For a rock musician, David McComb was a-typical; no cocaine and medallion clichés, no bloated concept albums or Stones-esque near fatal mid-career slumps. Born into the early ‘60s Perth of The Cooke murders (depicted in Robert Drewe’s novel The Shark Net), he was a writer, published poet, music-tragic and a bona fide songwriting genius. He also loved arthouse cinema and trashy TV, and had a fascination with late period Elvis. There was no high-brow, no low-brow; just connection and resonance – or not.
For an avowed agnostic, art remained close to a religion over his short life. He found equal inspiration in writers Mary Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner as he did in musical iconoclasts Lou Reed, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and pioneering Australian punks The Victims.
McComb wasn’t just an unusual musician: he was an unusual individual, who chanced upon music as their chief expression, and grabbed it. He was utterly determined, utterly voracious, a romantic workaholic with a guitar and a mind easily the envy of any published writer who’d already made the papers.
Love in Bright Landscapes relies upon the undeniable power of David McComb’s onstage presence by depicting several live performances – leaving the irony, imagery and emotion of his lyrics to speak for themselves – the devices used to bring his interior world to the screen in a narrative sense help us tell a striking, untold and powerful Australian story. McComb’s health faltered and he died in 1999, leaving a slew of unanswered questions. The secret? It’s in the shape of a song. This film might just tell you.
Wide Open Road 1978 - 1989
In David McComb’s own words, The Triffids were “born to two teenagers in late ’70s Perth. The Perth of Norman Gunston, clear blue skies, watersports, all-night TV horrorthons, Hungry Jacks, the WAFL … anything was fair game to escape the heat and boredom of the world’s most isolated capital city.”
The Triffids – named in 1978 by then-member Phil Kakulas after John Wyndam’s novel about giant walking plants who ate people – evolved from McComb and Alsy McDonald’s impish art project that lampooned everything around them, called Dalsy.
The Triffids debuted at 1978’s Leederville punk festival, clad in dressing gowns and slippers. It was their own kind of punk, and this idiosyncratic, highly individualised bent characterised their trajectory through the feckless, shallow, day-glo 1980s. After several line ups, homemade cassettes of uncommonly mature songwriting and the weathering of serious hatred at suburban pool parties and various envelope openings, The Triffids released their debut single Stand Up, followed by the Papua New Guinea-inspired Spanish Blue. They then de-camped to Sydney where they recorded a debut album, Treeless Plain. David’s brother Robert was by this time enlisted on guitar and violin, firming up a line up of Jill Birt on keys, Martyn P Casey on bass and Alsy McDonald on drums.
Photo: Nick White
They joined the ranks of Australian ex-pats in London (among them The
Go-Betweens, Bad Seeds and Moodists) and soon established a fearsome reputation in London and in the continental climes beyond.
The Triffids featured on the cover of music bible NME in 1985 and played Glastonbury, Pinkpop, Waterpop, Seinojoke, Roskhilde (40,000), T&W Belgium (35,000) and den Haague’s Parkpop (100,000+). They soon built pockets of popularity across Europe, particularly in The Netherlands, Greece, Scandinavia, Ireland and Belgium.
McComb penned the songs that comprised The Triffids’ masterpiece Born Sandy Devotional in his early/mid ’20s. With Queensland pedal-steel guitarist Graham Lee a final addition to the ‘classic’ line up, The Triffids self-financed a cycle of love songs that is still regularly called “one the greatest albums ever made.” Written largely from afar, the Western Australian landscapes of David’s childhood and adolescence provided the sonic canvas for a suite of broken-hearted mini-epics riven with atmosphere, literary allusion and the polished, intuitive and accomplished playing of what was, by then, one of the most unique musical expressions to ever hail from Australia. Wide Open Road has remained an anthem, if a misunderstood one.
In keeping with the times, the record industry missed the majesty, although the keener ears of the public ensured critical word of mouth propelled the album’s fortunes to a degree. After the rustic, homespun charm of In the Pines (recorded on an eight track at the McComb family farm) The Triffids signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island label, and recorded 1987’s elegant-if-troubled Calenture (containing several newly minted McComb classics in the form of Bury Me Deep in Love, Kelly’s Blues, Trick of the Light and Save What You Can).
The Black Swan, helmed by ex-Smiths producer Stephen Street, followed in 1989, a carnival ride through a musical vaudeville that encompassed McComb’s eclectic tastes; electronica, rock, soul, tango, hip hop; contains the masterful New Year’s Greeting. It was perhaps The Triffids’ take on The Beatles White Album, stretching out in all musical directions.
McComb put the band on hold while he pursued a solo project. Despite intentions, the break turned into forever. A retrospective compilation, Australian Melodrama was released in 1994, the same year as McComb’s solo debut Love of Will. The singer casually dropped the news the band would reform for live dates in 1995 during a radio interview with the director of Love in Bright Landscapes, but sadly it was never to be. McComb’s health issues put the tour on hold, and he never again fronted the band he founded. He died in 1999.
The remaining Triffids first mounted their tribute show, The Secret in the Shape of a Song in 2006 (in Belgium) followed by very intermittent event-based Australian dates, the most recent being in 2016. The band have reissued remastered versions of all their studio albums with previously unreleased tracks, including a limited-edition boxset, and vinyl edition of Born Sandy Devotional. Vinyl re-releases of Calenture and The Black Swan are scheduled for release at some future stage.
“These are songs that don’t so much have lyrics as stories; compelling, elegant narratives of disappointment and despair, which give voice to the lonely, the marginalised and the silenced. This is not just the sound of an isolated part of the Antipodes – it’s the sound of humanity, all over the globe.” - BBC MUSIC.