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50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #43: The Triffids

Bad//Dreems’ Alex Cameron looks back at the impact and everlasting legacy of David McComb and The Triffids.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time - The Triffids

Mary Scanlon*; Ian Laidlaw*

In December of 2020, Rolling Stone Australia released a special edition issue which looks at the 50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time, paying tribute to the best and most impactful artists in Australian music history. While it would have been easy for the editors and writers of the publication to profess their love of the listed artists, the decision was instead made for those who found themselves inspired by these world-renowned names to share their own testimonials of why these artists deserve to make the list.

In celebration of the issue’s release in December, we’re counting down the full 50 artists and their accompanying testimonials in this ongoing online feature. If you want to get your hands on an physical copy of the magazine, be sure to subscribe now to experience the double-length edition featuring some of Australia’s best and brightest discussing the finest names in local music.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #43: The Triffids (by Alex Cameron of Bad//Dreems)

They formed in Perth around David McComb, the child of a plastic surgeon father and a clinical geneticist. He was joined by schoolmate Alsy MacDonald (drums) and later McComb’s brother Robert (guitar and violin) and Martyn P Casey (bass). Jill Birt (keyboards, vocals) joined before Treeless Plain, and ‘Evil’ Graham Lee (pedal steel) before Born Sandy DevotionaI. Like many of their Australian contemporaries (The Saints, The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens) they were embraced by UK press and audiences before their homeland and never achieved commercial success commensurate with critical acclaim.

They were a band that grew out of the post-punk movement, but realised earlier on that “ripping it up and starting again” could apply to more idioms than just guitar-driven rock‘n’roll. And this deconstructionist approach was tempered by an abiding respect for songcraft; McComb was as much a student of Dylan and Cohen as he was of any punk or post-punk iconoclasts.

It is this kind of tension (post-punks vs classicists; rockers vs balladeers; underground cult act vs festival headliners) that goes part of the way to encapsulating the enigmatic brilliance of the band.

McComb was a brilliant writer and a darkly charismatic front man, almost like the bastard child of Nick Cave and Michael Hutchence. He was at once the thundering gothic bush preacher of “Field of Glass” or “Life of Crime”; the pop balladeer of “Beautiful Waste” or “Bury Me Deep in Love”; or, the broken mystic of “Stolen Property” or “Wide Open Road”.

His songs were deeply rooted in Australian iconography, while avoiding cliché or prosaicism. The vast emptiness of our highways and deserts was an escape from the mundanity of the Perth of his childhood, but his visions of these were always underpinned by darkness, pining and loss. Sin and redemption were never far from the surface. Old testament fire and brimstone co-exist with sentiments of remarkable tenderness, often in the same song (“Stolen Property”).

“McComb was almost like the bastard child of Nick Cave and Michael Hutchence.”

McComb’s writing aside, the Triffids’ brilliance ultimately came from a collision of their members’ individual voices. MacDonald and Martyn P Casey were an incredibly musical rhythm section, often foregoing traditional grooves in favour of space and melody. Graham Lee and Jill Birt’s playing created incredibly evocative and sensitive accompaniments, in which melodies are passed and intertwined from player to player.

For me, this reaches its zenith on Born Sandy Devotional – as close to a perfect album as there is. An otherworldly but undeniably Australian document, it’s transportive and transformative. Its essence is elusive – flicking between a shearing shed dance and ethereal majestic panoramas. Something like the fading warmth of the Nullarbor sand just after the sunset or the fine spray of a breaking wave, unsighted and miles from shore. 

McComb and the Triffids were a comet that burned bright but brief across the milky way; uniquely imperfect and perfectly timeless. They won’t be repeated.