In anticipation of the album’s 30th anniversary and following the ten year anniversary of Grant’s passing, Brown, Morrison and Willsteed will convene a host of Australian artists to recreate 16 Lovers Lane in its entirety as part of 2017’s Queensland Music Festival. Accompanying the three former The Go-Betweens will be a sprawling collection of Australian talent, including members of Cub Sport and Ball Park Music, Steve Kilbey, Montaigne, Kirin J Callinan, and Clare Bowditch. Riley Fitzgerald had a chat to Brown and Willsteed ahead of QMF taking place 7th -30th of July state wide!
Spinning out of a friendship between two record obsessed university students from Brisbane in 1977, The Go-Betweens would quickly achieve a longstanding status as critic’s favourite but struggled to break themselves to a mainstream audience at home or abroad. By the close of 1987, the band had spent the better half of the decade overseas and in poverty. Famously they had almost run through as many record labels as they had albums.
A return to Sydney in 1988 instilled the group with renewed optimism. Decamping in summer, they quickly replaced outgoing guitarist Robert Vickers with John Willsteed and set to work on what would be the last in a steady succession of cult records. Laid down over 8 weeks at Sydney’s 301 studios, '16 Lovers Lane' brought the groups richer pop undercurrents to the fore.
Melodious and laden with quirk, the literate minds of songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan dissect love and heartbreak in all its shades, a seductive mess of gangly poetic genius, innocent charm and lovesick cynicism. When not embroiled by her father’s illness or substituted for Wallis’ drum machine, Lindy Morrison continues to provide a powerful yet eccentric percussive edge to the group’s distinctive sound. Yet the two songwriters and veteran drummer’s landmark efforts could not be considered complete without the additional talent of Amanda Brown and John Willsteed.
After joining the group in 1986 Brown, who had also become romantically involved with McLennan, was continuing to push outward creatively. She would capitalise on the benefits of her background in classical music, decorating the album with viola and oboe, contributing arrangements as well as lending a haunted female presence to the gravitas to Grant and Roberts’s vocals. Willsteed’s creative spark provided many of the album’s memorably inventive guitar parts.
Emotive lyrics, delicate acoustics and shimmering production presented the group clearer and more brightly than ever before. Yet The Go-Betweens found themselves ill placed between the synthetic pop and radio-friendly rock which dominated the 1980s. The album would fail to propel the five artists to the success many believe they deserved. Its brief moment of sonic brilliance would quickly become overshadowed by its status as a swan song, the precursor to the group’s dramatic demise the following year.
In anticipation of the album’s 30th anniversary and following the ten year anniversary of Grant’s passing, Brown, Morrison and Willsteed will convene a host of Australian artists to recreate 16 Lovers Lane in its entirety as part of 2017’s Queensland Music Festival. Accompanying the three former The Go-Betweens will be a sprawling collection of Australian talent, including members of Cub Sport and Ball Park Music, Steve Kilbey, Montaigne, Kirin J Callinan, and Clare Bowditch. With documentary The Go-Betweens: Right Here also soon to be arriving, it seems like 2017 will again bring the group’s musical legacy to the fore. Ahead of their QMS appearance, we caught up with Brown and Willsteed to talk about the significance of returning to the iconic album several years onward and discuss their time within a beloved Australian group defined at, least in part, by its fiery emotional politics.
Rabbit Radio: 16 Lovers Lane captures The Go-Betweens at one of their finest moments as a band. Yet it seems to have followed on from a very long and difficult period for the group. As two of The Go-Between’s latest recruits, how were you feeling at the time it was all coming together?
Amanda Brown: I joined The Go-Betweens in 1986, which was between the albums Liberty Belle and The Black Diamond Express and Tallulah. I was playing on some of the Liberty Belle songs and I really got write my own parts on Tallulah, so when 16 Lovers Lane came along at the end of ’88 I felt, finally, that I was quite established in the band, very comfortable and very free with my own idea and arrangements. I felt that a lot of the ideas that had started on Tallulah, in terms of my instruments and how they worked within the songs came to fruition on 16 Lovers Lane.
John Willsteed: From my perspective, it didn’t feel like it was the end of a long and difficult time. The band had come back from London and had just moved to Sydney. It was summer, so it actually had a lovely kind of feel to it, everybody seemed really happy and those people who had family in Sydney were happy to be back with them after having spent years in Europe probably living fairly difficult lives to some extent. It’s not easy living in London with very little money. So I don’t think there was a kind of weight of hardship or anything that was too overwhelming. Everybody seemed pretty happy and the songs the boys were writing were kind of light happy love songs as well.
RR: Listening to the music Forster and McLennan made directly after 16 Lovers Lane it seems like the two were beginning to push in these very different creative directions; Robert was veering toward a more idiosyncratic style of writing while Grant flirting with more of a pop form. Did you feel like there was a creative tension feeding through the band when you were recording the album?
AB: On 16 Lovers Lane really I don’t remember there being creative tensions. By this point we also had John Willsteed, he brought some very beautiful guitar work to the album in terms of melodic lines and arrangements in addition to his bass parts as well. There wasn’t creative tension, but certainly, there was personal tension which you will know all about if you see the documentary about the band. Creatively I feel like we were all on the same wavelength and we were working with a very good producer in Mark Wallis who knew how to make everything sound great in the studio and was very sympathetic to the acoustic approach. So creatively from memory, it was thirty years ago, it was quite harmonious.
JW: Not necessarily, I think they had always been different pop songwriters and I think they were becoming more and more different as the years progressed, but it didn’t mean the songs weren’t fitting together because they did! You can see it when they got back together in the 2000’s the put three albums together which all worked really well. I think they were two songwriters which worked really well together they just had two different styles. Grant’s was one which was maturing through this period of time. As was Robert’s in a different way. So Grant sort of accelerated his style later on and yeah the stuff was shinier and poppier, but that’s not to say Robert isn’t a pop songwriter because he is! I think they just had different styles.
RR: The emotional politics of The Go-Between have always been something which people have latched on to. Was it a difficult environment to manoeuvre?
JW: No I don’t think so and I to a large extent kept to myself. I kind of floated away from that stuff. So it was really obvious but it wasn’t like a soap opera in any way. It wasn’t a South American soap opera; it’s not what it was like! I really felt like I was in the midst of a group of people who I had had really long and good relationships with. Some I had known for some time and some I had known for less time. Really I’d known Lindy, Robert and Grant from the ‘70s and Amanda from the mid-‘80s. We’d known one another and had mutual friends and mutual lives to some extent. There was a lot of meeting ground and social relationship to build upon. There weren’t people throwing furniture at one another, there weren’t any screaming fights. I see it as a very happy time in my memory and very funny! I was with people I thought were really funny and got on well with.
RR: Jumping ahead to the present. How did the current project come about?
AB: Well the current project came about because I was involved in another project called ‘Seven Stories’ with Katie Noonan which was recently performed at the Vivid festival featuring seven women composers. Katie ended up pulling out of the project due to being overloaded with commitment to all the things she does in addition to directing the Queensland Music Festival, but we got to know each other in that period a bit better than we had before and it was her idea to, with the 30 year anniversary of 16 Lovers Lane approaching and the 10 year anniversary of Grant’s death just passing to make some kind of tribute to both of those things. She initially approached me and I then approached Lindy, Robert Forester and John Willsteed to see who was up for it. Lindy and John were. Robert declined to participate.
JW: It is quite a few years! I think it was just a chance meeting between Katie Noonan and Amanda Brown at an airport. It wasn’t a hard thing to say yes to from my perspective. I only did one album with The Go-Betweens so I’ve always looked back on it with a sort of fondness. For me, it was a very fruitful and enjoyable time in the studio working hard on songs I was really enjoying being a part of making. Once we left the studio and went out to tour the album, which we did 1988 to ’89, we always played it differently. We were restricted I suppose by the number of players in the band and the sonic talent we were able to use in our live shows to conjure these songs had some limitations. With this, I’m very interested in trying to take as much of the shimmering density the songs have on record. This is a great opportunity to create the stuff like it sounds on the original and within my memory. Not in a perfect way, but there’s an ability to throw lots of acoustic guitars in and stuff like that.
RR: It’s been 11 years since Grant passed away. Will there be an emotional element in returning to his songs?
AB: I never listen to my own records; I’ve heard a lot of other musicians say this too. I think you spend so much time making them and listening to the tracks over and over again you get annoyed by any imperfections or flaws. But with 16 Lovers Lane, without sounding like a completely egomaniacal wanker, it doesn’t have that many flaws! It really is like quite lovely to return to and listen to this much time later. I’m really looking forward to getting into the rehearsal studio with the rest of the band and all of the incredible singers that we have involved and playing these songs again. I haven’t played them for almost 30 years!
JW: We haven’t done it yet so it’s hard to know and I think that it would be much more powerful for Amanda than for me. Grant and I knew one another and we worked together and had a fondness for one another. I’ve had many of my friends over the years die on me and it’s very, very sad. It’s a lifestyle issue I think. It’s a hard life sometimes, people live it hard and it’s just difficult sometimes I think. It’s hard for me to know until I sit inside the music and it takes me back to that time. It’ll be interesting to explore the emotional connections which might come up.
RR: You’ve also brought together this whole host of additional Australian talent (new and old) to recreate these songs. Who are you most excited to have on board…if you could pick a favourite?
AB: We literally spent months deliberating over that list, who we would ask. We had very heated discussions between us, John, Lindy and me, Katy as well. We knew that we really wanted to have it widespread across the genders and generations. We also, most importantly, wanted people who had a connection to the band in some way. Everybody on that list, with perhaps the exception of Sahara Beck, we know or have worked with before or go way back to the late ‘70s in Brisbane. It’s really a very carefully curated list. Who am I most excited about working with? Well I love them all, but I’m very excited to see what Kirin J. Callinan will bring to the performance. He is really such a charismatic performer and he is absolutely unique in terms of his guitar playing and performing … and fashion sense I have to say! I’m really looking forward to that and Montaigne who I’ve only recently gotten to know and is just wonderful.
JW: That is a very interesting question. Ah, gee whiz! I know this might sound silly but I’m really excited to be working with Danny Widdicombe who is a really great Brisbane guitar player, Danny’s going to be in the band. As far as the singers go I’m very keen to be involved with both Sam and Jenn from Ball Park Music and Tim and Zoe from Cub Sport. All of those four people are really richly talented people and also people who I’ve never worked with before so it’ll be really interesting.
RR: Revisiting these songs and your time in the band is there anything that has jumped out at you or taken on a new significance now that all this time has passed?
AB: It is, as you say, still quite emotional for me I think. Particularly having the documentary right here, coming out around the same time. It seems to be the year of The Go-Betweens for some strange reason and it is strange thinking about it all this time later. The band broke up after promoting 16 Lovers Lane and a year of touring. I never really did understand why the group broke up in the spectacularly dramatic fashion that it did, but I really do think I understand the reasons now, all these years later. It’s easy to see, although it’s not that easy to excuse. Somebody asked me the other night after a screening of the documentary: “Could you forgive them?” My answer to that is of course I would forgive them. There were so many great things about the band too. For me I joined The Go-Betweens when I was 19 or 20 and I spent my early 20s travelling around the world recording and meeting other bands. That’s an idyllic way to be spending that time of your life. Not only that, but I had the opportunity to work with incredible people, work with fantastic songwriters and lyricists as well as have a friendship with Lindy which has endured to this day. We still play music together! All of those things are so worthwhile you can forgive anything really. You’d be a sad and bitter individual to carry that around so many years afterwards. I feel quite very grateful that we have the opportunity to play all of these songs again, see them in a fresh light and have all these fantastic artists interpret them.
JW: Look the thing that really strikes me is not just how much I love these songs, but how much is in them. In other words every time I sit down and listen to them more things are revealed. The more I kind of listen down into them, the more I find these things which I had no idea were in there or even who played. I guess it’s in the nature of being a musician, sometimes I find these smaller bits to be just as fascinating as the song itself. It’s great to work it out. Sometimes I play the thing and a kind of muscle memory usually tells me whether it was me who played it or Grant or Robert.
RR: What is it about 16 Lovers Lane and The Go-Betweens such an enduring part of Australian culture given how quickly most popular music falls from our memories?
AB: Okay well it’s kind of two questions. First, there’s 16 Lovers Lane as an album and an artistic piece of work. I think it’s endured because it primarily covers every aspect of what we call love. Everything from the delirium of falling in love, being happy and content, to breaking up and the aftermath, all the stages of anger and grief and melancholy that entails. Robert and Grant idolised Bob Dylan and my favourite Dylan album is Blood On the Tracks, which is essentially a breakup album. 16 Lovers Lane is that too. So I think it obviously resonates with lots of people for those reasons. It is the universal questions and emotions we associate with love.
Also the production on that album even though it was made in the ‘80s, we, and I was so glad that we did, with producer Mark Wallis kind of eschewed the fashionable ‘80s bombast that was everywhere in music at the time and make this, which was quite low key by comparison, acoustic album. And that has not dated. I think it really stands up and sounds good.
And The Go-Betweens as a band, why have they endured and continue to engage people? I think there are probably a few reasons. The lyrics were always really great, so as songs it’s natural that they would stand the test of time. But also the personnel of the band itself, we were unusual at the time in that we had two women instrumentalists in the band. We weren’t backing instrumentalists, we weren’t show ponies, we were active members of the band who were arranging, playing and performing. At that time it was quite unusual. Less so nowadays perhaps, but I think that a lot of women may have been interested in that aspect. And I think a lot of nerdy male university students related to the lyrical content (laughs). We had both male and female demographics covered!
JW: I think that is maybe true and maybe not. I think the album endures because it’s got some lovely songs on it and I think it captures a certain time, a time in Australian music when independent pop artists had rolled up to the forefront of our imagination, our cultural imagination. I don’t think we were alone there. The Triffids and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, internationally but more so in Australia, were bands who had been out on the edge of things and had come closer to the centre. But they never really got to that centre. When we talk about whether or not 16 Lovers Lane is a big deal, the majority of Australians would never have heard of it. It’s not like John Farnham and Kylie Minogue. It’s quite a different thing. There were no hits; there was not a lot of money in it. But as far as how we perceive our culture and how the critics and musicians look at it, you know it is an important album. I think that it happened at a time, the very late ‘80s. There was a really big change in Australia in the ‘90s when triple j went national and the festival circuit started. It really changed how we consumed and felt about Australian music. So 16 Lovers Lane was really at the very peak of a strange kind of wave in the ‘80s and I’m glad we contributed to that. I think it’s a beautiful album.
Interviewer - Riley Fitzgerald
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