Graeme Thomson

One of the odder twists in the unfailingly eccentric tale of Postcard Records is the cameo appearance of the Go-Betweens, the acclaimed Australian post-punkers who released a solitary single on the influential Glasgow label in 1980.

Having formed the band in Brisbane in 1977, student friends Robert Forster and Grant McLennan found themselves in London in early 1980 attempting to drum up interest in their music. Serendipity brought them into the slipstream of Postcard's precocious founding fathers, bedsit Svengali Alan Horne and Orange Juice's Edwyn Collins, who invited the Go-Betweens to record a single for the label. Forster and McLennan duly arrived in Glasgow on April 1, 1980 where, following a brief pit-stop at Postcard's HQ at 183 West Princes Street, they were taken to Collins's nearby flat.

"[Orange Juice bassist] David McClymont took us down to the far bedroom, where we could hear John Fogerty's Almost Saturday Night coming through the door," recalls Forster from his home in Queensland. "We went in and Edwyn was sitting on the floor, right next to the speaker. He looked up and said, 'Do you think the second guitar on this is a Telecaster or a Rickenbacker?' We immediately thought, 'Kindred spirits!'"

The resulting A-side, I Need Two Heads, featuring Orange Juice drummer Stephen Daly, is one of many highlights on G Stands for Go-Betweens, the first volume of a three-part excavation of pretty much every knowing note recorded by the band. Covering the period between 1978 and 1984, the eight discs - four vinyl, four CD - contain over 100 tracks, including the first three Go-Betweens albums, Send Me a Lullaby, Before Hollywood and Spring Hill Fair, as well as all ten sides of their first five 45s, collected on a new stand-alone LP. On top of that, there's a further four CDs of rarities.

"It's a wonderful treasure box from another time and another place," says Forster, who started planning the anthology shortly after McLennan's sudden death from a heart attack in 2006, aged just 48. "The very basic idea starting kicking around in 2008, but it took a lot longer to get together than I'd thought." He laughs. "It turned into my Lord of the Rings, my Games of Thrones. I was really hands-on because I thought it was a great opportunity to represent, and re-present, the band. The Go-Betweens' reputation on a broader scale is not necessarily secure or very high profile, so I didn't want to let the opportunity fall into incapable hands."

It's true that the Go-Betweens were never quite a household name, but they were much admired. In their earliest incarnation they were a classic post-punk group: a sharp-edged, sweet-and-sour guitar band who drew from Sixties pop, punk's brittle intensity and the playful non-conformity of bands like the Modern Lovers. They were smart, too; the B-side of their first single may have been musically primitive, but it took care to name-drop Raymond Chandler and Jean Genet. They became a sleeker, more elegant outfit in the mid-80s, but trawling through the archives gave Forster a fresh respect for their exuberant early days.

"We were better than I thought," he laughs. "For instance, both Grant and I were always quite dismissive of our first album. We tended to really like the music we made in 1978 and '79, and the Postcard single, but we weren't very generous about the band in the two years between that period and Before Hollywood. However, going back and listening to it, I can hear that we are powerful. The songwriting might not be where I'd like it to be, but the band is good. We were like elastic, on a knife edge. Not one beat falls the wrong way. It's very post-punk, very visceral and intense. There's nothing lazy about it. You hear three people throwing everything they've got at it. We were brave and we showed no mercy."

It's a collection defined by youthful energy and innocence, yet there's a sadness lurking at the edge of the frame. Forster and McLennan disbanded the Go-Betweens in 1989 following the release of their post-indie classic 16 Lovers Lane, but reunited in 2000 to make three more records, before McLennan's death finally put paid to the band. But for that cruel blow, the creative partnership which can be heard bursting into bloom on G Stands for Go-Betweens would remain ongoing.

"Yes, I think it would," Forster says, "But what I've taken from this collection is that the Go-Betweens made nine albums. I don't mean this in terms of the impact of Grant's passing, but at least there's a substantial amount of work there. Some bands make one album, some make two, and you think, 'What if..?' The fact is that we can do something like an anthology over three volumes and there's a lot of material to include. I find that very satisfying."

Which begs the question, when will volume two rear its head? Don't hold your breath, according to Forster. "I went to London from Australia four times last year, going back and forth, talking, talking, talking. A lot of love and attention has gone into this, but things look like they might be a bit more crowded for me personally over the next 18 months, so it could be another two or three years before the next one." Which is just enough time, given the riches it contains, to fully get to grips with volume one.

G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume One, 1978-1984 (Domino) is out on January 19