THE TRIFFIDS: WRONG TURN ON AN UNMARKED STRETCH

By Greg Brooker

[audio:http://www.youbettershutupandlisten.com/mp3s/triffids-bright_lights_big_city.mp3]

You’re lucky if, during your lifetime, you see or hear a band that really changes the way you see things, or through which you can measure phases of your life. Having grown up in Perth during the 1980s (between the ocean to the west, farm lands and desert to the east), I got to see some really great local (or of local origin) bands. Of these, the band most likely to inspire some of the warmest and saddest thoughts is the Triffids.

I was first exposed to the Triffids through a friend at High School. His older brother had a friend who was in the band and used to see them all the time. Once I heard some of their first releases (the Treeless Plain and the Raining Pleasure Mini-LPs), I was hooked. This was the start of a longterm interest in non-mainstream music.

By the time I had heard these releases, the Triffids had mutated from a multimedia experience Dalsy (born in recorded form on November, 27 1976), through Blak Musik and Logic. The Triffids early line up played various punk shows where nobody danced, and they were often glassed (an Australian term for having glass bottles thrown at you). The band members who, at this stage, were still in High School included David McComb, Alsy McDonald, Phil Kakulas and Byron Sinclair. Released from High School at the end of 1978, The Triffids began playing more gigs and selling their music (tapes sold at gigs). Phil Kakulas, lost to the pursuit of a degree in Chemistry, was replaced by David McComb’s (who was studying journalism and literature at Curtin University) brother Robert. This line up began playing gigs at the part-time punk haunt Hernando’s Hideaway and other venues, and continued releasing cassette- albums filled with McComb originals (these are best described as a strange amalgam of Dylan, Velvet Underground and roots/country music).

In 1980, the Perth university radio station 6NR held a songwriting competition, which McComb duly won, and the prize resulted in the Triffids first single Stand Up/Farmers Never Go To Nightclubs.

Once out of university, the Triffids uprooted themselves from Perth’s isolation and moved in 1981, initially to Melbourne and then Sydney. The line up, however, was fairly fluid over the following years, with a long rolecall including Will Akers, Martin Casey, Jill Birt, Simon Cromack, Margret Gillard, Mark Peters and Jill Yates. A couple of singles were released, Reverie, Spanish Blue and the Bad Timing EP.

By the time that 1983′s album, ‘Treeless Plain’ was released, a stabilised line up had crystallised out of David McComb (guitar/vocals), Robert McComb (guitar/violin), Martin Casey (bass), Jill Birt (keyboards) and Alsy McDonald (drums). A single Beautiful Waste/Property Is Condemned’ and mini-LP Raining Pleasure were released in 1984. These early recordings contain excellent tracks such as “My Baby Thinks She’s A Train”, “Jesus Calling”, “Hell Of A Summer”, “Rosevel”, “Plaything”, “Old Ghostrider” and the Jill Birt-sung “Raining Pleasure”. One thing you could almost be sure of if you lived in Perth, The Triffids would be home around Christmas and a fine show was therefore around the corner.

The Triffids found themselves receiving great press in the UK (with the respected John Peel championing the band), and like so many other underground Australian bands of the time (The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens, The Moodists) relocated to London. The truth of London life being somewhat different to the romanticised version in their heads (the same thing that I find every time I visit the ‘Old Dart’), leaving Australia to live in the squalor of Thatcher’s Britain. A strange recording surfaced in 1984, an eponymous mini-LP by Lawson Square Infirmary, which was most of the Triffids with a few friends. A very raw country recording, which is well worth picking up if you can find it.

1985 saw the release of Field Of Glass EP (some of these tracks were captured live in the studio and make up a large part of The Triffids Peel Session release from 1987). This EP contains, in my opinion, some of their greatest work; “Bright Lights, Big City:”, “Monkey On My Back”, and the epic “Field Of Glass”. These tracks at high volume are frightening and guaranteed to jar your conciousness. My memory of their gigs in Perth, especially at the Old Melbourne Hotel around Christmas of 1985 after the release of this EP are some of my fondest of live events. Seeing the band at full tilt, McComb a man possessed, shredding his hand on his guitar, setting the sound of his blood free. The audience captivated by the band throughout the performance, left the venue in shocked silence at the completion of the gig, realising that they had shared in something special.

Later in 1985, a cover of You Don’t Miss Your Water was released as a taster of what the Triffids had been up to in the studio and also introduced new member ‘Evil’ Graeme Lee. The fruits of the studio time was 1986′s adjective attracting Born Sandy Devotional, which contains one of the best ‘Australian’ songs of the last few decades, “Wide Open Road”. It is a majestic, sprawling masterpiece, which McComb later described as being “atmospheric”, strange fruit indeed from an Australian band because ‘Australian bands did not produce atmospheric music’. An intensely personal record, which makes you feel the sun on face, sweat on your back and thirst tickling your throat that is all part and parcel of summer in Australia. Choice cuts from the album include “Stolen Property”, “Life Of Crime” and “Lonely Stretch”‘.

1986 also saw two other releases; Love In Bright Landscapes was a ‘Best Of’ effort and then there was In The Pines. In The Pines was an on the cheap (petrol and alcohol costs were greater than equipment costs, or so the story goes) album recorded in a shearing shed 600 kilometers south east of Perth in the ‘Wheatbelt’. While I have read a few negative comments regarding this album, I always find it refreshing with some great performances such as the Velvet Underground tinged “Love and Affection”, “Kathy Knows”, “Keep Your Eye On The Hole” and ‘Evil’ Graeme Lee’s stunning “Once A Day”, one of the best drinking songs I think I have ever heard.

Moving between Australia and London, Calenture (a mental condition suffered by sailors crossing oceans were the sea becomes a green field) was recorded at great cost to Island Records and was released in 1987. A much more produced record, with the band searching for something other than critical acclaim, Calenture contained as always strong material such as “Holy Water”, “A Trick Of The Light”, “Kelly’s Blues” and “Blinder By The Hour”. Unfortunately, commercial success evaded them again, even with the radio friendly “Bury Me Deep In Love” as a single. On the live front, the band were just as good as always, if a little mellower, and it always appeared as if more people were discovering this Antipodean treasure.

It’s always funny, you love a band and wish them success, and then begin to resent it when crowds become bigger, but not in this case. The Triffids had done the hard yards and deserved greater success, but fate is never a kind mistress. 1989 saw the release of The Black Swan, which ultimately stood as the final studio release from the Triffids. A diverse collection of songs, strong arrangements and playing. From the dance orientated “Spinning Top Song” to the beautiful “Too Hot To Move, Too Hot To Sleep” or the rocky “One Mechanic Town”.

One of the last times I saw the Triffids play was a strange Christmas Covers gig on December 28 1989. Here they were billed as ‘Perth’s Greatest Cover Band’ and they did just that, played covers ranging from “Islands In The Stream”, “Sweet Jane”, “Blue Monday”, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, “Suspicious Minds” and of course the song they stated ‘meant so much to them and sort of started everything off,’ “What Goes On”.

Unfortunately, 1989 also saw the Triffids fold, critically acclaimed, NME ‘Best Band In The World’, personally loved but commercially unacceptable. Perhaps this last point, along with the constant touring led to the death of the band.

The last hurrah, Stockholm, a live album recorded at Cirkus in Stockholm (the band were very popular throughout Scandinavia, and it seems funny now that when I have met a few people in Stockholm for the first time and the talk turns to music I have been asked ‘Do you know of the Triffids?). Having attended a few gigs recently at Cirkus, I can understand why people record here – it is a superb venue, with great feeling and sound. Another best of ‘Australian Melodrama’ was released in 1995.

An off-shoot from the Triffids, the Black Eyed Susans, was made up of a few ex-Chad’s Tree members and a few former Triffids. Beginning as a cover band (conjuring material in the vein of Perth’s 1989 Christmas show), original material crept in and found its way onto EP’s and albums. David McComb could be found on the first two albums Welcome Stranger (made up of the initial EP releases) and All Souls Alive. Live, you could always be assured a great night out, a highlight always being a rollicking cover of Elvis’s “Rubber necking” aka “The Clapping Song”.

Solo, David McComb put out a few singles, “The Message” and “I Don’t Need You”, which came off like a cotinuation of The Black Swan. On 1991′s Leonard Cohen tribute I’m Your Fan, David McComb was found with musical collaborator Adam Peters performing “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-on”.

David McComb made a stunning return to form in 1994 with the excellent Love of Will album, which proudly exhibited his gospel and country influences, while the material also tips its hat to the likes of Cohen, Dylan and Velvet Underground. Tracks such as “Setting You Free”, “I Want To Conquer You” and “Clear Out My Mind” showed that none of his talents had dimmed. A touring band, David McComb and the Red Ponies did a few gigs but again fate took a hand.

Behind an immensly rich soul, and wealth of talent, David McComb unfortunately suffered from severe health ailments, and required a heart transplant, which he received upon his return to Australia in 1995, living in Melbourne with his family to convalesce. While preparing to return to music, he was involved and hospitalised after a car accident on January 30 1999. He passed away on February 2 1999 while recuperating. This was a sad loss to those that loved his music, and a loss for people in the future when they realise what great music and poetry had been ignored at the time of its creation. As I said, I’m lucky, the Triffids touched my life, and my world was, and is, a far better place for it.