ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
I bought Spring Hill Fair on cassette at a Brashs store in Dandenong, of all places. I was still in my early teens and so my only exposure to alternative music (we didn’t call it “alternative” back then) was The Cure, The Church, Depeche Mode, and New Order.
No longer was it Countdown Magazine or Smash Hits where I sought out new and interesting music. I put aside my childish ways. It quickly became NME, Juke, and that weird little pocket-sized local magazine called A To Z that I picked up at Sound Circle. Spring Hill Fair became my gateway drug to independent music.
Of course, I didn’t realize that there was a history to this band. This was their third album and they were from Brisbane. The only other band I knew from there was The Saints and they were pretty good, I thought. I had an open mind. I then learned that Send Me a Lullaby (1981) and Before Hollywood (1983) were their earlier releases and they had somehow been signed to Rough Trade in the UK.
As I put on the cassette into our Vector Research VCX400 cassette deck, the first song came on. Starting with the gorgeous “Bachelor Kisses,” the album made a statement by wearing pop on its sleeve. Singer/songwriter, (the late) Grant McLennan, once commented; “I think we are a pop group, but we’re the most unusual pop group there’s ever been. Although we work with melody, we sometimes work against it, and that’s like one of the cardinal sins of pop music.” I didn’t find anything remotely musically angular or lyrically ironic in this song. Just some interesting and heartfelt pop hooks and melody. In retrospect, it kind of reminds me of Prefab Sprout who were also making their mark in the UK music scene at the time. This is thoughtful, articulate pop music.
By the second track, “Five Words”, I now totally get what McLennan was saying about working against the melody. This wasn’t untuneful; just different. Nice acoustic rhythms with vocal assertions coming from Robert Forster whilst counter-balanced with McLennan’s melodic sense. McLennan and Forster exchange lyrics and are blending so much that I forget who is singing and when. In the background are Lindy Morrison's rim-shots and brushwork tying it all together with new bassist, Robert Vickers.
“The Old Way Out” is an instant classic. The song is so memorable that you can literally sing the chorus after one listen – this is just good pop that forces me to invest my loyalty into the hooks. Then there are the tasty two-note guitar licks. I’m sold. No buyer’s remorse here.
The next couple of songs sees Forster taking charge of the lyrics and vocal duties. Of particular noteworthiness is “Part Company” where we hear Forster excel as a lyricist. “That’s her handwriting, that’s the way she writes. From her first letter, I got to this her Bill Of Rights, part company.” This is not bitter songwriting as Forster expresses his “fine line of tears.” His chosen lyrical delivery device is a pop song that occasionally cuts across to an almost beat poetry-style adaptation. This is a fitting approach for someone that has lost somebody so dear and it seems entirely relatable in the way he finds solace within the song itself. It appears the band is trying to deconstruct or reinvent pop music, or at least is deliberately attempting a broken version of it.
Side two starts with Vickers’ tasty funk bass playing leading into... funk guitar playing! But it’s not funk. It sounds like a band playing funk but not trying too hard to do so. I know, it doesn’t make sense but it sounds more Australian than funk. “I got myself a mortgage, it didn’t save the marriage. We weren’t insured, insured against breakage. If you believe in orphans there’s still a chance for love,” blurts out McLennan. And then Memphis-style horns fade in during the chorus whilst still sounding Australian.
“Draining The Pool For You” is a 1984 version of The Pixies, in its chordal structure, its stop-start beats, its guitar noodling, its laid-back feel, its simple guitar solo that leads into some Kim Deal-esque “la las” and Black Francis style phrasing. The only difference is the guitars aren’t loud or heavy. This is one fine song.
A slow drum beat with a bass line fading in with a discordant guitar is the perfect opening for McLennan’s overlaid spoken word storytelling in “River Of Money.” The voice is so clear and dry with the author so close to the listener that it’s almost haunting. The story is like watching a little black-and-white film shot somewhere north of Victoria. This is cinematic and it kind of reminds me that we once had our own version of Bob Dylan in Australia. There is even harmonica at the end of the song. “Unkind And Unwise” and “Man O’ Sand To Girl O’ Sea” are just as exciting to hear today in their Smiths-like pop approach.
Interestingly it sounded like they were using a drum machine in some of the songs which years later I found out was true. Producer, John Brand, “...spent the first week with drums and drum machines – just a very, very bad scene.,” said Forster. It’s reported the band found the sessions frustrating because it wasn’t as organic as previous efforts in the studio. Side two of the record “...is harder than anything we ever did. It was recorded on an SSL desk and it’s sonically quite ferocious,” added Forster.
Some reviews have not been kind to The Go-Betweens on this album. Some called it substandard but I like the diversity and I get what they are doing because the impression they leave is not an immediate one, it comes with repeated playing. There is a certain vulnerability that this band omits and it makes some people uncomfortable; maybe a bit like The Smiths.
Perhaps the most illuminating commentary I have heard about this band around this time came from Grant McLennan himself. In an interview for Melody Maker in 1983, he said “people often mistake subtlety or reticence for naivety or wimpiness…if people do that then it's quite pathetic. You just can't have those two qualities if you want to be in the charts, so that's our dilemma…" The lack of large-scale commercial success eluded this wonderful group but at least they did put their music out there. In today’s day and age, one will find them if they are looking hard enough.