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Riddle in the Rain: G.W. McLennan’s Fireboy 30th anniversary

We unravel the late Australian pop pioneer’s second LP.

The complete and utter circle jerk that was the Grammys highlighted a lot of things. Above all (pardon the pun), it was style over substance: a tidal wave of popular culture crushing anything we once associated as ‘alternative’. Recently, a good friend asked me, ‘Does it exist anymore?’

Not in Hollywood’s playground of narcissism, at least; a metropolis impervious to anything outside of it, and in a world that continues to reach frightening new heights of capitalism and conflict, the flagrant vanity and ‘look-at-me’ hyperbole of the Grammys exemplified just how fucked up this world is.

Has it been any different, though? Probably not, with the rise of social media amplifying and accelerating the process.

It got me thinking about alternative culture and how pop-leaning artists operate within it. Artists who let their songs do the talking. No image, no bravado or any other bullshit. Just good, honest songwriting.

Artists like the late Grant McLennan

The driving force of Australian indie-pop pioneers, the Go-Betweens, McLennan’s alliance with Robert Forster was the country’s answer to Lennon and McCartney. Effortless songcraft which produced the kind of tunes that crept into the joints, calcifying into something that forever occupied one’s make-up.

You only have to take a look at the last two decades of Australia’s new music landscape; majority of acts somehow influenced by the Go-Betweens’ jangle rock aesthetic, no-frills attitude, and the glory of that three minute pop song.

Like many artists who splinter off and go it alone, McLennan’s solo body of work (much like Forster’s, in fact) is not exactly shrugged off, but many adopt the opinion that it never reaches past glories. Of the same era, the same theory could be applied to Paul Westerberg’s oeuvre, and later with Stephen Malkmus, for example. In truth, moments throughout these respective solo careers equalled (if not bettered) the material of their preceding years in The Replacements and Pavement.

And the same could be said for McLennan.

This week marked the thirtieth anniversary of Fireboy’s release, and while some may consider it the weakest link in what sits between McLennan’s debut solo LP, 1991’s Watershed, and 1994’s Horsebreaker Star, I’d beg to differ. So good, these three albums seamless alternate.

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An individual who fell harder than most in the pursuit of love, throughout both Watershed and Fireboy, the ghost of McLennan’s past relationship with former Go-Betweens band mate and now film composer, Amanda Brown, doesn’t just linger: it remains the focal point. Most people would have wrestled with these demons over the course of one album. Not McLennan.

Produced by New Zealand songwriter/hit-maker, Dave Dobbyn (remember Slice of Heaven?), with all its simple chord progressions and instant melodies, Fireboy crystallises the early ’90s and the new world of recording technology.

In all its bluster, Dobbyn’s work from behind the studio walls on Fireboy juxtaposed simple songs with a sunny, sheen-like production that – let’s be honest – hasn’t aged well. However, the sheer strength of McLennan’s songcraft overcomes any production gripes, with a series of songs that are simply worth the time.

“I see you up there lighting fire / Angel,” sings McLennan on opening track, Lightning Fires. Here he merely scratches the surface in what is the first of many confessional dispatches. On the chiming gallop of One Million Miles, in a bid to piece together a broken heart, it’s clear that McLennan is a long way off (“Sometimes all I see / Is broken words and dishonesty”).

It doesn’t stop there, of course. “I would never go to the dark side of town without you” he sings during the acoustic-twang of The Dark Side of Town. Like Signs of Life, the pair are lonely old tropes, with unadorned metaphor and imagery forming that vital link between artist and listener.

G.W. McLennan - Fireboy

In the early ’90s, few artists were so confessional. Alongside McLennan was Mark Eitzel’s American Music Club, and between them they were pissing into a gale-force wind that was conjured up by grunge and alternative rock. Take McLennan’s Surround Me: a would-be anthem had it not been for the deluge of grunge. Still, McLennan and Eitzel combated this cultural zeitgeist with a bit of go old-fashioned broken-hearted balladry (“Every single day, it gets meaner on your heart / You find you’re still alive, but you’ve grown apart”).

So hypnotised by the straightforward honesty of its opening five tracks, from here Fireboy turns on its head, and it’s not until you get deep into the grooves when realising just how much of a sonic shift there is.

With a medieval-like riff, for once the sonic tone of Things Will Change matches the gloom of McLennan’s songs. Changing tact, The Pawnbroker is a Tom Waits-inspired Nighthawks at the Diner tale, consisting of a white shoe snake-oil salesman of sorts. There’s gambling, there’s three-legged horses, and there are medical bills to pay for a kid with whooping cough. Go figure.

Whose Side Are You On? sees McLennan explore beyond the themes that dominate Fireboy. Politically-charged, McLennan goes on the rampage “Hello earth!” he yells, gleefully lulling us into a false sense of security.  “Welcome to the good times / There’s millions out there on welfare lines“.

True to form, the remnants of heartbreak return on the tender, balladeering Fingers, which plays out like a slow-motion car crash (“You said you want my ring back /I said Indian giver/ When all I wanted was your finger/ Not your fist”).

In a bid to lift the spirits, The Day My Eyes Came Back takes that country air and sunroof sway of the Go-Betweens, but McLennan delivers it with more panache, backed by tight rhythm sections and ringing guitars. So too Bathe (In the Water). Cloaked in Moog organ and soul-laden funk-like rhythms, despite the darkness at the door, McLennan doesn’t regret the journey for a second (“Take a tip from me/bathe in the waters of love”). He even produces one of the greatest lyrics on Fireboy (“The milkman comes around/ Kiss him dead”).

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There’s an unevenness to the backend of Fireboy, which may tell its own story of McLennan’s state of mind at the time. However, that’s what makes it so charming; the sheer honesty which, while cutting, was against the norm across a pop landscape where most others spent more time running away from their issues instead of facing them head on. With McLennan, this was fearless songwriting, no matter how you dress it up.

Which bleeds into Riddle in the Rain. In many ways the preceding twelve songs (even Fingers) act as a precursor for Riddle in the Rain: arguably McLennan’s finest moment committed to tape outside the Go-Betweens.

A story of turmoil and torment, here McLennan presents this creeping, late night lament with the image of the Greek Island, Crete. Again, another juxtaposition, and from here the misery unravels (“But I’m still a long way/ I’m not even close/ Tell me who do I pay/ To get rid of your ghost”).

An album that delivers blow after blow, Riddle in the Rain should go down as one of the finest closing tracks in Australian music history. Brimming with candour and slicing through with the sharpness of a butcher’s blade, this is songwriting at its apex. It doesn’t get any better, really.

For all its production flaws and disproportion, if anything (with the benefit of hindsight), Fireboy could have been that hit album which crossed enemy lines from AM to FM radio. Either way, you can’t deny good songwriting, and that’s what Grant McLennan delivered here, and for all the fanfare and adoration he (rightfully) received during his days in the Go-Betweens, his later works as a solo artist should never be disregarded. And that includes Fireboy.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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