Singer songwriter David McComb spent most of his twenty-year music career being almost famous. The band he founded and fronted in Perth at the end of the 1970s, The Triffids, retired in 1989. They left behind a superb legacy including Born Sandy Devotional, an album many music fans think is one of the best of the eighties and one of the greatest Australian records ever made.
Loved by critics, adored by a strong fan base, and ignored by a suspicious music biz here, The Triffids spent the ‘80s living between London, Perth and Sydney. It was only in Europe in places like the UK, Belgium, Sweden and Holland where their literate, widescreen pop-rock nudged into the mainstream.
McComb followed the Triffids with many projects including the very fine Blackeyed Susans and music pundits predicted solo career success. Ill-health, ill-luck and McComb’s own demons got in the way.
Still, there’s a steady re-appreciation of McComb’s work, with a recent re-issue of a vast catalogue, several books and even belated industry recognition in 2008, with The Triffids inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, the surviving Triffids have staged a David McComb tribute, A Secret in the Shape of a Song, and sold-out its few performances all over the world.
Now there’s a film from veteran Melbourne broadcaster Jonathan Alley, who makes his directorial debut with Love in Bright Landscapes, a documentary that explores the life and work of McComb. Made with the cooperation of family, friends and The Triffids – Graham Lee (pedal steel / guitar, vocals), Jill Birt (keyboards, vocals), Dave’s brother, Rob McComb (guitar, vocals), Marty Casey (bass) and co-founder Alsy MacDonald (drums, vocals) – it has taken Alley and co. more than ten years to complete the film.
Tender and very touching it captures the charm, wit and complexity of a major artist.
We spoke to Alley and producer Tait Brady on the eve of the film’s debut at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
The Triffids and McComb attracted a great deal of admiration. I think they were the first Australian band to make the cover of NME (1985). Michael Hutchence wanted them on the notorious Australian Made Tour (1987). They did a John Peel Session on the BBC in ‘84. Paul Kelly, Nick Cave, and Steve Kilbey (The Church) were fans. But they never quite broke through into the mainstream here, even if the single Wide Open Road and Born Sandy Devotional, their 1986 classic LP, had a modest chart success…
Tait Brady: “A big problem was that they were just not rock ‘n’ roll enough. They just didn’t have that pub rock ‘80s thing that worked so well outside the cities.”
Jonathan Alley: “In 1987, they were far more left field than the mainstream then… than they would be today.”
People think that songs like Bury Me Deep in Love and A Trick of the Light, both off Calenture (LP, 1987) were hits, because they sound like hits, but they just didn’t sell. Did you ever see them?
TB: “I used to play in bands. Jeremy Oxley of the Sunnyboys told me to see them. This would have been in the early ‘80s. Jeremy never recommended anyone, so that was unusual! [Laughs].”
JA: “No. But I saw Dave’s last band Costar and I saw Dave with the Blackeyed Susans. But in researching the film, I heard hundreds of hours of live shows and viewed a lot of concert footage. They were a crack live unit. Very distinct, very authentic.”
The film features electrifying and rare live footage from these huge outdoor festivals The Triffids played in Europe, but not too many of the other rock bands they shared those stages with could boast a line-up that included pedal-steel, violin and organ!
TB: “They always worked outside the conventions.”
That’s a major theme in the film. Punk was a big influence. The idea that you don’t need to be a ‘master’ of your instrument to be worthwhile. Yet, the music they matured into was very sophisticated.
JA: “They were [in the context of what was being played on the radio] too complex. Record companies don’t do complex. Besides, it wasn’t like The Triffids were competing with a Spiderbait or a You Am I in the early ‘80s when they first started, they were competing with Captain & Tennille! A generation on, the mainstream is still deadly but it’s far more diverse and multi-genre than it was when The Triffids were at their artistic peak in the late ‘80s. Even in Europe where they had their biggest audience, like in Sweden; they might have been the hippest of the hip, but they still weren’t selling in huge numbers.”
TB: “Now you have young musicians covering The Triffids. Remember Nick Cave in 1988 was still not that big, and he kept at it, and it was not until around 2000 that he really broken through.”
Part of the tragedy at the core of the film is that McComb was a talent cut-short, dead at only 36, in 1999. You wonder, what if?
JA: “What makes us human is that we can reflect on our feelings, process them and turn them into art. In this country, we had someone, Dave McComb, who could drill into the deepest, darkest part of what that means…and nobody noticed! So, I thought he deserved a film.”
McComb’s music and lyrics were highly accessible, yet mysterious. They were love songs, mostly, full of pain, wry, sometimes humourous, wistful and longing…but you suggest they are not necessarily autobiographical?
JA: “They aren’t diary songs. You can’t take them literally. Dave was very connected to Lou Reed and Dylan. Reed is documenting the street, Dylan is detailing some mythical version of his own life… Dave was doing something similar, dealing with lust, rejection and putting into song an experience he doesn’t necessarily understand.”
The Triffids were thought of as very Australian, reflecting local vernacular and the landscape. McComb says he never felt particularly Australian or that there was ever any such thing as an Australian sound! You really interrogate those assumptions.
JA: “Dave was using imagery to tell a story. He caught a sense of discomfort about what Australia actually is. I don’t think he was doing it consciously. He was just responding to what was around him. I mean the music he made with Dalsy (a teen garage punk avant-garde noise band) was a response to total boredom and ennui, I mean mid-‘70s Perth, c’mon!”
Yeah, someone says in the film that Perth was stuck in a ‘50s nightmare for decades! Dave put that into a song: Nothing happens here / nothing gets done / but you get to like it. The film captures the whimsy of The Triffids. It wasn’t all gloom and gothic drama like so many critics insist!
JA: “Yeah, they were provocatively playful and unpretentious, and they enjoyed irony. 1987 was a kind of irony free zone and that was one of the reasons why they never cut through…”
It’s a daring film in some respects. It’s not a rock doc. It’s a nuanced portrait of an artist who happened to be a songwriter and musician.
TB: “We didn’t want to make the film about the girlfriends [laughs]. Or the politics. Every band tells the same story: ‘the record company fucked us!’ The biggest challenge was getting the tone right, getting some real sense of who Dave McComb was, as an artist, as an individual, his wit, his sensitivity. We’re very aware of the formula for music bios so you want to reinvent it.”
A lot of the film is about what it is to be an ex-pat – very hard in those pre-digital days – and the toll any artistic pursuit takes on lovers, family. Dave McComb seemed driven and isolated, and striving for something that might not happen. But there’s no self-pity, no sense that music is ultimately empty; it’s serving something worthwhile.
JA: “We didn’t really have a film in the way we have a film today till about 2016. We could have made a film based on what we had. But it really would been a run of the mill Classic Albums type thing.”
It’s very emotional.
JA: “If you are going to make a film about the towering achievement of the art and tell such a tragic story and it’s not emotional you’ve probably got it wrong.”
TB: “Jonathan had already been working on the film for over ten years when I got involved. In the end, we used seventy-four songs and literally hundreds of archive assets: live shows, Super-8, TV appearances, radio, official photos, personal photos, Dave’s father Harold’s 35mm slides, Dave’s diaries, Dave’s letters to his brother John. But the biggest challenge was raising the finance to complete it.”
The style – especially the way you use the McComb family home movies and the diaries – feels like a scrapbook, like a dip into private memories and secret ambitions.
JA: “We arrived at that style very late. We cut down the talking heads. I didn’t want to make anything too digitally swept up. I wanted to give it a woody, grainy analogue 20th century feel. It’s tricky with any biographical approach. I mean, some questions you can’t answer. Someone who has such a multi-faceted mind…who was enigmatic…there is no one story…and Dave was a poet too.”
Right. A highlight of the film is novelist and McComb fan DBC Pierre reading Dave’s poetry, diaries and private letters. These and the songs are used instead of a narrator. It’s very effective.
JA: “DBC Pierre has a voice like Russell Crowe on three packs a day.”
What’s the most important thing about Dave McComb’s legacy?
JA: “The songs of Dave McComb and the music of The Triffids make more sense in 2021 than they ever did in 1988. They capture that sense of unease and disquiet that most Australians deny even exists.”