FORGOTTEN GEM: The Go-Betweens “16 Lovers Lane”

The Go-Betweens are one of those bands who never quite got the attention they deserved. Of the nine studio albums they made, their sixth, “16 Lovers Lane”, stands out as the most beautiful and influential.

As singers, writers and guitarists, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster were not only the heart of the Go-Betweens but also one of the best songwriting duos in pop-rock history. Arguably the best Australian group of all time, the Go-Betweens released their defining album in 1988. Arguably “16 Lovers Lane” is one of the best albums ever made.

Having started the band in 1978 in Brisbane, Australia, McLennan and Forster moved to London and got on with recording a succession of critically acclaimed but commercially under-performing albums including “Tallulah”, “Spring Hill Fair” and “Liberty Belle & The Black Diamond Express”.

“As dramatic as it is understated”

Opening with ‘Love Goes On’ and the immortal line ‘There’s a cat in the alleyway dreaming of birds that are blue. Sometimes girl when I’m lonely this is how I think about you’, the tone as indicated by the title”16 Lovers Lane” is clearly set – an album of songs about the trials and tribulations of love. And like all the best love songs, they will break your heart every time you hear them.

With the introduction of ‘Quiet Heart’ openly inspired by U2’s ‘With Or Without You’, the album evolves delicately with this gently lullaby to lost love and lines like ‘I tried to tell you, I can only say it when we’re apart about this storm inside of me and how I miss your quiet heart’.

And yet although, “16 Lovers Lane” does have its many heartbreaking moments, the shimmering elegant acoustic pop of songs like the hugely infectious, sunshine pop gem that is ‘Streets Of Your Town’ and ‘Love Goes On’ more than express the beauty and commercial potential of which they were always capable. “16 Lovers Lane” is one of those albums where everything from the songwriting, production, lyrics, instrumentation and the vocals all come together to make something as dramatic as it is understated and moving.

The two mainstays always shared songwriting and vocal responsibilities and on their albums with McLennan’s more gentle, natural and accessible vocals and melodies contrasting with and complementing Forster’s rather spiky, artful songs. Forster never really sang, but spoke melodically in a slightly clipped way.

Other songs on the album include the sweet and brief ‘Devils Eye’ and the gentle, romantic harmonies of ‘Clouds’, which remind you of how it feels to be with the person you were always destined to be with and that being together forever can be a wonderful thing. But it’s not all sweetness and light as in the spiky and aggressive end of a relationship fable on ‘Was There Anything I Could Do?’

Although “16 Lovers Lane” is the Forgotten Gem here, I would argue that Go-Betweens themselves are the true Forgotten Gem. as one of the most under-rated bands and writing partnerships of all time. Lennon & McCartney and Jagger & Richards were undoubtedly hugely creative and successful partnerships but for me, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster have written some of the most beautiful songs of all time. “16 Lovers Lane” just shows them at their creative peak.

After “16 Lovers Lane”, McLennan and Forster decided to take a break from the Go-Betweens and work on solo albums, which they did for 12 years until they were asked to perform at a 10th anniversary party for renowned French music magazine ‘Les Inrockuptibles’. They did and it went so well that they recorded three more critically acclaimed albums over the next six years, although mainstream commercial success still somehow eluded them.

“Deep down I’m lonely and I miss my friend”

Sadly, Grant McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006. So there will be no more Go-Betweens albums, although Robert Forster has since released a solo album “The Evangelist”. On ‘Dive For Your Memory’ from 16 Lovers Lane’, Forster sings ‘Deep down I’m lonely and I miss my friend’ and although it was initially written about a relationship break-up, eighteen years later and with McLennan’s sad passing away, this song seems more poignant than ever.

A huge influence on bands like REM, Belle & Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand, the Go-Betweens’s catalogue of albums are full of openly romantic and  idealistic lyrics with a gentle undertow of occasionally spiky and naturally melancholy optimism.

Perhaps the Go-Betweens were never destined to be loved by the masses (not necessarily a bad thing) but if you have not yet listened to “16 Lovers Lane”, listen to it now. It’s graceful, sublime and truly magnificent. And in your darkest days,  it will give you the hug you need when you need it most. And that can only be a good thing.

Words: Jason Newton


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