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50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #14: The Go-Betweens

The Church’s Steve Kilbey takes a look back at one of the most iconic exports to ever come from Brisbane, The Go-Betweens.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time - The Go-Betweens

Steve Double*; Supplied

In December of 2020, Rolling Stone Australia released a special edition issue which looks at the 50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time, paying tribute to the best and most impactful artists in Australian music history. While it would have been easy for the editors and writers of the publication to profess their love of the listed artists, the decision was instead made for those who found themselves inspired by these world-renowned names to share their own testimonials of why these artists deserve to make the list.

In celebration of the issue’s release in December, we’re counting down the full 50 artists and their accompanying testimonials in this ongoing online feature. If you want to get your hands on an physical copy of the magazine, be sure to subscribe now to experience the double-length edition featuring some of Australia’s best and brightest discussing the finest names in local music.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #14: The Go-Betweens (by Steve Kilbey of The Church)

The striped sunlight sound. Film students. Bookish boys. Bashful types. A thing for romance. Memory details nostalgia. Australia. Queensland. The heat, the humidity, the tropics, the weird lazy anachronism that Brisbane was. Those warm and balmy nights. Bob Dylan and Tom Verlaine. Bergman and Cocteau. Talk deep into the night. Not often you meet a guy who understands. 

The father who died much too early, yet present in so much of Grant McLennan’s thoughts and music. Robert Forster angular and lanky, strumming his guitar and observing all the usual malarkey with detached gentle amusement. Grant singing out with his unfocused stare that seemed like he was receiving direct spirit. Imagine as they discover they both have incredible idiosyncratic voices. Robert’s more casual Lou Reed to Grant’s soft but resonant voice. The two voices together were just perfect. 

As an acoustic duo, they were poignant, funny, melancholic, and all that other stuff. Above all else they were great players and singers and they interlocked like synchromesh. The blonde woman, Lindy Morrison, on the drums (she had been in some real bands). They come out the box seemingly fully formed. They are Australian in a new way. They’ve got an angle on Australia. No one has done it like this before.

“No one has done it like this before.”

The records got better and better. Robert Vickers joined, and then Amanda Brown. Defying the zeitgeist, they were a blend of amateurish, mercurial, intuitive, naive, nostalgic, and romantic. Critics loved ‘em. “Cattle and Cane” comes along in that weird time signature. Such a classic song that by now, it defies analysis. And yes, by golly, a bit of a hit. Yeah, they like The Go-Bees in England and Europe too. Grant lights a Peter Stuvo and blows it out of his mouth sideways. “I took the wrong road round.” Robert frowns inscrutably. 

Keep me away from her.” The violin and the female voice singing tuneful youthful backups. The possibility of intergroup romances à la Fleetwood Mac. Try to crack London in the cold damp miserable winter. You can’t heat up the flat with good reviews. The songs get better and better. They both explore each other’s territory and Grant can do weird and edgy, and Robert can do tender with only the tiniest bit of ironic glaze. Eventually there is 16 Lovers Lane with absolutely not one duff track, and every single song as good as every other song. Johnny Wilsteed is now playing bass and adding lovely acoustic guitar frills. It’s one of those classics. It just is. 

After that it kinda fell apart a bit. Robert and Grant released a few well acclaimed solo records. I guess in the late Nineties they drift back towards each other. Then back together officially and after a few okay records they miraculously hit upon Oceans Apart. Wherein it all fell back into place. Robert was wry. Grant was wistful. The magic was back. The Go-Betweens deserve that bridge they got in Brisbane. There was simply no one else like them. And to me that is always the most important thing. Yeah, they were unique.