Adventures of a University Finalist

Friday, September 02, 2005

This Vicious Cabaret


The Triffids - Born Sandy Devotional (Mushroom, 1986)

The Triffids - The Seabirds
The Triffids - Estuary Bed
The Triffids - Lonely Stretch
The Triffids - Wide Open Road

Damn you Stuart Maconie and your failure to index! There I was hoping to quote your marvelously off-the-cuff comment in Cider With Roadies that started my short, sharp descent into Triffidom but you had to go and spoil it. Never mind. It's an excellent book and can still be purchased for a veritable snap (or a "billy bargain" as we term it here in The Graduate household) so we'll forgive you for your lackadaisical attitude. Love the radio show too; the Spoken Word week was a favourite with the wondrous Monster Mash of Betjeman vs. Tilt-era Scott Walker. Blood dripped from the ropes and Voltaire floated down from the ceiling like confetti.
Away from Wigan's finest though and on to Perth's. The Triffids, faves of the late John Peel ('Lonely Stretch' and 'Wide Open Road' would both turn up on sessions for the great man), were the Ladies-in-Waiting of the Australian indie rock movement of the 80s spoken in the same breath of The Go-Betweens and the Bad Seeds but with never the same level of devotion or popularity. As the Bad Seeds were driven by a singular force, in the ghoulish shape of Mr Cave, the Triffids were a vehicle for one man's experience and accompanying vision. That man was David McComb. McComb died on February 2, 1999, due to complications after an innocuous car crash furthered by heroin abuse and a consistent heart problem. He left behind an extraordinary body of work that is exemplified by the album that many call his masterpiece, 1986's 'Born Sandy Devotional'.
As soon as the album's lead-off track, 'The Seabirds' begins anyone with a vague knowledge of The Go-Betweens will recognise the instant similarity in the rawness of McComb's voice as he intones the poetry of "No foreign pair of sunglasses will ever shield you from the light that pierces your eyelids, the screaming of the gulls". Nick Cave always preferred the vaudeville where he luxuriates in the roles of the carny, the ass, the saloon pianist, the undertaker; Cave immerses himself in character, yelping screaming, and howling to the rotted ceiling with equal amounts of grief and mirth. McComb prefers to looks toward the enigma of the inner demons that search constantly for a redemption that never existed and their relationship to the landscape that surrounds them. He is not one for the culture of the individual signified by the exquisite aerial photo of the Western Australian town of Mandurah which adorns the album's cover. McComb's lyrics speak of a fictionalised truth with 'Tarrilup Bridge', the album's one possible weak moment due to the child like vocal of Jill Birt, referring to the bridge which the protagonist drives her car off to end her life, being an excellent example of the lyrics' overall feeling of isolation and nihilism being a direct result of the physical landscape which they inhabit. In the masterful 'The Seabirds', as the protagonist swims out into the Pacific to meet his death, the sun burns his skin, the sea tosses him like a rag doll, the reefs cut deep into his flesh, and the saltwater causes further pain as it penetrates his wounds mixing with his blood. In the end, all that is left is his battered body, now torn up physically as it was emotionally, lying on the beach as the gulls stare at it unwilling to end his suffering. McComb by this point is exhausted willing only to bellow a piteous judgment of "So, where were you?" as the eyes sting with big fat salty tears. It's truly a composition that should be rightfully compared with some of the finer cuts on The Boatman's Call. McComb may never have had the temerity or sheer righteous gall to sing "I don't believe in an interventionist God but I know darling that you do..." he will still come up with some wonderfully whisky-soaked gallows humour of his own when he ask the question "Are you drinking to get maudlin, or drinking to get numb?"
'Estuary Bed' is almost a precursor to 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' with its steady doomed waltz telling the elegiac tale of a final coupling as it is remembered by the tortured raconteur. The coda of "Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed" is beautiful but equally haunting as a multitude of voices rises from the silt fading into the ether with the lull of the vibraphone. Once again, images of the personal, sneaking out of your paramour's house over the back fence, are drowned by the overbearing significance held by the surrounding environment as the salt and mud creeps in to hide the indignity of the naked young bodies so well that they are only retrievable by memory.
'Wide Open Road' is everything that an anthem should be. Max Weinberg explosions of snare, rich echoes of guitar, rumbling unexcitable bass lines, and that rebel yell of a voice that is able to voice indignity whilst remaining unearthly dignified; it is often referred to a great lost single and was memorably played on The Triffids' behalf by Paul Kelly at Mushroom Records' 25th Anniversary Concert. Having already mentioned Weinberg, it's virtually impossible not to speak of the Boss himself and how he would have approved of the metaphor of the wide open road travelled down by McComb as he searches for his beloved and the man that she left him for. Of course, at this point Springsteen was mucking around with synths (don't get me wrong I lurve 'Tunnel of Love' despite its apparent musical faults but more on that at a later date methinks) so I don't think he would have noticed his populist working class philosophy being so expertly pinched. The song speaks of the McComb's passion as he cuts away all that was dear to him, his family and friends, whilst articulating this further through the taunts of the skyline. "The sky is big and empty... I yelled my insides out at the sun". With every empty horizon comes another promise unfulfilled, a recurrent theme in the album with Helios often acting as an antagonist looking to blister the aching heart as much as the worn skin.
So as a final note, I'd like to state that this brief, scattershot overview of what is an all too deep and complex an exercise as 'Born Sandy Devotional' can never truly do it justice. Maybe I'll write a thesis on it to keep myself occupied in this period of unemployment. Meanwhile, download these songs, tape up your jaw to avoid dislocation, turn out all the lights, put on the headphones, press play, and then just bask in the soft washes of sound coming in with the tide.

Buy - The Triffids - Born Sandy Devotional
Visit - The Triffids ("Dave's Influences" is especially interesting and I may just make a McComb compilation myself)