All torch songs, all good luck charms, all winters
What use eyesight if it should melt?
When you move from one end of the world to the other, the colour of money changes, and so does the colour of the sky. The new money is confusing: it makes you slow and clumsy at the supermarket checkout, but the new sky leaves you turning in circles, looking for the old one. It is not simply disorientation. The elements have realigned themselves.
Everybody who has ever left Australia – and maybe or maybe not returned to it again – will tell you that you will miss the sky, and miss the light. They told me, and I believed them, but I didn’t realise how immediately or how deeply the longing would take hold. I arrived in New York City at the end of summer, when the weather is at its brightest, and within a week I was walking along the Hudson River shoreline, still fighting jetlag and the sense that with yellow taxis and yellow traffic lights and external fire escapes and American accents I’d just landed on a film set, disconsolately seeking a shade of blue that wasn’t there to be found.
Once, years ago, I saw a cartoon that had been reproduced from The Bulletin (at least I think it was The Bulletin), originally printed not long after the magazine’s founding in 1880. The Bulletin became known during its earliest, most influential era in Australia as “the bushman’s bible”: it was a startlingly racist and rabidly conservative magazine that pioneered a now-familiar editorial approach whereby the best interests of the business class were slyly championed as the popular causes of the common people. “Australia for the white man”, ran its masthead, at least until it became profitable after World War II to import migrant labourers at knock-down prices.
This cartoon depicted a young British woman, an English Rose, the best of the free-settler stock (to be distinguished from the shameful rabble of dirty convicts who had begun arriving almost a century previous), and comprised a sketch of her profile before-and-after landing in the colony. There she was with her dainty features, demure expression and pale, pale skin; “Three weeks later”, ran the caption, she was a squinting, ragged harridan, deformed by the light of the sun as it shone with relentless intensity across the southern sky. Now, The Bulletin being a pile of paranoid, xenophobic claptrap doesn’t make the sentiment behind this little cartoon mistaken. The Australian sky – and the sun, and the light – is incomparably harsh. It makes you squint and grimace. It can, given the right or wrong circumstances, make you crazy.
Missing it brings its own craziness. How to describe in words the quality of light? I’ve tried for years, and failed; if I ever manage then I’ll consider it my supreme achievement, and happily put down the pen. It is white – white in a way that has nothing to do with the white of skin – irradiant: colour not as a hue but as a force. On clear days it makes the sky the most brilliant azure blue you will ever see, a sky that arcs up and up and seems to know no horizon. The heat of it in summer can strip paint, kill dogs, and make your skin burn and blister. In 1968 The Velvet Underground called their second album White Light/White Heat, but those New York habitués with their sunglasses after dark couldn’t have known what they were talking about. They’d never seen Australia.
You don’t miss your water
In 1986 The Triffids put a photograph on the cover of their second album, Born Sandy Devotional, which gives some sense of this light, and of the colours it creates. The photograph is of Mandurah – a coastal inlet 70 kilometres or so south of Perth, The Triffids’ hometown – taken in 1961, when the place was a sleepy holiday destination of fibro beach houses dotted along the shore of an enormous estuary that feeds straight into the Indian Ocean. I have only to look for a moment at this aerial shot and the sense memories of Australian summers come rushing back. Blinding white sand, baked by the day’s sun to such a temperature that it nearly scalds the arches of bare feet as you run desperately towards the water; upon entry the ocean cold, sometimes shockingly so, the depth of colour changing with the depth of the water, light transforming it into a hypnotic, interlocking sheet of cerulean, turquoise, aquamarine, moss and sapphire facets. In the distance the smell of burnt and yellowed grass, and everywhere the taste of salt.
Not much had changed along this coast by the time The Triffids up and left: Perth was still, in character and appearance, not much more than a rural town. But Western Australia’s contemporary mining boom now makes Perth the least-affordable city in the nation, and Australia’s role in the current global economy comes in good part thanks to this voracious plundering of the elements – nautral gas, iron ore, gold, diamonds – that lie beneath the soil of the continent’s western edge. When there’s nothing left to dig then the property prices will fall again, the miners will leave, and perhaps a few fibro shacks will remain from another era. The light and the ocean will always remain.
‘The Seabirds’, which opens Born Sandy Devotional, recalls this beachside Australia of budget motels, caravan parks, and flimsily built beach houses: it still exists in pockets, but it’s getting harder to find as the service industries – tourism, hospitality – pick up speed, for when the gas and gold run out. And perhaps the loss of accommodations where no flyscreens and a synthetic mattress wrapped in thick brown vinyl represents the best that can be expected of comfort – a near-unbearable arrangement in summer, when you lie awake for hours listening to mosquitos whine about your head, and then peel yourself off in a morning lather of sweat, knowing that an ocean swim is the only way to feeling human again – is not much of a loss at all. The loss inside ‘The Seabirds’, however, is greater than that of no longer having a cheap and anonymous bed to run to when money and love have both run out. It’s a song about exile written whilst in exile: Born Sandy Devotional was made in London, which is about as close to the other side of the world from Perth as you can get before you start coming back around again. The Triffids had arrived there in 1984, at the end of a northern summer, and almost exactly a year later they began recording their album. A London summer rarely gets above 25 degrees Celsius, and it’s a national news event if the thermometer tops 30, which is around the starting average for a summer back in Perth. The winters are grey, and if the sun is visible it’s a pallid wash that at its mid-afternoon height resembles, at best, the pre-dawn rays of an antipodean morning. The Triffids must have missed the light, during their many seasons away from home. Everyone who leaves Australia does.
Where were you?
Born Sandy Devotional is a great album title. Like Thriller or The Marble Index or Forever Breathes The Lonely World, it evokes a tantalising aesthetic universe before the music has even begun. It might have been called Greetings From Mandurah, W.A., or Love In Bright Landscapes, another great title that sums up The Triffids’ main thematic preoccupation better than any other, and was later used for a now out-of-print Triffids compilation. But Born Sandy Devotional has an added poetry, a concentration of meaning that draws you back to it, wondering, about how sand and devotion and birthplace might fit together.
I came late to The Triffids, intrigued by that title and by the cover art, which occasionally glanced out at me from racks of second-hand LPs, long before I could come to terms with the music. Every few years I would try them again, and the only song that ever made sense to me was ‘Raining Pleasure’, with its droning violin and Jill Birt’s superbly detached vocal performance making it one of the oddest, most arid songs about the sweaty intimacy of sex ever recorded. I still think it’s among The Triffids’ finest moments, though what this says about my own erotic sensibilities is probably best left unexamined. As for the rest of The Triffids’ music, I found it odd in a way that was off-putting: it sounded excessive but without richness, pretentious but without flair. They struck me as a poor woman’s Bad Seeds, and I felt slightly embarrassed for them, 1980s also-rans caught in that unenviable zone between underground credibility and stadium supremacy. Countless bands have toiled and died in this middlebrow wilderness, and I thought that The Triffids were one of them, only partially redeemed by their long-standing historical and critical association with the infinitely cooler Nick Cave.
This early misunderstanding is partly a consequence of my age: I had my adolescence during the 1990s, when it could be argued that Australian music was less enamoured of its immediate pre-history than ever before. Like every other country that plays a role in the Western music industry, Australia suffered through a Nirvana Effect: corporations strip-mined a small but energetic independent scene and sold it back as “Alternative”, the lamest genre categorisation ever invented. A combination of peer and industry pressure meant that most bands – the ones with guitars, that is, who weren’t pioneering Australia’s hip-hop or electronic scenes – looked to America for their cues: acceptable musical models were Sonic Youth and Pavement, or locally, Radio Birdman, Sydney’s quintessential garage-punks, who reformed in 1996 thanks to their influence on everybody – at least it felt like everybody. Britain and Europe, the lands of promise and acclaim for Australian post-punk’s holy trinity – of which The Triffids formed one-third, alongside The Go-Betweens and The Birthday Party – were largely ignored throughout the 90s: Britpop, trip-hop and jungle barely made a dent. British influences were seen as an affectation, whereas American music carried the stamp of rock n’ roll authenticity, even if it was calibrated on a major-label budget. ‘Don’t Wanna Be Grant McLennan’, sang Smudge, an endearingly slack Sydney trio whose chief songwriter, Tom Morgan, was great pals with The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando and shared a similar – I would say superior – gift for writing two-minute songs that hid their pop nous in a wrapper of carelessness, as if Morgan had tossed them out during cigarette breaks. Grant McLennan tried too hard and The Go-Betweens were effete, like David McComb and The Triffids; Nick Cave was exempt thanks to the cachet of his well-documented heroin addiction, which fit the opiated tenor of the times – no matter that both McLennan and McComb had their own, less publicised struggles with the same drug. Plus, the yawping nightmare blues of The Birthday Party could still shock your parents, whereas they might be passingly familiar with The Go Betweens or The Triffids. Liking the same music as a bunch of middle-aged bores is rightly anathema to the teenage mind: who wants to be regarded as “mature” before you have to be?
Such assumptions and cultural prejudices are of course unfair; unfair to the The Triffids, who were in fact very young when they relocated to London. David McComb was twenty-three when Born Sandy Devotional was recorded, a good half-decade younger than his songwriting compatriots in exile: Cave, McLennan and Robert Forster. But then, perhaps you have to be very young to want to sound as old as The Triffids do on this record, desperate and exhausted, at the end of their tethers. At twenty-three it is important to love without moderation, to live as if you will never be able to redeem yourself and with the firm conviction that you will never care to do so. The first adult regrets and the first true heartbreak are the worst that you will ever know, and a person who can’t understand this will never sing a torch song. Born Sandy Devotional deals in immoderate and unrequited love; love in bright and distant landscapes; love and homesickness commingled, and when at last I did come to understand it – one day I put it on to listen to, a last-ditch attempt; I thought, if I don’t get The Triffids this time then I never will – I had to be old enough to appreciate the drama but not want to flinch away from it; old enough for it to not sound overwrought and anti-pop; young enough to still know what the drama feels like. I put the record on and then listened to it back-to-back at least twenty times in two days. I finally got it, suddenly and completely.
Washing the salt off
Of course, I’m by no means the first listener to find something remarkable in The Triffids, and Born Sandy Devotional in particular: it’s an album almost guaranteed to make Best Australian Albums or Best Albums Of The 1980s or some other Best Of list, the kind that magazine and newspaper editors like to print partly as consumer guides and partly as nostalgic exercises in canon-building, rather than letting their critics actually write articles. The patina of critical appreciation surrounding them is partly what makes The Triffids difficult to approach, though perhaps less so if, like me, you were born too young to have much immediate investment in their mythology. Listeners of my generation have to make an effort to seek them out: though they are embedded in the Australian musical consciousness The Triffids have never been fashionable or popular in their own country; few artists sound anything like them and equally few will admit to them as an influence. The assertion is true: Born Sandy Devotional is a great Australian album, though glibly stating this is hardly enough to make it true. Why is it remarkable, and what can it still say about Australia nearly a quarter of a century – sobering calculation! – after its release?
If it were simply a warm homage to seaside provincialism it would be much less interesting than it is, but Born Sandy Devotional is affecting for the way in which the Australian landscape becomes strange again through the songs. The circumstances of its creation work in the album’s favour: made at such a distance, it reveals an estrangement from the land that has been fundamental to Australian life since colonisation began.
For all the patriotic paeans that one learns to recite or to sing in primary school – Dorothea McKellar’s ‘My Country’, Peter Allen’s ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ – for every cringe-inducing Crocodile Hunter and erstwhile fearless explorer, there runs through white Australia’s relationship with the natural environment a profound unease and distrust; a conviction that the land must be fought against. Unlike the mystical utopianism that colours American depictions of the frontier, combining a sense of divine purpose with the conviction that the continent will, in the end, provide for all those who seek its bounty, Australians are scared of the huge space they inhabit. The vastness is a threat, the seeming emptiness of the country’s interior – where desert abuts desert and human habitation leaves few visible marks – deeply unnerving. Australia wasn’t colonised as a New Jerusalem but as a prison, and a sense that the entire project has been cursed from the start, cursed rather than blessed, is scored into the national subconscious.
I say subconscious because this estrangement rarely reaches the level of conscious articulation – rarely, because to do so would involve an acknowledgement of the horrific violence that has shaped Australian colonisation, an acknowledgement that, historically, we have been very poor at making. Australia is emptier of people than it might otherwise be because large swathes of the indigenous population were shot, poisoned, starved, moved onto missions, and otherwise eradicated in both systemic and ad-hoc attempts to “breed out the colour”. The legal fiction on which Australia was founded – Terra nullius, empty land – might have been officially overturned in 1992, but the violence it took to sustain, both literal and philosophical, had done irreversible harm. A sense of the country’s capacity for violence, a suspicion that if you stray too far from the inhabited coastal centres then terrible things might happen – worse, you might do terrible things, as if possessed by the land’s own haunting – is present in much of the most compelling Australian art. The Triffids don’t take as many words to say it, but their music sounds as if they know it, which when you’re writing songs and not essays in cultural criticism is by far the better option.
A few of The Triffids’ musical contemporaries said it more explicitly: Midnight Oil – whose legacy as the musical voice of the Australian left has been rather undermined in recent years by their singer’s second-wind career as Environment Minister for a determinedly centre-right Federal government – and the singular, overlooked Sydney post-punk outfit Tactics. But Midnight Oil never rose above a cod-proletarian, “workman-like” hard rock, and Tactics, for all their worth, remain of interest for their intellectualism – a rare trait in Australian music – more than for their sound. Both lacked the emotional and musical grandeur of which The Triffids were more than capable, and which reaches its apex on Born Sandy Devotional.
It begins with ‘The Seabirds’, where the ravens of Gothic imagination are re-imagined as gulls who, though they’ll “pick the eye of any dying thing” refuse to peck at the tormented protagonist pleading to end it all. Musically it begins with Alsy McDonald’s snare crack fifteen seconds in, his drumming giving a nasty edge to an arrangement that might otherwise verge on the plush. It’s Sinatra for smacked-out squatters. ‘Estuary Bed’ is a calypso for lost childhood days in the briny surf only if you wilfully ignore the deliberate Macbeth references – sleeplessness, bloodstains that won’t wash off – and the overwhelming presence of a very adult desire, a desire that tastes like the salt of the landscape itself, as bodies merge with it.
The haunting really gets underway with ‘Tarrilup Bridge’, a creaky, queasy melodrama of an unhappy woman recalling her own death. Sung by Jill Birt in a gauche, wavering voice reminiscent of Young Marble Giants’ Alison Statton, ‘Tarrilup Bridge’ is a tale of stoic country town misery that ends in a suicide that is possibly disguised as an accident. God knows how many such deaths occur across Australia year in and year out: cars on deserted roads that have been driven inexplicably into rivers or bent around tree trunks. The privacy to destroy oneself in rural isolation is a perverse benefit of having so many roads for so few people. The song’s spookiness carries a hint of carnival panache: herky-jerky strings and ghost train xylophone, a smatter of demented laughter added to the mix. The sideshow quality – Hear The Sad Lady From Beyond The Grave! – makes the song stranger and better. And then there’s ‘Lonely Stretch’.
Now, there’s no denying the influence of Nick Cave on The Triffids. The Triffids never denied it themselves. Through both The Birthday Party and his earliest work with The Bad Seeds, Cave’s Gothic sensibilities are writ all over his younger contemporaries. The admiration wasn’t one way, either: Cave loved The Triffids back. But here’s one key difference: I don’t believe that Nick Cave has ever written a single memorable song that actually deals with his experience as an Australian. He would have been a happier man, one gets the impression, had he been raised in New Orleans, Berlin or Paris – anywhere more exotic than plain old Melbourne. David McComb – another child of the upper-middle classes – shared Cave’s fondness for European literary sophistication, and historically, I think that the aforementioned sense of British and European musical influences on Australian artists being an affectation stems from this standing association of “European” tastes with the expensively educated: in Australia’s anti-intellectual milieu, only posh snobs read difficult books. But McComb was drawn as a songwriter, even in his earliest work, to articulating an experience with Australian landscape and culture, with its isolation and its strangeness: “Nothing happens here/Nothing gets done/But you get to like it”, he sang on ‘Spanish Blue’, The Triffids’ second single. Nick Cave has never been obliged to do similar, but his towering influence over Australian music has brought increasingly diminishing returns, as young bands persist in imitating his signifiers of late-1970s Berlin decadence at nearly three decades remove from their original context. The Triffids took Cave’s peculiar musical take on Weimar cabaret via the Baptist pulpit – “Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham”, indeed – and turned it to the purpose of Australian Gothic, a genre with its own local history, and one well-suited to stirring up the ghosts of the country’s past.
A first listen to ‘Lonely Stretch’ brings ‘From Her To Eternity’ – newly released in 1984, and the first sound of Cave’s post-Birthday Party incarnation – unmistakably to mind. The booming vocal swathed in a reverb that can bode no good; the oscillating organ and clanging, percussive spasms caused by someone – probably David McComb’s older brother, Robert – hitting their guitar strings; the drums that sound like a malevolent midnight junkyard: all these things recall Cave’s still-astonishing track, in my opinion the best solo work he ever recorded before embarking on a twenty-five year downhill slide. The Triffids, on the other hand, have a musicianship that the Bad Seeds have always struggled to approach, and David McComb is a forceful, emotive singer. Musicianship can kill a song stone dead when a too-tasteful execution trumps feeling, but in this case their discipline as a band – achieved through countless live performances – keeps The Triffids on a leash of just the right tension. They snap and release, limbering up for the first minute or so before tightening into an emphatic rhythmic thump, and then ploughing on through the final section with increasing speed and frenzy: cymbals crashing, McComb calling down the heavens, the melodic instruments veering off into an atonal screech like metal grinding on metal as a nasty, nasty car accident looms up in the front windscreen. And yet it still sounds like a pop song: the melody gets stuck in your head, and McComb leads the lot with a vocal performance – call-and-response with the rest of the band included, plus a couple of exuberant “Woos!” thrown in to mark particular points of acceleration – which convinces you that he dreamed of lit podiums, well-cut suits, and a live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
‘Lonely Stretch’ is about a car accident – or at least, it’s about the sort of car accident that you can have on an Australian road whilst driving from one isolated nowhere to another. Across the endless flat, your mind plays tricks on you: something appears in the headlights, or does it? A remnant of the past, a wraith reminding you of all the bad mistakes you’ve ever made. It flickers and then vanishes again. You want to chase it down, but out here a wrong turn is fatal: in a week you’ll be a local headline, and in three your missing vehicle will be found with your parched and lifeless body inside of it, going rotten in the sun. But in the end it won’t be the desert climate of hot days and freezing nights or the unmarked track that kills you. “Baby I was wrong/I was wrong from the start/You could die out here/From a broken heart”. What makes men and women send their cars crashing into trees and off of bridges? A broken heart can drive you to terrible things, which become more terrible in a depopulated landscape, where no decision can be redeemed or reversed by another human being. ‘Lonely Stretch’ is about unrequited love, oh yes, but there is no one left inside the song for that love – now turned hard and desperate – to be directed at. There is only the land, which offers no comfort; which for all its space begins to close down upon you, just like the music, its cavernous dimensions become claustrophobic, as if the entire thing was a thunderstorm happening inside your own head.
Crying in the wilderness
The Triffids recorded a handful of other songs that reached the same visionary power as ‘Lonely Stretch’ – in fact they recorded them earlier on, not long after arriving in London, for a Peel Session that would be released as the Field Of Glass E.P. The leap between these three live tracks – ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, ‘Monkey On My Back’, and ‘Field Of Glass’, none of which were ever re-recorded – and the material on their first album, Treeless Plain, which had been released only twelve months previous, is quite staggering. Treeless Plain is by no means a bad record, but it does occasionally lapse into country-rock plod. The most striking tracks – ‘Red Pony’, ‘Hell Of A Summer’ – have a certain awkwardness to their arrangements: you get the clear sense of a band with musical ambition, but lacking the skills or budget to be able to pull off what they want to hear. As a live song ‘Hell Of A Summer’ would become a behemoth, with Martyn Casey (later, of course, to join the Bad Seeds) creating a bassline that prowls its way through a complement of humid organs and squalling strings. It’s this live sound that astonished overseas audiences of The Triffids, and was captured for posterity on their Peel Session and a couple of performances for British television.
The Peel Session – particularly ‘Field Of Glass’ – are evidence of deep immersion in the most powerful post-punk sounds: The Birthday Party, but also Joy Division and Suicide, belying the myth that Australian bands of the time evolved their sound in freakish isolation, the musical equivalent of our flora and fauna. If there is a star it’s Jill Birt, whose keyboard playing gives every track a dark, rolling momentum and a sense that her melodies might conceivably fill a cathedral with their weight and volume.
Bruce Springsteen is the other, perhaps unexpected influence on the doomy, reverberant turn that The Triffids’ music was taking – he would pop up again as an explicit reference point in David McComb’s notes for the recording of ‘Lonely Stretch’: “‘State Trooper’ (vocal echo)”. ‘State Trooper’ is certainly there in David McComb’s vocal for ‘Lonely Stretch’ – the song’s rhythm is similar too, as is the poisonous atmosphere of guilt, with a narrator on the brink of madness. Like Born Sandy Devotional, Nebraska is a great road album, and it retains a sizeable cult following among Australian bands with hundreds of kilometres to travel between shows: the ultimate downer soundtrack for the long drive across state borders while battling a morning hangover. Springsteen too is interested in what happens when people take their demons and their miseries out onto the road, across the desolate badlands of America where dreams of freedom and opportunity for all have gone very sour. The Springsteen of Nebraska, emotionally defeated but nevertheless determined to engage with the realities of his home soil, makes an instructive comparison with Born Sandy Devotional – though the latter is as musically lush as the former is barren – and a more helpful comparison that the lighters-aloft Springsteen of ‘Born To Run’, with which The Triffids have also been compared. “‘Wide Open Road’ is our ‘Born To Run’”, said Steve Kilbey, singer and songwriter in 1980s art-rock ensemble The Church, “it should have been an Australian hit.” Whether it should have been a hit is a debatable point, though it was the second closest that The Triffids ever came to a hit in their own country – Number 64 with a bullet. It depends on whether or not you think that writing a chart-topper is a blessing. ‘Wide Open Road’ should have been a hit? Maybe. But it is not our ‘Born To Run’.
There exists a piece of footage filmed on January 10th, 1987, when during a brief return home The Triffids played on the bill of the Australian Made tour, a summer festival with stadium-lite rockers INXS headlining. An opening helicopter shot gives a glimpse of Perth: the Swan River, the Indian Ocean, that blue sky and the parched summer paddocks surrounding Subiaco Oval, more commonly home to Australian Rules football matches. “With a band like us it’s difficult to know how to write the setlist at the start of day,” begins David McComb, his high speaking voice a surprise in comparison with the resonant, velvety baritone of his singing, “cos we’ve had so many hits in this country.” The polite irony of his tone is lost in the air above the enormous audience, but the sharpness of his stage presence is unmistakeable. In a stripy blue-and-white neckerchief, a collared white shirt, black trousers and sparkling gold waistcoat he still looks ineffably cool, which means that in 1987 he probably looked like an alien. I hope for his sake that he didn’t try walking around the streets of Perth in that ensemble, but what a shame they hadn’t invented Jumbotron television screens back then, so that the people five hundred metres back from the stage could have appreciated the sartorial effort. And then The Triffids launch into ‘Wide Open Road’, a good performance, though it can’t top the studio version on Born Sandy Devotional.
‘Wide Open Road’ is the one Triffids song that has impinged to any significant degree on the Australian public consciousness. Even if you know nothing else about The Triffids then you’re likely to have heard it, through one of those mysterious instances of cultural osmosis whereby a song that hardly ever gets played on the radio and hasn’t been sold off as an advertising jingle is, somehow, still present in your head. I could sing the chorus of ‘Wide Open Road’ years before I could have told you the name of any other Triffids song. Like most songs that are encountered more often as myth than as fact it has been over-simplified, though musically it would be hard for the song to get any simpler than it already is: a wash of ethereal keyboards, a pedal-steel guitar deployed by “Evil” Graham Lee like a theremin, and the rest of the instruments kept under due restraint. The arrangement is put together with the delicacy of a card tower, which is particularly startling coming straight after the full-fisted throttle of ‘Lonely Stretch’. There is a trace of Joy Division’s most melodic moments – ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – and just as ‘Lonely Stretch’ took on the Bad Seeds, ‘Wide Open Road’ answers back to that other, now-mythical Australian song of the 1980s, The Go-Betweens’ ‘Cattle And Cane’.
Perfect pop songs come to most artists only once, if they come at all; what is remarkable is that within three years of each other two Australian bands, exiled to London for want of any decent audience back home, playing chaotic tennis matches with each other in between recording sessions, could have both written songs that still remain so perfect, absolutely undiminished no matter how many times you encounter them. What is more, that both songs are landmarks of distinctly Australian writing – songs that take on, in music and words, the task of conveying what it feels like to live here. There. Here. Where is home? Nothing focuses the mind on the qualities of your own landscape – its colours and light, its temperature and topography – quite like being away from it, and missing it constantly, even when you’re trying not to miss it or denying that you are missing it or never expected to miss it in the first place.
To a large extent I thank that other, oft-overlooked female participant in Australian post-punk, The Go-Betweens’ drummer Lindy Morrison, for the impact of both. Her technique of following the melody and not the beat – ‘Cattle And Cane’ is in 11/4 time, by the way, should you wish to try and play along – is inimitable, but Alsy McDonald came closest on ‘Wide Open Road’, partially assisted by a drum machine. The result in both songs is an ambience that still feels contemporary – nothing, bar nothing, dates a recording like the drum sound – set off by the lightest of rhythmic touches; shifting and subtly alive. The space opened up by the lack of strictly measured, forward propulsion is also what allows the songs’ melancholy moods to spread out like watercolour, and it is the same space that makes the songs sound – and not just read – Australian. There is a vast distance between the sugar cane fields and the limit of the sky, or between the bitumen and the horizon on the highway that cuts across the Nullabor Plain, between Caiguna and Norseman, which is ostensibly the setting for ‘Wide Open Road’.
‘Wide Open Road’ is not just melancholy, it’s sad. Anyone who maintains that it’s a song about the pleasures of taking off in a car across Australia’s massive expanse is not listening properly; they’re engaging with the myth of the song, and not the fact of it. “So how do you think it feels?/Sleeping by yourself/When the one you love, the one you love/Is with someone else”. The loneliness and wanting is unambiguous. “Well it’s a wide open road/A wide open road/And now you can go any place/That you want to go” – anywhere, which when you’re heartbroken and alone means nowhere, turning in hurt and bewildered circles.
Just a dot on the map
Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’ is not a particularly happy song either, it must be said, just as ‘Born In The USA’ is not a patriotic one, but nevertheless it has a certain defiant optimism that ‘Wide Open Road’ doesn’t; a tinge of against-the-odds triumph which is probably inevitable when you’re playing stadiums and every song needs to be somehow buoyant. Apart from their slot on the Australian Made tour The Triffids never got to play stadiums – it’s hard to tell if they ever wanted to.
Australian artists and listeners have absorbed the tropes of American popular music just as completely as other non-American audiences, but Americans have yet to return the favour. I realised this not long after landing in New York, when I was turning in circles, searching for a familiar sky and missing everyone I’d just left. They were 20,000 kilometres and 14 hours in front of me now, across meridian lines, everyone I’d ever known and loved. On a day when the initial bout of homesickness had a particularly strong grip I went looking for Triffids records: I knew that buying stuff wouldn’t really help me to feel better but I wanted an object to hold onto in the absence of anyone to hold; a talisman of home. I didn’t have a record player but I figured that if there was anywhere in the world where I could walk in off the street and find the records that I wanted lying in the vinyl bins, it would be New York. You can buy anything here, right? About four stores into my search I summoned up enough courage to approach the counter – I’d barely spoken to anyone in a fortnight and American voices still sounded very, very strident to my ears, as if everyone was speaking at least ten decibels louder than was necessary.
“Could you look something up for me, maybe?” I hesitantly asked the shaven-headed young man behind the desk of a fashionable record store that was blasting out dubious 80s hair-metal ballads over the shop stereo, and which boasted a prominent wall display of vintage lounge music LPs depicting bosomy young ladies in states of carefree undress: long hardened against the casual sexism of the music business, I had proceeded with only mild disquiet to the second-hand vinyl racks. “What do you want?” he replied, sounding aggressively bored. “Er, do you have any old Triffids records?” I asked, with a premonition that this would not be a very productive conversation. “What?” the young man responded, his face folding into that contemptuous expression well-honed by record store clerks down the ages, an expression that communicates to you, the unworthy customer (a) I have no idea what you are talking about (b) because I’ve never heard of it, it must be so far off the radar of cool as to be utterly pathetic. “Um, The Triffids?” I tried again, trying to speak up just in case he’d misheard me, but knowing really that the endeavour was hopeless. “No,” he answered, not even bothering to pretend that they might have one old 12” tucked away in a box, waiting to be found if we both looked hard enough. I walked away. I sighed inside. It was the first time in years that I’d felt personally stung by a record store clerk who didn’t care and didn’t want to care about the music that I was searching for. Probably I would have had better luck in London.
The Triffids always had a much bigger audience in Britain and in Europe than they had in Australia – they got to play on The Tube, ‘Wide Open Road’ made Number 26 on the UK charts, and they were anointed with critical approval to such a degree that they not only nabbed themselves a Peel session but, for its first issue of 1985, the cover of the NME too, a feat not to be repeated by another Australian act – aside from Nick Cave – until The Vines in 2002. “THE YEAR OF THE TRIFFIDS” boomed the caption – sub-editors, eh? What larks! – with Jill Birt looking sullenly down the camera above a smaller headline: “MINERS! DESPATCHES FROM THE FRONTLINE.” In the end 1985 would be the year of the Miners’ Strike much more than it was the year of The Triffids, but just about every aspiring Australian indie band since then has been aware that The Triffids are the ones to beat. The dream of near-instantaneous critical acclaim in a foreign country, particularly in Britain, where people are still to be found who think that condescending jokes about scruffy convicts from the colonies are ticklishly original – more, that they’ll actually get a rise – has a strong hold on Australian artists across many fields: we worry a great deal about whether we’re any good or not. This sense of creative insecurity used to be called “cultural cringe”, and people argue that it’s dying out these days, which may be so; if it is then it’s not because we’ve gotten objectively any “better” at making music. Rather, the rise of internet-based music distribution has made it significantly cheaper to develop at least some foreign audience, as compared to the days when you had to up sticks and physically relocate for years on end, and this alone has doubtless helped to boost the confidence of young Australian musicians. Our almost comical distance from the rest of the world matters less and less, in economic terms. But I wonder at the long-term cost to our creativity; to any imperative that might exist for artists to try and figure out what an Australian music might actually sound like. The possibility of cultural homogenisation is not a new complaint, but I make it here if only to sound a small note of disquiet: maybe having instant access to the latest sounds of Brooklyn or Brazil, and being able to knock up a local variant before the MP3 blogs have done buzzing about the original, is not an entirely wonderful state of affairs. The global cutting-edge gets its blade a little blunted when everyone is striving to sound as instantly and profitably up-to-the-minute as possible.
I don’t think that the situation would be improved if only more Australian bands sounded like The Triffids. The point is not to look for the next Born Sandy Devotional but to bear in mind the circumstances that went into making it. Does voluntary, self-imposed exile even matter as an emotional state, anymore? What does homesickness mean when you can write emails home all day, if you want to?
Yet still, the email timestamps will tell you that Australia is as far away as it ever was – always half a day ahead of the rest of the world’s circadian rhythm, sometimes more. The virtual erasure of distance has not removed the real physical gulf that lies between Australia and everywhere else: the Indian Ocean to the left, the Pacific to the right. Having left, I still feel as if I’m living simultaneously in two time zones: always picturing to myself what the people I love might be doing during their hours; always with one eye on the clock.
It’s getting dark earlier now
‘Tender Is The Night’ – another literary reference amongst the dozens that would pepper The Triffids’ career – is the fade-out to Born Sandy Devotional, and the last voice belongs to Jill Birt. This couldn’t be a song about anyone else but David McComb; a song to himself – it’s transparently autobiographical in a way that the more hallucinatory songs on the album aren’t. But it’s written in the third-person and Birt sings it for him, and the deliberate distancing increases its emotional power. It’s a maudlin song, an appropriate enough mood with which to end a record that makes use of the word ‘maudlin’ on its very first track, but it could have well tipped over into self-pity if McComb had taken the vocal. Birt doesn’t emote – she might not even be able to, much less want to, with her high and colourless singing voice – and so the task of creating drama falls back upon the instruments. The key change just after the third verse, where she’s told us that “He made a point of losing her address” is the moment at which the whole song shifts. It’s not as if the discreet string section gets any louder, in fact it momentarily disappears: starker, the mood rises in intensity. And then the sucker-punch: “Well I spoke to a man who says he’s done it all/And the only thing that pleases or excites him now/Is hurting, hurting and hurting some more“. How can you be so young and want to write words of such damning finality? Because it’s entirely possible to be convinced at twenty-three or even younger that you are damned, and not beautiful to go along with it: just a sorry, ugly, hopeless mess. ‘Tender Is The Night’ doesn’t sound damned though, not like ‘The Seabirds’ or ‘Lonely Stretch’ or ‘Life Of Crime’. It sounds like its title says – tender, tender as that refrain – “It’s getting dark earlier now/But where you are, it’s just getting light” – that encapsulates so beautifully what it means to be living a long, long way from home, when you can’t even comfort yourself with the thought of lying down at the same time as an absent lover, because your night is their day, and their day is your night, and so the only hours when you might possibly be thinking of each other at the same time are the earliest and the latest ones, at midnight or at dawn. And so the song rises, pulling up and away into the air on a violin and a chime, and the album is gone before you’ve had a chance to prepare a goodbye. This takeoff is the musical equivalent of the aerial shot on the cover: the details disappear, and you’re left with an impression of sky and of light.
Let her run away
I’m glad now that thanks to stubborn curiosity I finally found something in The Triffids, after years of puzzlement. Glad is possibly the wrong word, thankful might be better: I can’t actually think what it would have been like to imagine my way into leaving Australia, and then doing so, without having The Triffids to listen to. Born Sandy Devotional helped me get ready to leave, and has comforted me since I did leave – on my second night away when I realised that I wouldn’t see the constellation of the Southern Cross in the sky anymore; during those early, exhausting weeks of trying to figure out everything new from the currency to the correct names of vegetables, while missing everything familiar from the format of newspapers to the texture of the pavement. And it still comforts me, in the way that you want to be comforted when you’re lonely and young enough to want something to inflame the loneliness a little bit more, needing the drama of it. “Remember, love songs don’t have to mention”, reads a sentence from David McComb’s notebooks for Born Sandy Devotional, and then it cuts off. Don’t have to mention love.
Epilogue (The long fidelity)
I immersed myself so deeply in The Triffids’ back catalogue during the six months before I wrote this piece that I feared I’d ruined my relationship with them forever. And then, a year later, during another northern winter, I began listening to Born Sandy Devotional all over again, walking lunch hours with my gloved hands in my coat pockets, stepping over icy puddles down under the Manhattan Bridge. I have to be near water to hear this record properly. And then, unexpectedly called home, suddenly swapping winter for summer, I walk into a record store and find a promotional 7” of ‘Wide Open Road’ pinned to the wall. A simple black and white portrait of the band on the front cover, taken at Primrose Hill, a place in London I walked not too many months ago, without realising that once The Triffids walked there too. Robert McComb standing perfectly at ease in a waistcoat, Jill Birt holding – is it a drumstick? – Martyn Casey staring level at the camera, David McComb tallest of all, half-smiling, and focused on a point quite distant, Alsy McDonald privately amused, as if he’s just about to lean in and tell you a great story, “Evil” Graham Lee with boffin spectacles half the size of his face. On the back cover, another black and white photograph: the Western Australian border, ‘COME AGAIN TO WESTERN AUSTRALIA’ partially obliterated by a wag vandal who’s sprayed “Marching Orders” across the bottom of the road sign. “WELCOME TO SOUTH AUSTRALIA” beckons a bit further down the highway, a BP petrol station further still. From Regents Park to the Nullabor – “no trees” – and back again, with the flip of a record sleeve.
The Eyre Highway runs west to east for 1,675 kilometres from Norseman in Western Australia to Port Augusta in South Australia, and the population of the Western Australian section stood, last official count, at 86. A good luck charm, this record will return to America with me and sit on my desk in Brooklyn – population 2.5 million – next to my vinyl copy of The Drones’ Gala Mill, another band originally from Perth who’ve travelled vast distances across the planet and who confront the Australian landscape and psyche with peerless vigour. It took me a long time to understand The Drones, too, though at least they return home on occasion, and to great acclaim and excitement. Have we learned something in the intervening decades, having lost The Triffids so early in their career? Hopefully yes, and yet musicians with the ambition to make Australia the subject of their music remain so rare – and it is ambition that’s needed, because this country is huge and difficult and unrelenting, and to respond in kind, to make work that is honest and unsentimental (because God knows we’re a sentimental bunch, despite the straight-talking reputation), is a task that requires no common amount of vision.