Andrew McMillen

Robert Forster: 15 Songs About Brisbane

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On Saturday, 18 September 2010, Robert Forster performed 15 Songs About Brisbane at the Brisbane Powerhouse. This is what he said between songs.

Lee Remick: “Thank you for coming out tonight. We’ve got a big program tonight. We have to be finished by 11 o’clock. Noise complaints. People live near the Powerhouse, in an arts precinct, and want it dead quiet by 11 o’clock on a Saturday night. Move out to Mt Gravatt! Move out to The Gap! That’s what I say. I’m going to do 15 Songs About Brisbane tonight. These are songs that are, in many ways, connected to this town. I wrote them here, or they were recorded here, or somewhere there’s a connection between these songs and this town. The first song I’d like to play tonight, I wrote at The Gap in 1977. I was living with my parents. I had a bedroom out the back. I wrote this when it was 20. From what I can gather, it’s the only song I’ve written with Brisbane in the lyric.”

Who’s That Dressed In Black: “That song was written at The Gap. In the following year, I moved to a house in Toowong, at 10 Golding Street. I moved in with Grant McLennan, a medical student, a social work student and an archeology student. Which are sort of the three ingredients of The Go-Betweens: medicine, social work and archeology are basically the foundation of the band. So I moved into this house. It was a Queensland. The band had been going for around six months when I moved in there. Grant started to write riffs on the bass guitar and on the acoustic guitar, as well. One day I was in the house, and he played me this riff [plays riff] and asked, “what do you think of it?” I said, “oh, that’s fantastic!” He’d walk around the house; I’d be having breakfast in the morning. Grant would walk in with a bass guitar and start playing that riff. He said, “Can we write a song together around that riff?” And we did. I’ll play it to you now.”

Love Wasn’t Made For You And Me: “This is another song written at Golding Street, in 1979. We played it about five times. It’s a song I always liked. It’s called ‘Love Wasn’t Made For You And Me’.”

Your Turn, My Turn: “At the end of 1979, Grant and I went to London for six months, and then we came back to Brisbane. Soon after we came back, Lindy Morrison joined the band, and we got two flats in Spring Hill, where we lived. One was in a place called Darling Court, which is in Phillips St. It’s a beautiful, art-deco two storey apartment block. It’s still there, but it’s changed somewhat. Lindy and I lived on St Paul’s Terrace, in a squat, brick, three-storey block of flats that’s still there, just before you go down the hill into the Valley. We lived there for about a year and a half. We practiced and wrote a lot. I’d like to play a song that Grant I wrote together from that time.”

Part Company: “In 1982, we moved overseas and loved in London for five years. We made four albums there, and we’d come back to Brisbane to play on tour. One of them was called Spring Hill Fair, which Grant named. I’d like a play a song from that album.”

I’m Alright: “After five years in London, we came back to Australia in November 1987. The rest of the band – Grant, Lindy, Amanda – they all went down to Sydney. I came back to Brisbane, and moved into The Gap with my mum and dad. I was back in the same room. My young brother had moved out. It was a golden time, because I’d spent five difficult years in London, with little money, so I weight about six stone-ten [pounds]. I moved in and I had to write songs, because we were going to go to Sydney in the new year and make 16 Lovers Lane. So I was back in The Gap, and I didn’t really know anyone around town. It was a golden time. I’d wake up in the morning. My parents would go off to work. I was 30. I was at home again, in the house I’d grown up in, and I had to write these songs.

So I’d wake up around 9 or 10, have my muesli, put on my favourite blue jeans, my favourite blue flanellette shirt that my mother would have to wash every day, and a cup of coffee. I had the house all to myself, and a record player. I had two records: Born In The USA, by Bruce Springsteen, and the second Jesus & Mary Chain album, Darklands. So I’d get up and put on ‘No Surrender’ and ‘Bobby Jean’ by The Boss, and then a bit of that Glasgow, gloomy, two-chord Mary Chain music, and then I’d start.

It was about seven weeks I was out there, before I flew down, but I knew Grant was writing songs in Sydney and they were all getting ready. It felt good; I was tucked away in Brisbane, writing these songs to take down to Sydney, and make a classic. I finished off some of the songs that I had, over the last year and a bit, and I wrote one new song that I wrote flat in the six or seven weeks that I was there. If you hear a little bit of The Boss, and a little bit of The Jesus & Mary Chain… well, you mightn’t even hear any of that, but just take a guess.”

Love Is A Sign

The Circle: “We made 16 Lovers Lane. About a year and a half later, the band broke up. I lived in Germany for three and a half years. I made my album, Danger In The Past. I wrote some more songs, then came back to Brisbane with my German wife, Karin, in 1992. Moved into Rockbourne Terrace, Paddington. Danger In The Past was recorded in the world-famous Hansa Studios in Berlin. I had the songs, and had the idea of going back to the studio – or seeing if the studio still existed – where we recorded ‘Lee Remick’ and ‘Karen’. That was my first aim. Secondly, was to find young musicians. Musicians I didn’t know. So I went to the one place in Brisbane where, if you’re a little bit disoriented, you’re looking for information, you’re looking for people – there’s only one place you can go.

So I walked into Rockinghorse Records, and I said to Warwick Vere – who’s run the shop since 1975 – “I need a band. I need some young musicians around town.” He told me to go to the Queens Arms on a Sunday night, down there on James Street. I walked in and there was a band on stage called COW. Had some members from Custard in it. I liked this band a great deal, and I thought that was the starting place. It’s my great pleasure to announce that the drummer from that night at the Queens Arms, back in 1992, is here tonight. Mr Glenn Thompson, with Adele Pickvance. And we’re going to play a song that we recorded for an album called Calling From A Country Phonei, which was the first album I’d ever recorded in Brisbane. We’re going to play a song now, called ‘The Circle’.

I Can Do

Snake Skin Lady: “Up from Sydney for the night! [Glenn and Adele] Lived two and a half years in Rockbourne Terrace. It wasn’t all that inspiring. Wrote about one or two songs in that whole two and a half years. Came back to Brisbane; couldn’t write songs. Thought of giving it up. Thought it’d left me. I’d written songs for about 14 years at that stage. I thought all the songs that I was supposed to have written, I’d already done. Two songs in two and a half years; couldn’t really go on like that. So, just by coincidence, we moved over to Highgate Hill. West End. Moved into Baynes Street. I remember starting to write songs. Wrote about eight or 10 good songs in the next two years; 1995-96. ‘I Can Do’, which we just played, was one of them.

I used to do the shopping at the main connection there, at Boundary and Vulture Streets. I used to walk down from Baynes Street around 10 or 11 in the morning. I noticed not long after I’d been there, that I’d be smelling marijuana coming out of the houses. Blocks of flats; open windows on houses, around 10 or 11 in the morning. Marijuana. I was working on a song. I had a melody; couldn’t think of the lyric. I don’t know if it had something to do with smelling this marijuana, but it threw me back to 1978. Just a connection in my mind, to when the band started. It was Grant and I, and we were looking for a female drummer. It was like we were casting the band.

Now Grant, who’d never played any musical instrument before, my best friend – he’s playing bass. The idea of the band, always, was to have women in the band. There’s women in books, women in all my favourite films, women on television; why not have women in the band? A big influence on us, in terms of formation of the band, was called Mod Squad. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that. Two men and a woman, and that’s what Grant and I.. so we were looking for a woman drummer. And the woman that we were looking for didn’t have to play the drums. No, let me rephrase that. Just the way Grant didn’t play bass at the start, we were casting the band. We were looking for the right-looking people. So were looking for a woman that wanted to learn drums. She’d learn drums for six months, then she’d join the band. It’d be like Grant. He learned to play on the job, so to speak. We didn’t know any women who were playing drums at that time.

So this was the middle of 1978. We used to go to the first punk shows around Brisbane. There was a woman who used to go to the shows, who wore snake skin pants. She looked fantastic. She had black hair, shoulder-length, looked a little bit like Patti Smith’s younger sister. Like a young Shirley MacLaine. Grant and I thought she’d be perfect for the band. We used to see her at shows. I think she saw us played when we had pick-up drummers. The idea was that we’d ask her to join the band. We called this woman – we didn’t know her name, she’d have been 20 – we called her ‘Snake Skin Lady’. And so there was this gig at a university, which was a Joint Effort [for 4ZzZ Radio], which is where I think this mind association comes from. Joint effort? I don’t know.

Anyway, she was at this dance. She used to have friends, but she’d always dance by herself, doing this sort of twist in her snakeskin pants to these bands. It was decided that I’d have to ask her to join the band. So I saw her at this gig at the joint effort. I walked up to her and I said “My name’s Robert Forster. I’m in the band called The Go-Betweens. I think you’ve seen us play. We’ve just released a few singles, and we need a woman drummer and we’d love you to join the band. Grant and I are quite happy to pay for half the kit, you can learn for six months, and then you can join the band. What do you think?” She turned to me, and she went “No”. I went “Oh, okay”. I walked back across the dancefloor, and there was Grant standing there watching this. He said “So what’d she say? What’d she say?” and I said, “She said ‘no’.” And he went “What?!” “She said no!” So I wrote a song about this. The smell of the marijuana coming out of the windows of flats in West End, in 1996. The song jumps in time. It takes in 1978. The song’s called ‘Snake Skin Lady’.”

German Farmhouse: “We lived in that house for two years. Left for Germany in 1997. Lived in Germany for years. The last song I wrote in that house – tumble, broken down house in Baynes Street, Highgate Hill – was a song called ‘German Farmhouse’. I didn’t know it then, towards the end of 1996, that I’d be recording this song with The Go-Betweens again in Portland, Oregon, in 2000. Didn’t know that.”

Born To A Family: “Came back to Brisbane, end of 2001. Go-Betweens had started again. We recorded an album in Portland, called The Friends Of Rachel Worth. Grant was living in Brisbane; he’d been living here since about 1994. He was living in New Farm, when I came back with my wife and two children, who were born during those five years back in Germany. If the Go-Betweens were going to go on, Grant and I had to be in the same city. So I came back to Brisbane, and the band started again. Like back in 1992, it took me a while to write songs. Those first 18 months – nothing. Again. Trying every day; nothing coming. Slowly, the songs started to come back to me, at a house that we moved into, and where we live ’til the current day. At The Gap, surprise, surprise. So I’m back at The Gap, writing songs. This is one of them.”

Strawberry Wine: “I’d like to do a Brisbane song, that I didn’t write. It’s by a Brisbane band called The John Steel Singers. They’ve got an album coming out in November, called Tangalooma. Fantastic-sounding album. Beautifully-produced. Great songs. They’re a great band. I’d like to do one of their songs right now. A Brisbane song.”

I’m So Happy For You: “I’d like to do a Brisbane premiere. It’s a new song that I’ve written in the last two years. I have done something over the last two years. It’s a new song, and I’d like to play it for the first time here tonight. It’s called ‘I’m So Happy For You’.”

If It Rains: “So we made some albums, and then in 2006, Grant died. That happened in Brisbane, too. Eight months after that, I made in an album in London. It’s called The Evangelist. It came about about two and a half years ago. Some of the songs on that came from working with Grant; some songs were written by myself. I’d like to play the last two songs of 15 Songs; it’s actually 16 Songs. I couldn’t cut any out. Don’t tell anyone. So these are the last two songs. One of them is called ‘If It Rains’.

I’m sure you’ll remember about three years ago, there was a very bad drought in Brisbane. You’d hear about it on the radio, that the dams were down to 17%. The backyard was brown. A lot of talk about desalination plant. This building was going to be turn into one; I don’t know. Art’s out; pumping water from the river in here, and people with buckets. It was very dry, and it went on for a very long time. I’d written this music. I didn’t have an idea for it; a song, a lyric. And then one day, in our very brown backyard at The Gap, ‘if it would only rain’. And then, ‘if it rains’. So that’s the start of the song; the other one is a song called ‘Pandanus’, which was written up in Peregian. Brisbane by the sea!”

The Prisoner (The Saints)

I Can’t See Nobody (The Bee Gees)

Head Full Of Steam: “This is our last song. I’d like to introduce on stage, on drums, Mr Matt Harrison. Special, special guest: on bass guitar, from New York City and Oxley, Mr Robert Vickers. On guitar, Mr Glenn Thompson. Bass, tambourine, vocals, Miss Adele Pickvance. Violin and vocals, Karin Baumler.”

[Here’s a link to Andrew’s totally excellent Mess And Noise interview with Robert. Well worth a read or three – Ed.]

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