Grant & I by Robert Forster
I’m an unusual Go-Betweens fan, if fan is the right word, precisely because fan may not be the right word. I am not rabid. I an not devoted. I just kind of like some of what they‘ve done over the years. If I was to believe the clichés in a lot of the writing about the band, that‘s not how it works. I picked up their CDs in a box. which was most excellent value, and I‘ve got a copy of Bellavista Terrace, and I’m pretty happy with that.
Anyway, Robert Forster‘s book is very easy to read. It evokes the days spent shaping the songs, and playing them, and living on not a huge amount of money.
As the title might suggest, it focuses on the relationship between Forster and Grant McLennan, it is really the story of a partnership. In places, it reads like Forster is trying figure out McLennan, a man who he knew for almost 30 years but who, we come to wonder, perhaps nobody knew. Forster tackles the subject with an and pretty analytical eye that is perhaps possible when so many years have passed.
As a rock n roll memoir, it’s pretty good, though I have not read the genre extensively. There’s no hint of a ghost writer — not surprising, given,the
quote on the back cover: ”It was our long-time predicament — Grant had too many melodies, I had too many words.“
With that title, you’d be entitled to wonder: do the other band members get the attention they deserve? And: I don’t know. This it not a biography of the band — the title tells us that — but it is the story of two men and the band they were in.
As always with these books, I would have liked to see the creative process better explored. How was a song shaped? Who brought what to it? There is a bit of that, but for me the act of creation rarely gets enough attention in books by creative people. I have sometimes wondered what makes for a song writing credit. Neither Jagger nor Richards ever told Charlie when to hit his drum, I‘m guessing. When asked about song writing credit within the Stones, Bill Wyman noted that ‘Under My Thumb’ isn’t much of a song without Brian’s marimba part. I mean, in some sense doesn’t the drummer write the drum part, the bass player the bass part? Is a song the words and the melody? The chord changes? It’s pretty clear that ‘Cattle and Cane‘ rises so high largely because of the drums. Yet …
Some bands (R.E.M., the Manics, Radiohead, Bluetones, late Clash and many more) attribute all the songs to everybody. Now, I am not a musician (clearly, I hear you say) so I guess maybe there are good reasons for bands dividing credit up how they do. Townshend brought fully formed demos with guide vocals, bass lines and drum tracks to the Who; he was clearly the songwriter.
Anyway, I did not quite get a sense of how they put a track together, though the division of credit suggests the Townshend style more than the Radiohead. I just hope it’s fair. (I believe there was some court action on that front by non-Forster/McLennan members of the group at some stage, so maybe those contributions were as substantial as, listening to the records, they seem.)
As I read I wondered at the absence of drugs — perhaps he was just being discrete — and then very late we get a mention of Hep-C and a kind of brief admission. And, much as I like the book, it does have a kind of ‘but it was all a dream’ quality — we need to reassess all that went before. When someone acted weird, or whatever, or argued, or whatever — was it really because of what the chapter suggested at that point in the book, or was is related to drug use? What pressures did that create inside the band?
I’m not that interested in drug use itself – it it was one of the more boring aspects of Keith’s Life — but in a book where personal relationships play a major role, drugs have to feature if we’re really to get a sense of the dynamics. They also have an impact creatively, good and bad. I don’t want drugs to play a major part, but I do want to know what part they played… or I would, as a reader who bought the book in order to find out more about Forster and the band, keeping in mind that Forster wrote the book, which implies a desire to tell.
All that sounds negative, but it’s really good. He evokes places economically and effectively, like a good novelist, and he’s reflective and analytical. There’s no sense of complaint when he looks at why they never became big stars, and not regret. The integrity with which he approached his music is quite apparent.
In summary: Well written, interesting, somewhat enlightening yet perhaps played just a little too close to the chest. Forster has thought hard about music and has a lot of interest to say, and on balance still a worthwhile read.
This album makes it pretty clear that Bill was not churning out a stream of brilliant songs that Jagger and Richards were suppressing to protect their own fragile egos. Having said that, the Stones album nearest in time to this — Undercover — is hardly a masterpiece. None of the songs here would fit well with the tone of that Stones album, but they might improve it for colour and entertainment value.
Bill has pretty much nothing to say, and says it using repetitive, squelchy synthesisers and flat, low-key vocals that at least don’t try to be actual singing. There are some decent tunes and the odd amusing phrase.
In ‘Rio De Janeiro’ we get ‘it’s the gateway to South America’, as if he’s lifted the words straight out of a holiday brochure (which he did — the song says so). ‘Nuclear Reactions’ is a bizarre yet somewhat entertaining litany of cosmology terminology, like he’s done cut-ups but from a physics textbook (‘…quasar, pulsar … neutron star… X-ray source’) (at least he says ‘nuclear’ correctly — ‘new-clear’ not ‘new-cu-lar’. I mean, how do you get that from ‘nuclear’?) while in ‘Come Back Suzanne’ he is either being appallingly sexist — entirely possible — or he’s lost his favourite cleaning lady, as he ‘sings’
‘Cause the kitchen needs cleaning and the dishes in the sink
The clothes need washing and the washer’s broken down…
and on it goes. Every review I have ever read of this album uses the word ‘bizarre’. And of course it all reaches its apotheosis with the chart hit (number 14 in the UK!) ‘(Si Si) Je Suis un Rock Star’. It is a story about picking up a Brazilian woman and trying to get to his villa in the south of France but BEA is on strike and maybe they could take a hovercraft. At one point he notes, ‘They’ll think I’m your dad / And you’re my daughter’. It’s worth a look on You-tube, if nothing else, and if the idea of an album of this plus nine other songs like it but not quite as good is attractive, then this is the album for you.
This is turning into ‘an album a month’ but at least that means I’ll never run out of material…
I’m going to be a bit unfair with this one, not because I don’t like the album, I do, but because I’m going to talk about someone other than the artist.
Well, first, the album. It can sound a bit same-y on initial listens, and if you don’t like listening to a woman who’s really pissed off and disappointed, both by her latest failure of a man and her own failure to see through him sooner, then lyrically it won’t work for you either.
But you’re the idiot who keeps believing in luck
When you just can’t get it through your head that
No one else gives a fuck
(‘It’s Not Safe’)
And right at the start the album greets us with:
You fucked it up
You should’ve quit
Had changed a bit
Not to mention (now this is kind of funny):
So row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
I hope you drown and never come back
(Choice in the Matter)
So she’s not happy and she’s not going to pretend otherwise.
My favourite tracks are probably ‘You’re With Stupid’, ‘That’s Just What You Are’, ‘Frankenstein’ (with it’s lurching yet groovy beat and keen [as in sharp] lyrics) and ‘It’s Not Safe’. These all come in the second half of the album; the first half is solid but less differentiated, though ‘Choice in the Matter’ is pretty tuneful.
Now the unfair bit. While the songs are all written or co-written by Mann, anyone who’s fond of Squeeze and those octave-apart vocals by Tifford and Dilbrook has a pleasant surprise waiting for them on this album. While it has contributions from guitar pop figures of the time (mid 90s — Juliana Hatfield, Michael Penn), Tilbrook and Difford are represented, either by Glenn’s guitar or their characteristic backing vocals, on five of the tracks, plus Glenn gets the little hidden squib at the end. ‘Frankenstein’ is virtually a Mann/Difford duet, where we get to hear Chris’s voice paired with one other than Tilbrook’s. So for a Squeeze fan that’s kind of fun. The tuneful mid-tempo guitar pop with smart lyrics may well work for many a Squeeze fan. I’d note that Mann has a co-write on Tilbrook’s The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook solo record from a few years later, at around the same time she released the more highly acclaimed Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo.
Like the Squeeze albums of the 90s, there are too many songs here that are unremarkable. It picks up with the wistful, yet biting, ‘Amateur’, though. Vocal hooks abound, understated but subtly funky percussion helps a few tracks along. It’s very listenable.
Note: While some bits of some songs from here appear in the movie Magnolia, they don’t show up on the sountrack, which is in fact one of Mann’s more well-known recordings and shares tracks with Bachelor No. 2.
What can I say about You Am I? This album came out at their mid-90s commercial peak, when the sky was the limit and they were in the middle of a run of three number 1 records.
It got a lot a press at the time, but somehow even then their success was too good to be true. Can you be idiosyncratic, lyrically dense and vulnerable and be successful if you are not the Smiths? I’m not sure. Even back then the writing was on the wall; they went number 1 but they also debuted there and watched their records fall out of the charts pretty quickly. Their fans bought them up, but there was no long tail. They never had a real hit single, nothing in the top 10. Singer songwriter guitar player Tim Rogers was too honest and too diffident at the same time, and interviewers never seemed to ‘get’ him. They just did not look like the next Midnight Oil or INXS. They looked more like the next Go-Betweens — destined for a coterie following, and critics’ darlings.
I was reasonably youthful then. I had my copy of Hi Fi Way. I’d seen them live. I bought the album even after hearing the rather too jangly single version of Mr Milk on the radio. I kept going to see them live, I’m even in the audience of their live album (and that is a cracker, I might say).
This record won a bunch of awards, called ARIAs, that apparently ended up in Tim’s toilet. It’s a sixties pop record, a suburban concept record about meeting girls and getting stuck where you are. It contains possibly Tim’s best ever lyric — and there are a lot to choose from — in ‘If We Can’t Get it Together’, a song that should have been the first single in my humble and probably wrong opinion. About getting married: “We might as well do it next week, cos we’ve met everybody that we’re ever gonna meet.”
It’s got a lot of good tracks on it, and in my opinion no really weak ones. It’s an Australian masterpiece, no doubt. Since this album they made the equally marvellous #4 Record and then turned from a beat group into a rock group, which at the time I didn’t like and am still ambivalent about, though I do like their self titled album of a couple of years ago, and more all the time.
Hourly, Daily bombed in the UK, where it was seen as a pale echo of dying Britpop; but taken on its own, twenty years after its release (not that it was really of its time anyway), it stands out as an example of sharp guitar rock/pop writing, with snappy hooks both musical and lyrical, and underneath it a connection to a place — the suburbs, wherever they are — and a way of life that might not be what you wanted but it was what you had, and it’s limits had to be overcome but at least it gave you a place in the world.
If you’ve never given it a spin, you could do a lot worse.
Across all the records I’ve got (not that many, to be honest) there are a handful of songs that just never seem to wear out their welcome. Most you need to be in the mood for, or tire of; I find this does not happen with these.
‘Faster’ by the Manic Street Preachers. This comes off their remarkable third album, The Holy Bible, which is a weird combination of the brilliant and the morbid. Much of the album is brilliant; the music is compelling, and here and there the lyrics (mostly by Richard Edwards) are also. ‘4st 7lb’ is anorexia seen from the inside, and rings as true as great poetry (not that I would really know, I hasten to add, about either poetry or anorexia). The only real weakness is a slight air of teenager-y angst that hangs over it — the fascination with the mythologically dreadful Third Reich being the most obvious. ‘Faster’ itself namechecks Plath, Pinter, Mailer and Miller, but one suspects Plath might be the key name there. ‘Faster’ might be a reference to being one who fasts (does not eat), but the most straightforward interpretation is that it is about how stupid and slow and wrong the world seems (no, not ‘seems’ — is) when your head is filled with ideas that no one gets, and when you are possessed by a clarity of vision that screams at you about how boring and prosaic and pointless so many lives and value systems are. If that sounds heavy, it is. The song itself is the quickest four minutes in rock — it seems much shorter — and is a relentless rush of guitars and drums and yelled vocals (though few can yell and sing at the same time as effectively as James Dean Bradfield), with a solo that I read somewhere was developed more as a pattern of moving fingers than as a series of notes.
‘Paint It, Black’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Rolling Stones. The Stones are so old and so much part of pop culture and even history now that the music seems forgotten sometimes. These two songs share a sense of menace that is palpable, and lack the lazy lyrics of so much of the Stones’ post-60s work. Indeed, I would argue that even by ’69 they were slipping into formula that has held them back ever since; the ‘dirty, sexy, whorehouse’ kind of vibe you get on ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ was already worn out by the massively over-rated ‘Brown Sugar’ only two years later, let alone on the endless churning rockers on the likes of Voodoo Lounge. But anyway. These two songs really show what the Stones could do. The first was in their original phase with Jones the multi-instrumentalist helping them in their attempts to keep up with the Beatles — after all, George Harrison and ‘Norwegian Wood’ provided the impetus for Jones to pick up the sitar. The second comes off Let It Bleed, where Keith played most of the lead guitar, and it epitomises the second phase of the band, when they in a way retrenched back to a sound closer to the blues they had started with, but this had not yet become formulaic. The guest vocal by Merry Clayton is electrifying, with the crack in her voice, like the best use of feedback, technically wrong but so perfect to the moment, something that epitomises the idea of rock and roll being about how it feels not whether you’re hitting the right notes.
‘Some Fantastic Place’ by Squeeze. I love Squeeze, but hitting you emotionally is not what they do. You walk away from a Squeeze song humming a tune and smiling at the clever lyrics and tasteful guitar work, but, to be honest, not moved as such. I think it is a combination of something about Tilbrook’s tenor (too sunny?) and something about Difford’s lyrics — they are too well observed, too carefully turned (well, not for me, but I have no romance in my soul, I’m happy with clever lyrics and don’t mind clever clever). There is too much evidence of the storyteller and it gets in the way of the feel. So many truly stupid lyrics seem to get really popular (‘Anything I Do, I Do it for You’ is a long-standing example), and I suspect it is because they might be stupid but they have a sort of clichéd earnestness that connects with an audience. Some bloke wailing about how his baby left him and he feels so baaaad might have been done 1000 times (or 100,000 times) before, but at least he sounds like he means it straight from the heart and did not spend eight hours carefully composing each line of his lament. This song has great lines and tunes and a tasteful solo and a choir. And it also has the emotional resonance. It is from late in Squeeze’s career (in albums if not in time) and the album itself is weak — I would unhesitatingly recommend you go listen to The Holy Bible or Let It Bleed, but there’s no much need to seek out the album (of the same title) that this song comes from.
The Mob really has no idea. The Mob is swayed by advertising, by reputation and by precedent, but not by reality. Not like you and me. It reacts to itself following complex dynamics that are hard to predict and don’t make much sense. Take popular music. Most of it is appalling; and it always has been. Bad songs in the top ten is not unique to any decade. The sixties might have seen the Who, the Kinks and (if you like that sort of thing) the Beatles, but it also saw the Archies.
In 1987 Squeeze, a British Pop (in the good sense of tuneful guitar music with smart lyrics) group hit the top forty with Babylon and On, an album of light-weight pop, mostly pretty vapid, with very 80’s instrumentation. As usual with Squeeze the tunes were there, but apart from the brilliant ‘Lighting Matches’ the album is pretty ordinary.
The follow-up, though, was 1989’s Frank, and it’s a peach. Tuneful, varied, replete with nifty, tasteful guitar work and the usual Squeeze lyrics about getting drunk, letting people down and cheating on your girl, it is easier to list the songs that don’t work (‘She Doesn’t Have to Shave’, a rather naff tale about her time of the month and ‘Can of Worms’ an earnest but awkward tale of broken homes and new men around the house). Against those two you can list, well, everything else. Personal favourite is probably (today) ‘Slaughtered, Gutted and Heartbroken’ but ‘(This Could Be) The Last Time’ comes close. There seems to be a slight Stones-y homage thing going on, with that track an explicit copy of a Stones song-title, and ‘Melody Motel’ sounding in title (not in music) a little like ‘Memory Motel’.
It contains ‘Dr Jazz’, a rare non-Difford/Tilbrook track that is a highlight of the album, with Jools Holland celebrating the music he loves, ‘Love Circles’ and ‘If It’s Love’, two typically tuneful Squeeze non-hit singles, and the rollicking yet grim ‘Melody Motel’.
The album seems to be modelled on East Side Story, the band’s acknowledged classic (it even finishes with a fifties-ish romp, same as the older album), but stands completely on its own.
And charts? Frank bombed. The best Squeeze album since their early days when they nearly became really big, it disappeared without a trace and cost them their contract with A & M.
I’m sure the money that comes with popularity means something to a musician with kids and a mortgage, but it correlates negatively with quality, if at all.
File under ‘no turtles were harmed during the making of this album‘.