Robert Forster – Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens


Recent years have brought changes to the top of Oxford Road. The Cornerhouse is now a university building and The Palace hotel has become The Principal. As I pass the legendary former cinema en route to this weekend’s Louder Than Words festival just across the road, on the strange alternate-reality scale it’s not exactly Marty McFly seeing Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Paradise Casino & Hotel in Back to the Future Part II, but it’s still an oddly jarring sight on this Sunday afternoon – a real yet parallel-universe scene perhaps only missing a newspaper reader at the bus stop revealing a President Trump headline that would prompt questions such as “DONALD Trump? As in the real-estate tycoon? President?”

Now in its sixth year, Louder Than Words is, as the organisers describe it, the literary festival “celebrating words – oral, written and published – associated with the music industry”. My pick of last year’s festival was Kristin Hersh’s show on the back of her Wyatt at the Coyote Palace CD-book combo, but the prospect of this sold-out Robert Forster event is undoubtedly this year’s highlight for me. Once within the plush and ornate interior of The Principal, I head upstairs and along the dimly-lit corridor to the Directors Suite where festival creator and co-curator Dr Jill Adam awaits to greet us with an introduction to the festival’s closing event. Something special is in store, she promises.

Singer-songwriter and guitarist of The Go-Betweens, a band from Brisbane, Australia that formed in 1977, Forster has always been one of pop music’s more bookish and eloquent types, and endearingly these days he often signs off his social media posts with “warm regards, Robert”. But the specific “literary” link to the festival is his recent book Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens, a beloved memoir that focuses on his friendship with band mate Grant McLennan, whose death in 2006 drew a close to the band.

Relatively unknown compared to contemporaries R.E.M. and The Smiths, bands that journalists in the 1980s might have referenced in the same sentence along with “Australia’s answer to…”, The Go-Betweens featured two songwriters that were more Lennon-McCartney than Morrissey-Marr. That is to say that Forster and McLennan both wrote lyrics, both sang lead and both played guitar or bass. Typically they would each contribute roughly half of the songs to the band’s LPs.

The towering ceiling, oak panelling and curtains of today’s room perhaps contribute to the immensely pleasing sound of a stirring rendition, with choppy acoustic guitar, of ‘Here Comes a City’, after which Forster, in conversation with John Robb, tells of the beginnings of the band. McLennan was a film buff who couldn’t play any instruments when he and Forster first became friends at university in the mid-to-late 1970s. With no interest in starting a band initially, McLennan was finally talked around by Forster, who said it was like discovering Paul McCartney – having taught McLennan the bass guitar, such was McLennan’s natural ability the two friends were writing songs and singing together in a matter of weeks, if not days.

Forster speaks so articulately and lucidly today that he could seemingly talk for 90 minutes unsupported, but Robb’s questions keep the conversation flowing smoothly and take us on a chronological journey through the band’s career. Robb cleverly phrases his questions to subtly invite Forster to play a song relevant to the conversation, or he sometimes suggests an opportune moment to play one, and Forster obliges with ‘People Say’, the “first good song” he says he wrote after the band started. Later his guitar accompanies his voice on ‘Head Full of Steam’ from celebrated fourth album Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express to showcase the band’s increasingly classic song-writing at that time.

Forster wrote the kinds of songs that drew Nick Cave to describe him as “the truest and strangest poet of our generation”, but this afternoon the music takes a back seat as the conversation is driven by the bond between the two band mates – a bond that ultimately led Forster to follow his 2005-13 career as a music journalist with a focused effort to finish the book that took him seven years to write. It was a friendship that blessed Forster with many special memories and that gave us as fans a trove of timeless songs that remain dear to us year after year.

Robert Forster: Official | Facebook | Twitter

Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.