Who were The Go-Betweens trying to channel when they went into the studio to record this song? “Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea” sounds nothing like The Go-Betweens of Before Hollywood, released only 8 months prior, in fact it sounds nothing like The Go-Betweens at all.
This bashful quintet (previously a trio, this song is the first recording to feature Robert Vickers on bass), normally introspective and restrained, show rare garage rock flight, sounding like a cross between The Strangeloves and The Seeds, dispensing with their acoustic drifts and angular shackles, instead furiously peeling out in a zealous declaration of love. While this isn’t quite the seismic shift of Dylan going electric, it’s a dazzling step up that would’ve surprised fans still enraptured by the previous single, the majestic “Cattle and Cane”.
As soon as needle hits record, it’s instantly apparent we’re deep in Robert Forster territory. It has his off-kilter stamp all over it. The title implies a relationship between two natural things that go together, but for reasons unexplained aren’t; his “Man O’ Sand” pleading for the return of his “Girl O’ Sea”. After the introductory screech of guitars, Forster dispenses with all formality cutting to the chase with a stern “I want you back”, and then sticking his chest out further announcing “I was so sure of our love, I wrote a song about us breaking up”. He ventures forth the title of this imaginary song, “The Traffic Lights on the Street of Love”, uttering it’s parenthetical punch-line “have just turned red…..turned red”, before tearing into the monosyllable chorus matching word for word/beat for beat with Lindy Morrison’s pneumatic snare hits.
The Rough Trade single version here, released in August of 1983, is the song in its most primal form. It spits our fire compared to the later version re-recorded and tacked on to end of the Spring Hill Fair album of 1984, where it sits as an uneasy bookend, tamed and restrained, with Forster’s opening call sounding petulant. Its place on the end of the album goes to show what an oddity the song was in The Go-Betweens’ rapidly expanding canon. It’s only toward the end of the Spring Hill Fair version does Forster venture into a further R&B/garage influence, borrowing from the Isley Brothers “Shout” with the humorously adlibbed “I feel no better! I feel no better!”.
Forster’s confident start has all but gone by the third verse, reduced to whispers, pleading “don’t talk about it, don”t talk about it…pleaaase” the pure comedy of which has barely time to register before he’s back on his feet to announce McLennan’s erratic solo with a cry of “guitar!”. Over the final verse Forster becomes even more desperate and deranged as McLennan takes over the chorus and their electric guitars fight it out into a ragged fade-out finale. The Spring Hill Fair recording has the slight edge here, adding a frenetic guitar solo that lasts for well over a minute.
Few Go-Betweens tracks really came close to matching the fervour of “Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea”. There are elements in “You’ve Never Lived” on Spring Hill Fair and “In the Core of a Flame” from Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express where the band go on the attack, but never to the same extent. Put simply, this is my favourite Go-Betweens single. Better than “Cattle and Cane”, better than “Spring Rain”, better than “Part Company”, better than “Bachelor Kisses”. With the sad passing of Grant McLennan in 2006, there will never be another Go-Betweens record, and now after I’ve closed the book on this band, a song like this reminds me just how important they were, and Forster’s lingering call of “I want you back” echoing my own thoughts on how dearly I miss this band.