The Ten Rules of Rock And Roll, Collected Music Writings 2005-2011 by Robert Forster
Ex Go-Betweens front man Robert Forster has updated his collected musical writings, The 10 Rules of Rock And Roll, drawn primarily from his column for Australian magazine The Monthly. He started writing these pieces in 2005 having had no previous journalistic experience, aside from an article on hair care for Manchester fanzine Debris, in which he recommended “Always comb your hair before washing. This loosens the hair on your scalp and makes the shampooing far more effective”. Sound advice indeed. Sadly this article isn’t included in 10 Rules but can be viewed here.
Forster seems to have taken to the task of Rock Critic rather well as he was awarded the Pascall Prize for criticism soon after picking up your pen, a gong declaring him to be Australia’s top critic no less. Has he thus become an example of poacher turned gamekeeper in his new role? On the contrary he believes that a love of music unites rather than divides rock critics and musicians, and his enthusiasm for music new and old is evident throughout his collection of reviews.
Given the title of the book it seems to make sense to list his 10 Rules here. Without further ado:
1. Never follow an artist who describes his or her work as ‘dark’.
2. The second-last song on every album is the weakest.
3. Great bands tend to look alike.
4. Being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job.
5. The band with the most tattoos has the worst songs.
6. No band does anything new on stage after the first 20 minutes.
7. The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.
8. Every great artist hides behind their manager.
9. Great bands don’t have members making solo albums.
10. The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.
Who could argue with any of this?
Robert Forster seems to have been given a wide brief as the subjects of his musings range from Glen Campbell to Bonnie Prince Billy via Bob Dylan. On each he casts his songwriter’s eye in a respectful manner, saying of Campbell, for example, “what is interesting is that Glen Campbell is in the search for new horizons while the old rebels – The Stones, The Who – are bogged and scared. Perhaps Campbell was meant to last”. Although clearly an advocate of the literate song writing style of Dylan’s work he finds Modern Times to be an untidy affair, where “you realise that someone else is needed to push Dylan on his material and the way it might sound”. His tone is that of an insider, unwilling to engage in an easy disparagement of an individual, instead focusing on the merits of the work.
In “Lost Women Found” he writes adoringly of the uncompromising quality of the music of Vashti Bunyan, Sibylle Baier & Connie Converse. About the latter he states; “All she had were the songs and her circle of friends. But it has turned out to be enough, as it did for fellow singer-songwriters Sibylle Baier and Vashti Bunyan, all of whom put songs in a bottle and kissed them goodbye, not knowing that one day the bottle would drift back, carrying the dreams and emotions of youth, to be picked up by an audience far larger and more appreciative than the one that greeted the music at its inception.” Such words send one heading off to the search engines to find out more about these artists and to listen oneself to the material about which he eulogises. This is a thematic thread that runs through the book.
As well as album reviews there are a few live and book pieces in which Forster writes knowingly on the business he has inhabited for over 30 years. However the most moving pieces are the two about his soul mate and Go-Betweens co-collaborator Grant McLennan, who died of a heart attack in May 2006. In “A True Hipster”, written in the immediate aftermath of the death of his great friend, Forster charts the genesis of their fruitful relationship, revealing much on how they worked together. Surprisingly for those of us who know The Go-Betweens he says of McLennan; “He called me “the strategist”. He was the dreamer. We both realised, and came to relish, the perversity of the fact that this was an exact reversal of the perception people had of us as artists and personalities in the band – that I was the flamboyant man out of time and Grant the sensible rock. In reality, the opposite was true”. What great friends they stayed though thick, thin and solo ventures.
Having broken up in 1989 the band reconvened in 2000 to produce three more LPs, with the promise of more to come. In “Demon Days” he writes poignantly about their last musical collaboration and how “I lost my best male friend and my working partner: the one who’d been with me through countless performances, studios, rehearsals, airports, tour buses, bad television shows, hard-to-find radio stations, songwriting bedrooms and kitchens; the one I thought I still had a future with.” Out of a wish to honour the memory of such times came “The Evangelist”, an album containing two songs McLennan had written shortly before his untimely death.
Robert Forster continues to record music and perform live but one can expect further additions to a body of written work that is so well informed. He is most certainly a musician who falls into that rare group who can effortlessly write about his craft. However, I trust that he won’t give up the day job just yet as I, for one, would miss him.
The Ten Rules of Rock And Roll, Collected Music Writings 2005-2011 by Robert Forster is published by Jawbone Press.