That the great Forster/McLennan song writing axis emerged from Brisbane, a city hardly renowned for its musical magnificence, seems noteworthy enough, but that their third album, 1984’s Spring Hill Fair was released on Sire Records just two months before the same label spawned the all-conquering pop behemoth of Madonna’s Like A Virgin, seems all the more remarkable. While Madonna was morphing from the club sensation resplendent in fishnets, capri pants, lace and what would later seem like an arch use of the Crucifix, to a cultural icon; the fey post-punk Rough Trade world that The Go-Betweens inhabited, had in places the same immediacy and songwriting craft that could have sold a similar 21 million copies worldwide, but lacked that Nile Rodgers production sheen and was hamstrung with enough wilfully difficult moments that would forever resign them to a well-loved cult.
The brutal, yet accessible honesty of the songwriting, the type that could have easily have been successfully adapted for Madonna, is typified in Grant McLennan’s album opener ‘Bachelor Kisses’, with its lovelorn melancholic pre-chorus intoning ‘Don’t believe what you’ve heard/Faithful’s not a bad word’, in a way that could’ve melted a million teenage hearts, but instead remained the preserve of the select few. The elegiac jangle which told tales of a desperate yearning for snatched glimpses of forbidden love of soul standard ‘The Dark End of the Street’, while hinting at an unstereotypically sensitive masculine soul. But while these fragile gasps of snatched glimpses of seeing how ‘the rain surrenders to the town’ melted hearts, the more angular stomp of songs like ‘Five Words’, ‘The Old Way Out’ and in particular ‘River of Money’, were about as far removed as you could get from what Kurt Cobain would later sarcastically bemoan as being a ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.’ This was not the angularity and wilful obscurity of The Fall or Sonic Youth, but the post-punk non-linear guitars that were some way from ever troubling mainstream radio, although clearly no worse for it.
Arguably the album’s most famous song, Forster’s ‘Part Company’, is a work of sheer open heart surgery, that one a first listen one presumes that they could not have conceivably have lived this long without hearing it. Forster’s delivery, especially in the verses, verges on such dry, near spoken word fractures that reveal the conflict of having been wronged by a lover: ‘And what will I miss? Her cruelty, her unfaithfulness/ Her fun, her love, her kiss, part company.’ The ability to remain honest while without descending into self-pity or a parody of indie emotional bloodletting is key to the song’s success and it seems unlikely that there isn’t a fan of The Go-Betweens who hasn’t instinctively reached for it when compiling a compilation tape for the object of their affections.
While it certainly isn’t true of the rest of their output, Forster’s louche cool dominates the album, with the embittered tale of rejection by pampered self-importance in ‘Draining The Pool For You’ and the urgent, without ever becoming knowingly overpowering ‘Man O’Sand To Girl O’Sea’. Indeed the latter, which closes the album, manages to combine a sense of drama and pace like contemporaries The Smiths would at a similar stage of their career, without ever descending into the portentous clouds of pretention that the likes of humourless Scouse The Doors fanatics Echo and the Bunnymen would pedal with much greater commercial and immediate critical success. But this was not a band with an agenda of gothic self-loathing or overtly attempting to appeal to a disenfranchised youth, merely classic songwriting, as massive Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival fans Forster and McLennan would have attested.
The album was, for a label the size of Sire, a commercial flop and the band were promptly dropped, with the follow-up and arguably their career high ‘Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express’ arriving on Beggars Banquet in 1986, with the indie label being a much more natural fit for such relatively idiosyncratic talents. ‘Spring Hill Fair’ may not be a faultless record and Foster and McLennan certainly matured as songwriters in the years that followed, but it remains a much overlooked gem from a much maligned or stereotyped period of music. Certainly, there are times when the production values force the listener to blanche at a testament of just how not to record drums, but as a study in how to be simultaneously urgent, emotionally vulnerable and eccentrically joyous, few albums will be bettered.