The Go-Betweens were like no other group. Grant & I,(published today by Omnibus), written by founder member Robert Forster, is a rock memoir and a story of friendship. Here’s an extract taken from the early part of the book, a 1000 km plus road trip from Brisbane to Sydney, to check up on the pressing of their very first single:
Our first stop was a newsagent two hours south of Brisbane at Coolangatta, a coastal town on the Queensland–New South Wales border. I watched from the car as Grant ran out of the shop jubilantly waving a copy of Playboy. The publication was banned in Queensland, and we had known about this particular issue for months; in it, Bob Dylan had given his first full-length interview in three years. Grant leaped into the passenger seat. ‘Got it.’
If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could start here. We are twenty and twenty-one years old and driving off to rescue our first single. It’s early afternoon and on one side of the road runs the Tweed River, while on the other sugarcane fields come up to the kerb. In the distance on our right is a low mountain range capped by one angular peak – Mount Warning (cue thundercrack). We pass Murwillumbah, the first town after the border, its outer ring of wooden houses perched high on riverbanks. Creedence Clearwater Revival country. Grant opens Playboy.
There’s a tradition between us that involves reading to each other. Certain lines from a magazine, a key passage in a book. Grant will read me his mother’s letters as they arrive – dry, fact- filled pages detailing the minutiae of country life. And Dylan interviews, especially those crazy confrontations between the straight press and the dandy Dylan of 1965–66. ‘How would you describe yourself ’? ‘As a song and dance man.’ We pore over them for laughs and attitude lessons, and Bob gives good interview; he only does a few and he seems to take them more seriously than other singer-songwriters, or perhaps the lightning of the man’s mind just makes them better. So we are excited to have the latest instalment.
But . . . things have changed. We are now recording artists too and it’s no longer 1975. Does he know about Richard Hell and the Voidoids? Will he namecheck any of the new New York bands? We know he’s aware of Patti Smith because they’ve been photographed together. But how much has Dylan’s recent move to LA blunted his knowledge of the real world? There are new yardsticks to measure the man by.
The interview is of course brilliant. It’s also long, and the kilometres tick by, and the afternoon gets darker as Grant reads each question and answer while I eyeball the highway. We enthuse at some points, but we are waiting for a big-bang moment, a passage where Dylan will burst through the magazine and talk straight to us. The interviewer asks him about the instrumentation on his albums. Grant reads Dylan’s reply with growing excitement. ‘ “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.”’ Grant and I know exactly what that conjures up. I bang the steering wheel. ‘He’s done it! Every journalist of the last ten years has tried to describe the albums he made in the mid-sixties and who does it best? Dylan himself. Genius! That wild mercury sound . . .’
This got me thinking of descriptions for our music. A few weeks later I came up with ‘that striped sunlight sound’. It was a Brisbane thing, to do with sun slanting in through windows onto objects in a room, and the feelings that evoked. Years before, I’d taken photos of the Suzuki leaning against a wall with the sun on its honey-coloured body, and somehow this fitted the music The Go-Betweens made. We stuck this descrip- tion on the sleeve of our single as an answer to an imagined interview. The phrase endured, and became a term for a bright, poppy Brisbane sound with winsome or witty lyrics attached, which our first single helped to inspire.
We found the pressing plant and were reassured that our record would soon be done and sent to Brisbane. Not knowing Sydney, we’d driven straight to a boarding house in the harbour- side suburb of Manly, to approach the city centre by ferry. Crossing the Harbour Bridge by car was too dangerous for two innocent Queensland boys. We didn’t see any gigs and made no connection with the music scene. Perhaps there was nothing on midweek. We did visit White Light record shop and scored the second piece of treasure for the trip. All the latest English and American import records we had, but in one rack we found a much sought-after item – a second-hand copy of the fourth Monkees album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. We put it beside the copy of Playboy on the back seat and drove back to Brisbane satisfied.
You can hear Robert Forster perform and talk of his musical life, art and books at the Shaw Theatre in London on Monday 25th September. Pete Paphides will be chairing the chat. Unmissable we say. Buy a ticket here.