A Brief History Of The Triffids ...
Like some unholy trinity, The Triffids, along with Nick Cave and The Go-Betweens seemingly conspired to change people’s attitude towards Antipodean rock in the mid-eighties, never before taken even remotely seriously. 1984 was the pivotal year when The Go-Betweens released Spring Hill Fair, Cave debuted with From Her To Eternity and, in late August, The Triffids arrived in the UK with two albums in tow, Treeless Plain and the mini-LP Raining Pleasure, recorded and released in Australia for Hot Records and, before the year was out, released in the UK by Rough Trade.
The Triffids - David McComb (lead vocals, guitar, keyboards): Rob McComb (violin, guitar): Alsy McDonald (drums, vocals): Martyn Casey (bass) and Jill Birt (keyboards, vocals) - arrived in London with a wad of cash they’d saved up and five return plane tickets scheduled to expire by Christmas. They’d given themselves three months to make inroads in the UK as a band, or have fun trying, and unequivocally, they succeeded to a point where they graced the first NME cover of 1985, which it predicted would be "The Year Of the Triffids." Not quite, as it turned out, and it was to be a further 18 months before their unassailable masterwork, Born Sandy Devotional, was finally released.
The Triffids was formed in their hometown of Perth, Western Australia, by school friends David McComb and Alsy McDonald, brother Rob soon becoming involved, all very much sons of the establishment from well-to-do families. They released their first single as The Triffids in 1981. After one or two changes, Marty and Jill completed the now familiar line up before recording their debut album, Treeless Plain, in 1983. Much is always made about the remoteness of Western Australia in relation to understanding the Triffids’ music. They would describe the endless drives eastwards across the treeless Nullarbor Plain where, chances are, there would be no passing traffic all day. As much as this sense of isolation affected the band’s mindset and determination, their music was also informed by a vast wealth of influences and a deep musical knowledge, avid music fans waiting patiently each week for a month old copy of the NME to arrive at their local Claremont newsagent. Those influences ranged from UK punk to California rock from a much earlier generation, Sixties’ folk, Dylan, Van Morrison, classic soul and country music, even if Treeless Plain and Raining Pleasure appear, on the surface, to be more typically indebted to The Velvet Underground.
But there was no denying the quality and maturity of early songs like “Property is Condemned,“ “Hell of A Summer” and “Red Pony,“ assured, literate and heartfelt. The Triffids were also a fearsome live band by the time played their first UK dates, delivered with power, presence and a real sense of drama.
Despite the intensity, particularly in David’s towering, even menacing, performances, the band would deflate any excessive pretension projecting a friendliness on and off-stage where they‘d like as not invite the audience to a barbecue at the weekend. Jill would step up each night for her Mo Tucker moment on “Raining Pleasure” and Alsy would relinquish the drums at the end for a cabaret style “Can’t Help Falling in Love” complete with "Fat Elvis" gesticulations. The Triffids both wowed and charmed audiences adding a newly written slice of post punk to their repertoire in “Field of Glass” (recorded for a Peel session and then released as an EP for Rough Trade). By the close of this first visit they were also adding the looser, brooding “Lonely Stretch” and “Stolen Property” to the set, songs eventually recorded for Born Sandy Devotional.
Delayed by record company wrangles and lack of finances, Born Sandy was recorded in London in August 1985 with Gil Norton (fresh from working with Echo & The Bunnymen) producing. By now they’d also added the bespectacled and anything but "Evil" Graham Lee to the band, contributing the haunting, atmospheric lap and pedal steel guitar that added so much to the album’s ambience. If the sound was one of wide open roads and intimidating landscapes, David McComb’s songs enveloped the listener with a stark passion, as on ”Life of Crime” or the soul searching “Tender Is The Night.“ By now, The Triffids were based in the UK for at least half the year. Their critical success here boosted their standing back home in Australia where they recorded In The Pines (aka The Woolshed Tapes) in the spring of 1986, still waiting for Born Sandy to come out - it was eventually released in June 1986.
Recorded on the McComb’s family property in Ravensthorpe, south east of Perth, in a shearing shed on basic eight track equipment, In the Pines took The Triffids deeper into folk ‘n’ country, a more rootsy, backyard direction that was reminiscent of Dylan’s Basement tapes in terms of execution. Released hot on the heels of Born Sandy it was seen at the time as something of a stop gap but holds up well with some great songs and is now a sentimental favourite among many Triffids’ fans - “One Soul Less On Your Fiery List” and “Keep Your Eyes On the Hole,“ certainly cry out for due consideration.
Things were soon to change, though, once The Triffids signed Island Records in the UK. Calenture, their Island debut in 1987, wallowing in uplifting and deeply moving songs - “Hometown Farewell Kiss,“ “Save What You Can” and the sublime “Jerdacuttup Man” - was given a sheen of favoured '80’s production techniques which may have surprised some hard-core fans who expected the rougher edges of Born Sandy but it has still come through the years remarkably well. The exquisite, languid love song “Bury Me Deep In Love,“ the opening salvo in the single stakes, wasn’t the hit Island hoped for. Ultimately, its crowning achievement was its use in a pivotal wedding scene in Aussie soap "Neighbours." Two further singles, the upbeat “Trick Of the Light” and darker “Holy Water” also failed to chart. Commercial success for The Triffids just wasn’t meant to be and, once again, they had to settle for critical plaudits instead.
Adam Peters who’d played cello and keyboards and assisted in arrangements on Born Sandy, had now been virtually drafted into the band and was working more closely with David who was still writing prolifically, and typically evocative, emotive songs. His next body of work was another impressive collection, "New Year’s Greetings" a contender for David’s most accomplished song, a majestic, multi-faceted epic of lost love. It showed David’s deeper immersion into burning soul (notably American songstress Laura Nyro). Stephen Street, fresh from working with The Smiths, was brought in to produce and, if the resultant The Black Swan, released in 1989, seems to be a less than wholly cohesive album then it reflects the band‘s intent on embracing a disparate range of styles and moods. David, in fact, had originally conceived it as a double album. The chosen single, “Goodbye Little Boy,“ featured Jill on vocals and "glammed up" for the record sleeve.
The Black Swan, living up to its own sense of irony, was to be their swansong. UK fans were fortunate to witness a four-night stand at the Shaw Theatre in London where The Triffids played in a living room styled set on stage, the material spanning the years and the group as commanding, good humoured and modest as on that first UK visit five years earlier. Few expected that the group would disband so soon after the release of The Black Swan. Aside from the posthumous Stockholm, a live album recorded for Swedish radio, it was over. As with In the Pines, Stockholm was an album that was no mere filler and with powerful, more muscular versions of some of the group’s more ambitious early songs like “Personal Things” and “Hell of A Summer.“
After disbanding, the group returned to Australia where, Alsy, Jill and Rob took proper jobs as lawyers, architects and teachers respectively, and settled down, Alsy and Jill marrying, Marty joined Nick Cave and Graham, continued to do sessions and live work in Australia. Graham’s steel guitar features prominently on the KLF’s groundbreaking Chill Out album and other KLF material. The Triffids (sans David) also backed The KLF’s Bill Drummond on his only ever solo album, The Man, released by Creation in 1990. David continued writing and performing, releasing just one tortured solo album, Love of Will, for Mushroom in 1994, an album that inevitably bore many of the Triffids’ hallmarks of style and quality.
Tragically, David who suffered regular, serious health problems, undergoing a heart transplant in 1996, died in February 1999, following a car accident. The Triffids music will live on as resonant now (perhaps more so) as then and a testament to a unique group and, in David McComb, one of the finest songwriters to come out of Australia - or anywhere, if it comes to that. They could have been contenders but, somehow, their epitaph was destined to be the music itself and David’s songwriting and never a wall-full of Gold discs.
-Mick Houghton, The Triffids’ Publicist from August 1984-1989