Robert Forster – The 10 Rules of Rock ’n’ Roll (Jawbone Press, 2011)

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The Aussie eighties indie scene produced a number of artists as good as the finest that the rest of the world had to offer.  Presumably we all know Nick Cave in his various guises, but in spite of the time that has passed the likes of the Triffids, Dead Can Dance, and best of all the Go Betweens sound as fresh to me as the day the needle first hit the vinyl.

The fulcrum of the Go Betweens throughout their various incarnations was the two principal songwriters Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan. They met at the University of Queensland in 1976 and their friendship endured some 30 years through various band line ups, and a decade long solo intermission, right up to McLennan’s tragically early death in 2006.  Each was excellent in their own distinctive way – Grant’s songs initially the more immediate (eg Cattle and Cane, Bye Bye Pride, Streets of Your Town), but Robert who latterly had the greater hit rate (eg 121, German Farmhouse, Here Comes a City, Born to a Family etc). Their songs were typically literate, sun-drenched pop lifted by the interplay between the two songwriters guitars and some wry, pin sharp, lyrics. Take, for example, the first lines of Forster’s ‘Baby Stones’:

“You say you want to take a lover

Although you’re satisfied with me

We have to open our horizons my love

We can, but you’ll do it without me…”

(Robert Forster ‘Baby Stones’ from ‘Danger in the Past’, Beggars Banquet 1990)

If you’ve never heard it a recent solo live performance video can be found at the below link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yooYbRLje8

In the seven years that have passed since Grant’s death Robert has continued to play live occasionally but has produced only a single solo album – 2008’s ‘The Evangelist’.  Much of his time seems to have been spent as the resident music critic on Australian magazine ‘The Monthly’ and this book showcases the best of his writing on music up until 2011. The immediate hook for Go Betweens fans will be two articles: the first Robert’s raw, heartfelt, tribute to Grant published just two months after his death, the second a piece on the making of ‘The Evangelist’ and how it came to include completed versions of a couple of songs that McLennan had been working on when he left us. The first of these pieces is particularly strong in getting across the empathy that, in spite of their differences and occasional geographical separations, kept their friendship strong to the end. For example take this section on Grant’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts:

“I knew I could ask him anything on any artistic frontier and he’d have an answer… Erudite, logical, authoritative and never condescending… the person you can go to who is so much on your wavelength, stocked with shared experience… who, as a fellow artist, you can go toe to toe with and always come away totally inspired by. Well that’s a great thing.”

As for the rest of the book, well Forster writes as precisely and insightfully as his lyrics would lead you to expect. This allows him to pass on a musician’s insights, often so successfully that on a couple of occasions it sent me scurrying to find that old, long filed away, CD or record for another spin on the stereo.  The article where he sets out to debunk the myth of the Monkees lack of authenticity is excellent, balanced and reasonable on a subject where much nonsense has been written down the years. While there are many other highlights, the pieces on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Show Your Bones’ and Vampire Weekend’s debut also stood out.  Even where a critical kicking is called for, as in the review of AC/DC’s ‘Black Ice’, he manages to be constructive, empathetic and engaging. For example on Angus Young:

“That schoolboy uniform… is still there, although it’s been subtly altered over time… as if the significance of the costume is slowly being bled out of it… as rock ’n’ roll gimmicks go it’s a great one. But it’s also a trap, and the older Angus gets, the sillier it looks. A black T-Shirt and a pair of jeans are waiting: so is the next great AC/DC album”.

If there is one minor quibble it is that some of the artists reviewed are little known outside of Australia – but then again if one of these turns out to be the next David McComb or Nick Cave, I don’t see how we can reasonably complain.

But what of the ten rules of rock and roll? Well some are better than others: ‘#1 Never Follow an artist who describes his or her work as ‘dark’’ is clearly sound advice and ‘#5 The band that has the most tattoos has the worst songs’ is obviously true, but ‘#8 Every great artist hides behind their manager’? Yet not every artist who hides behind their manager is great so…? The answer is that the point of these pieces is not to start or win an argument but to make you feel as though you are hearing the music in the company of a compassionate, erudite and likeable friend. Somehow I think Grant would have approved and that, Mr Forster, is a great thing indeed.

Phil Barnes

20 April 2013

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