THE DAYS OF THE TRIFFIDS
Photo by Richard Worsley
A Retrospective with Graham Lee and Rob McComb
by Wilson Neate
In the mid-'80's, like several of their compatriots, the Triffids uprooted and transplanted themselves from Australia to the Northern hemisphere in search of a more receptive climate. Three full-length albums for Sydney's Hot label (with UK distribution by Rough Trade) earned them critical success and a loyal fan base across Europe. Avoiding the Big-in-Japan syndrome, the Triffids' singular blend of country, folk, blues, psychedelia and rock proved especially popular in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. Their distinctive sonic identity -- captured most memorably on 1986's Born Sandy Devotional -- was due in large part to their songwriter and frontman, the late David McComb. While McComb's songs were frequently grounded in the landscape of Western Australia, they were also universal in their reach. Greatness beckoned when the group signed to Island, but two albums later, as the '90's rolled around, they moved on to other projects (without officially splitting). With the Domino and Liberation labels embarking on a long-overdue reissue of the group's albums, now seems like an opportune moment to remember the Triffids and David McComb with help from former band members Graham Lee and Rob McComb.
Early Years: From Perth to Sydney via the Treeless Plain
The roots of the Triffids are best unearthed by David McComb himself. Writing in his diary as a teenager, he traced the band's emergence in Perth, geographically one of the world's most isolated cities: "On the night of November 27, 1976, a tape was made by Alsy MacDonald, playing a single toy drum, and Dave McComb playing acoustic guitar. The multimedia group 'Dalsy' had come into being. Dalsy went on to make several remarkable tapes (mainly of original material): The Loft Tapes, Rock 'n' Roll Accountancy, Live at Ding Dongs, Bored Kids, Domestic Cosmos, People Are Strange Dalsy Are Stranger, Steve's and the seminal punk work, Pale Horse Have a Fit.… Dalsy did paintings, sculptures and poetry, and wrote a book named Lunch. They were tinny and quirky, obsessive and manic, versatile and productive. They were also immensely unpopular.... The members of Dalsy grew to hate their audience. They still do, and this hate is an integral part of their music. Dalsy split up towards the end of 1977…. They launched into 1978 as Blok Musik, with their famous Blok Musik tape.… In April they played at the Leederville Town Hall Punk Fest, alongside Perth's punk rock contingent but, as usual, no one danced. After that they went home and metamorphosised into Logic. Within a day they changed their minds, and metamorphosised into the Triffids."
Despite his hometown's remote location, Rob McComb remembers the late '70's as an exciting time. Punk might have exploded thousands of miles away, but its impact was definitely felt in Western Australia, inspiring numerous Perth bands: "There was a real scene around the Victims and Cheap Nasties/Scientists. My girlfriend at the time was in a band called the Teeny Weenys. It was a great 'do-it-yourself' attitude that went down well in Perth." And although the Triffids would ultimately feel the need to move away in order to pursue their career, McComb maintains that the city did have positive aspects for a band starting out: "We had a big house that we could rehearse in, we could arrange our own gigs at the local bars and the isolation encouraged a cavalier approach."
Like many of their peers, the Triffids were initially motivated by British punk's DIY message, but they had little time for its sloganeering, cartoonish variants; for actual sonic inspiration they looked to the more oblique and arty New York incarnation of punk (Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Richard Hell), as well as to proto-punks like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were also important influences. Between 1978 and 1981, with a shifting cast of characters, the Triffids released six cassettes. Rob McComb joined his younger brother's band as violinist and second guitarist in 1979, in time for their fourth tape and fresh from duties with the auspiciously named Tiger Mountain Band (while they borrowed their name from Eno -- and, by extension, the Maoist opera from which he'd borrowed it -- their music wasn't the art-rock that one might expect, as McComb recalls: "We did Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan covers as well as original reggae stuff"). McComb's violin added a new dimension to the Triffids' early sound, although he modestly underplays his role: "I came to the band as the only one with some classical training, and in true punk attitude Dave was keen to use the violin for melody. I was never a very competent player, but it contributed something."
The band eventually debuted on vinyl with the 1981 single "Stand Up/Farmers Never Visit Nightclubs" and, in January of the following year, they made the three-day trek, crossing the Nullarbor Plain, to try their luck in Sydney. Other releases followed: the EP Reverie (1982), the single "Spanish Blue/Twisted Brain" (1982) and, with Only Ones producer Robert Ash, the Bad Timing and Other Stories EP (1983). By late 1983, the line-up had coalesced around Alsy MacDonald (drums), David McComb (vocals, guitar), Rob McComb (violin, guitar), Jill Birt (keyboards) and Martyn Casey (bass), and Hot released the group's self-produced debut album, Treeless Plain.
The band would obviously continue to develop, but the fundamental ingredients that define the Triffids' sound are certainly in place on Treeless Plain and the 1984 mini-album Raining Pleasure: echoes of the artier side of punk fleshed out with country, folk and blues and infused with a series of musical and lyrical tensions (light vs. dark; pastoral and melodic vs. intense and explosive; romanticism vs. cynicism; optimism vs. pessimism). Throughout these records, David McComb makes his presence felt, vocally and lyrically: his commanding voice dominates the swaggering cover of Dylan's "I Am a Lonesome Hobo," as well as driving numbers like "Hell of a Summer" and "Property Is Condemned," while "Hanging Shed" is a paradigmatic example of the sort of dark, elliptical narrative at which he would excel throughout the band's career. With Birt's Hammond organ and Rob McComb's violin often prominent, the Triffids had a markedly retro feel, at a time when many bands were striving to sound as new as possible. As David McComb shrewdly said in a 1984 interview with Rock Australia Magazine (RAM), "the more you try to sound modern, the quicker you start to sound dated," something that makes perfect sense when you compare the Triffids with many of their early-'80's pop peers. Indeed, although the Western flavor on numbers like "Place in the Sun" and the hypnotic "Red Pony" might have seemed anachronistic, it anticipated the interest in country music that indie bands would later start to show.
The Year of the Triffids
In 1984, the Triffids made their first trip to Britain, where they gigged with fellow Australians the Go-Betweens and the Moodists, opened for Echo & the Bunnymen and recorded the first of three sessions for BBC Radio 1's John Peel Show. They began 1985 on the cover of the NME (which posed the question, "1985: The Year of the Triffids?") and, back in Australia again, augmented their line-up. David McComb had been interested in expanding the group's sound with pedal steel guitar and, despite having little experience with the instrument, Graham Lee was tapped for the job. Lee had played guitar on Lawson Square Infirmary, a Triffids side project that was recorded just prior to the band's first trip to England: "I taught primary school, traveled and ended up in Sydney, where I met the Triffids and first sat behind a pedal steel (in that order actually)," Lee recalls. "I met Dave [McComb] through James Patterson, who played in a band in Sydney called JFK and the Cuban Crisis. My initial impressions of Dave were: slightly eccentric, driven, something of a perfectionist, very intelligent."
With Lee on board (rechristened "Evil" Graham Lee -- McComb was of the opinion that all pedal steel players should have a decent nickname), the Triffids returned to London, their base for most of the next five peripatetic years. Rob McComb felt no ambivalence about leaving Australia in search of success: "For me it was a great adventure," he says, although adding, "I used to hope we'd record our first album in Jamaica!" Lee was also enthusiastic but, in hindsight, believes that the move wasn't without its negative repercussions: "It was all a big adventure. It wasn't so much a case of having to leave but wanting to leave. Afterwards, the realities of being away became more apparent, of course, and it was the difficulty of maintaining stable personal relationships that contributed to the end of the band. If it were set in today's framework, maybe things might be a bit different. Such lengthy periods away might not be necessary."
Lee remembers the band being somewhat isolated in London, both socially and musically: "We were a little cocooned in our own little world. We didn't go out much and it wasn't British bands we were listening to." However, they did mix with some of the other Australian artists who had also headed to the UK. "There was camaraderie to a point," according to Lee. "We had barbecues together, went to each other's gigs, drank each other's drinks riders, some of us even played tennis together." Rob McComb confirms this: "I used to play tennis with Robert [Forster] and Lindy [Morrison, both of the Go-Betweens] and Steve Miller [of the Moodists]. The Go-Betweens were great to give us a couple of support gigs when we first got there, and the Moodists became good friends." At the same time, Lee thinks there was "competition also to a point and on several levels." He explains: "I know there was a jousting among songwriters, some envy expressed in subsequent books about the perceived wealth of the Triffids due to our major label deal (not true on a personal level -- we never got paid more than a living allowance, everything went into the band). The Triffids were convivial hosts and this may have given an impression of having more than we really did."
Indeed, Lee recalls the band's lifestyle as being far from glamorous: "London living for us was a necessity. We rented houses, lived together on our meager wages and looked forward to going on tour, when we could eat really well and get looked after by the promoter." On one occasion, on the eve of a gig at London's Town and Country Club, Australia's richest man, the late media mogul Kerry Packer, called and offered to fly them to France: "He tried to get us all to come and party in Paris because our manager, Sally [Collins], was sharing a house (Sam Neill's house actually) with Kate Fitzpatrick, the Australian actress and cricket companion of Kerry. He called the house just as we were about to leave for the gig and said he had a Lear jet waiting at the airport and a floor booked at the Ritz and we should get our bony arses over the channel. But we had a gig to do."
The fact that the Triffids enjoyed a better standard of living on the road might explain their prowess as a live act, but it was David McComb himself who made the difference. He was undoubtedly one of the period's more compelling frontmen and anyone lucky enough to have seen the Triffids will remember his intensity and charisma, which brought something unique to the band's shows. Although Lee attributes his friend's on-stage effectiveness to "a high level of personal involvement in the songs, a pride in his performance, a physical presence and a booming voice," he's also quick to underscore that McComb was an attentive student and fan of rock and that "a wide knowledge of the great frontmen (Iggy Pop, John Lydon, Elvis, etc.) made Dave a formidable front person." Most important, though, was McComb's commitment: "He really hated to do a bad show," Lee asserts. "Even in his later years when he was quite frail, he'd always be able to rise from his seat and become that rock god -- even if it was a fleeting glimpse."
Spring 1985 saw the release of the Field of Glass EP, containing three tracks originally recorded (pre-Lee) for the Triffids' first Peel session. Alternately menacing and explosive, the title track's nine-minute "Frankie Teardrop"-style psychodrama was a bold departure, which found the band experimenting with a whole new range of dynamics. While it showed some kinship with Echo & the Bunnymen, there really was little else from the period that sounded like it. The song occupies a special place in the Triffids' canon. For Lee, it embodies the band's greatest strengths: "'Field of Glass' has an epic quality, a surging simple chord sequence, an intensity bordering on the violent and malevolent. Dave said, in some song notes I read, definitely a comedy. Wild boy in love with rich girl who's still at school gets driven a bit crazy by unrequited love. It was a scary, exhilarating ride. It does sound timeless, due to being so far away from the traditional sound of a song at the time. I think it all comes down to power -- the power of the chord sequence, the power of the rhythm section, the brute force of the climax of the breakdown. The power to change lives, as more than one person has since told me."
Born Sandy Devotional
"Field of Glass" notwithstanding, the band made its masterpiece with 1986's Born Sandy Devotional. Around the time of the album's release, David McComb commented that the Triffids had been more democratic on past records, but he felt those records hadn't been especially strong; so, for Born Sandy Devotional, he played a more dominant part, deliberately trying to push the group. "It seemed a natural progression," according to Rob McComb. "As Dave became more confident, we followed. Maybe we didn't push ourselves hard enough." Lee also attests to McComb's prominent role: "Dave was trying to push the boundaries of his own musical envelope and this meant pushing the band. He would never settle for a cliché, a riff drawn from somewhere else -- he wanted it to be all new and amazing."
One of the especially striking aspects of Born Sandy Devotional was the new dimension brought by Lee's pedal steel. In the mid-'80's, it was something of a novelty to encounter a rock band with a pedal steel player (and a violinist) and, in their own way, the Triffids were alt-country avant la lettre. However, Lee recalls that he was the only band member actually listening to country music at the time and he points to Gram Parsons' Grievous Angel (particularly the song "$1000 Wedding") as a key influence. And Lee suffered for his art, faithfully replicating country's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" feel by recording his pedal steel parts for the album with a hangover of biblical proportions: "It was a crushing, falling-to-your-knees kind of hangover, but it made me concentrate on the essence of the song. And trying to stay alive."
The "essence" of the Triffids' songs raises a question about music and its relation to place: although the band was based primarily in London, Born Sandy Devotional felt intimately linked with Australia. Just as the Nullarbor Plain provided the title for Treeless Plain, Born Sandy Devotional's spectacular aerial cover photograph of Mandurah Township offers a very specific geographical context. As for the record itself, McComb's lyrics often suggest local imagery and many of the tracks have an atmospheric openness and expansiveness that some critics have identified as essentially Australian. In 1990, McComb commented to Juke magazine that much of the record "seemed to naturally evoke a particular landscape, namely the stretch of highway in between Caiguna and Norseman where the Triffids' Hi-Ace [van] monotonously came to grief with kangaroos."
While these songs were undeniably imbued with some sense of cultural specificity, McComb's skill as a writer gives them a broader resonance and that transcendence can be heard most memorably on the anthemic "Wide Open Road." It was voted one of the "Ultimate Australian Songs" in a 2001 Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) poll, but as Lee notes, "This song has a specific meaning, a specific narrative and at the same time a universal story. It could be set, if you think about it, anywhere." Lee prefers to see the songs not as quintessentially Australian but as "quintessentially Dave McComb." He explains: "The sound was built up to satisfy his vision for his songs. Atmosphere, mystery, the extraordinary, complete lack of cliché, originality. Along the way, a sound was heard that could be construed to be quintessentially Australian. I don't think Dave tried to forge an Australian sound at all. I'm not trying to portray him as a puppeteer here -- all band members brought something special to the mix, but Dave had, more than most (in any band), a sound in his head that he tried his best to replicate on two-inch tape. A very different sound but very like Brian Wilson in his drive and vision (though Brian Wilson couldn't write great lyrics)."
By way of a compromise, then, "quintessentially Dave McComb" might be best understood as an ability to create a lyrical and musical link between Western Australia's stark, isolated terrain and universal human feelings of desolation and loneliness. Paradoxically, part of this comes from McComb's more autobiographical approach on Born Sandy Devotional: although many of the songs are deeply personal, autobiography is distilled into often oblique tales of dislocation, psychological turmoil and loss that have a wider existential reach. Moreover, McComb intensifies that connection with listeners by eschewing tidy, closed narratives in favor of evocative, unresolved fragments and vignettes, which enlist the imagination and involve the listener more actively. Elevating the seemingly personal and local to a general human level was entirely in keeping with McComb's desire for what he called a more "wide-screen" feel on this album, something that's complemented by expansive arrangements, often adorned with strings, haunting organ, vibraphone and atmospheric pedal steel. There are many highlights here: the fragmented, cinematic "Lonely Stretch" is cut from the same dark, brooding cloth as "Field of Glass"; "Chicken Killer" comes straight from the pages of an imagined Carson McCullers or Flannery O'Connor novel; and "Tarrilup Bridge" -- which owes something to "Ode to Billie Joe" -- juxtaposes Jill Birt's childlike vocals with spookily echoing vibes and strings. Things coalesce to near-perfection on "Life of Crime," "Stolen Property" and "The Seabirds," the latter remaining one of Lee's favorite Triffids songs: "'The Seabirds' is a narrative that has razor-sharp imagery, a wonderful textural sound and some of Dave's very best lines. Are you drinking to get maudlin or drinking to get numb? go down as among the best I've heard from any writer. These didn't come until not long before the song was recorded. The song is just perfect in every way."
For the album, the band was joined by producer Gil Norton (who had previously worked with China Crisis, Martin Stephenson and Echo & the Bunnymen, among others). Lee believes Norton played an important role: "Gil kept our minds on the job and helped Dave get those sounds out of his head and down on tape. We weren't working in the greatest of studios with a big budget, but we wanted a big-budget sounding album. Not an easy task. Well done Gil."
In the Pines
Following Born Sandy Devotional's attempt at a big-budget sound, the band took a radically different approach for the next album, which was made in April 1986 on a trip back to Australia. A world away from London and its relative comforts, the Triffids ensconced themselves for five days in a remote sheep-shearing shed (370 miles southeast of Perth), recording on an eight-track machine. In the Pines was a proto-unplugged, back-to-basics album -- so back-to-basics, in fact, that "broom," "floorboards" and "water tank" are listed among the instruments. The total cost, itemized in the sleeve-notes, was $1,190. Some indication of the band's priorities might lie in the detail that $340 was spent on booze, $310 on food and $300 on equipment.
Given the simplicity of much of the material on In the Pines, as well as the occasionally playful, communal feel (Lee fronts the "Evil Choir" on a cover of Bill Anderson's sing-along "Once a Day"), it's tempting to interpret the album as a homecoming, a conscious effort on the part of the band to reconnect with its roots. Rob McComb disagrees: "It wasn't really returning to our roots, as the band did not come from a woolshed, or the country, but more an adventure to get a rattley country sound to the recording." Lee is also quick to demythologize the record: "It was just an interesting idea, and one that was possible to do with minimal funds. There were plenty of songs lying around. We had some time off. It wasn't Big Pink or anything." David McComb himself never quite understood why fans loved it so much and Lee concurs: "I can understand why people like it, but it's not really my favorite either. I don't dislike it but would rather listen to more fully formed statements."
Despite its brevity and its stripped-down aesthetic, In the Pines boasts diverse material that stands alongside the band's more developed work. This is especially true of some of the album's darker numbers like "Suntrapper," "Kathy Knows" and the title track, a disquieting love song that had an unusual provenance. Lee had once told David McComb about "Black Girl/In the Pines," done by Leadbelly among others, describing it as the scariest song in the world. McComb's interest was piqued and he wanted to hear the record. Eventually, he got so tired of waiting for Lee to lend it to him that he just went ahead and wrote his own version. According to Lee, this was precisely what he had intended to happen.
Ironically, one of the album's most magical moments -- the haunting "Born Sandy Devotional" -- is more a sketch than a complete song, lasting a minute-and-a-half. A more fully realized rendition was recorded subsequently but went unreleased. Although it seemed to be doomed to purgatory, Lee reports that it is at last forthcoming: "That song had been around since before I joined the band," he says. "It was a song Dave felt very close to and he worked on it over a period of years before finally giving up on it. It may be that his personal situation shifted enough for him to let it go. It has a full song structure and will appear in complete form as part of the reissue program."
By 1987, the Triffids had signed to Island and set about recording Calenture in April of that year. The sessions began with American producer Craig Leon. On the face of it, this was an apt choice since he had worked on records by several of the late-'70's New York punk bands who had initially inspired the teenage David McComb, but things didn't go to plan and the sessions were aborted. Rob McComb describes them as a "waste of time" and various versions of the story point to a fraught situation, some actually reporting that Leon wanted to fire the rhythm section of Casey and MacDonald. Lee sheds a little more light: "In the tried and true way of all major labels at the time, they really wanted to sign Dave but got a troublesome band instead. It was probably Island's insistence that Alsy and Marty weren't up to it that caused the Craig Leon sessions to be the unmitigated disaster that they were. Now I could be wrong here, maybe Craig wanted them out, maybe both. We were pretty much forced to let a couple of session guys stand in -- no names because it wasn't their fault -- and we could tell straight away that this was applying a straightener to the normally unruly quiff that was the band. It was also sucking the essence of the band out. Anyway, it's a sorry little interlude that I should draw the curtain on. The sessions were scrapped and we were allowed to be the Triffids again." With Leon out of the picture, Island even brought in Lenny Kaye with a view to getting him involved. Kaye was impressed by the Triffids and their material and told them that they didn't need his help. Calenture got back on track with Gil Norton in the producer's chair once again.
There's a degree of continuity between Born Sandy Devotional and Calenture. With a considerably larger budget, the band traded in the pared-down aesthetic of In the Pines and returned to the sound they had been developing on its predecessor. However, if Born Sandy Devotional was a "wide-screen" album, then Calenture was 3-D: many of the arrangements are bigger and bolder, lush and textured, featuring a broader use of strings, and everything from horns to uillean pipes. On tracks like the sweeping "Bury Me Deep in Love" (which McComb once told Smash Hits was "our Lionel Richie-type epic") and the euphoric "Holy Water," an unbridled pop sensibility emerges -- a development that sounds like an organic progression. Elsewhere, the band retains its rock edge on the dramatic, explosive "Kelly's Blues," another elliptical narrative of psychic turmoil that disabused listeners of any notion that McComb had perhaps mellowed. A sense of alienation, betrayal, insanity and solitude still permeates his writing, although Calenture seems less explicitly imbued with Western Australian imagery than the previous records. McComb told RAM in 1988 that the album was characterized by "an absence of a sense of place," a shift towards rootlessness. It moved away from earlier work, which was, at some level, more rooted -- reflecting the band's nomadic lifestyle, gigging relentlessly around Europe and shuttling between the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
Nevertheless, one of the album's standouts derives from McComb's ambivalent relationship with Perth: "Hometown Farewell Kiss" (a version of which appeared on In the Pines as "One Soul Less on Your Fiery List") is a beautiful doo-wop-nuanced number in which a disgruntled arsonist lover torches the town. Indeed, the album has its usual odd cast of characters and the most interesting appears on the sea-shanty-style "Jerdacuttup Man" -- a classic example of McComb's talent for dark and darkly humorous, ambiguous narratives -- sung in the persona of a bog man on display at the British Museum. For Lee, the highpoint is "Save What You Can," another song he considers among McComb's finest: "'Save What You Can' is a heartbreaking ballad made even more heartbreaking by the knowledge of subsequent events."
In the same 1988 RAM interview, David McComb described Calenture as an "over-the-top record" and even called it the Triffids' Heaven's Gate. But if in McComb's mind the album was something of a folly, that just shows how high his standards were.
The Black Swan
For their second album on Island, 1989's The Black Swan, the Triffids were joined by Stephen Street. Although Street was, by then, a high-profile producer, having enjoyed success with the Smiths' Strangeways, Here We Come and Morrissey's Viva Hate, Rob McComb remembers that his brother knew exactly what he wanted and that Street deferred to him: "[Stephen Street] got a clean sound and respected Dave's direction. Once you work with Dave, you see that he knows what he wants. Lenny Kaye said as much to us."
The Black Swan was an audacious move for the band. In comparison with Calenture, the arrangements were often less elaborate and the symphonic sweep that enveloped many of the tracks on the previous album was gone, replaced by a far more direct and immediate sound. The group didn't just explore a different musical direction, but, rather, they struck out in a variety of different directions from one track to the next. McComb and his cohorts ventured into all sorts of new musical territory, drawing on elements of jazz, opera, rap and funk, as well as expanding their instrumental palette with bouzouki, güiro and accordion. Also conspicuous here is the more explicitly state-of-the-art feel and the incorporation of some moderately experimental approaches. Calenture had employed aspects of the newer technology of the '80's, but The Black Swan made more obvious use of synths and programming.
To a certain degree, The Black Swan was McComb's response to what he perceived as the growing homogenization of rock (had he lived longer, he might have been even more dismayed). He believed strongly in the cross-pollination of musics and the potential for one tradition or style to revitalize another. Coupled with this, he was skeptical about the concept of authenticity as it applied to establishing whether an artist was bona fide: McComb felt that his origins and lived experience, as an Australian from Perth, shouldn't preclude his tapping into other traditions and genres with which he seemingly had no direct connection. This attitude manifested itself in striking ways. In the late-'80's McComb had become increasingly interested in rap and hip-hop (particularly artists like King Sun-D Moet, Roxanne Shanté, Ice T, Schoolly D and LL Cool J) and he was convinced that these new forms had a great potential for kick-starting and reinvigorating rock music. There are a couple of modest experiments in that regard on The Black Swan: "Falling over You" comprises floating synth textures and electronic beats and, on the choruses, McComb raps, albeit in a mellow, understated fashion; evoking the Wolfgang Press on "The Spinning Top Song," he fills a rock template with subtly funky hip-hop rhythms, horn samples and guitar loops. At the more idiosyncratic end of the spectrum, "The Clown Prince" blends the operatic backing vocals of Mexican singer Rita Menéndez, tango rhythms and a Rive Gauche cabaret ambience, while "Butterflies into Worms" lays down a similarly smoky, string-bass-driven jazz groove. In contrast, Jill Birt's vocals and some electro-pop gloss on "Good Fortune Rose" and "Goodbye Little Boy" give the band its most mainstream, chart-friendly sound yet.
The sheer diversity of the material took fans and critics somewhat by surprise and the response wasn't entirely favorable. There was a perceived lack of coherence, a feeling that the band was trying too hard and had lost its identity amid all the divergent ideas and sounds (who knows how much worse the reaction might have been had The Black Swan been released as a double album, as was the original plan. Or perhaps the extra tracks might have established the sense of coherence that some felt was missing).
Listening to The Black Swan seventeen years later, it's clear that this wasn't the Triffids' strongest album. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine why it was such a difficult proposition for some. At the center of it all, David McComb's character and charisma are still unmistakable and, if anything, his songwriting has moved to a new level of maturity and inventiveness. There's plenty of evidence of this: the beautiful Van Morrison-esque country-tinged ballad "New Year's Greetings," the eerie "Blackeyed Susan" or "One Mechanic Town," with its rollicking Spaghetti Western feel. It's no exaggeration to say that some of these songs rank among the band's finest. As Rob McComb comments, "It would be nice if the reissues were heard with fresh ears."
The Legacy of David McComb
As a songwriter, David McComb is sometimes compared to fellow Australian Nick Cave. Their work shares a Southern Gothic aesthetic, a fondness for roots Americana and a tendency towards melodrama, but there are fundamental differences that highlight McComb's strengths. Cave's world is more fantastical and extreme, and occasionally cartoonish. His narrative songs, for instance, commonly grow to epic proportions, with little concern for subtlety or nuance, and there's usually a surfeit of words that spell everything out in graphic detail. On "O'Malley's Bar," for instance, Cave's protagonist, in the midst of a murder-binge, sings about splitting someone's head in two "with an ashtray as big as a fucking really big brick"; McComb's work certainly dealt with death, but he never beat listeners over the head with it. Whereas some of his songs definitely painted eerie, unsettling pictures, he emphasized moods and atmospheres or presented fragmentary perceptions so as to evoke events and to involve the listener's imagination. Consequently, in comparison with Cave's, McComb's narratives were frequently open-ended or incomplete, but they were no less disquieting or compelling. Graham Lee underscores another difference, pointing to the variation in McComb's writing: "I have a feeling Nick's songs don't have quite the autobiographical element that Dave's do. And I think Dave's are much more varied stylistically and more sophisticated both lyrically and harmonically. While I love Nick Cave's music, it hasn't really changed much over the years, to my ears. He has a great band, but they pump out a sound that hasn't had a major reworking for some time. Changes in emphasis maybe but nothing really drastic. Nothing wrong with that mind you, but I doubt that Dave would be sounding much like The Black Swan, had he maintained his health and was still writing and performing today."
While the Triffids were as distinctive musically as they were lyrically, McComb placed great importance on lyrics and perhaps had higher aspirations for his words. Talking to RAM after the release of The Black Swan, he worried that if he attempted to publish the poetry he had also written, he might be seen as just another rock musician with poetic pretensions, commenting, "I feel inadequate that I'm not involved in some more serious art form." Lee concurs that writing was absolutely central to McComb's being but thinks music would have remained his main focus: "Dave had to write to live. He was a serious artist in this way. His every waking moment was consumed with writing. He wrote wonderful criticism; I haven't read too much of his poetry, but I'm sure it would stand up. I think he felt more at home with music and would have probably kept doing that, maybe combining it with other forms of writing." Rob McComb agrees: "Sure, he could have been anything: great writer, academic, critic, poet. But he really loved pop music too."
After the Triffids went on permanent hiatus in 1989, Lee and David McComb continued working together in the Blackeyed Susans and the Red Ponies, and Lee played on McComb's 1994 debut solo album, Love of Will. McComb also busied himself with a new project named costar. Lee remembers the final years of Dave's life: "I spent a lot of time with Dave, not enough obviously but can't worry about that now. He wanted to release the costar stuff, but he really needed to get himself back on an even keel physically and mentally before anything great would happen musically, although he was writing constantly and certainly hadn't lost his strength in that area. The New Year's Eve that brought in 1999 was the last time I stood on stage with him -- at The Standard Hotel in Fitzroy, Melbourne. He was very ill and it was almost too much to bear."
David McComb died on February 2nd, 1999, at the age of 36, three years after undergoing a heart transplant.
Now that Domino and Liberation have their reissue programs underway, Graham Lee also has plans for an album of Triffids songs covered by other artists and there's even talk of a reunion of sorts: "It's possible," Lee admits, "even probable, but it won't be anything long-lasting, or long. And, surprise, surprise, we won't be finding a new singer via a reality TV show."
(For more information, visit www.thetriffids.com)
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