For many, 16 Lovers Lane is the record that defines Australian indie legends The Go-Betweens. Released in 1988, it was the last album to feature long-standing drummer Lindy Morrison and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown, and includes some of the band’s most iconic tracks – ‘Streets of Your Town’, ‘Was There Anything I Could Do?’ and ‘Love Goes On’ to name a few. Soon after the album’s release, the band dissolved amidst internal tensions – and when founding members Robert Forster and Grant McLennan reformed the band back in 2000, Morrison and Brown were not invited back into the fold. Morrison and Brown continued to perform both together and individually, and the “new” Go-Betweens lineup released two albums before McLennan’s death in 2006.
In July of this year, Morrison, Brown and the album’s bassist John Willsteed reunited to perform 16 Lovers Lane together in Brisbane. Commissioned by Katie Noonan of george as part of Queensland Festival, it was the first time the trio had all played music together in three decades, and the performance included a host of guest vocalists including Kirin J Callinan, Montaigne and Jen Boyce of Ball Park Music.
“It was fabulous,” says Morrison of the evening. “I haven’t played some of those songs since 1989 so for me it was just wonderful. The band had never played some of those songs live at all — we had never played ‘You Can’t Say No Forever’, nor we had ever played ‘The Devil’s Eye’.
Morrison, Brown and Willsteed will perform the iconic album once more this month as part of Sydney Festival, again including guest vocalists like Romy Vager, Shogun of Royal Headache and Izzi Manfredi of The Preatures.
“The way the show works is that we do the album, and then we do some b-sides and some other favourites. You couldn’t not do ‘Cattle and Cane’, for instance.”
For Morrison, collaborating with other artists and sharing pieces of those songs with other musicians was one of the most rewarding aspects of the project. “For me, that was probably the best part,” she says. “To see Kirin J Callinan do ‘Twin Layers of Lightning’ or to see Katie Noonan doing ‘Quiet Heart’ – I mean, you could not imagine anything more beautiful than that. Having these singers come in and sing with their beautiful voices is just extraordinary, because you see how great the songs are, how authentic they are — how original the lyrics, how unique the melodies. All of that comes out when you hear someone else sing them.”
Morrison’s continuing passion for new Australian music shines through when she excitedly gushes about the musicians slated to sing as part of the 16 Lovers Lane show, “Rob Snarski from the Blackeyed Susans is going to be doing ‘Apology Accepted’ with Romy Vager, it’s going to be amazing!” Artists like Shogun of Royal Headache (“I am such a fan of him; he’s got such a beautiful voice but he’s such a punk!”) and Kirin J Callinan receive similarly enthusiastic appraisals. “Kirin is doing ‘You Can’t Say No Forever’ as well as ‘Twin Layers of Lightning’. I love Kirin, one of my favourite songs is ‘(Just Another) Song About Drugs’.”
You see how great the songs are, how authentic they are — how original the lyrics, how unique the melodies. All of that comes out when you hear someone else sing them.
Looking back on 16 Lovers Lane, Morrison’s drumming anchors the bittersweet album with its understated rhythms. “It’s a very romantic album, and quite forlorn and melancholy in many ways”, Morrison replies when I ask what reflecting on the album is like after all these years. “It speaks to lost love and longing, so I can’t say I feel incredibly happy when I listen, but I still can’t get over the beauty of the production of the album, nor can I get over how great the songs are, they really are great.”
The Go-Betweens are arguably one of the country’s most mythologised bands, but Morrison has long stopped publicly discussing the group’s tumultuous history. She has described The Go-Betweens: Right Here, the documentary about the group directed by Kriv Stenders and released earlier this year, as her “final say” of sorts on the matter. “There is a lot of mythologising about The Go-Betweens and I think that’s because it is such an interesting story, I can’t deny that”, she says when I ask how she manages to avoid self-mythologising while re-creating the band’s landmark album — and the necessary press cycle that comes with it.
“It’s a truly authentic story, so that’s why people like to talk about it, and why people keep asking questions about it — despite the fact that the film, for me, was the last word. People still want to talk about specific incidents and events and are still obsessing over the breakup. I don’t want to talk about the story any more, but I’m happy to talk about a project. So it’s a fine line between self-mythologising and letting the work speak, but at the end of the day, I have the opportunity to play these songs and I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me to do that.”
The band’s history often sees Morrison and Brown being positioned as little more than the former partners of Forster and McLennan – something Morrison refutes with conviction in the documentary. There is a moment in the film where Morrison, sitting beside Brown, puts it bluntly. “Both of us refused to be defined as ‘the girlfriends’ – and that’s what they did when they dumped us. They treated us like ex-wives, and that was the greatest insult”.
There seems to be a sense of empowerment, then, in Morrison and Brown finally being able to perform these songs themselves — a bold declaration that they have as much place in the band’s history as anyone else. “I’ve been trying to say for 25 years that I had as much place in the band’s history,” says Morrison, “But very few people were really listening. You read any interview with Robert and Grant and we were never mentioned in 25 years. It was very hurtful, because I felt my contribution was enormous. My involvement in [the 16 Lovers Lane performance] really just stemmed from a chance to play the songs. You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to play those songs. You really do find salvation in art, so to spend a whole year, really — six months leading up to the Queensland performance and six months leading up to this — having a creative project to hold onto, it is so inspiring. It gives you a reason to live.”
I’ve been trying to say for 25 years that I had as much place in the band’s history.
Morrison has remained active as a musician since The Go-Betweens first disbanded, but has been getting especially ‘drum-fit’ – “particularly necessary at my age”, she says – for the better part of the last year, practicing every day. “I’ve been driving down, hiring a studio, spending at least an hour, playing full on”. She’s also been regularly been performing drumming duties for acts such as rising star Alex the Astronaut and Dave Mason of The Reels. In the documentary, Morrison comments that the breakup of The Go-Betweens has been “substantial” for her and Brown’s individual careers – “because it made us want to seriously make a mark”. Morrison has spent decades ensuring that mark has been left, and will be remembered as much as an icon of the Australian music scene as anyone.
With the advent of the internet, as well as the recently-released documentary, there’s been a renewed interest in The Go-Betweens among a younger audience. Their legacy has carried on through the jangly pop melodies of contemporary indie groups like Twerps and Dick Diver, as well as Grant & I, Robert Forster’s 2016 memoir about the group. Morrison – who only joined Facebook last year – says it’s been incredible to discover that so many people continue to love and support the band.
“It feels fabulous. It’s been a very good year,” she says, reflectively. “A career in show biz is so up and down. One year you’re up, and one year you’re down. Sometimes it’s ten years you’re up, ten years you’re down. I think it’s great and I’m so happy that young people are finding our music and loving it. I’m also grateful for all the old fans who’ve continued to support us. I always knew the work would stand up, but I’m really grateful that there’s so much love for the band and the music and my quaint, simple drum playing. People get it.”
16 Lovers Lane will be performed Thursday January 18 at Sydney’s State Theatre. Tickets are currently sold out. The Go-Betweens: Right Here is currently available for viewing through abc iview.