Tagged: Grant McLennan

Right Here: Behind The Heartache

Scene: a tall, erect man, aged 60, is walking up a long gravel driveway. He is impeccably, incongruously dressed for the country surroundings: dark blue suit and tie, rose-pink shirt, dress shoes. It is the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster. He is carrying a guitar. An old radio voice-over asks him to describe the music he plays. “It’s like running water off thin white strips of aluminium,” he replies. Soundtrack: the first three notes of Cattle And Cane.

The next person we see is footage of the late Grant McLennan, the song’s author, who died of a heart attack at the age of 48 in 2006. He is dragging on a cigarette. “We’re not a trendy band,” he says. “We’re a groovy band. And I like that.”

Rewind. Setting: The Golden Century, a Chinese restaurant in Sydney. Film director Kriv Stenders, best known for Red Dog, is pitching his documentary about the Go-Betweens, Right Here, to a suspicious Lindy Morrison, the band’s drummer on their first six albums, and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown. During the band’s life, Morrison had been in a relationship with Forster; Brown with McLennan. Old wounds remain close to the surface.

Morrison describes the meeting as “extraordinarily traumatic”. The Go-Betweens is a subject on which she long ago stopped giving interviews, except in relation to specific projects. The story of the band always returns to the friendship between Forster and McLennan: Forster’s memoir of last year was titled Grant & I. After the band broke up, Morrison and Brown fought and settled with the two songwriters for a share of royalties.

For Morrison and Brown especially – along with former bass players Robert Vickers and John Willsteed – Right Here was a chance to detail their vast musical contributions. Cattle And Cane would have been lost without Morrison’s unique time signature; Bye Bye Pride is crowned by Brown’s oboe part; Streets Of Your Town features a gorgeous Spanish-inflected acoustic guitar solo played by Willsteed.

“I don’t think Kriv knew who or what he was dealing with,” Morrison says. “He had no idea of what had unfolded at the closing of the band, and the discussions about that brought forward our feelings again about what had transpired.” Stenders didn’t know what had hit him. “I must admit I didn’t sleep that night,” he says. “I think they ran me through a gauntlet to test my mettle … There was so much emotion, so much anger and frustration there.”

The dysfunctional band documentary is a staple of the genre, but it’s just getting started in Australia. So far, most of the energy has focused on the punk scene of the late 1970s. Radio Birdman and the Saints, Australia’s two primary sources for the movement – both famously tempestuous groups – have been honoured recently on film. But for human drama, the Go-Betweens, arguably Australia’s first post-punk band, were untouchable on stage and off.

What Right Here has that most “rockumentaries” lack is atmosphere. Taking the Go-Betweens’ stifling mid-1970s home of Brisbane as its starting point, it feels naturalistic and expansive. Interviews with band members were shot on the verandah of an enormous Queenslander owned by Stenders’ sister near Beaudesert, south of Brisbane. But the suffocating humidity, which builds like a thunderstorm, is provided by the complex relationships between the members.

Forster stares into a bonfire as he recounts how he and McLennan decided to end the band in 1989 and return to their beginnings as a duo, heedless of Morrison and Brown’s financial and emotional investment. “We were just bumbling boys,” he says. Morrison’s response is acidic: “Both of us refused to be defined as the girlfriends, and that’s what they did, when they dumped us. They treated us like ex-wives, and that was the greatest insult.”

It’s a heart-stopping scene, shot in darkness, with Brown and Morrison together. There’s a twitch in Morrison’s eye as she bitterly recounts the moment, while Brown’s eyes are full of tears. But if Right Here was only about settling scores, it would be a lesser film. There are many moments where Morrison’s old fondness for Forster, Forster’s for Morrison, and Brown’s deep anguish at the loss of McLennan are keenly felt.

To get those moments, Stenders put his subjects through the mill. Morrison was interviewed for 16 hours, in four blocks of four hours each. For her, she says, the results were therapeutic. “It’s lifted the sense of sadness I’ve always felt about the band. It’s made me close the door … I feel great about the band and the music now; I feel that finally that bloody striped sunlight sound has warmed me!”

The Go-Betweens, as McLennan noted, were never trendy. “I never gave a shit,” Morrison says in the film. “We did not look the part, we didn’t sound the part, we were not the part. We were too intelligent.” Cue the opening chords for Streets Of Your Town, the closest the band’s “striped sunlight sound” ever came to a hit. It reached 70 on the Australian charts; 82 in Britain. “We may as well have put out a free jazz record,” Forster says.

Yet the music has endured. Forster and McLennan reconvened the band at the turn of the millennium – without Morrison and Brown – making three more celebrated albums before McLennan’s death. Here, Stenders encountered a problem he couldn’t resolve. Interviews with Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance, the band’s drummer and bass player during this period, hit the cutting room floor. The band’s final act is summed up in five minutes.

The decision grieved Stenders, as well as Thompson and Pickvance, whom Stenders says was especially upset. But the heart of the Go-Betweens’ story lay in that classic line-up. Stenders justifies it by saying he wanted to present an emotional history of the band, not a discography. “That band just kept on building and building to a point where I think it just caved in on itself,” he says.

In 2013, Morrison was awarded an Order of Australia medal for her services as a performer and an advocate. A social worker before joining the Go-Betweens, she is now the welfare co-ordinator with music industry charity Support Act. The end of the band, she said, “was pivotal in me going out and establishing myself as Lindy Morrison, and I will not be anyone but Lindy Morrison, and nothing will change that”.

But she will always remain a Go-Between. “Despite the acrimony, despite the anger, despite the betrayal, ultimately there’s still love there, and I find that very moving,” Stenders says. “I know it’s an extreme analogy, but when soldiers go to war, that bonds you forever, and I think it’s the same with the Go-Betweens. That’s why the music was so great, because they lived it and believed in it so passionately.”

When the Go Between Bridge was opened in Brisbane in 2010, Forster and Morrison shared a moment. “We walked across the whole bridge together, just him and I,” Morrison says. “Just chatting, like a couple of old codgers. That was very, very special to me, and I’m sure it was special to him. We’ve had our moments where we’ve been able to find each other again. It’ll never return to what it was. But we found each other on that day.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 23 September 2017

Robert Forster: Grant & I

Fifty pages into this long-awaited memoir, songwriter, critic and author Robert Forster gets very meta. “If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could start here,” he writes. It’s 1978, and he and Grant McLennan, the co-founders of the Go-Betweens, are driving from Brisbane to Sydney for the first time. After crossing the Tweed river into New South Wales, McLennan dashes into a shop, and emerges triumphantly waving a copy of Playboy, which was banned in Queensland at the time.

Of course, this being the Go-Betweens, they’re reading it for the articles – in this instance, Bob Dylan’s first full-length interview in three years, which McLennan ecstatically reads to Forster as the car races past cane fields on their left, Mount Warning on the right (“Cue thundercrack,” Forster says). The Go-Betweens always were the most self-referential of groups, as well as the most literate. Grant & I would make the most bookish of buddy films.

That’s not to say they were square. “On many occasions dark rock bands would encounter the Go-Betweens expecting namby-pamby, book-besotted, cocoa-drinking wimps, to find themselves partied under the table. We were a rock & roll band,” Forster declares. Yet it’s both a strength and a weakness that this often very moving book avoids the cliched recounting of rock & roll excess – until those excesses inevitably begin to catch up with them.

The obvious stylistic inspiration for Grant & I is Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which centres on her enduring friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But whereas Smith’s book skirts around her years of fame (like Dylan’s Chronicles, another reference point), Forster revels in his: each album, each single of the Go-Betweens’ career is lovingly charted – if only they had actually charted. This is a tale of cult stardom, of missing hits and hits-that-missed.

At one point, Forster writes of “the lengthy entry in the rock encyclopaedia that we felt the group deserved”. With Grant & I, he has all but written it himself. Some of the best passages of this book are clear-eyed critiques of his own band’s work as they navigate the usual artistic pitfalls: grinding poverty, unrecouped advances, unsympathetic producers, and drum machines used to tame a true original, Lindy Morrison, with whom Forster was in a relationship for eight years.

The heart of the book, though, is about a close friendship with someone who remained unknowable: a “naive boy” who kept a close watch on his inner life, only to pour it out in songs such as the revered Cattle And Cane and its companion, Dusty In Here. Both songs reference McLennan’s father, who died when he was six. Yet as Grant & I (and the band’s career) unfurls, McLennan recedes; as his friendship with Forster is attenuated to a few words or glances, it’s easy to lose sight of him.

And in this, there is an omission. The shadow of heroin hangs over this book, but we don’t know of it until Forster drops the bombshell of his own diagnosis with hepatitis C, a likely consequence of his own dabbling with the drug. It’s well known in rock circles that McLennan was a long-term user; Steve Kilbey’s book Something Quite Peculiar speaks bitterly of McLennan introducing him to opiates, and the journalist Clinton Walker has also written of his habit.

It’s obviously a charged topic. Yet towards the end, as McLennan begins to fall apart physically and emotionally – alcohol, Forster notes, was “eating him out, destroying him, and he knew it”, and songwriting sessions between the pair occasionally lapsed into therapy – it’s impossible for anyone familiar with the Go-Betweens’ story not to question the toll it took not just on McLennan, but on everyone in and around the band, not least his best friend.

The awful ending is already known and, as Forster has conceded publicly, McLennan’s death at the age of 48 from a heart attack came as a shock, but not a surprise. That’s another rock & roll cliche, and it’s to Forster’s credit that he avoids it in the beautifully written final chapters, which still manage to build tension leading up to the tragedy that finished the band 10 years ago. “I’ll carry it on,” Forster says, a promise to ensure the group’s legacy is not forgotten.

Behind the legacy lies enmity: Morrison and violinist Amanda Brown, who fought and eventually settled with Forster and McLennan for a share of songwriting royalties, are acknowledged at the funeral with just a nod – and, if there’s something missing, it’s an epilogue. If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could end here: the surviving members leading the first walk across Brisbane’s Go Between Bridge, with Streets Of Your Town the soundtrack – the bridge an act of belated recognition that, cruelly, took the death of one of the city’s finest poets to bring about.

First published in The Guardian, 29 August 2016

The day I got owned by Grant McLennan

It was the 10th anniversary of Grant McLennan’s passing yesterday. It wasn’t until late afternoon that I actually remembered; there’d been some stuff going down in my own world that I’d been absorbed within. But then I also remembered that days before, I’d put a lay-by on a rare copy of G Is For Go-Betweens, the long since out-of-print box set released a couple of years ago by Domino, that had turned up in Rocking Horse Records.

The box was expensive at the time (which put me off) and of course it was even more so now, but I’d regretted missing out after it quickly disappeared. So I traded some old stuff to make the initial deposit and – being inclined towards the sentimental and the symbolic – I decided to head into town and pick it up, rather than waiting a few more days to actually get paid. Sometimes you just have to do these things.

So I took it home and spent the night in a funk, listening to the early singles and the first three albums, Send Me A Lullaby (ripe for rediscovery, though the band was still gelling), Before Hollywood (on which they perfected the Striped Sunlight Sound to which they’d aspired) and Spring Hill Fair (sort of a step sideways, before their next great leap forward, to the masterful Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express).

By the end of the marathon I’d stopped gazing at my own navel for long enough to reflect on Grant and the impact he’d had on me. I never got to know him very well; ours was a semi-professional acquaintance more than a friendship, though we’d known each other 10 years. Grant was always respectful of critics, though sometimes irascible if they didn’t give his albums enough stars. Robert Forster, of course, became a critic himself.

Anyway, I remembered the day I bumped into him in Egg Records, in West End. We were chatting and he pulled out a CD of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, by PJ Harvey, and told me how much he loved it. I demurred slightly. I had been a huge fan of her visceral early records, but was less enamoured, shall we say, of the post-therapy, painfully self-aware Polly writing songs like Good Fortune.

I remember saying something along the lines of, I didn’t think her songwriting was at quite the same level as it had been. Grant raised an eyebrow. “Really?” he said. Here I was, talking to one of the finest songwriters on the planet, archly dismissing the work of another of the world’s best, and I’d never written a damn song in my life.

At that instant, I could see him looking right through me. But his eyes were twinkling; he didn’t call me out because he didn’t need to – he just shuffled and grinned that lopsided grin of his. “Really?” It was terribly humbling, and I found myself laughing at the absurdity of my position. Grant was a very funny man. Those who can, do; those who can’t talk shit, and I was talking complete shit.

We ended up having lunch, and he told me that a copy of Pig City had gone around the Go-Betweens’ van on the band’s last tour. Of course they’d all had their various takes on it, but they’d all enjoyed it, and that was humbling, too. I think I can say Grant himself wasn’t always known for his humility (which is to say he knew how fucking good he was), but he sure taught me a lot about it that day.

He was gone three weeks later. I miss him like we all do, but it’s a reminder that you never know when you’re going to lose people, and always be grateful for what they give you.

Robert Forster: Songs To Play

A new album by Robert Forster is almost always a challenge before it becomes a pleasure. For a start, there’s that voice, which hits fewer notes than Lou Reed on a less than perfect day. So there isn’t a great deal of melody, unlike the songs of Forster’s former songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, who wrote the majority of that band’s better-known, poppier material.

But, as Forster admonishes on Songs To Play’s brisk opener, Learn To Burn, “You can miss details when you’re in a hurry.” Forster rarely writes obvious songs; the type that get your foot tapping and rattle around your head for days. Instead he writes songs, and records, that creep up and throttle you from behind. And he almost never writes duds.

My first feeling upon listening to Songs To Play was of disappointment, especially coming after The Evangelist, the masterpiece Forster had to make following McLennan’s premature death in 2006. This is his first album in seven years, and though far more upbeat, I found myself waiting for it to finish, which didn’t take long. Then, as soon as it did, I played it again.

Forster’s albums are like that. You think there’s not much going on, only to find the songs growing upon you as inexorably as vines around an abandoned building. The music is lean and understated; the lyrics, as ever, are penetrating and compelling. Imagine Reed narrating a Talking Heads album (it could be ’77 or True Stories) and you’re getting close to the feeling of Songs To Play.

For this album, Forster has moved on from long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson and instead used members of Brisbane’s John Steel Singers, as well as his wife Karin Bäumler (who plays some sumptuous violin) and his 17-year-old son Louis. There are bits of glockenspiel, Mariachi horns on A Poet Walks, and lots of backing vocals throughout. Songs turn on the lightest of touches.

The band is tight and it’s versatile, whether it’s playing the sly bossa nova of Love Is Where It Is, or the final track Disaster In Motion, which recalls the Velvet Underground’s The Murder Mystery with its churning organ and insistent percussion. A final shriek of unexpected feedback reveals the hidden menace beneath the song’s surface.

Let Me Imagine You is a plea for the preservation of mystique in an exhibitionist age: “Please don’t twitter / I find it sweeter.” As always, what Forster lacks in melodic variation he makes up for with deft phrasing and droll humour: “Wild mountain sound!” he remarks over the fast country picking at the end of I Love Myself And I Always Have (the album was recorded at Mt Nebo, outside Brisbane).

Lyrically, that song is a kind of postmodern update of Skyhooks’ Ego Is Not A Dirty Word, but it’s also a return to the earliest years of the Go-Betweens, when the influence of Jonathan Richman loomed large. “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard,” Forster says, completely matter-of-fact. The humour in this song shouldn’t mask its deadly serious intent.

For all its antecedents, though, Songs To Play (the allusion to Leonard Cohen in the title, surely, is deliberate) is Robert Forster at his most singular. Perhaps most of all, one feels the absence of McLennan here, but not in the painful way he overshadowed The Evangelist, which featured three of his unfinished songs. It’s the sound of Forster starting anew, and the spring in his step is welcome.

First published in The Guardian, 18 September 2015

The mythologist

The biggest problem one faces when writing a profile about Robert Forster is the knowledge that he could quite easily write it himself, and would probably prefer to. The lauded singer-songwriter – co-founder of Brisbane’s revered Go-Betweens; creator of six solo albums; former Pascall prize-winning music writer for The Monthly – likes telling stories. Sometimes he likes to make them up.

This does not mean the stories are not truthful; just that Forster likes to tell them in a particular way. Stories serve a purpose. They make the man, but also enlarge the myth. For a book accompanying the release of a lavish Go-Betweens box set earlier this year, Forster wrote a lengthy potted history of the group – all of it, disarmingly, in the second person. He became his own, not particularly harsh critic.

For his new album Songs To Play, he wrote and directed an eight-minute trailer for which he scripted not only the narrative, but the quotes of those appearing: friends, band members, even family. Yet he rejects the idea that he is some kind of control freak. He says it was about skewing expectations, and playing with the form: “That’s what Billy Wilder did, that’s what Orson Welles did.”

This sort of trick – he denies it’s a schtick – is Forster all over. “I’m not much up on social media and how you promote an album [but] that seemed the most interesting way of doing it to me,” he says, in a café near his home in Brisbane’s western suburbs. “It went back to [D.A. Pennebaker’s] Don’t Look Back … I enjoyed putting words into people’s mouths, that they’ve got to say straight-faced to a camera.”

Not everyone enjoyed reciting them. “I cringed,” admits sound engineer Jamie Trevaskis. “I want to hide under the table, because they’re not my words, and I feel awkward saying that stuff. He never said, ‘Jamie, I want to make an analogue album,’ and I never replied, ‘That’s what I do.’ That’s when I realised, the story is the most important thing for Robert. He was making a story for the album to sit on top of.”

Forster is an enigma. A student of Bob Dylan, he assiduously cultivates his image. Asked to describe himself, though, he does so “In very straight terms. Fifty-eight. Australian – which is important. A family man [he and German wife Karin Bäumler have two children; Louis, 17, and Loretta, 14], which is also very important. I cook things up at home – I’m talking about art – and take that out to the world. That’s it.”

Except it’s not. Like his plain-spoken, barely sung songs, there is always more going on than first appears.

Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Dave Graney wrote a tune that may or may not be about Forster, which he drily called Everything Was Legendary With Robert. “His riveting self-consciousness drew you in / The crowd gathered to see what he was looking at, talking about … It wasn’t him, or the times, it was just the angle he locked into / The attitude, the window that came between him and the world.”

Long-time friend Peter Fischmann, who actually does get to speak for himself in the trailer, says Forster “has a great understanding of the ridiculousness of life that goes over the head of some people. His irony confounds.” Forster, for his part, says it’s an extension of his earlier band. “There’s a playfulness there, which I like. The Go-Betweens, right from the start, were always based on a certain amount of theorising.”

Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter behind the Apartments and very briefly an early member of the Go-Betweens, invokes the Monkees, a crucial early influence on the group. “He’s a daydream believer, a wonderful mix of innocence and calculation.” He describes an optimist: “Robert’s world is one where it is forever spring – it’s his principal season. The promise of it all; everything that’s on the way.”

“There’s a sense in his songs of big stuff going on between the lines,” says writer and editor Christian Ryan, who first tapped the previously untried Forster to write about music for The Monthly for its first issue in 2005. “His words are very spare – it’s almost in shorthand, so you’re listening [and] your mind is simultaneously operating on a separate high-wire level, thinking, what the hell is going on here.”

Forster resigned his commission at The Monthly in 2013. It was a brave call. “The one source of constant income I had, I threw away. I’d been there eight years. I’d written myself out, I thought, and I wasn’t getting around to the other things I was doing.” Apart from assembling the box set, he’s been working on a memoir. (“If you say rock musician and memoir, you know, eyes will roll,” he grimaces.)

Ryan had a hunch that the songwriter could transfer his poetry into prose, a rare skill. “Taut, exotic, precise, vivid yet never straining, in terms of the imagery. And no banality, ever,” he says – and that’s about the songs. He describes the thrill of receiving Forster’s first piece, on Antony and the Johnsons’ album I Am A Bird Now, as “like receiving a postcard from the moon”.

Fischmann alludes to another early influence, David Bowie – but not in the way you might expect. “Robert is like the man who fell to earth. The machinations of modern life confound him, but when it comes to matters of the human heart, he is a Zen master.” He cites the time when, after the Go-Betweens first broke up in 1990, he returned from Germany with Karin, and earnestly asked a friend how to buy a fridge.

Forster’s songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, shared Forster’s disdain for the mundane. After his friend’s premature death in 2006, Forster wrote a eulogy in The Monthly noting that McLennan didn’t drive and owned no wallet, watch, credit card or computer. He did, however, maintain a subscription to the New York Review Of Books.

To call the Go-Betweens bookish would be an understatement: select items from McLennan’s library came as bonuses with early copies of the box set. On the inner sleeve of the band’s final album, Oceans Apart, McLennan is dressed in jeans, a fleece jacket and ski cap. Forster is immaculate in suit and spectacles, leaning against a tree trunk with a hefty hardback tucked under his arm for effect.

The pair were a contrast, but again, all was not as it seemed. Forster was flamboyant; a bevy of tics and mannerisms, and a wardrobe ranging from canary-yellow suits to dresses as the occasion demanded. McLennan was the quiet one, with the most sincere eyebrows in rock & roll. Off stage, though, McLennan was the hell-raiser with a turbulent personal life; Forster was settled; the “sensible rock”, as he called himself.

McLennan’s death finished the band for good, after a second coming that spanned three albums with a new line-up from the year 2000. In 2008, Forster released his fifth solo album, The Evangelist, which included unfinished songs by McLennan. The record hung heavy with grief. “A river ran and a train ran and a dream ran through everything that he did,” Forster sang on It Ain’t Easy, one of the jauntier tunes.

After The Evangelist’s release, Forster beat a deliberate retreat. The original aim was to not release another album for five years; it stretched to seven. “It was like Act Four,” he says. “If you take The Go-Betweens as Act One, the solo years as two and the band getting back together as three … I wanted Act Four to come with a certain amount of gravitas.”

The first step was to assemble a new band. Long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson had moved to Sydney, and Forster couldn’t afford to fly them north for rehearsals. He also wanted to open a new chapter. Along with Karin, who plays violin (son Louis also plays some guitar), he decided to work with Luke McDonald and Scott Bromiley, from Brisbane’s John Steel Singers.

Songs To Play is a very different album, the sound of a dedicated craftsman starting over, with tunes reminiscent of the Go-Betweens’ early years: small, suburban songs indebted to Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. “I wanted to write something more upbeat. The feelings that I had were more life-affirming. There was just a looseness in the way that I felt that I can only describe as a bounce out of my last album.”

Perhaps the most telling track is called I Love Myself And I Always Have. “It’s one of the most serious songs on the album,” he says, straight-faced, knowing full well that audiences – particularly in Australia – could take lines like “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard” as a joke. It’s not. “I like throwing an idea out and then twisting it right in front of their faces.”

In a recent essay, “What’s the difference between a pop star and a rock star?”, Forster expands on one of his 10 rules of rock & roll: being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job. He recalls a chance encounter with the late Dragon singer, Marc Hunter, one morning in Kings Cross in the early 1980s: Forster was out for a walk; Hunter, clearly at the end of a long night on the tiles, still looked, in Forster’s words, “fucking incredible”.

Forster, by his own admission, isn’t a rock star anymore, even though – like Dave Graney – the dividing line between the private and public persona can be paper-thin. “You’ve got to be careful because, you know, Hunter died from it. [Michael] Hutchence died from it. Bon Scott. Chrissy Amphlett died, but under other circumstances. So it’s dangerous. People die young.” He doesn’t mention McLennan.

“One of the things I like best about Robert, actually, is that I don’t think he really wants you to know the artist,” Ryan says. “It’s kind of an old-school thing which has gone out of rock music, in the age where everybody’s tweeting and making their personal lives very transparent. Robert still sees value in mystery. He doesn’t go out of his way to tell you about his love life.”

In the trailer, another of Forster’s friends is asked to describe him. “He’s difficult,” she replies, after a studied pause. In person, though, Forster is unfailingly courteous; even affable. But, he says, “somehow I enjoyed being on the other side of the camera, having written the lines for someone to say that I’m difficult, while I watch it. I don’t know what that makes me.”

Legendary, perhaps.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 11 September 2015

The strange return of Mr Somewhere

Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, writes that in the small, but febrile post-Saints Brisbane music scene of the late 1970s, everyone knew each other. That should be no surprise: really, they still do. But even back in those days, he says, he and the late Grant McLennan knew of Peter Milton Walsh before they had met him; he was a man with “whispers and claims on his trail”.

Walsh is the near-myth behind the Apartments, the group he named after one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films. It speaks of him. He wore impeccable suits and shades under a big mop of blond hair in Brisbane’s sweltering heat. He had a taste for the arcane and the exotic. His music is of another time: of post-punk, certainly, but also of Burt Bacharach and Jacques Brel; Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg.

He is a star in France, yet all but unknown here. He lives quietly in Sydney, rarely performs, and has just made his first album – his fifth overall – in 18 years. The man himself is no mystery; just not one to make a noise about himself. He deadpans he has been “hard at work developing my sitting still and keeping quiet talents, which to me are a little bit neglected in this world”.

Walsh had a very brief stint in the Go-Betweens in 1979, but he already had the Apartments, and he quickly returned to them. (The Go-Betweens honoured him with two songs: That Way, from Before Hollywood, and an early B-side, Don’t Let Him Come Back, with the lines: “Who’s that dressed in black / Who’s that in his apartment / With his crazy walk / Don’t let him come back!”)

In the years since, following the release of the Apartments’ debut album The Evening Visits … And Stays For Years on the prestigious Rough Trade label in 1985, he has slowly built a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. One song from that album, Mr Somewhere, was covered by British ensemble This Mortal Coil (keeping company with tunes written by Tim Buckley, Big Star, Syd Barrett and Gene Clark). A later single, The Shyest Time, featured in the John Hughes film Some Kind Of Wonderful.

In the 1990s, Australian soul legend Renée Geyer tackled another of his songs, Knowing You Were Loved, on the recommendation of another fan, Dave Graney. That song had come from Walsh’s second album, Drift – a record which reputedly sold some 25,000 copies in France, but less than 200 in his home country. It amounts to, one critic wrote, “one of the great crimes of neglect in Australian music”.

Graney, who first met Walsh in the early 1980s while the latter was serving a brief stint as bass player in Ed Kuepper’s band the Laughing Clowns, describes Walsh as “a great songwriter, very individual. He has dark and shifting tones, with a pop default, but epic peaks and falls. Great to talk with – always talk laced with references to arcane literature and music. Always carried a dramatic back story about him, impossibly authentic. You can’t make that shit up.”

But the back story to The Apartments’ new album No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal – released after a crowd-funding campaign on a tiny French label, Microcultures – is so traumatic that, by Walsh’s own estimation, it is a miracle that it exists at all. It begins a full 18 years ago, in 1997, on the last day of mixing his fourth album, Apart, when the family GP rang.

It was about Walsh’s son, Riley, whose blood tests had come back. The doctor told Walsh to take him to the Sydney’s Westmead hospital immediately where, he was told, a specialist would be waiting for them. Riley had been diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder that meant his body wasn’t producing white blood cells to fight off infections. The Walsh family spent the next two years “on a death watch, basically – the cold that another child gets and beats back, is the cold that will kill yours”.

Riley lost the fight he was never going to win in 1999, aged just three years and eight months.

Walsh was eviscerated. A pall descended: to borrow a line from the song Twenty One – a lament for all the birthday parties that would never be held for his son – he’s been “stuck in the same quicksand since 1999”.

Not that Walsh has been inactive. He continued to write songs for himself, and for Riley – just never with the intention of recording or releasing them. One of the first to arrive was Swap Places, where he recounts: “Walking round the hospital, Friday afternoon / Other children going home / Wondering if the day will come when that might be you, if you’ll ever come home?” It ends with a chant: “Where’s the God in all of this?”

He quotes lines from a poem, Old Marx, by Polish writer Adam Zagajewski: “He still had faith in his fantastic vision / But in moments of doubt / He worried that he’d given the world only / A new vision of despair.”

“That poem absolutely haunted me for ages,” he says. “And I just thought, OK, I’m not going to do anything with these songs.” He didn’t share them with anybody – not even his wife, Kate, with whom he has two other children.

But that, Walsh says, amounted to “another kind of death”. For years, silence had seemed like the only way to suitably honour his son’s passing, but the more songs that came, the more they weighed. “I [couldn’t] go on if I didn’t do them,” he says. “It was like a necessity because here he lives, in these songs – do I just throw them away, so that’s another thing that’s forgotten?”

In 2007, he began to dip his toes back in the water: first a few very low-key gigs in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane; then, a couple of years later, he played a sold-out show in a Parisian club, L’Européen. There he was introduced to a young French singer, Natasha Penot, who had covered his song Sunset Hotel. A duet was organised, and his first music since Riley’s death – a song called Black Ribbons, recorded by Sydney producer Wayne Connolly – was released as a seven-inch single by Melbourne label Chapter Music in 2011.

Connolly had first met Walsh in 2004, when they met to discuss the idea of recording. “Peter told me at that meeting that the subject matter of the songs was related to the loss of Riley and that he wasn’t sure if he could ever actually record them. He wrote to me soon after to say that it was unlikely that he ever would,” Connolly says.

But then, seven years later, came Black Ribbons; the following year, Connolly joined Walsh on another tour of France. During the first gig, Walsh unexpectedly threw Twenty One – which no one else inside or outside the band had then heard – into the set. “It’s impossible to describe what I felt, but I had never stood on a stage with tears streaming down my face before,” Connolly says.

Finally, late in 2013, the pair entered the studio. Sometimes, songwriters talk of writing and performing songs as reliving a kind of trauma; few, surely, have lived through anything approaching Walsh’s. “The songs were very hard to play, very hard to record.”

“At some point we had a discussion about his doubts, and it was evident how close to the surface the pain of [Riley’s loss] was,” Connolly says. “But, as it is for so many involved in music, it’s possible to find joy in a beautifully played hi-hat or piano or a nice bass line. Peter loves to be immersed in sound – as long as there’s a generous amount of reverb! – and I got the sense that he began to appreciate it as a therapeutic/cathartic process.”

In September, Walsh will return to France, where he’ll be confronted with a new challenge: playing the songs in front of an expectant audience. In the meantime, there are press duties, which he is understandably keeping to a minimum. It is, he says, “like a mountain I haven’t yet climbed, so I’ll just have to see what it’s like. But that’s part of the deal I made when I made the album. Songs are like windows, sometimes they’re trapdoors, and memories come cartwheeling out. You just have to deal with them.”

First published in The Guardian, 7 August 2015

Flowers in the wheelie bin

In 1977, John Lydon – née Rotten – launched a vitriolic attack on the monarchy that brutally summed up the status of England’s youth in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee: “When there’s no future, how can there be sin? / We are the flowers in the dustbin / We’re the poison in your human machine / We’re the future, your future!”

God Save The Queen, as performed by the Sex Pistols, is one of the greatest protest songs of all time, but I’ve long pondered over these lyrics. Was Lydon inferring that Britain’s future had been literally thrown out with the garbage, as the nation celebrated? Or making a statement about how great art can be constructed from throwaway refuse – one of punk’s defining tenets?

Or was he saying that art itself is nurtured by the oppression of the state? “We’re the poison in your human machine” is a wonderfully subversive argument to this effect, and it’s a line with ongoing resonance to Queensland. It’s a common assumption, for example, that the 1970s punk explosion in Brisbane, spearheaded by the Saints (who, let’s not forget, pre-dated the Pistols by as much as two years) was a reaction to the excesses of life in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Superficially, it’s easy to understand why. As I’ve written before, life under Sir Joh was nothing if not iron-fisted: “Public displays of dissent were often brutally suppressed; the rule of law was routinely bent to the will of those charged with its enforcement; minorities were treated as just another obstacle on the path to development. To top it all off, the electoral system was hopelessly rigged in favour of the incumbents. ‘Here,’ wrote Rod McLeod, ‘in a city practically under police curfew, you fucked and fought, got stoned, got married, or got out of town.'”

Thirty-five years later, in the year of (still our) Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Campbell Newman has passed his first 100 days in office as Premier of Queensland, and we’ve got a pretty good idea of his administration’s priorities. Many of his actions and statements have been highly symbolic: the axing of the state’s literary awards; abolishing state-sanctioned civil ceremonies for same-sex couples; his declaration that Queensland was in “the coal business” (in response to environmental concerns about increased shipping through the Great Barrier Reef) and, last but not least, sending in a 200-strong goon squad to rough up a few Aboriginal people in Musgrave Park because, well, they were there.

It’s been enough to prompt more than a few comparisons between Newman and Joh, whom the former politely name-checked in his maiden speech as premier. And in that time, I’ve heard a few suggest that maybe we’ll even see some kind of musical renaissance under Newman, now all those latte-sipping arty types suddenly have something to complain about again. Flowers in the wheelie bin, if you like.

Sorry, but it’s time to bust a few myths. I spent four years investigating the assumption that bad politics = great music, and as far as I can tell, mostly, the idea that conservative and/or repressive governance leads to creativity is vastly overstated.

Let’s take the punk example first. The truth is, it would have happened anyway, and the reason why is simple: Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey were rabid record collectors who were turned on to the sounds of the MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls before almost anyone else in this country, other than Michigan native Deniz Tek and Sydneysider Rob Younger. Those two would go on to form Radio Birdman at around the same time as the Saints, in 1973-74. Both the Saints and Birdman were also influenced by earlier Australian garage bands like the Easybeats, Master’s Apprentices and Missing Links (among dozens of others). And the bands that followed the Saints and Birdman – in Brisbane, that means groups like the Fun Things, Razar and the Riptides – were additionally inspired to pick up guitars by three principal events.

The first one was the release of the first Ramones album, a stroke of genius so deceptively simple that enthusiastic non-musicians everywhere fell for the idea that they could play this music, too. Notwithstanding the aforementioned groups, the vast majority of these hack thrashers forgot the necessary corollary: few do it well.

The second, which followed the Ramones, was the international punk boom of 1977, thanks mainly to the sight of the Pistols appearing in lounge rooms across the country, not only via Countdown, but a good old-fashioned moral panic, courtesy of Mike Willesee and A Current Affair. Sure, Bjelke-Petersen was a reactionary, but it’s not as if televisions and radios were banned.

Which brings me to the third principal event: the rise of public radio stations, following reforms made in the dying days of the Whitlam government. Brisbane’s 4ZZZ was the very first of them, followed later by 2JJ (later Triple J) in Sydney and 3RRR in Melbourne. All of these – far more than Countdown – played a critical role in getting this new music to a wider audience.

So, as I’ve also written before, it makes no sense to give a politician credit for the creation of a music scene. The qualifier to all this is that growing up in a climate of fear and loathing distorted the prism through which these people saw the world: those who experienced the brutality of the Joh years first-hand still wear it like a badge of honour. As Robert Forster put it, “Bjelke-Petersen represented the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservatism that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against.”

And so we had Pig City (the song), written by political activist Tony Kneipp, specifically for the 1983 state election. And Task Force, by Razar, was the ultimate up-yours to Brisbane’s pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry finest.

But – and this is the point most people seem to overlook – these songs are emblematic of Brisbane at the time, not its music, which was far too diverse to be reduced to a set of agitprop slogans. The conditions for making music in Brisbane at the time were absolutely oppressive, and far from being an inspiration, it forced thousands of creative people to flee. The best example was Brisbane’s other truly great cultural export to emerge from the late 1970s, the Go-Betweens, who as far as I can tell never wrote a protest song in their lives.

Here were two slightly effeminate young men (Forster and the late Grant McLennan) who aspired to art, wrote poetry and occasionally wore dresses. At the height of punk’s most atavistic aggression, they played acoustic guitars to jerky rhythms, backed by a tall woman with short hair who played the drums. They didn’t write political songs – they didn’t have to. They were making a political statement just by being who they were, and that, in a nutshell, is exactly why they had to leave. Thus one of the best songs ever about growing up in Queensland was written in London:

Neither does the bad politics argument hold water when we look at the next big boom for Queensland music, the early 1990s. Bjelke-Petersen was long gone by then, so we can hardly attribute the success of Powderfinger, Regurgitator, Custard and the rest to him. More likely, that especially fertile period came down to an complex amalgam of factors: generational change, the reshaping of the music business in the wake of Nirvana’s album Nevermind; the nationalisation of the Triple J network, and the fact that Brisbane was becoming quite a nice place to live, with plenty of places to go out and play, without the attendant paranoia, post-Fitzgerald, of police harassment or worse.

Musically speaking, Brisbane currently is in the best shape I’ve seen since that golden age. Yes, there have been setbacks like the closure of Rave magazine, the venue situation is tenuous (it was ever thus) and making a living is harder than ever. But it’s never been easier to make, produce and distribute music than it is now, and the breadth and depth of quality here is astonishing. I can’t go out without tripping over someone new and exciting. That’s the subject of a whole new post.

Frankly, I can’t imagine it getting much better than it already is under Can-Do Campbell. Hopefully, it won’t actually become more difficult, due to the vagaries of licensing laws, poor town planning or the de-funding of programs that actually do help enable local musicians to get their music to a wider audience. That really would be throwing the flowers in the dustbin.

The messenger

For many Australians under the age of 40, the first time they would have heard the voice of Jimmy Little would have been in 1999, the result of a chance meeting a few years earlier. Brendan Gallagher, of the sorely underrated Australian band Karma County, had accidentally caught Little singing in a Sydney bar. “I was instantly drawn to the front of the stage by one of the most beautiful voices I’d ever heard,” he wrote in the liner notes to Messenger. “I sat transfixed as Jimmy worked his way through a set of songs with such grace and style that I forgot to go to the bar and buy a drink; very unusual behaviour on my part.”

Gallagher introduced himself to Little after the show and struck up a friendship, and Messenger was the collaboration that resulted. It’s an album of classic Australian songs by the likes of the Go-Betweens, the Church, Paul Kelly, Ed Kuepper and the Reels – many of them radically rearranged by Gallagher, and most of which Little himself had never heard before Gallagher introduced him to them. The album was a critical and commercial success, receiving extensive airplay, and introducing a new generation of Australians to a voice that had first came to national prominence in 1963, via his hit version of the country gospel standard Royal Telephone.

Central’s never busy, always on the line
You may hear from heaven almost any time
‘Tis a royal service, free for one and all
When you get in trouble, give this royal line a call

That voice! It was high and flutey, but as rich and mellow as caramel. Most of all, Little had exquisite timing. He had a touch of Elvis about him in that he sang his ballads with seemingly endless patience – if a song was slow, Little was slower. He sang like he had all the time in the world. He was a gifted storyteller who, once he had you in the palm of his hand, was happy to keep you in suspense. He made it all sound and look so bloody easy, and he was a master when it came to interpreting other people’s songs. Have a listen to how effortlessly he gets inside the narrative of the Go-Betweens’ Cattle And Cane:

That’s where I first heard and saw Jimmy Little, too. Cattle And Cane was (and remains) one of my favourite songs, and I was impressed with how Little not only recounted Grant McLennan’s childhood vignettes as though they were his own, but also the sincerity and ease with which he recounted the final verse that, on the Go-Betweens’ version, was originally performed by Robert Forster.

Little’s storied history prior to Messenger would have been incredible enough without this late-career revival. Australia’s first (and for a long time only) Aboriginal pop star, he made nearly three dozen albums, and also lent his talents to acting, landing a role in Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World in 1991. He was an indigenous ambassador for literacy and numeracy, and after a successful kidney transplant in 2004 he established the Jimmy Little Foundation, set up to assist other indigenous Australians, who suffer from End Stage Renal Disease at around nine times the rate of non-indigenous Australians. 2004 was an eventful year for Jimmy; he was made a companion of the Order of Australia that same year, and also named as a National Living Treasure. (The latter award makes the catty part of me wonder if Jimmy had been disturbed by the company he’d found himself keeping lately.)

In the end, though, it’s his singing for which Jimmy Little will be remembered. He was a gentle man – “Don’t mistake kindness and niceness for weakness,” he once said – and that gentility shone through his recordings, which are not easy listening so much as they are the humblest of peace offerings to the world. Jimmy’s gone now, but to listen to one of his albums – as I’m doing with Messenger – will always be like picking up the phone and hearing that voice from heaven at the other end.

The Great Australian Songbook IV (20-11)

Now it starts to get hard! This is where I start to become ultra-conscious of who and what’s getting left out. The songs get harder to put in any kind of order. And I haven’t made it any easier for myself – I found I’d written Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat down twice in my initial list of 40 (hmm – should that make it higher?), meaning I now have to find an entirely new song that’s magically going to vault straight into my top 20! Choices, choices…

20. BILLY THORPE & THE AZTECS – Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (1972)

This wasn’t the song, by the way. I always had this one in here. (I won’t cheapen which one it actually is by revealing it.) But, in short: what a wonderful chord progression this is, and what a great lyric, that anyone who’s ever got shitfaced in a bar with their friends should be able to relate to. Don’t we all, deep down, feel a little crazy as we try to navigate our way through a world we never asked to be born into? To be honest, I struggle to understand the fuss about much of Thorpie’s catalogue, but props to him for this brilliant common touch.

19. HOODOO GURUS – Like Wow Wipeout! (1985)

This one is all about the beat, hammered home by a human metronome called Mark Kingsmill (Richard’s older brother). Two chords and a chorus that rhymes “walk” and “talk” do the rest. But that beat! It’s a stomp made for football stadiums, and though the Hoodoo Gurus didn’t quite reach that level of success, it’s true that for a while, cricket fans would hold up placards reading “Like Wow Wipeout!”, usually after a six was struck in a one-day game. As a humbled Dave Faulkner noted, the real stars in Australia are our sports heroes anyway.

18. HUNTERS & COLLECTORS – Throw Your Arms Around Me (1984; re-recorded 1986)

A lot of folks would have this higher, and I can understand why. Crowded House recognised its potential by making it a staple of their live shows for years, but had too much respect for the song to even attempt recording it. (Of course, the Crowdies may have been biased; their bass player Nick Seymour was the brother of the song’s author Mark.) Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper have also covered it. So why wasn’t this now beloved tune a hit? It’s true that both the 1984 single and 1986 album recordings, by radio standards of the day, are rough and ready, and that probably cruelled Throw Your Arms Around Me’s chances at the time. But that surely says more about the tin ears of the fools that made such dumb decisions. Really, how could anyone not like this song?

17. SUNNYBOYS – Alone With You (1981)

Like Throw Your Arms Around Me, this song touches with its directness. But whereas the former track is a timeless soul ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if recorded by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett in the 1960s, the Sunnyboys were fans of the Kinks, the Remains and Radio Birdman, and the urgency of Alone With You is a reflection of that. Jeremy Oxley was a prodigy until tragically cut down by illness: his lyrics are straight to the point, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and his voice is effortlessly warm and natural. And just when you think this magical song can’t get any better – having already somehow found room for not one but two solos, with not a note wasted – he uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out. Wow.

16. RUSSELL MORRIS – The Real Thing (1969)

If you were under the misapprehension that Johnny Young was just that prat from Young Talent Time and that Molly Meldrum’s contribution to Australian music began and ended with Countdown, you need to hear this amazing song. Written by Young, produced by Meldrum, and sung/spoken in tongues by Russell Morris with unusual fervour, is this a hippy anthem or proto-punk madness? I’m not sure, but Little Richard would be proud of this inspired nonsense: “Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing. Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, oo-mow-ma-mow-mow.” Confused? Don’t worry, Morris can explain: “There’s meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing.” (And get well, Molly.)

15. THE CHURCH – Under The Milky Way (1988)

Like the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, or the Stranglers’ Golden Brown, or Johnny Thunders’ more direct Chinese Rocks, this could be an ode to heroin, which singer/bassist/writer Steve Kilbey has admitted to having a passionate relationship with. Or maybe that’s just a thought implanted by this song’s opaque, narcotic haze. It drifts blissfully by in a wash of 12-string acoustic splendour, with Kilbey murmuring gently in your ear like a slightly more stoned Lou Reed, with not even an e-bow solo destroying the effect (that’s the one that makes Peter Koppes’ guitar sound like bagpipes). After that unexpectedly noisy interlude, you’re back in a stoned stupor, Kilbey’s whispering again, and a more conventional but even more psychedelic guitar solo – with just a hint of wah-wah this time – drops you gently back to earth.

14. ARCHIE ROACH – Took The Children Away (1990)

“This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” And with that declaration, Archie Roach tells you his story, and the story of his people, with such quiet, understated hurt that the challenge for the listener is to get to the end of the song without weeping. It succeeds for two reasons: Roach’s words forced white people to imagine – as Paul Keating noted we failed to do, in his famous Redfern Speech two years later – these things being done to us. But songs don’t work as essays or speeches, even when they’re this well written. The real power comes from Roach’s beautiful singing: full of humility, grace, and unspeakable pain, it never forces itself on the listener. But it compelled a nation to listen and – eventually – say sorry.

13. THE REELS – Quasimodo’s Dream (1981)

A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, Quasimodo’s Dream – which writer Dave Mason has disparaged as “just complete rubbish when you listen to it” – doesn’t seem to add up to anything. That hasn’t kept other singers and songwriters including Jimmy Little (who gave it several new dimensions) and Kate Ceberano (who missed the mark with an upbeat dance pop/big band approach) from going back to it, trying to tease something fresh from its haunting, otherworldly beauty. The key to its effectiveness is the tender conviction which Mason invests in those spooked, baffling lyrics, making this slow, sparse song sound clammy and claustrophobic. Whatever you end up making of it, once heard, it never leaves you.

12. THE GO-BETWEENS – Cattle And Cane (1983)

Written on a battered acoustic guitar belonging to Nick Cave while the Go-Betweens were squatting with the Birthday Party in dank London, Cattle And Cane is nonetheless the ultimate expression of their “striped sunlight sound”. Its acoustic/electric texture and tension – thanks largely to Lindy Morrison’s quirky, shifting time signatures – created, as bass player Robert Vickers noted, a song that was “complex but also memorable, which is an almost impossible thing in music”. Every part works, even the perfectly weighted bass solo that underpins the guitar break, with the late, great Grant McLennan’s gorgeous, heartfelt vignettes of growing up in north Queensland front and centre. Has a singer ever had more sincere eyebrows than this man?

11. THE BEE GEES – Spicks And Specks (1966)

What do you say about this? Younger generations have the introductory piano theme tattooed on their brains, thanks to the ABC’s long-running and much loved music trivia show; older Australians will never have forgotten it. The military march of the drums and punchy arrangement, topped off by a trumpet finale, never swamps the best harmony pop/boy band Australia ever produced. It’s too bad that their lack of success in Australia at the time forced the Brothers Gibb to return to their native England in late 1966 – while still at sea, they found out Spicks And Specks had become their first number one hit.