In this extract from Robert Forster's new book, 'Grant & I', he and fellow Go-Between Grant McLennan have just left Brisbane in search of fame and fortune in Britain.
The American writer Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote, 'When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.' I've always liked this line without knowing exactly what it means. Some things are like that with me, pieces of lyrics, poetry or prose that ring true although I don't fully comprehend them, couldn't explain them lucidly to another person. Grant and I didn't disappear when we travelled to England; the situations we encountered, though, tended to come at us as one, and be experienced as one. The diversions of the previous months shrank as we regained the exclusive company of each other, processing our surroundings together, convinced of our destiny.
On arrival, he and I and a Brisbane friend, Gerry Teekman, who had travelled with us and was to leave a few weeks later, headed to a house near Clapham Common. It belonged to the Holleymans, a couple my parents had met on their first and only trip to Europe in the mid-fifties. From beds in their attic we ventured out excitedly each morning to see another slice of the city, usually Soho, to return in light rain and bewilderment to tea, toast, and television that finished well before midnight.
A few things were immediately clear. Most of London looked like the shabbier parts of Brisbane and moreover lacked an otherness that we thought foreign travel would entail. We knew there would be no sunshine; the shock, though, of coming from a New World city with a skyscrapered CBD, radial suburbs and vantage points to a flat, never-ending maze-like village was immense. In this nest was a music scene we'd been following from afar – being among it gave us an excitement that burnt for a few weeks. We bought NME on the day it came out, and that shrinking of time and sense of being at the centre of the action was thrilling. It was also what made one other thing spectacularly apparent – The Go-Betweens were going to get nowhere in London. The scene was too big, the walls too high, and we knew no one in the music business. We'd travelled sixteen thousand kilometres to advance the career of the band without bringing one telephone number.
The group had been rolling on serendipity and luck in Brisbane, and we thought it would miraculously continue here; that by wandering down Old Compton Street, there'd be someone, a Brian Epstein or an Albert Grossman, who would divine by our look, our stance, our holding of an Only Ones album, our reading of a Billy Wilder biography in a bookstore, that here were two young geniuses in need of money, a place to stay, and a five-album deal with Warner Brothers. As ridiculous as this sounds, the plan that Grant and I brought to London, never articulated to one another, was not much more developed than that.
There were now two options. We could either dig in, get jobs and accommodation, find a drummer, and start the slow consolidation of the band with shitty gigs and demos, or flip our journey over to a tourist trip, learn what we could, and sneak back to Brisbane with nothing in hand career-wise. Maybe it was time to give up music and turn to film. We were leaning to the tourist option just after Christmas, when I set off to Paris by train while Grant flew to Cairo and Greece with the intention of joining me a few weeks later.
Lindy and Irena had both been in Paris in the early to mid-seventies, and held romantic notions of the city. I had them too. And my schoolboy French, which didn't enable me to engage with the local populace much beyond ordering a baguette and a café au lait, was at last being put to some use. I was staying in a sparse single room – no phone, television or bathroom – on the top floor of a slum hotel on the Left Bank. My home was the streets, which I walked relentlessly in the bitter cold. Yet I was happy, and part of the joy came from being in a non-English-speaking land at last. These were also the first days of my life that I'd spent alone, which I managed to survive and appreciate. A channel for my thoughts were letters back home, especially to Lindy, who I missed dreadfully, and whose presence hovered in Paris. Being an adventurer and socially confident, she'd stayed at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, where a tradition existed, for those game enough to apply, of stacking books in exchange for a bed on the floor of the shop. I preferred the solitude of a single room, even though it drained the little money I had.
When Grant arrived he took the room next to mine. He told me of playing Creedence Clearwater Revival songs with people he'd met in Athens on New Year's Eve, while I recounted how I'd been teargassed in a group of midnight revellers on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, then chased by riot police through the side streets to my hotel. This is how we started the eighties. I also mentioned a groovy record store I'd found a few blocks deeper into the Left Bank, festooned with black-and-white-check merchandise and other bits of Ska Revival paraphernalia that was fashionable in the UK at that moment. On visits we tried to connect with the staff, in an echo of the Toowong Music Centre, but the language and cultural barrier was too wide. We did leave an advertisement on the noticeboard – a carefully drafted call-out, dripping with music and film references, for a female drummer, une femme batteur, with our hotel address attached. No one replied. We were hoping a gamin-faced, stripe-shirted young woman would answer and lead us to her family and friends while completing a three-piece band that would startle France. This pop dream went the same way as the Soho plan, and after another week of coffee and baguettes we retreated to London.
I was now broke, my savings having lasted all of two months. Grant's financial situation was another topic that went undiscussed, and I could only assume he was being supported by his mother. As he drifted through the city by day, I worked as an X-ray clerk at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, a job organised by an employment agency. My office was a basement room with floor-to-ceiling shelves holding thousands of alphabetically filed manila folders of X-rays. Nurses and orderlies would bring me patients' names and wait as I sorted through the shelves to hand over the required envelopes. One name took me to the RO section – Robertson, perhaps – where my eye caught ROEG, Nicolas. There could be only one such person in London: the film director of Schonell favourites The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout. I opened his file. He had a bad knee. On my last day of work there I snuck out a rogue Roeg X-ray under my coat. It's as close as Grant and I ever got to the British film industry.
We were in a hotel by now, which mirrored the cell-like dimensions of my work, and in turn our London experience. It was an oval-shaped building with a vine-like spiral feature outside that housed toilets and bathrooms. The rooms were dormitory-sized with rows of single beds. My wage covered my rent and cheap cafe meals, meat and two veg, over which Grant would revisit the sights of his day (my holiday being done by proxy) and we'd despondently consider our predicament, wondering just how long we could put up with this before crawling back to Brisbane, tails glued between our legs.
"It was spectacularly apparent – The Go-Betweens were going to get nowhere in London. The scene was too big, the walls too high, and we knew no one in the music business."
The few remaining pounds in my pocket went on concerts, and here we got lucky. Cult English groups didn't tour Australia with any regularity until the early nineties, and in these winter months Grant and I saw what would have taken us years to see back home. Amidst many concerts there were Gang of Four, The Raincoats, and Scritti Politti at the Electric Ballroom, The Cramps and The Fall there too. The Cure and later The Pretenders – 'Brass In Pocket' was number one that week – were at the Marquee. And we saw Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, and A Certain Ratio on one bill at the Lyceum. It was an impressive run of groups and although we were being tossed about on the choppy waters of post-punk London, there wasn't a band that looked or sounded like us. In our insecurity we didn't know if this was a good or a bad thing.
We also saw films, Grant up on the repertory cinemas, and had just settled into our seats at a weekend showing of the Charles Laughton-directed noir classic The Night of the Hunter, when The Birthday Party walked in. We'd seen them on late-night Australian TV doing 'Shivers', and some members of the group had walked past us at The Cure gig. Unfortunately on both occasions we were too shy to introduce ourselves.
There was one slender connection we had to the music scene. Judy Crighton was a Queensland-born woman who'd begun working at the Rough Trade record shop in Ladbroke Grove in 1977. Her husband Ross had visited his hometown of Brisbane the following year, where he met us and bought a box of 'Lee Remick' singles. Our first two records had been reviewed in the UK press, and John Peel had played 'Lee Remick' and 'Karen' on his BBC radio show – there was a very faint hum on the band. To put that into perspective, the biggest break we got was when Judy put the sleeve of 'Lee Remick' on the shop's wall, which was covered with well-known independent records from around the world. She also got us an appointment with Geoff Travis, the head of Rough Trade records, who worked out of an office at the back of the store.
Geoff was already the John Hammond of indie rock – someone with a golden ear and the ability to spot trends and find big artists before they became stars. In the future he would sign The Smiths, Everything But The Girl, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Strokes, but now he was a tall skinny guy with an afro looking at me as I nervously handed him a copy of 'People Say'. The dub reggae that was pulsing from the office sound system was taken off and the bright, clipped, organ-and-guitar pop tones of our single rang out. It was one of those world-turning-on-its axis moments, where everything was afforded a new view. Our record sounded w-a-y out of time; it could have been recorded the day after Buddy Holly cut 'Peggy Sue', or in March 1966, or in Boston 1972 at the end of a Modern Lovers session. It didn't relate to anything going on in London in late 1979. Geoff shook his head. 'It's too poppy,' he said. I thanked him and left, our one chance gone.
Knowing that the Rough Trade shop was an essential stop-over for any indie record buyer or band coming to the city, three Scotsmen down from Glasgow with copies of their debut single in hand walked into the store two months later. They were Edwyn Collins and David McClymont, members of a group with a truly revolutionary name for post-punk times: Orange Juice. With them was Alan Horne, the group's manager and co-owner of their label, Postcard Records. While acquainting themselves with the shop and trying to hustle up business for their single, they spotted the 'Lee Remick' sleeve on the wall. Edwyn and Alan, who knew and liked the record from John Peel, pondered aloud the fate of the Australian group. Judy Crighton told them.
'Three strange-looking men came asking for you today,' said the receptionist at our hotel. 'They wanted to give you a package. I let them go up to your room. I hope that was all right?' We assured him it was and raced up the stairs. A brown envelope lay on Grant's bed. We opened it to find a single, a set of photographs of the group responsible for it, and a handwritten letter inviting The Go-Betweens to come to Glasgow to record a single on Postcard Records.
A cry of 'We've been saved!' should have arisen in the room, but the unexpectedness of the offer, added to the fact that the label and Orange Juice were completely unknown to us, meant that our response was a little more muted. Maybe I was starting to catch some of Grant's caution. We looked at the photos, hunting for clues. They showed three young men with unfashionable fringes wearing op shop clothes, denoting a band 'look', confidently posing with what would later become known as vintage guitars. They didn't resemble any of the bands or people we'd seen in London. We could immediately detect the playfulness of the poses, and the detail of the presentation alerted us to a group already consumed with their own myth – this we understood. The record burnt in our hands. If only we had a record player.
The Supports had one. They were friends of ours from Brisbane who had come to London and done all the sensible things to establish a band base that we should have. Grant and I often visited them in their Highgate flat, sheepishly bunking nights between the Holleymans and hotels. One evening I'd written a song in their kitchen called 'I Need Two Heads', its lyric an ultra-cryptic, even to me, attempt to articulate a reaction to the rush and roar of London: 'I look at you and I wonder why/ Animals extinct and I'm beginning to cry/ Give me your bank book and sometimes I think I need two heads.' (Grant would one day ask if the 'bank book' was his – it wasn't.) On the first Saturday after receiving the envelope from Orange Juice, Grant and I arrived at Highgate with their single, 'Falling And Laughing', in our hands.
That record was the first of four consecutive genius singles the band released over the next year and a half. The sound, look and overall aesthetic (steel-souled yet fey) of Orange Juice helped define indie rock. We of course didn't know this as we placed the single on the turntable and stood back to assess our new label mates. Three minutes later, as the last note rang out, the response in the room was bafflement. The record didn't sound like an indie single of the time, particularly those from London, which tended to be drilled and tight. This was not that – there was a demo-ish quality to the recording as the band shifted through an unusual set of influences, including funky bass lines and country and western guitars. Riding high in the mix was the singer, his heartfelt croon pushing the boundary usually held between listener and vocalist, and a lyric that added a new word to the rock lexicon, 'consequently'. We did like the Byrds-y sting of the guitars and melodic sections of the song, and the single did in a way match the playful, odd appearance of the band in the photographs. There was no question we wouldn't go to Glasgow, and letters and calls started between ourselves and the label to get us there.
From issue #778, available now.
'Grant & I', published by Hamish Hamilton, is available now. RRP $35.