Forster and McLennan met as art students at the University of Queensland in 1977, bonding over films, literature and New York punk, and it was Robert who took the lead in forming a band, teaching McLennan the bass and the pair of them plus drummer Dennis Cantwell recording and pressing 500 copies of the primitive sunny garage of Lee Remick. Released on their own Able Label in September 1978, the liner notes dedicated it to Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, Natalie Wood, protest singer Phil Ochs, Michael Cole (US actor from The Mod Squad celebrated in Australia for drunkenly swearing on a live awards show) and "that Striped Sunlight Sound". In the DVD of the same title released earlier this year Forster explains this was a term the pair of them had kicked around at the time to explain the feeling they were aiming for on their records. More ears were pricked up by the similarly self-financed second single.
Fans of the emerging Postcard Records, they jumped at Alan Horne's invitation to record and release I Need Two Heads for them a year later, featuring Orange Juice's Steven Daly. A couple of line-up experiments later Lindy Morrison arrived on drums and they relocated to Melbourne to sign with indie Missing Link and record first album Send Me A Lullaby (a title Morrison rescued from being Two Wimps And A Witch), picked up by Rough Trade in Europe. Recalling Jonathan Richman, to whose Bezerkley label they nearly signed, neither Grant nor Robert would talk highly of it later on, a rough hewn affair perhaps too much in thrall to its CBGBs and angular early UK new wave influences, although there's plenty of ideas and the NME weren't far wrong or prescient in describing it as "a record of tremendous depth, a mystery to be fathomed". A friendship with the Birthday Party led to many a UK tour and the band settled in London before recording the superior second effort Before Hollywood in Eastbourne with John Brand, whose previous clients included Aztec Camera, Magazine and, um, Kiss. It was here that McLennan graduated to sharing the tracklisting with Forster (whose favourite album this is), producing tributes to his father in Dusty In Here and the song that will outlive him the longest, Cattle And Cane, Grant's astonishingly humanist evocation of growing up on a cattle station in Queensland written on Nick Cave's acoustic guitar and voted by the Australasian Performing Right Association in 2001 as one of the ten greatest songs the continent has ever produced (Friday on My Mind by the Easybeats was number one, if you must know) and by Bono as one of his top three ever. Forster would later write about being woken up by his flatmates because Radio 1 was playing it, the DJ (unrecorded) appealing for any information about the band as he didn't have anything other than the name. As Robert ruminated, what sort of label sends records out without any extra details?
Cattle And Cane video
Robert Vickers took over McLennan's bass so he could move to guitar for Spring Hill Fair, named after the Brisbane suburb where all four members once lived, which followed in 1984 on Sire Records. Another step forward, this is their first really consistent album, recorded in Cannes in a studio Wham! moved into straight after they left. A wider ranging effort, from Part Company, one of pop's very few unsentimental break-up songs, to the strange spoken word frenzy River Of Money, while McLennan described Unkind And Unwise as the more cynical grown-up version of Cattle And Cane. The NME's Mat Snow compared it to Blood On The Tracks for emotional punch; Forster would claim it was his shot at a proper MOR album. If so, he got it very wrong.
Bachelor Kisses video
Unfortunately it didn't sell and Sire dropped them, Beggars Banquet picking them up for 1986's Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express after a deal with Elektra went up in smoke when the label did. This was a more reflective, almost commercial effort that nearly gave them a radio hit in Spring Rain. The sound, somewhat bogged down by that album's production values, expanded with the addition of multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, violin, clarinet, oboe) Amanda Brown, with whom McLennan would embark upon a relationship at much the same time Forster and Morrison were. Reportedly the band discovered her playing Draining The Pool for You in a coffee bar. Tallulah was a poppier, glossier album that gave them a top 100 UK album chart debut but was no great shakes, following which Vickers left to move to New York, being replaced by John Willsteed, just as the rest of the band were moving back to Australia. 1988's 16 Lovers Lane. Later referred to as "the indie Rumours", as in Fleetwood Mac, suffused with depth melancholy referring to the two songwriters' band internal love affairs, Forster writing in the same bedroom he penned Lee Remick in. More acoustic and thoughtful, it nearly provided an actual hit in Streets Of Your Town and did lead to an REM support slot and a number 81 position.
However tensions, not just between lovers but between songwriters increasingly uncomfortable with having to share albums, led to a break up in December 1989. Morrison and Brown briefly made up Cleopatra Wong (Morrison now does community music work and artistic direction in Sydney, Brown writes soundtracks, does session work and turns up on the new Vines album), while Forster moved to Bavaria and released four solo albums, the darker, more narrative Danger Of The Past (1990 - anyone who has the Harvey's Rabbit cover of Is This What You Call Change? available, do get in touch), self-produced folky experiment Calling From A Country Phone (1993), countrified covers collection I Had A New York Girlfriend, which featured Bad Seeds/Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis (1994) and Edwyn Collins-produced Warm Nights (1997). McLennan collaborated briefly with The Church's Steve Kilbey in Jack Frost and made four low-key, literate and very much cult solo offerings, Watershed (1991), Fireboy (1994), Horsebreaker Star (1995) and In Your Bright Ray (1997). In 1992, the same year as Go-Betweens best of Bellavista Terrace, he went on a major joint headlining tour. With Robert Forster.
In fact, despite assurances that they didn't really want to get back together permanently, in 1996 French magazine Les Inrockuptibles invited them to play a reunion gig for their tenth anniversary, having judged 16 Lovers Lane to be one of the three best albums of that decade. A few other dates, with Forster's live backing duo of Adele Pickvance on bass and Glenn Thompson on drums, followed, and in 2000 the inevitable happened. The Friends Of Rachel Worth was produced by the Quasi duo of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, the latter bringing her Sleater-Kinney bandmates along, and apparently Elliott Smith and Stephen Malkmus popped by the studio at some stage. While not their most fully charged album the hosannahs were meaningful, a Later With Jools Holland appearance theirs, and a couple of years' touring were followed by Bright Yellow Bright Orange, a 2003 release less fixated with catching up with modern rock and settling into their acoustic folk side, and last year's Oceans Apart, an underrated return to the mid-80s stripped down indie-AOR sound and winner of the Adult Contemporary Album award at that year's ARIAs.
In the wake of McLennan's passing Forster described him as "the happiest I had ever known him" and Morrison revealed she, Brown and the songwriters had met earlier this year to finally resolve their personal differences. McLennan was more often than not the writer more attuned to his feelings and reminiscences, lighter but subtler and more expansive, while Forster was edgier, more the sociologist and more romantically inclined. For eight albums the combination worked beautifully.