The Go-Betweens Pt. 2: 'Lennon/McCartney Could Have Written That'
In the final installment of a two-part interview, Robert Forster discusses the second half of the new Go-Betweens collection ‘Quiet Heart’ with JODY MACGREGOR, including the song he considers “still one of my greatest achievements.” Part one here.
‘Head Full of Steam’
You mentioned not being able to go from ‘Karen’ to an ’80s song, but ‘The Clock’ does go to an ’80s song, ‘Head Full of Steam’, which has a wonderfully ’80s video. It’s full of writhing and midriff and the way you leave the band at the end, just pissing off to follow that girl, it fits the song – that foolhardy pursuit of a woman.
A major influence on us at that time was Prince, who we all liked, and he was the most startling … he was almost more startling than all the things in the underground. He was very, very fresh for a number of years. He was someone I liked a great deal. ‘Head Full of Steam’ in the sequencing … again I think it rushes out. It’s almost like, there’s the more grungier pop song ‘The Clock’ [and] here’s the smoother sound, but it’s the same sort of drive and melodies. I can see a connection there, if only tempo-wise. And I agree with you, what you said, the foolhardy chase of something that’s perhaps unattainable is what the song goes around with.
‘Streets of Your Town’
We talked before about the way that songs can be quite poppy but also have a darkness to them. I’ve heard it said that the BBC would apparently only play this song on sunny days. Do you know if that’s true?
Don’t know. Don’t know. What could be behind that is that ‘Streets of Your Town’ came out at the end of ’88. The whole game at that time in the UK was trying to get on BBC1, to be playlisted – almost the golden goal. This was obviously the most commercial thing we’d ever done, and it came out around October ’88, which caught the summer here, but it came out at that time of year over there and it didn’t get playlisted. And then we went back to Europe the next year around May/June to do a tour and the record company re-released it, which they’d never really done with anything that we’d ever done: re-released a single eight months later. It was May/June, it was summer, the track got playlisted – got A-listed, which was the best you could do on BBC1. We were walking around Soho and we’d hear it on the radio, every jean shop and café. It was on Radio 1 and so we were hearing it as we were walking around. That could be part of the story. It was re-released in summer and it sat fantastically on Australian summer radio and then it sat well on English summer radio.
How young were you for this one?
How young? I was 21 when I wrote it. Still one of my greatest achievements. I love this song. It was a breakthrough. ‘Lee Remick’ and ‘Karen’ … a lot of the early songs were very emotive and they came right from my blood and they were really on the line. It was almost embarrassing to sing them in public; they were so personal and the music was very dramatic. It was the first I sat back and I got a classic pop song that any band in the world can play. Not any band can play ‘Karen’ or ‘Eight Pictures’. It was my first classic, all-purpose pop song. I didn’t know if I’d ever write them. I didn’t know if I was capable of doing that. Lennon/McCartney could have written that. It fits together and it works and it’s got a whole sort of structure to it that is not terribly sophisticated, but it’s classic songwriting. But at the same time it’s me. And that was that twist and it showed that I could do that. It was a breakthrough, a more personal breakthrough than anything else. But as soon as we started to play the song live, before we recorded it in ’78, ’79, people loved it. It went over really well and it was a powerful thing to do.
I really like the powerful build-up, it hits the line about lightning and then it’s like a crescendo.
This is a song I love. It’s written by Grant and he wrote it probably two years or something before he died, and I think it’s one of the best five to 10 songs he ever did. Magnificent song. I wrote most of the lyric. This is probably the most collaborative thing on Quiet Heart. He wrote the chorus thing and I asked if I could write the verse lyric. It was so fresh; he played it to me and he’d only written it a week or two ago. He’d written the chorus and he was just making stuff up in the verses. I asked him – it just hit me so hard, I could hear it and I drove away from that session and I had that song in my head. I got home and I just wrote the lyric. Phoned him up and said, “I’m sorry but I just jumped in on this.” He said, “Great, bring it over to me.” A couple of days later I had it all on a sheet and he put the sheet beside his guitar, sang it first time through, put in his chorus – all that lightning stuff is his as well, that middle eight is all him as well. He just put his chorus and middle eight to my three verses and bang, you know? It’s a real collaborative piece of songwriting, that one.
‘Dive For Your Memory’
Another very uplifting song that should be sad.
And there’s even lines in it that are quite funny.
Yeah, there are. It’s a classic tale. Two people look back on an experience, whether it be a relationship or just having gone through something and one person can be depressed or it wrings them over or it makes them bitter and the other person who went through exactly the same things is standing beside them going, “It was tough but maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe we got something out of this, maybe we learnt something, maybe it’s not as dark as you see it.” That’s all I can say about it: it’s something like that.
‘Cattle and Cane’
The story that I’ve heard about ‘Cattle and Cane’ and the writing of it is that Grant wrote it on Nick Cave’s guitar. Is that true?
It could be. They were spending some time together at that particular moment. In London at that time with The Birthday Party still going, this is 1982: The Birthday Party and The Go-Betweens, The Laughing Clowns were there, Triffids were there, The Moodists over the next couple of years. People were off recording or touring – it was very rare that there was all that much social interaction, because people were just busy and going here and there. It must have been a time Grant and Nick were spending more time together. Normally I’d dismiss this as nonsense, you know, just romanticised hogwash, but I wasn’t there. But I can remember Grant saying it. So there’s a fair chance that it’s true and they were spending time together, so: possibility.
Another song that’s got a lot of contrast in it. It’s sweet and innocent, but then there’s the line “climb back on my pony” and that’s all sex.
Yeah, yeah. It is. It is another instance of – it’s almost like Grant couldn’t help himself. He’d be in a light mood and having fun with language, which he did a lot, with images and just sort of wild things juxtaposed on top of another – very flamboyant sometimes in his language – and then suddenly there’s always a twist line or he’ll suddenly drop that for a line or two and come in. You’re right, suddenly that verse goes into sexual experience in a very flowing, three-chord pop song.
‘Here Comes a City’
Another one of your songs. It has the line, “Why do people who read Dostoevsky look like Dostoevsky?” I don’t know if that’s true but I believe it anyway because it’s such a good line I want it to be true.
That’s a very good attitude to have. This – we swing back to truth – this was in the train carriage. This one’s close to the truth all the way through. So we’re in this train, my family and I in Europe, and this bearded, wild-haired, ratty-coated young man of about 24, duffel bag, sits in our carriage and pulls out Dostoevsky. It was almost too perfect and that line went through my head. That was an instant bing-bing moment. I wrote it down when I got off the train and I wrote the song three or four years later, but that line always stuck with me … It was something I jotted down in that diary we were talking about before. Just a straight observation.
Dostoevsky looks a bit Australian to me, like he could have been a bushranger, or Warren Ellis.
Yeah, true. Maybe if they’re gonna do a film on Dostoevsky, Warren would be up for the main role there. I can see him running through the streets of Saint Petersburg.
Why finish on this one and why name the album after it?
That was Lindy’s idea. She just said something in an email about it, how much it meant to her and what a central song it was and just instantly, definitely, great [as the] album title. It’s an easy thing in my mind. Go-Betweens – Quiet Heart. It played into aspects of our career and how we’re perceived. It was a fit. I think it’s great the last word on the album goes to Grant. It’s a mammoth song. There’s a lot of people who could cover that song. It’s classic building blocks. The verse, descending middle eight, bang into a big chorus. It never feels forced; it never feels like empty anthem-writing. It feels real and each piece just flows on. Fantastic lyric. You’d have to count it as one of his best songs, easy.
Is there a secret track?
No, no. There’s a live album, which I’m really happy about. It’s mastered off reel-to-reel: Go-Betweens live in Vienna, May 20 1987, and let me tell you, the band’s on fire, OK? The band sounds amazing. I always wanted The Go-Betweens to have a live album, I think it’s the one thing that’s missing from our catalogue and now we’ve got it. It’s 12 songs and it’s incredible.
‘Quiet Heart’ is out now through EMI. PART ONE: Forster on rain songs, ‘Karen’, his reputation for quirkiness and how he can’t stand “relentlessly confessional songwriters.”
Listen to ‘Quiet Heart’: