Thursday, March 16, 2006

Interview with Robert Forster, Go-Between, Cult Hero, Former Postcard Records Recording Artiste


A couple of years ago, when he was playing to a small crowd in a New York club, Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens made an observation. If things had gone slightly differently, he said, the band could have been playing Madison Square Garden. There was a laugh when he said this, because it has always been in the nature of the Go-Betweens to be critically feted and commercially ignored. Then, as the laughter died down, he added that, actually, he preferred things the way they were.
Well, it certainly has been an odd career, in which the Go-Betweens have contrived to be continually out of synch with the world.They were born in Brisbane in 1978 when punk was in full sway, and chose instead to try to re-create a version of 1960s’ New York. Their first record in Britain was on the legendary - and commercially marginal - Glasgow label, Postcard. A long-term deal with the legendary - and commercially doomed - American label Beserkley fell through when the label collapsed. They made great records for the legendary - but commercially chaotic - label Rough Trade. And, having established a reputation for splintered, literate music, they signed to a major label, which tried to change them into something less interesting by teaming them with wool-eared producers.
Throughout this, without every seriously troubling the charts, the two songwriters in the group, Forster and Grant McLennan, wrote some of the best songs of the last 30 years. They were brilliant, yet somehow it didn’t seem to matter.
The Go-Betweens split in 1990 and Forster and McLennan enjoyed solo careers, doing no damage to their reputations, or significantly increasing their audiences. Occasionally, they played together. They tentatively resumed business in 1997 and toured the world in 1999. Wherever they went, they were greeted as lost heroes. Encouraged, they made a great pop record, The Friends of Rachel Worth (good reviews, slightly larger audience). Now, 25 years since they started, they’ve made another one, Bright Yellow Bright Orange. Listening to it is both exhilarating and reassuring. The Go-Betweens haven’t changed what they do, but the world has caught up with them.
By now, of course, the history of the group is garlanded in myths. Alan Horne of Postcard claimed that he discovered them when browsing through the singles in the Rough Trade shop. He was among the Gs, looking for Vic Godard. When reminded of this, Forster notes that Horne is "an inventive person in terms of his memories. I’m happy he was in the Rough Trade shop, but I’m pretty sure he was there with Edwyn [Collins of Orange Juice] and Edwyn steered him away from Vic Godard towards the Go-Betweens".
Horne styled himself as a pop art Svengali in the mould of Andy Warhol or Malcolm McLaren. "They were both myth-makers. And that’s the way he was. I remember there was an article done on us while we were in Glasgow, for the afternoon paper. All of us were on Alan’s front steps in order to have a photograph taken. I was standing there with Orange Juice, and him, and a few other people. The photographer was just about to take the photo and Alan, from nowhere, whipped out a tambourine and put it right in front of his face, exactly like Warhol on the cover of the first Velvet Underground album. It was amazing, I had never seen that tambourine before, and there it was, bang in front of his face."
An interest in Warhol was shared by Forster and McLennan. As drama students in Queensland, they had tried, with limited success, to mimic the Factory in Brisbane. "We were besotted with New York," Forster says. "Everything that came out of New York: Bob Dylan in 1965-66, the Velvet Underground, the Actors’ Studio with [Marlon] Brando and James Dean, Jackson Pollock. Anything that was New Yorky we were fans of, and then Television and the Talking Heads galvanised it all."
Frustrated by the limitations of their homeland, they moved to Britain, but only really began to feel at home when they came to Glasgow in the spring of 1980. "We had spent the previous three months in London, which was totally dismal and dispiriting. We hadn’t really met anyone, we had no contacts in the music business. And then to be in Glasgow with all that fervour ... "
Musically, he says, it was "a very strong period. Every couple of years I go back and listen to the first four Orange Juice singles. They are just amazing. It’s totally undervalued as well. Whenever anyone’s writing any sort of rock history, these four records, in terms of their influence, their impact, their beauty, and their brilliance, are never really recorded".
There are strong parallels between the early Orange Juice 45s and those of the Go-Betweens. OJ were trying to be Al Green but lacked the skill. Instead, using pure enthusiasm, they made a noise which was accidentally fantastic. The same can be said of the Go-Betweens, whose early records are full of weird angles and wiry tension. "We were just trying to make people love us as much as we loved the things that were an inspiration to us," says Forster. "We could only dream that someone felt the same way about us that we felt about Television or Bob Dylan. When technical expertise is lacking, but you’ve still got the ambition and the drive, and just the wish, something else comes up."
When people compare the Go-Betweens to the Beatles, McLennan is McCartney and Forster is Lennon. In reality, the comparison only works if the Beatles had been led by Bob Dylan (McLennan) and Lou Reed (Forster). Forster’s vocal style - a kind of half-spoken intonation, owes much to Reed, as does the narrative style of his lyrics.
"The voice I was born with," he says. "I’m trying to get across, in a straightforward conversational style, what goes on. I think it’s close to real life. People talk that way and they get impressions that way. I don’t think people necessarily think or talk Top 40 lyrics. To me they sound artificial."
Far from regretting the years spent apart from McLennan, Forster says his solo career taught him how to make records. He learned from his producers, most notably Mick Harvey (of the Bad Seeds) and Edwyn Collins. " Often it was what they didn’t do that made an impression on me. Edwyn has built his own studio and has total control, and is doing it the way he wants to do it, and he has the strength of his convictions to go: ‘I’m going to learn engineering, I’m going to build my own studio.’ It takes an enormous amount of willpower and a true maverick spirit to do that.
"Warm Nights is the album I did with him and I was the first act that came into his studio. I had flown all the way from Australia, and I walked in on the first day to see The Producer, and he’s down on his hands and knees with a soldering iron, soldering the back of the desk. I thought: that’s great. Not there with the chair and the piece of paper going through the arrangements, but down on the floor with the soldering iron. Fantastic."
If Forster is philosophical about the past, he remains optimistic about the future.
"I feel good about this record. The Go-Betweens is not a conventional rock career, and it’s hard to make any predictions. I don’t like to make any sort of predictions about where we’re going to end up." Madison Square Garden? "There’s still a chance of that, you know. I rule nothing out."

Alastair McKay
Friday, 21st February 2003
The Scotsman

Monday, March 13, 2006

RIP Wee Jinky, Your Rowboat to Paradise Awaits: Jimmy Johnstone 1944-2006


In more innocent days, when I was of the age to get jumped, abused in the street and kicked in, I used to wear a Celtic scarf. I had done it since infancy, and saw no reason to rethink the practice when I accidentally moved to Aberdeen. The Granite City was cold; a scarf was necessary. Then, one day, as I wandered past the Art Gallery after a trip to One Up in search of unlistenable records by Cabaret Voltaire, I found myself standing on a kerbside. A white van drew up, the windows rolled down, and the inhabitants proceeded to abuse me in a manner which tested the boundaries of their joint vocabularies. The basis of their verbal jousting was, I think, loosely ecumenical.
Well, that was the last time I wore the hooped scarf. I lost interest in the football for a while there, too, preferring to spend my time watching art students in baggy jumpers pretending they knew how to play a musical instrument. The timing of my footballing disaffection could not, I now realise, have been worse. At this point, unlikely as it seems, Aberdeen were a great side. On those clear, bright European nights, as the floodlights burned holes in the sky, I could hear the cheers echoing as I settled down in my student cell to watch Coronation Street.
In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t been on that kerbside wearing that scarf on that day. I wish I had been sanguine enough to realise that the violence of young men will find a cause, and it might just as easily have been my electric pink trousers. After all, I did not abandon music just because I received a kicking after my first night out in Aberdeen, at a concert by the Adverts (though I did walk home in the dark more quickly, and with a nagging fear of shadows).
Indeed, the musical equivalent of the abusive football van occurred a few years later. I was walking over the bridge towards the harbour, dodging the frozen fish on the pavement and inhaling the famous Torry pong, when a malevolent Transit pulled up. The graffiti on the van told me that it carried the half-famous, quarter-talented, psychobilly band, The Meteors, though I could have guessed as much from their dayglo Mohican haircuts. They were looking for Valhalla, a discotheque where Odin’s Shield-Maidens - virgins with golden hair and snowy arms - served meat and everlasting mead to the heroic clientele. (Well, they sold beer, and there was occasional dancing.) I supplied directions - travel away from the smell, follow the fish, turn right when you see the rusty trawler - and was surprised when the band thanked me for my assistance by calling me a cunt and a poof.
Gradually, the football returned, though mostly from the comfort of an armchair. Contrary to popular myth, this is not a soft option. Since my Airfix 18" narrowscreen set was wired to receive extra-terrestrial signals, it has been possible to watch football on most nights of the week, and if there isn’t football there is usually a studio full of men with square heads and furrowed brows discussing groin strains and imaginary transfer deals. Sometimes, when I abandon all pretence of having a life, there is a programme which has Jimmy Hill’s name in the title, and Jimmy Hill in the studio, pretending to drink coffee while a man with a square head chairs a discussion about the sports pages of the Sunday papers. It is bit like watching five blind tailors arguing over a thimble.
Over the years, I have often found myself forced to defend the fact that as a non-Catholic boy from the East Coast, I grew up supporting Celtic. The question is a loaded one, as it implies that football is a matter of geographical coincidence rather than free will: you should support your local team. Well, that argument might have worked in the days before television and public transportation, but I’m not sure how relevant it is now. I chose to support Celtic because, to an innocent mind, they seemed to embody a sense of possibility. They played with energy, skill and invention and they won everything. And, in the diminutive Jimmy Johnstone, the team had a genius. Not a genius like Pele or Eusebio, whose talents seemed to come from another planet, but a freckled, red-haired boy of a man whose skill was matched only by his cheek.
So there I was the other night, in Paradise, as the Lisbon Lions trooped out with the European Cup. It was a strange moment to witness, since the Lions no longer resemble athletes. They looked like a bowls team out for a stroll on the rough turf, these silver-haired gents in green blazers. Were Billy McNeill’s legs always that bandy? Did Tommy Gemmell always carry a paunch? And look, now: who is the boy in the outsize blazer, wandering towards the edge of the centre circle, as if in search of a ball?
In honour of Jinky, I bought another scarf.
From the Scotsman, 24/01/03

Mr Ivor Cutler: a small memory of a pregnant pause


Reading the many tributes to the late Mr Ivor Cutler reminded me of a funny moment which occurred when I interviewed the great man in his home (see elsewhere on this site).
Before the interview began, there was a long preliminary in which - I guess - Mr Cutler worked out whether to trust his interviewer.
After a while, he offered to make a cup of tea, and disappeared into his kitchenette. From there, in that marvellously tremulous voice, came another question.
"Could you handle goats' milk?" Mr Cutler asked.
"Yes," I replied quickly, to noises of agreement from the kitchenette.
Mr Cutler spoke again.
"You look as if you could handle anything..." he said, leaving a pause hanging in the air.
"... except pleasure."