Wednesday, January 16, 2008

One music review by Steve Porter

A Music Review Series
by Steve Porter

Born Sandy Devotional – The Triffids (1986)

England, 1985. As the Smiths, darlings of the British independent music press, emerged from the studio with Meat is Murder in the bag, an Australian group were in London crafting songs for a largely forgotten album. The Miners’ Strike, one of the defining moments in British social history of the era, made the front cover of the New Musical Express, along with the news that this would be the Year of the Triffids. The band warmed up with another session for John Peel, the influential Radio One DJ.

For those who are not familiar with the Triffids’ music, their sound bares some relation to other fellow antipodeans from that era who have stood the test of time. They have the lyrical qualities and melodic string arrangements to rival the Go-Betweens best work (Tallulah, 16 Lovers Lane, etc.), while David McComb’s deep crooning vocals are reminiscent of another Australian balladeer. Fans of Nick Cave, particularly his more laid back work, must hear Born Sandy Devotional if they haven’t already done so.

But songs about the brutality of nature and vast Australian landscapes were always likely going to have limited appeal on the London scene and are hardly the subject matter of a UK music promoter’s dreams. The first verse of the opening track on the album, The Seabirds, sets the scene for what is to come:

No foreign pair of dark sunglasses
will ever shield you from
the light that pierces your eyelids,
the screaming of the gulls
feeding off the bodies of the fish
thrashing up the bay till it was red
turning the sky a dark colour
as they circled overhead.

While listening to Born Sandy Devotional, visual images drift into the mind and linger there. Songs featuring estuaries, endless highways, the killing of poultry and driving off bridges are the stuff of descriptive literature, westerns or road movies. Much of BSD is like a soundtrack to a dark road movie, with country-tinged ballads, haunting organ and pedal steel guitar.

BSD was only the band’s second full album but it is a mature piece of work. The Triffids had been shaping their sound ever since punk hit Perth, Australia, in 1977. Songs like Lonely Stretch are reminiscent of Nick Cave in his Tender Pray era – an album that was released a couple of years after BSD – so it could be argued that Nick Cave was as much influenced by The Triffids as vice versa.

The ghostly Tarrilup Bridge is another song that Nick Cave might like to have written. Alternatively, perhaps, given the female vocal, his former partner in gloom, PJ Harvey. But Jill Birt’s vocals have an innocence about them that Polly Harvey has never possessed and this provides a startling contrast to the lyrics: I packed my bag/Left a note on the fridge/And I drove off the end of the Tarrilup Bridge//Now you read about me in the papers/They say I’m going to be a big star/They’re making a movie about my life/And you’re going to play the starring part.

In spite of the visual stage presence of front man David McComb, and the band’s fulsome sound, the Triffids never came close to filling giant stadiums around the world. That’s quite surprising when you listen to the anthemic track, Wide Open Road; the centrepiece of this album. It’s a typical Triffids tale of lost love. You can almost see Paris, Texas, approaching in the distance. Wide Open Road sounds like a worldwide smash hit. So catchy is it, that you could almost imagine Bono and Sting hooking up with McComb for a rousing rendition at Live Aid. But it wasn’t to be.

The Triffids did receive very positive reviews from the UK’s more independent-minded music press. Success was assured in their native Australia by this time, but in Europe they were not rock gods. Meanwhile in America, it was a case of too little too late. By the time they got round to touring the US, the band had come down from their summit. Pockets of Triffid-mania took root in the most unexpected places. Apparently, they were big in Belgium, which just adds to their singularity.

A fine pop follow up to Born Sandy Devotional followed in 1988. The band had signed to Island records by this time and the release of Calenture led to accusations of selling out. Admittedly, it has a more commercial production sound, somewhat typical of the era. But once again, The Triffids did not shift the massive quantities of records that their pop melodies warranted. The dark, sinister shadow always lurking in the background was maybe just a little too scary for many mainstream radio stations in the UK or US. At times, you wonder if McComb could’ve become the Australian Springsteen. But his band always had too much of the Nebraska about them and not enough of the Born to Run.

Despite this, the opening track on Calenture, Bury Me Deep in Love gained exposure when it was used as the soundtrack to a wedding in an Aussie soap opera – Neighbours. This, incidentally, was the series that launched the career of another one time Nick Cave collaborator – Kylie Minogue. The song’s easy accessibility provides a hint that the risk-taking and diversity of Born Sandy Devotional was being traded in for the mainstream.

The Triffids made one more album. The Black Swan (1989) was produced by none other than former Smiths sound man, Stephen Street. Yet, it somehow sounds like a belated attempt to capture the commercial sound of the eighties. The Black Swan is still very listenable and contains some good tunes with a country or rockabilly tinge that Triffids’ fans expect. However, it verges on easy listening at times and lacks the cutting edge and variety of their mid-80’s masterpiece.

Much of the Triffids' work has been reissued and remastered over the past couple of years. Born Sandy Devotional included a number of extra tracks where the influence of Johnny Cash and Nick Cave is even more evident. Sadly, singer David McComb was no longer around. He died shortly after a car crash in 1999. Heart problems and drug addiction are widely believed to have played a major part in his premature death a few weeks before his 37th birthday.

Author bio:

Steve Porter was born in Inverness, Scotland and lives in A Coruña, Spain. His writing has been published online and in various lit mags in the UK, US & Spain. Among them:, Orbis, Cutting Teeth and Poems-For-All. He has contributed articles to numerous publications including The Sunday Herald, Travelmag, Soccer Spain and Three Monkeys Online. His ebook entitled 'The Iberian Horseshoe' is available from Barcelona-based Badosa.

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