Grant McLennan, singer and songwriter: born Rockhampton, Queensland 12 February 1958; died Brisbane, Queensland 6 May 2006.
As one of Australia's most revered songwriters, and half of the songwriting team that was the core of the Brisbane band the Go-Betweens, Grant McLennan was enjoying long-overdue success at the time of his mysterious death. The band had found limited fame in the 1980s with their sensitive alt.rock love songs before burning out at the decade's end. McLennan spent the 1990s as a solo and collaborative artist, but the new millennium saw a second incarnation of the Go-Betweens finding an increasingly mainstream audience.
Born in 1958, Grant McLennan grew up in rural Queensland, where an early interest in poetry, music and cinema marked him out from his peers. After the death of his father when he was only four, his mother moved the family to Cairns, and Grant was subsequently sent off to a boarding school. He first met kindred spirit Robert Forster while the two were at university in Brisbane during the mid-Seventies, and by late 1977, they had begun to realise their mutual dream of forming a band together.
With little in the way of local role models that they looked up to, their awkward but distinctive early efforts at songwriting drew on UK and US punk and new wave influences of the time, as well as Sixties outfits such as the Velvet Underground, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Byrds. But by the time of their first album proper, Send Me a Lullaby (1981), they had recruited the drummer Lindy Morrison and the blueprint for what they would later term their "striped sunlight sound" was taking shape.
They had also spent formative periods in both Melbourne and the UK, where it became apparent that the indie audience they found there might be more receptive to their sensitive oeuvre of love songs - always somewhat at odds with what Forster has referred to as Australia's "ever-persistent garage rock revival".
In May 1982, the Go-Betweens relocated to London where they soon recorded their masterful album Before Hollywood. It featured Grant McLennan's iconic "Cattle and Cane" which became the Go-Betweens' best loved song. The lyrics vividly evoked his childhood experiences with an almost cinematic sense of place, and it was recently voted as one of the "10 greatest Australian songs of all time" by APRA (the Australian Performing Rights Association):
I recall . . . a schoolboy coming home
Through fields of cane
To a house of tin and timber
And in the sky, a rain of falling cinders . . .
The Go-Betweens spent five tough years in London, becoming what the critic Robert Christgau dubbed "the greatest cult band of the Eighties". Others referred to them as "the Australian Lennon and McCartney" for the way that McLennan's prettier pop aesthetic and starry-eyed romanticism contrasted with Forster's more angular and darkly humorous style.
Despite such lofty comparisons, the adulation heaped on them by the music press was never reflected in sales of the six remarkably consistent albums they made in that decade. Being completely at odds with the pop Zeitgeist of the era and suffering frequent changes of line-up and record label helped ensure this. By 1988 they had moved to Sydney, where, although they achieved a slicker, more radio-friendly sound on the album 16 Lovers Lane, the band fell apart the following year.
Both Forster and McLennan then embarked on solo careers. Always the more prolific songwriter, McLennan débuted in 1991 with the well received Watershed, followed by the less inspired Fireboy (1993). His most critically lauded solo work was the sprawling Horsebreaker Star (1995), with In Your Bright Ray (1998) positively received as well. He also recorded two albums as part of the group Jack Frost, with Steve Kilby of the Church, in 1991 and 1996. And in 1998, he played on an album by the Far Out Corporation with - among others - Ian Haug of Powderfinger.
McLennan and Forster were now living in separate countries, Forster having moved to Bavaria with his German wife. However, the two remained firm friends and would occasionally team up for tantalising one-off gigs and tours.
Then in 2000, to the delight of long-term fans, they reunited to record The Friends of Rachel Worth. A whole generation of younger bands from Belle and Sebastian to Coldplay have name-checked the inspiring influence of the Go-Betweens since their second phase began. Bright Yellow Bright Orange appeared in 2003, and by the time they came to record Oceans Apart last year, both founding members of the band were living back in Brisbane, where their "creative friendship" could flower unhindered by the tyranny of distance.
This time the Go-Betweens had a hit on their hands, and for perhaps the first time in his career, McLennan was able to afford something approaching a pop-star lifestyle. The Go-Betweens had just played a private gig for the actress Cate Blanchett and her husband, and were preparing to record new material. McLennan's songwriting was on a roll, and his death at such a productive and happy time is a cruel blow.
After many years as a "confirmed bachelor" he had recently fallen in love and decided to throw a lavish party at his Brisbane home, newly purchased on the back of the critical and commercial success of Oceans Apart. With the cream of Brisbane's music scene beginning to arrive for a night celebrating both this and his relationship with Emma, he went upstairs "for a lie-down" and was found dead by his guests a short while later.
"He was happy, I believe he was in the best frame of mind anyone could ever remember him being in," says Bernard MacMahon, a long-term friend, and the A&R representative for the Lo-Max label which has released most of the band's albums in recent years.
"It's amazing how his lyrics take on this totally different meaning now that he's gone. All his songs on the new album seem to be about departure and life's ending and moving on from painful situations - it's very poetically Grant that he had this big party organised and it ended up being a wake. "
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