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ENTERTAINMENT

The man who fame forgot

Critically revered singer was influential, but sold few records

By CNN's Barry Neild

story.mclennan.gi.jpg
Grant McLennan died from a heart attack at the age of 48.

FACT BOX

Go-Betweens Albums
1982 Send Me A Lullaby
1983
Before Hollywood
1984 Spring Hill Fair
1986 Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express
1987 Tallulah
1988 16 Lovers Lane
2000 The Friends of Rachel Worth
2003 Bright Yellow Bright Orange
2005 Oceans Apart

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Australia
Grant McLennan
Robert Forster
Cable News Network (CNN)

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Long admired by critics and more successful contemporaries, Australian musician Grant McLennan -- co-founder of The Go-Betweens -- wrote lush, poetic songs that could break hearts and mend marriages.

But when he died earlier this month at the age of 48, most people had still never heard of him.

Following his fatal heart attack at home in Brisbane, scores of fans and celebrity admirers, who have in the past included U2, R.E.M. and Coldplay, logged on to the band's Web siteexternal link to share their grief, while highbrow newspapers such as Los Angeles Times and Britain's Guardian rattled off deeply affectionate obits.

And in the stuffy corridors of power, even Australia's politicians paused from debates on transport, waste management and, yes, kangaroo-culling, to remember the "outstanding musical legacy" of one of the country's greatest songwriters.

It is hard to believe many other rock stars would command such posthumous respect, let alone one whose chart-avoiding records never made much cash.

So why have McLennan and his surviving Go-Betweens partner Robert Forster won so much acclaim and wielded so much influence while remaining largely unknown?

Says Andrew Muellerexternal link, a London-based Australian music journalist -- whose sleeve notes to a re-issued Go-Betweens classic album calls them "bizarrely and scandalously underrated" -- the answer lies in the band's sheer originality.

Emerging in the early 1980s, the band initially stumbled as a derivative punk act, but soon added melodic and literary flourishes of their own to create a cliche-free sound that shimmered with romantic images of a vanishing Australia while generating a broader emotional appeal.

Driven by the Lennon and McCartney-style dynamic of the two songwriters, the Go-Betweens released six critically lauded albums including "Spring Hill Fair" in 1984, "Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express" in 1986, attracting a dedicated, if penniless, following.

Lack of sales

Their second album, 1983's "Before Hollywood" included the track "Cattle and Cane," McLennan's sublime reminiscence of "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 track was recently named one of the greatest Australian songs of all time and, for better or worse, is said to be U2 singer Bono's favorite.

But with commercial success eluding even the band's glossy "16 Lovers Lane," in 1988, they disbanded a year later, partly out of disappointment at lack of sales.

"A lot of it was to do with bad luck," Mueller told CNN. "The Go-Betweens were never quite dumb enough to get played on the radio. I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, but they were very arch, very intelligent with unpredictable songs that didn't meet the bland requirements of radio.

"Most acts that tend to sell well sound like other bands. The Go-Betweens were not like anything that went before them, and most people didn't know which box to put them in," he added, acknowledging that music writers seem to be almost alone in their appreciation of the band.

"Very few people heard the Go-Betweens, but the ones that did became rock journalists."

That sells the band a little short. Alongside U2 and Coldplay, indie rock royalty such as Teenage Fanclub and Everything But The Girl cite the Go-Betweens as a key influence, while successful Scottish collective Belle and Sebastian have even written a song about them.

Had McLennan's musical career ended in 1989, it is unlikely that his death 17 years on would have had as great an impact, but after a decade of prolific solo song-crafting, he and Forster reformed the Go-Betweens, producing three albums that contained what has been hailed as some of their best work.

Their final offering, 2005's "Oceans Apart," swept the board with four- and five-star reviews and earned the band long-sought recognition at home with a "best adult contemporary album" accolade at the Australian equivalent of the Grammys.

Naturally predisposed -- through listening to his songs -- to dwelling on life's cruel ironies, McLennan's loyal fans have taken little comfort in the fact that his death came as the Go-Betweens were finally benefiting from the recognition they had always been deemed to deserve.

And, according to Forster, McLennan's best was yet to come. "Cracking songs were pouring out of him," he said shortly after his partner's death. "He really was a master melody writer, and he was searching for that magic combination, the magic pop song."

Says Mueller: "The records they made since reforming in 2000 really did slot in well with the rest of their material and I believe they would have carried on producing terrific work."

And, he adds, as existing fans continue to spread the word, perhaps McLennan's fame will finally meet expectations in the years after his death.

"I've been listening to them since I was 16 years old and I can't imagine a time when I won't want to listen to them. It's the same for a lot of people, the Go-Betweens have written the soundtrack to their lives."

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