February 2016

Arts & Letters

One of the great Australian albums

By Anwen Crawford
The Triffids’ ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ 30 years on

Thirty years ago this month, Perth band The Triffids released their fifth single, ‘Wide Open Road’. It remains not only The Triffids’ best-known composition but also one of the most beloved of all Australian popular songs. It is a driving song, a dreaming song, a weeping song, a song that shimmers with summer light even as it traces out a winter of the heart, a song vast enough to fill the horizon yet intimate enough to feel as if it were being played right beside you. I would wager that there are few pop songs so beautiful as ‘Wide Open Road’, though perhaps its magic is only wholly palpable to a listener who holds within them a sense of what this country feels like: its heat, its distances, its fraught and haunted spirit. For that reason, among others, it is a perfect song to play should you find yourself leaving Australia, or homesick for it in a way you can’t explain and maybe didn’t anticipate.

The Triffids recorded ‘Wide Open Road’ in London. They had relocated there during the northern summer of 1984, after several frustrating years of driving back and forth across the Nullarbor, and a stint in Sydney, trying to interest east coast audiences in their music. In London they would make up one part of a ragged trio of Australian post-punk bands in exile, alongside The Go-Betweens and the earliest iteration of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The Triffids shared something of The Go-Betweens’ flair for unhurried, deceptively simple songs, but also borrowed a little from the Bad Seeds’ torrid melodrama. Their first album, Treeless Plain (1983), was folkish and unfussy, but a subsequent run of shorter recordings was to culminate in the Field of Glass EP (1985), a humid, roiling trio of songs recorded live at the Maida Vale studios of BBC Radio.

By 1985 The Triffids were a sextet, augmenting the usual rock combo of guitar (played by lead singer and primary songwriter David McComb and his older brother, Robert), drums (Alsy MacDonald) and bass (Martyn Casey, later to join the Bad Seeds) with keyboards (Jill Birt), violin (also played by Robert McComb) and pedal steel guitar (“Evil” Graham Lee). Of all the elements that make ‘Wide Open Road’ so remarkable it is the keening, ghostly sound of Lee’s pedal steel that is most distinctive.

Early that same year, The Triffids became the first Australian band to grace the cover of the NME, Britain’s most influential music paper, though even this unprecedented notice was not enough to secure them the major label deal they were hoping for. On a limited budget, funded largely by their own savings, The Triffids set about recording their second studio album. Their English producer, Gil Norton, had previously worked with Echo & the Bunnymen. Because tape was expensive, the band recorded only ten songs, all of which were included on the finished album. That album – of which ‘Wide Open Road’ is the centrepiece – would be Born Sandy Devotional, released in March 1986.

“All torch songs, all good luck charms, all winters,” wrote David McComb in his preparatory notes for the album. (Facsimiles of McComb’s handwritten notebooks and lyrics were included, along with additional tracks, in the 2006 reissue through Liberation and Domino.) McComb was 23 years old at the time, and the songs he wrote for Born Sandy Devotional are infused with the grand and doomed romanticism of the very young. “Songs written for an LP record with a theme,” he wrote. “The theme will be unrequited love.”

Born Sandy Devotional opens with ‘The Seabirds’, a species of torch song, though one in which a cushiony bed of strings is offset by hard-edged drumming. “No foreign pair of dark sunglasses / will ever shield you from / The light that pierces your eyelids / The screaming of the gulls,” sings McComb, combining homesickness and heartbreak in a way that would define the record. The birds of the song’s title scorn to peck at the body of a man who wants to die, or perhaps is already dead. This is an album full of wraiths and visions, conjured equally by guilt, erotic longing and violence.

That gothic quality – both musical and lyrical – was something that The Triffids shared with the Bad Seeds, but unlike Nick Cave, whose fevered songs were almost always set in the American South, McComb chose to write about a distinctly Australian environment. ‘Estuary Bed’, which follows ‘The Seabirds’, is a gorgeous calypso that evokes the hot sand and prickling salt of a coastal Australian childhood, but it takes place in the shadow of an adult disenchantment that sees McComb alluding to Macbeth: “Sleep no more / Sleep is dead / Sleep no more on the estuary bed”.

You could bracket the ten-song sequence of Born Sandy Devotional into five pairs, with one song baleful and its twin, if not sunny, at least less heavily downcast. ‘Chicken Killer’ and ‘Tarrilup Bridge’ are tales of peculiar loners. The latter is sung by Jill Birt in her light voice – a marked contrast with McComb’s sonorous tones – and is again suggestive of a narrator speaking from beyond the grave. The music lurches like a carnival ghost train, in a welcome touch of dark humour. As the album plays out, the songs move further away from the ocean, towards the country’s interior.

If ‘Wide Open Road’ is the vulnerable heart of Born Sandy Devotional, a song at once desolate and resolute, then its shadow is ‘Lonely Stretch’. In 1985, before recording Born Sandy Devotional, The Triffids laid down a version of ‘Lonely Stretch’ for British radio DJ John Peel, as guests on his famous Peel Sessions. That live version highlights the rhythm section that gives ‘Lonely Stretch’ its potency: Martyn Casey’s pounding bassline, Alsy MacDonald’s thunderous cymbal rolls. The studio version, though, adds the kind of embellishments that make the song into a hallucinatory, murderous dream, the musical equivalent of Ted Kotcheff’s cinematic vision in Wake in Fright (1971) or the literary power of Patrick White’s Voss (1957).

“I took a wrong turn off of an unmarked track,” sings McComb. “I did seven miles, I couldn’t find my way back.” ‘Lonely Stretch’, like ‘Wide Open Road’, is a driving song, but one in which neither the driver nor car survive the journey. The land is desiccated and brutalised, but so is the narrator’s emotional terrain. “Baby, I was wrong / I was wrong from the start / You could die out here / From a broken heart.” The song gathers momentum as MacDonald ploughs into his kick drum; at the climax McComb channels a preacher-cum-bluesman as the rest of the band screeches to a halt. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds indulged in this kind of dire balladry too – McComb noted their 1984 song ‘From Her to Eternity’ as a model for ‘Lonely Stretch’ – but The Triffids did it better. If I could choose only one song as a showcase of what Australian musicians have been able to do with the American roots of popular music, remoulding its constituent parts into something that speaks of, and to, the colonial weirdness of this country, it would be ‘Lonely Stretch’.

‘Wide Open Road’ aside, The Triffids were never widely loved by local audiences when they existed, and even now, though Born Sandy Devotional is routinely named as one of the great Australian albums, their listenership is not large. They can be a difficult band to make sense of, especially because their recorded catalogue shifts between unadorned (In the Pines, for instance, which they recorded in early 1986 in a Western Australian woolshed) and sumptuous (Calenture, released in 1987, is nearly the equal of Born Sandy Devotional in craft and atmosphere). Uniting both parts of their musical temperament is McComb’s persona, which at moments can feel overwrought. You have to be in the mood to submit to the tidal pull of The Triffids’ sound.

The last voice on Born Sandy Devotional belongs not to McComb but to Birt, though it is McComb’s words she sings. ‘Tender Is the Night (The Long Fidelity)’ is a kind of coda to the rest of the album – a moment where the songs’ author steps back a little, to survey the consequences of his lonely and self-destructive temperament. “I knew him as a gentle young man,” sings Birt, over a gentle, lilting arrangement. “I cannot say for sure the reasons for his decline.” The words are fatalistic, but also prescient – McComb would die in 1999 at the age of 36, a decade after The Triffids’ disbandment. For years he battled with heroin and alcohol addiction.

But the song is also generous, and kind – a gesture towards loved ones, like a wave of the hand. “Let’s go out tonight,” sings Birt, with McComb quietly harmonising on the final chorus. “It’s getting dark earlier now / But where you are it’s just getting light.” Anyone who has found themselves on the other side of the world from Australia, measuring the hours and the distance between themselves and those most dear to them, can grasp the heartache, and the image. Even more than absent lovers, it is the Australian light that you yearn for. Until you leave, you never know just how much you’ll miss it.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

The Triffids. © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

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