There was a time when I’d see the writer and critic, George Byrne, at least three times a week, usually at concerts, ligs and anything with a free bar. I’d fallen out of regular contact with him – and indeed with most others – ever since I settled into family life in the suburbs, but I knew he was still out there, still active, doing what he’d always done, banging the drums, rattling the cages. I’d hear him on the radio from time to time and I’d read him in the papers: George always mounted a noisy and usually coherent argument and was one of the few arts critics I’d bother with. When we last met, at The Blades’ second comeback show in The Olympia Theatre in December, 2013, he was in ebullient form. He’d predicted the return of one of his favourite ever bands some months earlier, at a testimonial show in the same venue for that other sadly-departed contrarian, Philip Chevron, at which Paul Cleary made a surprise but well-received short appearance. With The Blades back in the fold, powerfully backed by The Blue Brass, and with Christmas looming, George was in his element among friends, peers and like-minds.
We first met in the bar of The Grand Parade Hotel in Cork in May, 1989, where we were both cast onto a panel of alickadoos selected to judge a pretty forgettable heat of the Carling Hot Press Band Of The Year. George actually barrelled into the room, chest out, as if he owned it and as if it owed him a drink and a welcome. And we were down to business pretty quickly: our love of popular music, football, guitars and contempt for spoof and spoofers gave us plenty to chew over.
From the crow’s nest over the main bar in Sir Henry’s, he introduced me to his alternative marking system for the competition which, to be fair, made far more sense than the abstract and highly subjective methods usually used at such events. George docked points routinely from bands sporting pony-tails, beards, trilby hats, raincoats, waistcoats and collarless shirts. As an old-school bass-player – legs splayed, bass slung low – he paid particular attention to rhythm sections, and any band using a ‘rail-bass’, especially one that was mounted high and that was thumb-slapped, was never allowed out beyond the starting gate. During one of the heats the following year, an unsuspecting group took to the stage including, among it’s number, a tall man in a rain-coat and trilby, neatly-bearded, fulsome pony-tail, slapping a rail-bass, mounted high. George took this kind of carry-on very personally and scored them with integers.
This, to all intents, was an insult to rock and roll: you had to look good to play good. ‘Did we really fight the punk wars for this’, he’d say, exasperated. And I’d remind him that I was 9 years old when The Sex Pistols released ‘God Save The Queen’ and he’d just drive the argument on regardless.
He never encountered any of those problems with The Go-Betweens, another of his pet bands. We had lots of conversations about them over the years and it was only fitting and right that the band featured so prominently at George’s recent funeral. Back in 1989, I’d returned from a post-graduate jaunt in America with a stack of pretty ace, left-field albums from the many excellent record shops around Amherst and Northampton. You needed match fitness and a strong paw to take the ring with George, but a working knowledge of The Go-Betweens was always an advantage: he adored the soft fracture of ‘Liberty Belle’, ‘Tallulah’, ’16 Lovers Lane’ and especially ‘Spring Hill Fair’. So it was appropriate that ‘Bachelor Kisses’ was one of the last sounds to play him on his way as we said our final goodbyes to him four weeks ago today. ‘Don’t believe what you’ve heard, ‘Faithful’’s not a bad word’, sings Grant McLennan on his way into the chorus: he could have been intoning George’s epitaph.
The Go-Betweens – or certainly a line-up of sorts including the twin songwriting-thrust of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster – played two nights at Dublin’s Mean Fiddler on June 4th and June 5th, 1997. I used my column in The Sunday Tribune to do an opinion-based preview of those shows and, in keeping with the prevailing humour of the time, and with George’s many words on the subject fresh in my mind, I took aim at the industry and fired indiscriminately at Louis Walsh, then the manager of Boyzone. That piece is re-produced in it’s entirity below under it’s original headline: ‘The No-Hit Wonders’. It appeared on the week of the 1997 General Election, which eventually returned a coalition government comprising of Fianna Fáil and The Progressive Democrats, making Bertie Ahern Taoiseach for the first time. With the business end of the campaign on-going and with the debate and the canvass in full swing around me, I too felt I could take the high moral ground. Not that I ever needed an excuse to do so.
Boyzone had gone stadium-sized in Europe and Louis Walsh’s gob had increased exponentially. He was already the most available ‘personality’ in Ireland and, in the world he occupied, size and scale were all that mattered. We’d had a couple of decent spats along the way and, while I admire Walsh’s verve and knowledge of popular music history greatly, I’ve never been able to stand back and allow him to routinely talk through his hole. But while The Go-Betweens never troubled the chart-compilers, the chat-show bookers or the stadium administrators, they always exuded class, grace, humility and influence, traits that seemed beyond Walsh and several of his charges.
Eighteen years on, George Byrne and Grant McLennan are no longer with us but their legacies and influence will at least be recalled fondly by all who encountered them along the way. Of which I, very proudly, am one.
T h e N o H i t – W o n d e r s
Given the fact that the general election is now less than one week from us, this page is today taking the high moral ground, and unashamedly so. Because there are those of you out there [day trippers, cabaret band managers, pop casuals, Stunning fans] who still confuse pop success with record sales figures, regardless of the bigger pictures. And that, given the year that’s in it, is a danger in itself. Boyzone’s Louis Walsh, for instance, doesn’t rate the television programme ‘No Disco’, because much of the music the show features has a marginal, non-mainstream appeal. His prerogative, of course, but bizarre too, you’ll agree, coming from someone who’d had, in his time, both Linda Martin and Johnny Logan on his books.
But does the fact that Boyzone out-sell, say, a band like The Trash Can Sinatras all over Europe [the trend, for the record, is reversed in America, where the Kilmarnock band has sold over 200,000 albums] necessarily make them, firstly, any more or less worthy and secondly, any less important over time ? Given, especially, that Boyzone’s canon has dated far quicker and that last year’s ‘A Different Beat’ already sounds virtually obsolete. And if pop music has always been about the moment meeting the idea, then how should we properly approach either Big Star or Wire [to name but two], both of whom, in hindsight, are far more before their time than of it ? This column isn’t claiming any easy answers [at least not this time around], although the continued existence of Australian band The Go-Betweens might help to cast another light onto the equation.
To most of you, The Go-Betweens will mean little or nothing. They seldom figure in pop directories or guide-books and don’t, by and large, register on any sales graphs of note. But over the 12 years they spent making six wonderful [but flawed] albums, they seriously impacted way more on other writers and critics than they ever did on the market at large. Making them an irregular curiousity whose influence, like Husker Du’s and, more tellingly perhaps, The Velvet Underground’s, only really began to kick in after they’d split.
In hindsight The Go-Betweens really should have delivered far more on their promise and on the writing abilities of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster than they actually did at the time. Based irregularly in Australia and in London and swinging almost casually from label to label, the band was arguably never settled enough at any particular time [both in band and geographic terms] to forge any real or lasting identity. And while this kind of dislocated confusion shades some of their better moments on record, it did little at the time to help them chartwards. Using Louis Walsh’s criteria then, and on face value alone [if that’s your poison ?], The Go-Betweens very certainly failed the only test that matters – six albums, four labels, no hits.
That said, The Go-Betweens have survived long enough top still enjoy the sun, and both McLennan and Forster get by as moderately successful solo artists. It’s as the creative core of one of pop music’s greatest under-achievements, however [see also Microdisney, Stephen Duffy and Miracle Legion] that they’re still most in-demand. ‘Part of me enjoys our lack of success’, McLennan told the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles over twelve months ago. ‘I don’t like movements, I’ve never followed any and I’ve never been part of one – you lose your individuality that way. I like being a renegade. Also, we were never a group for teenagers.’
‘Grant thinks our lack of success is because of our language,’, Forster conceded during the same interview. ‘People who listen to us hear new words, bew situations, a foreign language. We can write great pop songs, but our ideas and our faith are too dangerous for the charts.’
‘I never really thought we stood a chance,’, he later admitted to Heresay magazine. ‘When we started as a band I honestly thought we’d appeal to about 50 people and, when it got beyond 50 people, I was quite frankly susprised. If you know where we come from, from Brisbane, the fact that we made six albums and toured the world, to me that’s an enormous success. And you’ve got to look at the fact that we never had any of the machinery pushing for us’.
It’s still unclear, however, 15 years after the band’s first album, ‘Send Me A Lullaby’, where exactly McLennan and Forster’s ambitions really lay. Granted, they turned a cracking pop song around on-demand – ‘Streets Of Your Town’, ‘Head Full Of Steam’, ‘Spring Rain’, ‘Right Here’ – only that far too often they chose to play the wilful and the obscure with the goal open and the ball at feet.
Forster acknowledges as much on the liner notes of ‘The Go-Betweens, 1978- 1990’, where he admits to a conscious writing decision early in the band’s career to steer clear of universal themes, almost in defiance of accepted chart-pop norms. ‘The initial impetus of The Go-Betweens was a cross between The Monkees and Patti Smith’, he admits.
‘The Monkees were pop and bad poetics, Patti Smith poetics and bad pop. Whenever I think of The Monkees, it’s a sunny morning, the brightest colours and David Jones’s eyes. Their music is perfect, as perfect as pop could ever be. ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ has been written and we are left with our own imperfection’.