Graded on a Curve:
The Go-Betweens, G Stands for Go-Betweens:
Volume 1 1978-1984

Formed in Brisbane, Australia by Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, The Go-Betweens bloomed into one of the smartest guitar-pop exemplars of the 1980s. Migrating to England and picking up drummer Lindy Morrison and bassist Robert Vickers, by the mid-‘80s their achievements were considerable; G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume 1 1978-1984 gathers the first five singles and first three LPs on vinyl, harnesses a bountiful mess of rare and live recordings onto four CDs, assembles photos and texts into a 112-page book, and presents all that and more in a hard clamshell gold-debossed case. Definitely a worthy acquisition for longtime fans, those unfamiliar should prepare for a revelation.

Had they disbanded after two 7-inchs, The Go-Betweens would basically be remembered as one of myriad acts to get their wick lit by the combustion engine of fellow Aussies The Saints. But Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan’s initial efforts, featuring Dennis Cantwell of The Riptides on drums, didn’t sound like The Saints, and in fact the music The Go-Betweens made circa-’78 is expectedly pretty far afield from their biggest-selling and most critically-acclaimed LP, ‘88’s 16 Lovers Lane.

As this box’s The First Five Singles makes clear, the group was in constant evolution; wisely sequenced with a-sides on side one and their corresponding numbers on the flip, the slab establishes rapid fire growth from the modestly-scaled roots of guitar-based new wave. “Lee Remick” is a truly swank mixture of bubblegum wittiness and an incessant melody, while the plainly Modern Lovers-derived “Karen” succeeds by not skimping on the VU and then conjuring up a narrative of sizeable depth.

Those songs complete the ’78 debut, the first of two 45s pressed on their own Able Label. Its follow-up from a year later lands much closer to a neo-‘60s statement as the blend of guitar and organ shaping “People Say” gets combined with the emphatic jangle and harmonica break that comprises the appealing (and almost Bats-like) “Don’t Let Him Come Back.”

1980 saw them graduating to Missing Link, the label responsible for their three subsequent short-players as increased confidence inched them nearer a post-punk inclination. It’s observable in the maturation of “I Need Two Heads” and even more so in the bass playing and piano of “Your Turn, My Turn.” By ‘82’s “Hammer the Hammer” and especially its angsty flipside “By Chance,” the tendency was in full flower.

Distribution of “I Need Two Heads” in Great Britain by Postcard (home to Orange Juice and Josef K) is not surprising, nor is Rough Trade’s involvement with the “Hammer the Hammer” single and The Go-Betweens’ first album, ‘81’s Send Me a Lullaby. Originally an 8-song mini-LP introducing drummer Lindy Morrison, the track listing grew to a dozen via Rough Trade’s pressing the next year.

And that’s the version included here, the disc opening with “Your Turn, My Turn” and proceeding directly into the attractive electric strum of “One Thing Can Hold Us.” But the budding pop gestures, namely “Careless,” “All About Strength,” and “It Could Be Anyone” continue to be liberally enhanced with post-punk seasoning. A few examples; James Freud’s sax honking on “People Know” and “Midnight to Neon,” the agitated manner of “The Girls Have Moved” and “Ride,” the slightly Dylan-ish and J. Richman-esque emo-grandiosity of “Eight Pictures,” and the choppy structure of “Arrow in a Bow.”

Generally underrated in The Go-Betweens discography, if the story had ended with Send Me a Lullaby it seems safe to conclude the platter would be ranked higher; it was certainly adequately successful to inspire a move to London (their second visit), after which Rough Trade issued “Hammer the Hammer” and in ’83, the band’s first full-length masterpiece.

For many discovering them later, Before Hollywood is the record with “Cattle and Cane” on it. A true dilly of a guitar-pop nugget, the tune wasn’t a homeland hit upon release, though it’s been retroactively assessed by at least one evaluating body as amongst the greatest of Australian songs, and some appraise it as The Go-Betweens’ absolute highpoint from the years covered by this set.

McLennan joins lyrics of boyhood remembrance with singing of composed emotionalism, the combination achingly beautiful as it’s elevated by sinewy yet melodic bass, a tight, punchy rhythm and flawless string figures. It embodies pop’s full potential, and when someone states a track was/is too good for widespread recognition, well that’s “Cattle and Cane” in a nutshell.

But really, it’s far from the only element in Before Hollywood’s favor. Courtesy of Bernard Clarke’s guest keyboards a broader instrumental palette and dexterity is on display in both “A Bad Debt Follows You” and “As Long as That,” while unabashed guitar-pop glory flows from “Two Steps Step Out” and “That Way.” Add in the rising ambition of “Dusty in Here,” the rocking edge of “Ask,” and the post-punk reprise of “By Chance” and the album stands as a classic. Credit is due here to John Brand, his production comfortable enough with the era to avoid overindulging in any dating extremes.

And across the LP can be found evidence of Forster and McLennan’s (and Morrison’s) erudition; rarely in the pop-rock realm does music climb to a plateau this unaffectedly literate (the band name comes from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel and Send Me a Lullaby’s title was inspired by Zelda Fitzgerald’s ’32 book Save Me the Waltz). This progression persists on ‘84’s Spring Hill Fair as opener “Bachelor Kisses” offers a substantially adult pop atmosphere contrasting very well with the edginess of “Five Words” as “The Old Way Out” locates a mid-tempo strummer’s groove and rides it to rewarding effect.

Alongside the bass acumen of Robert Vickers (another former member of The Riptides freeing up McLennan for the rhythm guitar spot) is Brand’s brighter, commercially friendly approach, the method well-suited for accessible gem “Part Company” and its gradual side-closing fadeout. Even the decidedly ‘80s-laden proposition “Slow Slow Music,” a track openly leaning toward the funky (they were labelmates with Aztec Camera, don’tcha know), does so (a la Roddy Frame) largely without faltering.

Spring Hill Fair does lack a “Cattle and Cane,” but asking for a repeat of that beaut is like expecting a tornado to decimate the same trailer park in back to back seasons. Instead, the familiarity of “Draining the Pool for You” unwinds minus a speck of cliché and “River of Money” blends that persevering post-punk streak into their bookish sensibility without a hitch.

To fully illuminate just how much territory The Go-Betweens had traversed in six years one need only absorb “Lee Remick” immediately followed by the hard-driving tempo and spirited amp-wrangling of Spring Hill Fair’s finale “Man O’Sand to Girl O’Sea.” But perhaps G Stands for Go-Betweens’ strongest attribute is the inclusion of four CDs loaded with worthwhile material. The first, Life as Sweet as Lemonade (Rarities Volume One: 1978-79), is analogous to the Able output, in particular the second 45.

That’s due to a deep plunge into the aforementioned ‘60s emulsion, though other factors surface as well. Prominent is a sturdy demo-ish non-polish (much of it previously appearing on 78 ‘til 79 The Lost Album) that’s very striking during a revealingly stripped-down “Eight Pictures.” And such an abundant glimpse of this formative stage might seem a tad superfluous, but the possibility is belied by McLennan and Forster’s no-frills seriousness of intent.

Supporting this is the dearth (unless I’m overlooking something) of covers; for a garage band, which at this juncture The Go-Betweens surely were, this is impressively atypical. Indeed, the pair seemed far more interested in revamping/perfecting their own songs, an impulse successfully explored on the power-popish retooling of “Don’t Let Him Come Back” commencing Skeletons That Cry (Rarities Volume Two: 1980-81).

As it progresses the ‘60s feel does hang around, though at times more urgently as heightened assurance and contemporaneousness is exuded; therefore, both “The Clowns Are in Town” and “It Took You a Week” eschew easy pegging. And by the culminating art-groove double shot of instrumental “One Word” and “Red Epaulettes” they’ve soundly entered the Missing Link period.

Likewise, Live 82 (Rarities Volume Three: Live at The Mosman Hotel April 23, 1982) synchs-up terrifically with the Rough Trade sojourn. Having originated as a radio broadcast, the 12-track performance unspools in superb fidelity, a quality reinforcing their ability as a collective and making “Hammer the Hammer,” the indefatigable “By Chance” and less celebrated cuts “Near the Chimney” and “Undo What You Did” quite vibrant.

Stuffed with 23 songs and totaling over 75 minutes, A Suicide Note to Satan (Rarities Volume Four: 1982-1984) does become a bit unwieldy. But only a little; starting in the Before Hollywood zone with live versions of “On My Block” and an exceptionally rendered “Cattle and Cane,” the disc actually wastes little time in unraveling a bevy of Spring Hill Fair selections.

There’re two readings of “Man O’Sand to Girl O’Sea,” that cut’s gorgeous b-side “This Girl, Black Girl,” the oddball ‘60s-R&B-tinged Modern Rock of “Sweet Tasting Hours,” non-extraneous takes on “Part Company,” “Bachelor Kisses,” “The Old Way In,” and “Five Words,” the marvy string-catchiness evinced in “Unkind and Unwise,” the contemplative heft of “Just a King in Mirrors,” and the muscular jangle propulsion of closer “For Him.”

In summation, it’s extraordinarily uncommon for a single-artist box set to unfurl this satisfyingly from start to finish, and moreover G Stands for Go-Betweens pulls off the feat twice, its bonus discs doing right by their unique titles and connecting as individual albums. Yes, even the extendedness of the last one; this outcome has inspired the specific grades given below.

However, those and the overall rating reflect the music solely, though Domino definitely merits praise for a meticulous, loving design; while it’s not the place for newcomers to begin, the deluxe treatment is wholly deserved. G Stands For Go-Betweens: Volume 1 1978-1984 documents in exhaustive detail the enduring and oft-brilliant early motions of one of Australia’s, and by extension the globe’s, finest bands.

The First Five Singles
A-
Send Me a Lullaby
B+
Before Hollywood
A
Spring Hill Fair
A-
Life as Sweet as Lemonade (Rarities Volume One: 1978-79)
B+
Skeletons That Cry (Rarities Volume Two: 1980-81)
B+
Live 82 (Rarities Volume Three: Live at The Mosman Hotel April 23, 1982)
A-
A Suicide Note to Satan (Rarities Volume Four: 1982-1984)
A-

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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