Sunday, November 16, 2008

Shuffle : Cattle & Cane

You get to a certain age, and memory starts to have more power. Not too old, either. Late twenties, perhaps. I suppose it depends on just how much living you've done, or what colour your memories are. Childhood is fascinating, and its strange distorted memories equally so, and some people are obsessed with their own childhoods. But, in my thirties, my teens and twenties weigh heavily in my memory. Friends I've lost touch with, nights out I can barely recall, a moment on a sunday morning returning from I'm not even sure where and the way the light scattered on empty streets. I go home to Dublin and memories assail me continually - I see a pub I had forgotten existed and suddenly remember with incredible clarity a night there with a group of friends, three of whom I haven't heard from in almost a decade. The small details are what make these memories so vivid - the way a place smelled, what a girl was wearing, how cold it was outside. Living away from home affects memory too. The physical distance seems to give recollection more power and emotional force.

Grant McLennan understood this. He wrote "Cattle & Cane" in London, thousands of miles from his home in Australia. He wrote it in the Paddington flat he shared with Nick Cave, on Cave's battered old guitar. Cave was in a drug-addled stupor at the time, or so the tale goes. Cave did have quite a reputation for debauchery in those Birthday Party days. McLennan and Cave seem so different its hard to imagine them being friends, but Australians stick together, I guess, especially when they're surrounded by Poms. And then I think - they were both exceptionally literate men, writers of lovely songs, Australians of a similar age, struggling Indie musicians in London. Of course they would be friends. Or maybe they were just flatmates - civil, distant. I can almost see it. McLennan was from Queensland, and had been raised on a Cattle Station before attending boarding school then University in Brisbane. How would London in the early 80s have struck him? Cosmopolitan, sophisticated, bustling and terrifying; no doubt. But also so grey and grim, so cold and wet, so drab. Thatcher's Britain - the Falklands War, the Miner's Strike, the Brixton riots, Football hooligans. Concrete and dark, lowering skies. You can hear the sunlight in the guitars on "Cattle & Cane", and I think its a wistful longing for that sunlight that gives the song some of its strange power. It is filled with nostalgia - both for the past, for boyhood and innocence, and also for Home itself, home as it once was and never can be again.

McClennan was 25 years old when he wrote it. That explains its mood - torn between homesickness and celebration. Its lyrics are simple, evocative phrases of recollection. The first words, almost whispered, are "I recall" and on it goes. McLennan knew a poetic line when he found one: "A rain of falling cinders", "His fathers watch/He left it in the showers" but generally the lyric is plain, presenting pictures of a boy growing up in memory. The chorus is devastating, yet ambiguous: "From time to time/ The waste - memory wastes". Its one of those lines your gut understands even if your brain does not. The song perfectly evokes the way childhood can remain a mass of jumbled images and associations in the mind. And if you've ever lived away from home, it also captures the specific feeling of geographical nostalgia, as does the melancholy in the music itself.

The intro is great - a simple melody, picked out deliberately on a guitar, then echoed by another, picked out with a higher tempo by both guitar and bass as the band oh so quietly kicks in. The playing is lovely - spartan and light yet with some muscle in those ragged sprays of guitar beneath that chorus. Indeed, its got a strange, acoustic-based guitar sound that is unmistakeably 80s yet not remotely dated. It sounds slightly C&W but has a bouncing, mobile yet melodic bass driving it alongside a quiet, almost understated drum pattern. Though the drums - and the perfect "duuduuduuduu" backing vocal, which sounds like it was performed by McLennan too - don't even turn up until the first chorus. After that, elements fall away and return until the gently floating crescendo as the backing vocals ascend and McLennan seems almost to sing about the song itself : "further/and higher/and longer"...But really its all about that melody. McLennan is one of those songwriters - like McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Bacharach, Neil Finn, Paddy McAloon - out of whom melodies seem to just flow.

He wrote a clutch of other legitimately great pop songs, as did his fellow songwriter in the group, Robert Forster. But I've always preferred McLennan's warmer brand of melancholy, the sometime quiet euphoria and beauty of his songs. His songs always had strong hooks, his gift for melody never deserting him. "Cattle & Cane" remains the best thing he ever wrote. It was voted one of the 10 best Australian songs of all time by Australian songwriters. I can think of plenty of great Australian songs, but I can't think of any better than "Cattle & Cane".

Best to leave it to the two boys to articulate. Forster said that when McLennan first played him the song, he was stunned, and he thought "he's done it, dug up the past". The song would influence Forster's own writing from then on. For his part, McLennan wrote this short note on the song's genesis for a 1990s "Best of" Compilation. As with most of his writing, its somehow perfect:
“Written in summer on a borrowed guitar in a Paddington bedroom, London. The other rooms were occupied by unconscious friends. The rhythm struck me as strange, the mood as beautiful and sad. The song came easily, was recorded quickly and still haunts me.”

Grant McLennan died in his sleep on 6 May 2006, aged 48.



Blogger John said...

I first remember seeing the video for this on No Disco with Donal Dineen as the presenter ages and ages ago just been like blown away I think I searched for the CD for a few weeks and got it as soon as I found it and it remains the only Go Betweens CD I have which is odd.
I must get around to getting more their stuff.

2:53 pm  
Blogger David N said...

You must.

Of the Classic albums:
16 Lovers Lane, Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express or Spring Hill Fair. In that order, I reckon.

Prevailing wisdom would have it that Oceans Apart is the best of the modern records, and its a fine album. But The Friends of Rachel Worth is the best of those, I think.

No Disco. Ahh.

11:17 pm  

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