At the launch of his book Grant & I at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery in early September, Robert Forster was quizzed on growing up in the near-police state of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland during the 1970s. Many of the punk acts he was switched on to were political, agit-propists and didactic nihilists, like Brisbane’s first great band The Saints, but his band, the Go-Betweens, trod a different kind of political path.
“We were political,” says Forster, through the pursed lips that form part of his trademark look. “We were fey boys clutching acoustic guitars, singing about librarians and Lee Remick. In Queensland in 1978 that was a political act.”
Queensland, and Australia, in 1978 were places that valued a very particular form of masculinity. The music of the time did too, regardless of which stream it existed within. The big acts of the day had moved from the androgyny and excess of glam rock toward the pub rock that remains the dominant sound of Australiana – from AC/DC to Cold Chisel, and later the bombast of Midnight Oil and Hunters and Collectors. For the uninitiated, Robert Forster and the Go-Betweens were a different kind of beast.
“We were fey boys clutching acoustic guitars, singing about librarians and Lee Remick. In Queensland in 1978 that was a political act.”
The Go-Betweens favoured subtlety and space. They were the studious invention of Forster and Grant McLennan, an idea honed over two years of undergraduate chatter, the sort of remaking of the ideal world that great groups attempt. Theirs was a world where the interior acted a place of refuge, “a world of books and silent times in thought”. Their musical expression of said interiority perhaps sounded as shy and twee as the notion suggests, but there was something bold and punk about the presentation of these ideas.
Early Go-Betweens shows found the band, eventually joined by Forster’s towering girlfriend Lindy Morrison on magnificently idiosyncratic drums, supporting the Birthday Party and Laughing Clowns. To address the snarling crowds waiting on a young Nick Cave’s abuse, it took some belief to brave these stages. Forster embraced the discord, never questioning his place on the stage.
Examples of this kind of pop star rose through the ’80s – most obviously in Morrissey, but also in Edwyn Collins of Orange Juice and Stephen Pastel of the Pastels, plus key Flying Nun acts like the Clean and the Verlaines. Later still we had Belle and Sebastian, Beat Happening and the Vaselines to name a handful. But Australian men were not addressing microphones like this before Forster, and he did so before the Go-Betweens left Brisbane for London. He was arch and wry and smartly dressed since arriving at Queensland University. In Grant & I he writes of a great confidence bestowed by his family early. He felt like a ‘golden boy’, and mixing this belief with a great desire to emulate his heroes (Bowie, Jonathan Richman, Tom Verlaine, David Byrne, Bryan Ferry) allowed Forster to create his best self with impunity. Many may have shared those influences but lacked the moxie to carry the look into Fortitude Valley. Forster never lacked moxie.
Did he drink beer? Would you take tea? Would he steal your partner whilst wearing eyeliner and lipstick?
As the band continued in London and then Sydney, Forster’s style grew wilder. He wore make-up and drag in videos and appearances, always without explanation. It was simply what he chose to wear that day. Perhaps the group, always hurt by the rejection of the mainstream, never quite cottoned on to how out of step they were, how outré and strange. But just as the songs were too smart and layered for an easy pop hit (even their towering single Streets of Your Town carries a reference to ‘battered wives’), Forster was too knowingly out of kilter with our expectations of what a rock singer was meant to be, to look like, how one was meant to speak and act. He was his own man, and a different kind of man at that.
Though the narrative of the Go-Betweens was critical darlings ignored by the charts, the music is now rightly venerated. They were one of the most significant, unique and frequently brilliant acts this country has produced. Less commented on is the effect Forster and McLennan had on changing the idea of what an Australian rock singer is.
From Bon Scott to Peter Garrett and Barnsey, male Australian rock singers were seen as hard-drinking denim-clad brawlers. Michael Hutchence added a Jim Morrison-meets-the synthetic-’80s sexiness to the mix, and Paul Kelly proffered a vision of a people’s poet later that decade, but the uniting factor is that these were all blokes you’d have a beer with. The Go-Betweens, and Forster in particular, were different. Did he drink beer? Would you take tea? Would he steal your partner whilst wearing eyeliner and lipstick?
It took a while for Australian acts to catch up with the new masculinity Forster forged. Tim Rogers of You Am I had a little of the playfulness, but still covered his rhythmic backing in loudness, burying the vulnerability in overdrive pedals and the wild windmilling of the axe. Forster’s true acolytes emerged through acts like the Lucksmiths and later on the Crayon Fields, Twerps and Dick Diver. The melodies unadorned, the guitars bright and chiming, the accent Australian and the presentation of gender nuanced, playful and gentle.
His is a story of ignoring the primary mode of being to create something a little more interesting
The easiest way to quell the ripple in a crowd, a heckler or naysayer, is to crank the volume. From the off, Forster was brave enough to go quiet, and express another form of being a man. Now he’s a Brisbane-based father, whose son is in a fine group of his own. Predictably, that son is skinny and angular, dry and arch. The apple hasn’t fallen far, as it were, but in this case it’s interesting that a teenage boy, growing up in the wired world, saw his father’s example of how to be and decided that it was a good path to call his own. Forster’s example allowed many of us to drop the need to express ourselves in the dominant form of Australian masculinity and instead gun for
a style that speaks of gentility, decency, humour, playfulness and charm. His is a story of ignoring the primary mode of being to create something a little more interesting.
After his performance at the Portrait Gallery, Forster stood behind a small desk, signing copies of his really very fine book. And with all those in the line, which snaked well beyond the front doors, he spent a few minutes, asking questions, offering gags, shaking hands, thanking with the kind of genuine focus we rarely, I’d argue, witness up close. Never once checking his watch as staff fluttered about him, trying (failing) to move the line along. He had a little time for each of us. That line about never meeting your heroes? Forster put himself second to his male creative counterpart in the title of his own book – that’s a man worth meeting.