Monday, January 3, 2011

The Go-Betweens - 78 'til 79: the Lost Album

She comes from Ireland, she's very beautiful
I come from Brisbane, and I'm quite plain

78 'til 79: the Lost Album (1999) ***

The Go-Betweens' first single was released in May 1978 ("Lee Remick" b/w "Karen") and second single in May 1979 ("People Say" b/w "Don't Let Him Come Back"), and they bookend this 33-minute, 13-song collection.   Sandwiched between are rough two-track bedroom demos, Grant McLennan providing the two-track machine and Robert Forster the bedroom - as well as the songs.  At this point, Forster was the sole songwriter as well as guitarist and lead singer; McLennan's creativity was limited to a couple of co-writes and the bass guitar, of which his playing seemed determined to break out and assert his creative input (which is to say his bass parts are quite strong and good).  Amazingly, the Go-Betweens seemed to have emerged fully formed even at this earliest of points (they'd only just formed in December of '77), as their talent and intuitive mastery of the basics of the formal songwriting craft shine through even on the poorly-recorded bedroom tapes.  The sound quality is dodgy and at points hiss crackles and the sound recording drops out, but when you're dealing with confessional singer-songwritering, audio fidelity is if not really beside the point at least not really all that important:  a couple of flatmates singing in harmony, a couple of guitars, someone to press play - what more do you need?  As for the song quality of the demos, they more than show promise, they're good songs in their own right, if not quite fully developed into the classically mature Go-Betweens mold.  Forster is writing more simply at this early stage, with the hooks, choruses, and melodies rather basic compared to his later work.

Simple and basic equal effective on both sides of their debut single, though.  "Lee Remick" is a delightfully bouncy ode to the film star, with Forster shyly admitting and giving in to his teenage crush fantasies in an ultra-poppy, ultra-boppy tune that with a little polish and transport back to 1966 could've been a hit for the Hollies or Turtles.  Rough edges are part of the charm, anyways, and "Karen" is even more striking, if much less commercial.  Channeling a blatant Jonathan Richman influence, Forster nervously declares his near-psychotic obsession with the said-named librarian, until he reaches a feverous pitch near the end when he starts ranting about how all the other girls have Eskimo blood in their veins.  Balancing on three of the most basic of chords (it's in E) pounded and strummed with extreme repetition, the music provides a hypnotically obsessive bedrock that complements the obsessiveness in Forster's sung-spoken declamations, namedropping literary heavyweights whose books she helps him search for, while repeating her name for the chorus in a trancelike mantra.  Perhaps they did peak early, and never really improved on their first single.  It shows off their poppy and literary, Paul and John, nice and edgy, sides in one neat package.

By track #11 it's time for "The Sound of Rain," another lost demo recording, but much more polished than the bedroom tapes.  It's a pretty tune that tells a short vignette about betrayal and murder, and would have made an excellent addition to one of their albums; one could argue for more polish, but the lo-fi quality fits the tune fine, and I can't see its lo-fi charms being much improved in the studio, tis perfect as is.  The mono-level quality works just as well for "People Say," which with its Farfisa cheese and Stonesy swagger brilliantly recreates a simalcrum of circa '66 garage rock.  The flip side, "Don't Let Him Back," with its spaghetti-western guitar and lyrical vibe, is slightly more advanced musically and production-wise than any of the preceding tracks, and no lesser or greater for all that.  This album proves that even with the most basic of materials and rudimentary musical skills, the Go-Betweens could deliver a fine quality album.  Definitely the last place to start with these new bohemians, since it is after all basically a collection of underpolished demos, but also most definitely not a waste of time.  A historical artifact of more than mere archeological value.

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