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The Triffids, The Barbican Centre, London, April 9th 2010

April 12, 2010

The Triffids, 1985


The mid-80s were ‘dark’ days for those of us who like rock ‘n’ roll or pop or call it what you will – essentially that music which germinated in the 50s, flowered in the 60s and threw forth interesting seeds in the 70s. Alas, by the 80s, the money-men were well and truly in charge and most ‘rock’ music on the radio, in record shops and live on stage was dire. Despite what entrepreneurial gurus will tell you, business is full of ‘me too’ copycats, while young people’s music should be all about risk-taking and innovation. So that’s why we got Kajagoogoo, Billy Idol, U2, Simply Red, Dire Straits and all the rest of that ghastly crowd.

By 1985ish, I almost despaired of hearing much great new music again and even Neil Young was languishing in his Geffen-imposed exile. Granted, REM were still cool, Sonic Youth were on the radar and there was quite a lot of good stuff on the edges of the indie C86 scene, but the live music I gravitated to seemed to be predominantly Anzac – bands like The Go-Betweens, The Moodists and Hoodoo Gurus from Oz, and The Chills, The Clean, The Bats and The Verlaines from NZ. Many of those bands moved to London to ‘make it big’ and they bought with them a freshness and enthusiasm that was sorely lacking on the home front.

My favourite of those Down Under bands was The Triffids, a close-knit group from Perth under the leadership of singer and songwriter extraordinaire David McComb. I’d heard a few of their singles on John Peel, but it was their ‘breakthrough’ album Born Sandy Devotional (recorded in ’85, released in ’86) that absolutely captivated me. That title alone deserves an award. And the music was big – ambitious and expansive, yet closely personal and dripping with truth.

The Australian desert and the outback itself seemed to imbue the songs with a grandeur and bigness that was unique, though the music never veered into pomposity or stadium anthem territory – Oz band INXS sounded similarly ‘big’, but they were crap. Two other great albums followed – In The Pines and Calenture – but I lost touch with The Triffids after that. The late 80s saw a revival of good music (spearheaded by the Pixies and a rejuvenated Neil Young, who was soon to be crowned the Godfather Of Grunge), and The Triffids fell off the radar altogether.

It was only in 1999 that I heard of them again, and it was in desperately sad circumstances – the death of founder member and cornerstone of the band, David McComb. The band had split up in 1990, in fact, but David had continued to write and perform, despite continuing drug problems which ultimately resulted in him having a heart transplant in 1996.

Two years ago, the remaining members of the band gave a series of performances at the Sydney Festival and it was this show – A Secret In The Shape Of A Song – that was being put on at The Barbican, to what seemed like 1,500 middle-aged Aussies and me.

The Blackeyed Susans were billed as support, but the MC came on to say that they preferred to all play together as The Triffids – and to play for three hours. The backdrop spotlighted a slideshow of snaps from the McCombs’ childhood (brother Robert plays guitar and violin in the band) and from the band’s early days. First on, though, was Dev Hynes, aka Lightspeed Champion, who played a couple of songs to get us in the mood. The band then took to the stage and treated us to a wonderful selection of numbers from throughout David’s career, but unsurprisingly it was the songs from the ‘big’ albums that got the greatest applause. One such number, Tarrilup Bridge, featuring the vocals of keyboard player Jill Birt, is a spooky tale of stardom and despair:
Yes I was your best friend,
You were my blinding sun,
Now the only thing bright is my name in lights
And the night has only just begun.
I packed my bag,
Left a note on the fridge,
And I drove off the end of the Tarrilup Bridge…

One problem I thought the band would have is replacing David McComb’s powerful vocal style, and band members Robert McComb, mainstay Graham Lee and some other guest singers weren’t quite up to it, though The Seabirds and Life Of Crime were both performed with energy and drive. Blackeyed Susan singer Rob Snarski has a great voice, however, and filled in very well on some of the quieter, more soulful tunes, but it was guest vocalist Simon Breen who nailed the McComb sound with spellbinding versions of Trick Of The Light and Lonely Stretch.

Dev Hynes reappeared to join the band for fine versions of early tunes Reverie and Beautiful Waste, while Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples came on to sing Wide Open Road – screwing up the lyrics in the process. Not forgivable, really, for such a great song. Calenture‘s Bury Me Deep In Love – immortalised as the song played at Harold and Madge’s wedding in Neighbours (!) – sounded lovely, while some of the bands earlier tunes took their place as fine songs, too.

The evening wrapped up with a guests-‘n’-all version of Fairytale Love and I felt we’d been treated to a fine memorial to David and his work – big, bold and truthful, but tinged with sadness and a whispering sense of loss and loneliness. Below is the majestic Wide Open Road featuring David in all his glory and if you haven’t got Born Sandy Devotional, go and buy it here.

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