The late David Richard McComb, best known as lead singer and songwriter in The Triffids, was born 54 years ago today on 17 February 1962. His parents were plastic surgeon Harold McComb and geneticist Athel Hockey. The couple had five boys and lived in an historic home, The Cliffe, in the affluent Peppermint Grove suburb of Perth, Australia.
David McComb and his four older brothers all attended Christ Church Grammar School in nearby Claremont. Young David was a promising student and was awarded prizes in Divinity and English Literature. At Hollywood Senior High School, McComb befriended Alan “Alsy” MacDonald, who through The Triffids’ many line-up changes, would remain McComb’s songwriting partner and bandmate throughout.
McComb and MacDonald recorded a demo on a toy drum and acoustic guitar on 27 November 1976. With fellow teens, Phil Kakulas, Andrew McGowan, Julian Douglas-Smith, Byron Sinclair, Will Akers, and Margaret Gillard the two participated in a multi-media collective called Dalsy. Various members of Dalsy recorded a series of cassettes, primarily composed of original material, with titles including The Loft Tapes, Rock ‘n’ Roll Accountancy, Live at Ding Dongs, Bored Kids, Domestic Cosmos, People Are Strange Dalsy Are Stranger, Steve’s, and Pale Horse Have a Fit before disbanding in 1977.
In 1978, most of the ex-Dalsy members reconvened as Blök Music and recorded one self-released album, Blök Music tape. In April of that year, after an underwhelming reception at the Leederville Town Hall Punk Fest, they changed their name first to Logic and then, the next day, to The Triffids. The first Triffids release, appropriately titled Triffids 1st, was recorded over a two day period in May. Triffids 2nd followed in September. Triffids 3rd arrived in February 1979, Triffids 4th (the first appearance of David McComb’s brother, Robert) in August, Triffids 5th in April 1980, and Triffids Sixth in 1981.
By then McComb was studying journalism and literature at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (since renamed Curtin University of Technology). The Triffids released their first single, “Stand Up,” in July for a song competition hosted by the Student Guild’s radio show on 6NR (now Curtin FM). The Triffids won, which led to the song’s re-release the following year on Shake Some Action. In December, the band released their first studio effort; Last Gasp (1981-Resonant Records), a mini-album recorded at Mutant Mule Studios in Perth. The album was only released on cassette and a mere fifty copies were made.
At the end of 1982, the 7″ Reverie EP, drawn from the second side of Last Gasp, was released on Resonant Records. A line-up change came about after Will Akers was hauled off to jail on drug charges. His replacement was by an English immigrant, Martyn P. Casey, who joined in 1983. The band traversed the continent to the east coast with increasing frequency and opened for The Church, Hunters & Collectors, The Uncanny X-Men, The Reels, and The Sunnyboys. In Melbourne, The Triffids recorded and released the Les Karski-produced “Spanish Blue” which was followed by Bad Timing and Other Stories EP (1983), both of which were released through White Label Records, a subsidiary of Mushroom.
The Triffid returned with another self-released cassette which they sold exclusively at performances in eastern Australia, Dungeon Tape (1983). The recordings were taken from two sessions in 1981; one at Dungeon Rehearsal Studios in Sydney and another from Mutant Mule.
After having self-released seven full-length records, The Triffids finally signed to the Sydney-based Hot Records who released their proper full-length, studio debut, Treeless Plain (1983) in November. Its distinctly ragged and rural blend of rock, blues, country, and folk adumbrated subsequent efforts of countrymen like Nick Cave and Simon Bonney and others and not only did it establish them as an important band in their homeland, it also garnered attention from critics and a few fans in the UK. It included new member, Jill Birt (ex-What Are Little Boys Made Of and Precious Title) on keyboards and vocals, replacing Margaret Gillard.
The Raining Pleasure EP (Hot Records) and Lawson Square Infirmary EP (Hot Records) followed in 1984 – the latter recorded in the Sydney Opera House with a local musician James Paterson, who also financed the record. It was also notably the first appearance with the band of ‘Evil’ Graham Lee, whose unique pedal steel stylings would later be an important component of The Triffids’ sound.
Now based in Redfern, the band shared a run-down home whilst they attempted to save money to finance a move to London. In August they made the big move, joining a small group of critically-lauded/commercially-ignored Aussie ex-pats – one of their earliest gigs in the UK was supporting countrymen The Go-Betweens. The Triffids were featured on the cover of NME, who grandiosely predicted that 1985 would be “The Year of the Triffids.” In November, the band recorded the Field of Glass EP (Hot Records) live in BBC’s Studio 5 before returning to Australia.
Back home, the band re-teamed with Evil Graham Lee for a cover of “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry)” before returning to London with Lee in tow as a member. They were once again featured on the cover of NME (this time without the bold proclamation), recorded a Peel Session (ultimately released in 1987) and toured Europe with Echo & the Bunnymen where they gained sizable followings in Belgium, Greece, Ireland, The Netherlands, and Sweden.
The Triffids backed a pre-KLF Bill Drummond on his excellent, country-tinged 1986 solo album, The Man. The Triffids, meanwhile, remained unsigned when they entered the studio with Gil Norton in August and recorded what many would view as their masterpiece, Born Sandy Devotional (1986-Mushroom). Frustrated with delays in the release of Born Sandy Devotional and lack of label interest, the band once again returned to Australia. When Born Sandy Devotional finally saw the light of day, it was widely heralded not just as their best work but as one of the greatest albums in the history of Australian music. It reached the Top 40 at home and the Top 20 in Sweden.
A month after the release of Born Sandy Devotional, The Triffids entered a woolshed in the Shire of Ravensthorpe with a budget of $1190 ($240 for gas, $310 for food and $340 for booze — the remainder for recording). They emerged four days later with the effortlessly tossed off classic, In the Pines (1986-White Hot). An anthology of both album and non-album tracks recorded between 1983 and ’85 was released as Love in Bright Landscapes (1986-White Hot).
Though they weren’t exactly tearing up the charts at home or abroad, INXS’s Michael Hutchence lobbied for The Triffids’ inclusion on the Australian Made tour, a touring festival of Australian bands which also featured Jimmy Barnes, INXS, Mental as Anything, Divinyls, Models, The Saints, and I’m Talking. It began on St. Stephen’s Day in Hobart, Tasmania and wrapped up the following January.
The Triffids were finally picked up Island, who contracted them for three records. The recording sessions for their next album took place in Bath, Liverpool, and London with an Island-appointed producer, Craig Leon. The label and Leon insisted that Casey and MacDonald weren’t up to snuff and forced the band to employ session musicians, resulting in what Lee called an “unmitigated disaster.” The sessions were thus scrapped and Lenny Kaye was brought in, who proved of an entirely different opinion, that not only were the band members up to the task but that his production work wasn’t required either. After he backed out, Gil Norton returned to re-record something that would find approval with both Island and the band. The result was Calenture (1987-Island), another classic — albeit one perhaps slightly tarnished by overly slick production. It charted highest in Sweden, where it reached #24.
Frustrated by a recording experience that McComb compared to the famously disastrous production of the film Heaven’s Gate, The Triffids’ next release saw them once again return to their roots with the release of another limited edition DIY cassette, Jack Brabham (1988) which was exclusively sold at two shows in Perth that December. They followed it with another self-released cassette, an anthology, Son of Dungeon Tape (1988). The band then expressed their desire to record Calenture’s follow-up in Australia but Island, after the costly commercial failure of that record, wanted to keep them on a short leash and insisted on their return to the UK.
With a working title of Disappointment Resort Complex, the band recorded their follow-up in Somerset. With Stephen Street at the helm, the experience proved less painful and it was re-titled, The Black Swan (1989-Island). It proved to be their most musically adventurous set, utilizing a broad variety of instruments and sounds, even including elements of hip-hop and dance. In fact, it proved too adventurous for most fans and its cold reception disappointed the band. The Triffids played two dates in New York before returning to Australia. Although they didn’t know it at the time, an August 1989 show at Australian National University would be their last.
In order to fulfill their contractual obligations at Island, the label compiled a set of pre-Calenture songs recorded live in Stockholm for The Bommen Show on Sveriges Radio from 1989. It was released as Stockholm (1990-Island). It was their last official release until 2008’s Beautiful Waste and Other Songs (Liberation Records), a compilation of tracks culled from several EPs and singles that hadn’t previously been included on compact disc.
In 1989, The McComb brothers and MacDonald formed Black-Eyed Susans, originally as a side-project, with former Triffid Phil Kakulas as well as Ross Bolleter and Rob Snarski. Line-up changes were necessary when David decided to have another crack at the UK as a solo artist. Black-Eyed Susans were subsequently joined by two of the future Dirty Three — Jim White and Warren Ellis — as well as former Triffid Martyn Casey.
In 1990, back in London, McComb once again unsuccessfully attempted to find commercial success. In 1991, McComb and Adam Peters contributed a cover of “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On” to the Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan. The two also released a single, “I Don’t Need You.” McComb then formed a proper backing band, The Red Ponies (comprised of Graham Lee, Warren Ellis, Peter Luscombe, Bruce Haymes, and Michael Vidale), with whom he toured Europe and released “The Message” on Stephen Street’s Foundation label.
In 1992, McComb packed it in, returned to Australia, and enrolled at The University of Melbourne where he studied art history. He occasionally re-joined Black-Eyed Susans and released the Setting You Free EP (featuring Warren Ellis) (1993-White Records), the Clear Out My Mind EP (1994-White Records), and the full-length Love of Will (featuring Martyn Casey) (1994-Mushroom). As the years passed, his former bandmates moved on. Robert McComb began teaching geography. MacDonald became a lawyer. Jill Birt became an architect. MacDonald and Birt started a family.
In the meantime, McComb formed another act, Costar, with whom he recorded a three-track EP that remains unreleased. A planned Triffids reunion in 1994 was put on hold when McComb’s health worsened. McComb developed cardiomyopathy, a heart condition likely caused by his alcoholism. He undertook a successful heart transplant in 1996 but continued abusing alcohol, heroin, and speed. In 1999 he was involved in a car crash and released after being hospitalized for a night. A few days later, on 2 February, he died – just shy of his 37th birthday. The State Coroner noted his death was due to “heroin toxicity and mild acute rejection of his 1996 heart transplant.” His ashes were spread under the pines at Woodstock, the family’s farm in Jerdacuttup, Australia.
As with so many great artists insufficiently recognized in life, McComb’s and The Triffids’ stature has grown in the years since his passing. In 2001, the Australasian Performing Right Association named “Wide Open Road” as one of the thirty greatest Australian songs of all time. In 2006, McComb was posthumously inducted into the West Australian Music Industry Association Hall Of Fame. That same year, Domino began re-issuing remastered editions of The Triffids albums, beginning with Born Sandy Devotional. Members of the band reunited for three live performances in Hasselt, Belgium and Amsterdam with Mark Snarski and Harald Vanherf filling in for McComb. In 2007, SBS aired a documentary about Born Sandy Devotional as part of their Great Australian Albums series and photographer/writer Bleddyn Butcher wrote the biography, Save What You Can – the Day of the Triffids and the Long Night of David McComb. A McComb documentary titled Love in Bright Landscapes followed. At the of the 2008 Sydney Festival, the reunited members played yet again, joined by Rob Snarski, Youth Group’s Toby Martin, Mick Harvey, The Church’s Steve Kilbey, The Necks’ Chris Abrahams, and Melanie Oxley. The performances were filmed and released on DVD as It’s Raining Pleasure. In London, in 2010, artists including Tindersticks‘ Stuart A. Staples, Lightspeed Champion, Simon Breed, and The Brian Jonestown Massacre‘s Ricky Maymi and others paid tribute to the music of David McComb in a concert billed as A Secret in the Shape of a Song.
In more recent years, artists like Jack Ladder, The Holy Sea, Empty State have named The Triffids as an influence and on “History Eraser,” Courtney Barnett sings a tale of someone who promises to sing here a Triffids song. I hope it was “The Seabirds” or “Falling Over You.”