resonates and touches the soul. I think, for the Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane was such a moment, and Streets was the bittersweet, poppy gem at the heart of the album.”
First published in The Guardian, 20 September 2018