Brisbane band The Go-Betweens (an indie outfit before the word ‘indie’ was used that way) are somewhat unique as, aside from a cult following, never broke beyond Australia (like INXS) or even hit the pop/rock heights here (like Cold Chisel), and yet they remain more fondly remembered than both those groups.
Director Kriv Stenders (making time in between his Red Dog sequel, Australia Day, the Wake In Fright miniseries and more) was always a fan and this is a labour of love, but it isn’t hearty and funny like, say, the recent Radio Birdman doco, instead featuring the older and wiser members talking to camera with sad nostalgia and real regret.
Robert Forster, who now looks a little like Roy Slaven/John Doyle, kicks things off as he walks to a country Queensland mansion apparently owned by Stenders’ sister, and we hear his young self airily (but mockingly) refer to his music in an interview as “like running water off thin white strips of aluminium”. We also hear the late lamented Grant McLennan (1958 – 2006), whose absence is powerfully felt, no matter how many archival clips, radio sound bites and official videos are included.
Forster describes his meeting with McLennan in 1975 at the University of Queensland and says he was a “boy wonder”, and there’s a lot of detail about ‘70s student radicalism against a backdrop of a state ruled by the dreadful Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Mark Callaghan (later of Gang Gajang), writer Gerard Lee and others (in black and white) ruminate upon the period, and Forster details his fledgling work with his band, as early members come and go (and turn up for Stenders too, which is nice).
When Lindy Morrison (drummer, actress and social worker) joined at a time when Aussie rock was formidably blokey and began a relationship with Forster, it obviously focussed the group, and she’s seen at the Queensland house almost completely solo and evidently still hurting. She’s one of several subjects who were rather bewildered by the Go-Betweens’ odd first appearance on Countdown performing their breakthrough track Cattle and Cane, and she’s rather biting when later mentioning that just as everything was truly happening (around the time of the tune Spring Rain) into the mid-‘80s she just had to go and break up with Robert.
Later multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown became a Go-Between and began a relationship with McLennan (a quick glimpse of the video for their unusually dark Was There Anything I Could Do? shows that he was very taken with her indeed), and she also appears at the mansion with some fairly raw emotions. No one quips about their status as ‘the indie Fleetwood Mac’ but we are treated to some lovely moments from their genuine peak period, especially clips from their most-hallowed album 16 Lovers Lane and beloved songs like Streets of Your Town.
There are devices and tricks here that could have proved pretentious or annoying (Forster strolling broodingly through the forest, individual Go-Betweens striding to the house in slo-mo, hazy recreations of Robert and Grant as young chaps) but most of it works beautifully, and there are many striking moments, like when no less than Lloyd Cole calls McLennan “the Samuel Beckett of songwriters”. A few jokes intrude (as when their Spring Hill Fair is dismissed as “a shit album”), but the mood is surprisingly melancholy and even mournful at times, and there is a lot here to mourn, from McLennan himself to an Australian music scene that no longer exists to mistakes made in their (and our) youth. But hey, it was the ‘70s and ‘80s, and they were wild and heady times, so was there anything they could do?
The Go-Betweens: Right Here is screening at the Mercury Cinema for a limited season from Thursday September 28 until Sunday November 19.