Grant W. McLennan of Australia’s the Go-Betweens, one of the defining indie bands of the 1980s, died in his sleep on Saturday at his home in Brisbane. He was 48.
Anchored by McLennan and his songwriting partner, Robert Forster, the Go-Betweens combined meticulous songcraft with a spare, sometimes experimental approach to recording and instrumentation, earning the group a hardy fan base without considerable commercial success. After a breakup in 1989, the group reunited in the late 1990s, recording with the members of Sleater-Kinney and winning an award from the Australian Recording Industry Association in 2005 for the album Oceans Apart.
McLennan was born in 1958, in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia. While attending university in Brisbane he met Forster, a fellow student. With Forster on guitar, McLennan on bass and drummer Dennis Cantwell, they recorded two singles for the Able label, including the 1978 debut Lee Remick/Karen. Almost immediately they began to attract interest in the U.K.; Scotland’s influential Postcard Records released the Go-Betweens’ third single, I Need Two Heads, in 1980.
By the release of Send Me a Lullaby, the band’s 1981 debut album, the Go-Betweens had expanded to four pieces, including drummer Lindy Morrison, who would become a long-term member. Released on Missing Link, the album was picked up for distribution in the U.K. by Rough Trade. That relationship inspired the band’s move to London, where it released the follow-up album Before Hollywood in 1983. With the addition of bassist Robert Vickers, which allowed McLennan to join Forster on guitar, the album featured the group’s best-known song, McLennan’s autobiographical Cattle and Cane. The song, said to be one of Bono’s favorites, was recently named one of the ten greatest Australian songs of all time.
Enthusiastic word-of-mouth led to a brief arrangement with major label Sire Records, which released Spring Hill Fair in 1984. Still facing scant commercial success, McLennan and Forster were contemplating a return to Australia when Beggars Banquet stepped in. The group recorded three more albums for that label, touching the bottom of the U.K. album charts with 1987’s Tallulah (at Number Ninety-One) and 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane (at Number Eighty-One) before calling it quits at the beginning of the new decade.
With Steve Kilbey of the Church, McLennan recorded an album as Jack Frost. As a solo act billed as G. W. McLennan, he released four critically acclaimed albums beginning with 1991’s Watershed. A support slot with Forster that year at a Lloyd Cole show in Toronto led to rumors of a reunion, but it was not until the end of the decade that the comeback became official. In 2000, the songwriting team released its first album in a dozen years, The Friends of Rachel Worth, recorded in Portland, Oregon, with backing help from the members of Sleater-Kinney. Last year’s award-winning Oceans Apart was followed in early 2006 by the live CD/DVD That Striped Sunlight Sound.
Once lauded by the critic Robert Christgau as “the greatest songwriting partnership working today,” the two founders behind the Go-Betweens are survived by a wealth of recordings. Upon the group’s breakup Beggars Banquet put out a compilation, 1978-1990, and the label reissued the Go-Betweens’ first six albums on CD in 1996. Despite their career-long struggle to achieve sales that matched the power of their reviews, McLennan and Forster could claim an inordinate amount of diehard fans: TV producer Evan Katz recently wrote a company called McLennan-Forster into the storyline of his show 24 in tribute to his favorite band.