The Triffids were the great contenders of 1980s Australian Rock. After the mid-1980s (by which time the band had set up base in London) they were established as a cult attraction in Australia and Europe alike. But this wasn’t enough – The Triffids always had what leader David McComb described as “widescreen ambitions”.
That the band was invited to play on the overblown ‘Australian Made’ series of showcase concerts in 1986 alongside INXS and Jimmy Barnes was a measure of the potential even the mainstream industry could see. Ironically though, the quality that was one of The Triffids’ hooks – their precocity – was perhaps also their undoing.
By the time they finally clinched the elusive major label deal in 1986, although still a relatively young band, they were all played out. Neither as obtuse musically or lyrically as fellow exiles The Go-Betweens, The Triffids were essentially post-punk folky-rock balladeers.
Singer/Songwriter McComb was barely out of his teens when The Triffids arrived on the east coast of Australia for the first time in 1982 (where I first met them, took them to a party at Ashfield and ended up waking up in my car outside their Surry Hills house the next morning, covered in vomit . . . but that’s a different story for another time).
When they finally settled in Sydney in 1984 they became involved with fledgeling indie label, Hot Records. Hot released their debut album Treeless Plain at the end of the year, complete with modest string arrangements. In 1985 – almost on a whim – the band went to London, but even though they almost immediately scored an NME cover, they couldn’t raise a major deal.
Out of desperation, they paid for themselves to go into the studio and recorded the multi-layered and sophisticated Born Sandy Devotional (1986).
Released in England through Rough Trade, the album was hailed as a classic and even managed to crack the mainstream Top 30.
Island was thus finally convinced to sign The Triffids. But it was too late – the band was already showing the strain of being too long on the road.
The band made three albums for Island; In The Pines (1986) – recorded in a woodshed three days’ drive from the nearest settlement in remote Western Australia and yet probably the best Australian country and western album ever made, Calenture (1987) and The Black Swan (1989), before they finally imploded.
The band members embraced middle-class professional life, aside from David McComb and bassist Martyn Casey, who joined Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
McComb spent the next two years with lawyers in London getting out of the contract The Triffids had so keenly sought to get into. He also lived (and drank) as hard as the characters he wrote and sang about.
He died at his home in Melbourne on 2 February 1999 from “heroin toxicity and mild acute rejection of his 1996 heart transplant” following a minor car accident on 30 January. He was just 36.
Guitar, vocals, violin
Alsy (Alan) MacDonald
Pedal steel guitar, guitar, vocals