The ’80s were full of bands working their way through various stages of various genres. Jangle pop was king across college campuses, while hip-hop was slowly edging toward the mainstream. Hard rock had given way to hair metal, which in turn had given way to something that might eventually change into grunge. And, well, radio pop (in most cases) was still radio pop, as disposable and inconsequential as ever. But there were bands who were looking at their genres in ways others weren’t-they were seeing them as far more malleable and accepting of change than artists who simply heard the sounds of their own influences.
And for Brisbane, Australia-based indie pop/rock group The Go-Betweens, the sounds that formed the basis of their influences were extremely pliable-they turned a honey-hued pop aesthetic inside out and mixed it with some jangling guitar lines, fashioning something that sounded both of its time and oddly prescient in terms of how music would develop in the following years.
The band was formed in 1977 by singer-songwriters/guitarists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. The two musicians first met at the University of Queensland, where they were working their way through a theater arts class. With Forster writing, singing and playing guitar and McLennan writing, singing and playing bass, the duo made their first public appearance in 1978, opening for The Numbers at Baroona Hall in their hometown.
Forster and McLennan were still on the lookout for a drummer, as they had temporarily appropriated drummer Gerrard Lee for that first show. They ran through a handful of drummers, including Bruce Anthon (The Survivors) and Dennis Cantwell (The Riptides), with Cantwell playing on the band’s first single, “Lee Remick,” released in May 1978. They then picked up drummer Temucin Mustafa, who performed with the band after the release of that song-he does, however, appear on that single’s picture sleeve.
After a series of single releases and roster changes, the band finally settled on their “classic” lineup of Forster, McLennan, drummer Lindy Morrison, bassist Robert Vickers (later replaced by John Willasteed) and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown. The band would go on to release their official debut album, “Send Me a Lullaby,” in 1981, with critics and fans citing influences as disparate as Talking Heads, Television and Wire. This sense of stylistic maneuverability became one of the defining characteristics of their music.
The band soon found themselves favorites among the independent pop crowd, with their albums developing a secure footing across college airwaves and record stores. They became critical darlings and broadened what most people considered the indie rock/jangle pop aesthetics of the ’80s. It wasn’t until the release of their sixth record, “16 Lovers Lane,” that the band found the perfect balance between all the separate aspects of their sound-there was no denying that some of their previous releases had songs that individually reached these peaks, but no album was as consistent, gloriously expansive and simultaneously intimate as this one.
They mixed the lightheartedness that so often exemplified the jangle pop genre with the affecting intimacy that dream pop provided, creating a new and exciting sound that was all their own. Tracks such as “Quiet Heart” and “Streets of Your Town” were born from the divide between these genres-the guitars feel a bit more solid, and there are even some brief harmonica interludes thrown in for good measure. There was an immediacy unlike anything they had done before. The music isn’t challenging in the ways that we often think of difficult music as being difficult, but there was a purposeful determination to expand these sounds that kept the band from feeling as though they were merely spinning their wheels.
Whether it was because Vickers has just left the band or whether the band saw some change in the near future as the ’80s were coming to a close, “16 Lovers Lane” feels like a different statement from the band. There is more detail in the shadows of each track, more nuance to the lyrics and music. The Go-Betweens weren’t carrying the mantle for this kind of music; they were redefining what it meant to find yourself affiliated with certain musical geographies.
In the end, the band’s discography is going to appeal to people in vastly different ways-insomuch as each record has its own personality and revelations. But “16 Lovers Lane” stands out as arguably their best, thanks in part to the miraculous songwriting team of Forster and McLennan, and the steady and sturdy interplay among the rest of the band. After living in London for the production and release of their previous few records, the band returned to their native Australia to finish these songs. And the familiarity and ease comes through brilliantly. The band went out on a tour in support of this album and ended the tour by disbanding. And though Forster and McLennan would re-form the band under different circumstances in 2000, it never had the same impact as these original recordings.
In their own way, The Go-Betweens were just as experimental as any other band at the time-they were simply using sounds that people were familiar with to push the limits of their own aesthetic. And on “16 Lovers Lane,” they reached that highest point in their career, a place where creative drive and ingenuity met and rebounded off each other at odd angles, resulting in one of the greatest (yet underappreciated) records of the ’80s. It will always have its supporters, as will the band, that are just slightly left of center, but time will prove just how invaluable The Go-Betweens were in closing out the decade with a last burst of musical brilliance.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.