Brisbanites Grant McLennan and Robert Forster met in English classes at at the University of Queensland in 1977, Grant wanted to pursue a career in film and couldn’t play an instrument, Robert was focused on music and already a capable guitarist. Robert suggested they form a band, and he would teach Grant to play guitar, Grant agreed and the bromance that would be the creative core of the Go-Betweens was forged. Brisbane’s The Saints were their local template for success as Robert Foster remarked in his memoir Grant And I “ The steps were glass-clear and majestic – record a classic first single, send it overseas, and get signed to a London label for a multi-album worldwide deal. Voila! For a band of dreamers,which the Go-Betweens were, here was our shining path.”
Arriving in London in 1979 on the strength of their two Able Label indie singles, they faced a brick wall – the patronizing indifference, antipathy, and disdain of the British music industry. But fortuitously Edwyn Collins of the Scottish indie label Postcard Records, noticed their single People Say in a London record store, located the band in a nearby hotel and invited them back to Glasgow, to record their third single. I Need Two Heads which reached #6 on the UK independent charts. The band at this time were below left to right, Lindy Morrison (drums/ vocals), Robert Vickers (bass,vocals), Grant McLennan (guitar,vocals), and Robert Forster (guitar,vocals).
They were highly regarded in Europe and their albums were critically praised but generally commercially unsuccessful, their breakthrough album was 1983’s Before Hollywood, produced by John Brand (Aztec Camera, The Waterboys) and it contained some of the bands most beloved songs, notably McLennan’s Cattle and Cane, Forster’s By Chance, and Lindy Morrison’s drum part was also a standout on A Bad Debt Follows You.
In 1996 French magazine Les Inrockuptibles voted the Go-Betweens’ 1988 album 16 Lovers’ Lane as the third best album of the 1980’s, behind The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, and The Pixies Doolittle.
Cattle and Cane was lifted from their Before Hollywood album and despite poor initial sales it has become a genuine Australian classic. The song is full of evocative imagery from McLennan’s youth, there is a dreamlike atmosphere about the train journey he takes home from school in northern Queensland, as the song reveals itself to be an autobiographical postcard to McLennan’s mother who had raised him after his father passed away.
” A schoolboy coming home through fields of cane/ To a house of tin and timber/ And in the sky a rain of falling cinders.” There is a languid, hypnotic, nostalgic feel to the lyrics but the song never becomes sentimental nor overwrought, the wistful lyrics are often spoken rather than sung and recalled the work of the Velvet Underground whom the band admired and sought to emulate, and the Stranglers, the song is an intriguing narrative and it has no chorus.
Composed on a borrowed guitar in Nick Cave’s London flat/squat by a homesick McLennan, it was recorded at the ICC Studios, Eastbourne (UK) with producer John Brand (below) and featured the unusual chord structure for which the band were renowned, beautifully elegant acoustic/electric guitar arrangements and drummer Lindy Morrison’s pivotal time signature. Grant McLennan provides lead vocals on the first three verses of the song which charts his rites-of-passage from childhood to an adult, while the fourth and final spoken word verse, when McLennan and Forster meet at university in 1977, is sung by Robert Forster. Since its release the song has become a revered classic and was rated one of the best Australian song of the period 1926-2001 by APRA.
When Edwyn Collins reviewed the song for Melody Maker in London he said of Cattle and Cane “There’s a line there that’s so evocative of childhood,” he wrote, “about leaving his father’s watch in the shower – I can’t explain what that line is about, but it’s just haunting.” McLennan’s father had passed away and the watch was a cherished memento of his dad, which Grant had inadvertently left in a public shower and never recovered.
In a Hitchcockian-style quirk, the Go-Betweens liked to include a double L in the title of all their albums before the group disbanded in 1989, and subsequently re-formed with only Forster and McLennan a year later – Send Me A Lullaby, Before Hollywood, Spring Hall Fair, Liberty Bell and the Black Diamond Express, Talullah, and 16 Lover’s Lane.
The promo clip features Robert Vickers on bass and McLennan and Forster on guitars, Lindy Morrisson on drums, it was shot on a set comprising an artfully ramshackle shed with slatted boards through which shafts of light penetrate, partly illuminating the performance and depicting the musicians in shadow throughout – moody, beguiling and melancholy – a visual evocation of their “striped sunlight sound”, an expression that Forster had used to describe the music of the Go-Betweens. Shortly before the release of Before Hollyood McLennan handed off bass playing duties to Robert Vickers, and further changes would see multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown join the band in 1987 and John Willsteed would replace Vickers on bass at the same time.
Cattle and Cane was added to the National Film and Sound archives :Sounds Australian” category, as “a song that was a culturally and aesthetically significant sound recording”, and at the time Robert Forster added: “The inclusion of Cattle And Cane to Sounds Of Australia is a highjlight of the Go-Betweens’ career, and a further testament to the vision of the man who wrote it – the late Grant McLennan.” Below the Go-Betweens lineup circa 1987 left to right – Amanda Brown, John Willsteed, Grant McLennan, Lindy Morrison, and Robert Forster.