A Trick of The Light: The late, great David McComb

DMC

This is a photograph of David McComb, the lead singer and main songwriter for the 1980s band, The Triffids. I snapped this picture with a no-frills Praktica SLR as part of a class exercise whose purpose I can no longer recall  (I was a student at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in 1981, and David was a member of my photojournalism class). A few years ago, I found the negative amongst a pile of forgotten papers and files from my student days, and decided to finally bring it into the realm of visibility.

I took the photograph when David was 19 years old. He didn’t know it, but he’d already lived more than half his life. This is a tragic fact — he looks so young and innocent, almost cherubic. I didn’t really know David very well. He seemed an affable sort, and was always friendly and polite in class, but I only ever exchanged pleasantries with him on a few occasions. I was aware he was in a band called The Triffids, but I didn’t become a fan until a few years later, so I was unaware of his extraordinary talent when our paths crossed briefly all those years ago. At the time, I was also conscious of David’s charisma — he seemed to have many friends, and people spoke about him with admiration and reverence. By 1983, after attending my first Triffids gig, I knew why — he was a captivating, enigmatic performer, and, in my view, easily one of the best songwriters of his generation. The fact that relatively few people acknowledged his genius during his short life is inexplicable.

I’m the first to admit that the photograph is ordinary in technical and formal terms (I never pursued photojournalism as a career because I really sucked as a photographer). Largely, my fascination with the image is personal. David looks so cool, and, in a way, out of time, a bit like his music. His clothes and hairstyle, for example, don’t look like they belong to the 1980s. Of course, they were many people who dressed in a similar way during this period, although it’s hard to appreciate the fact when you look at films and photographs from the era. Mainstream hairstyles and fashion in the 80s look abominable today — women had a penchant for sticky product and poodle-like curls, and don’t get me started on men’s fashions, and haircut bands. Mr. McComb was nothing if not elegant and tasteful, even in his everyday student garb.

I wonder what David was thinking as stared into the lens of my camera, standing so tall and straight? I suspect he was hoping this impromptu photo shoot would come to a swift end. Who can tell? All I know is that the image evokes a strong sense of melancholy laced with a bittersweet nostalgia for a person and an era that has passed. Roland Barthes believed that the essence of photography lies in the brute fact that ‘the thing has been there’ (Camera Lucida, p. 76). Photography, in his view, is testimony: ‘what I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject’ (Camera Lucida, p. 77). The photograph always speaks of the past, and, ultimately about death. David McComb was absolutely present at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in 1981, and the light reflected from his body, the light emanating from his corporeal presence preserved an ordinary instant in the life of an extraordinary man.

A thick sludge of nostalgia covers my memories of the Triffids. It’s sticky core is made from hot summer nights spent in smoky pubs and clubs, watching throngs of black clad bohemians shake, shimmy and stare at the band in wide-eyed wonder. As I recall, Triffids’ fans were not very good dancers. People would rhythmically sway to the music, jump up and down on the spot, or just stare at the mesmeric spectacle, lost in private reverie. I remember one devoted fan, a petite young girl in a little black dress who used to do an especially well-mannered version of the hokey-cokey every time the band played an up-tempo number (right leg in, left leg in, and shake it all about, daintily). I never spoke to her, or knew her name, but she’s part of the sludge, and I see her pretty, clear skin face, framed by straight black hair cut in a neat bob, through aging layers of wistful sediment.

I can also see a group of friends singing along to the Triffids’ rendition of ‘Suspicious Minds.’ They’re young, definitely drunk and appallingly off key, but smitten with an exuberance and enthusiasm rarely found in people over 25. One of them takes large sips from a hip flask he’s snuck into the gig, as he whispers something in his girlfriend’s ear. Another fiddles with his Sony Walkman, which he uses as a surreptitious recording device. For many years, I couldn’t disentangle the music from these personal memories. I can’t hear ‘Beautiful Waste’ without thinking about my first girlfriend, Fiona, who gallantly endured my rabid proselytising about the band’s brilliance. My memories of Triffids’ gigs fill me with a warm glow, a sentimental longing for a generally happy time now long past. This is perhaps why it took me so long to appreciate their brilliance. While they never conquered the world or found commercial success during their heyday, the Triffids were a world class act, and David McComb was a song writing genius, one who fully deserves to share the penthouse suite in the tower of song with luminaries such Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

I lived in the band’s hometown of Perth, the world’s most isolated city, when the Triffids were at the height of their powers in the 1980s. I feel privileged to have been in the right place at the right time, for once in my life. For a local, I came to the band relatively late — I missed their early gigs at the Stoned Crow, and certainly didn’t attend any performances during their formative years. The band were already very impressive and accomplished when I first saw them in 1983. By this time, they no longer lived in Perth, but returned periodically for weeks at a time, playing regularly at venues like the Shaftesbury Hotel and the Red Parrott, both long gone (not even dots on today’s map of metropolitan Perth).

I saw The Triffids as often as I could, sometimes two or three nights a week. I even saw them twice in a single night once — the second performance that evening was memorable because a fight broke out between two drunken louts. I seem to recall McComb heroically restoring order by jumping off the stage and separating the principal aggressors.

I’m sure the band had its bad nights, but I don’t recall a single bad gig, although McComb was not averse to admonishing the sometimes complacent crowd for requesting familiar songs, and cover versions of other people’s hits (which the band appeared to enjoy playing). There was always one or two die-hard fans that felt the need to share their intimate knowledge of the band’s most ancient songs by rowdily requesting ‘Butterfly’ or, more often than not, ‘Farmers never Visit Nightclubs’. Depending on his mood, McComb would acquiesce or contemptuously dismiss these calls from the crowd.

Friendly hecklers notwithstanding, the band was palpably committed to their music — their shows comprised of furious sermons from the pulpit, atmospheric missives from a lonely place, and twee ditties delivered with just the right degree of irony. For all the dark and brooding songs in McComb’s canon, the band had a sense of humour, and revelled in playing cheesy Vegas-era Elvis covers alongside incendiary garage band classics like ’96 Tears’ and ‘No Fun’. Their version of the theme from Gilligan’s Island underscores their eclecticism and capacity for comedy. However, I think their affable presence, and droll irony often masked their brilliance. In any case, the energy and visceral power of the Triffids on stage resides only in the memories of those lucky enough to witness those astonishing gigs, although the band’s live recordings and videos capture something of their astounding prowess as a live act. However, as good as they were live, it’s the song writing I want to celebrate (even if my commentary does a violent disservice to McComb’s sublime compositions). I want to add my praise to the ever-increasing body of critical work devoted to McComb’s oeuvre by appraising the songs on Born Sandy Devotional, an album considered by most to be the band’s greatest artistic achievement.

David McComb brought a rare sophistication to the art of song writing, which is never more evident than on this album. His lyrics here are poetic without being forced or pretentious, and, more often than not, they’re imbued with a paradoxical sense of melancholy, tender and transcendent, deranged and insightful. His protagonists, often possessed by a feverish intensity and panic, wounded by a lover’s abject dismissal, find themselves marooned in a solitary space emptied of solace. The band creates compelling washes of sound that support the songs, providing a cinematic bed for these intricate ruminations on lost love. The songs explore various heightened states of being; states induced by love’s traumatic aftershocks.

McComb’s characters roam through his landscape of love, some delirious with fever, other stoic with resignation. They fall into its ‘frighteningly silent abyss,’ and few attempt resurrections. Of course, this virtual landscape has much in common with the Australian outback. The lonely, barren expanses of the island continent’s unpopulated land provide an appropriately desolate metaphor for songs about unrequited love, the album’s major theme. Yet, Born Sandy Devotional is no simple-minded paean to Australia. The country’s landscape is inherently mysterious, especially so for European settlers; McComb preserves its enigma by eschewing literalism in favour of a gripping ambiguity that demands close attention if the listener wants to appreciate its extraordinary nuances. The album’s very title is mystifying, and puzzling. It’s taken from a song that doesn’t appear on the album, a song McComb was never sufficiently happy with, so while the Triffids played the song live, they never officially released a definitive version (an incomplete take appears on In the Pines).

The deluxe edition of the remastered album contains a revelatory booklet containing McComb’s various notes for the recording. On the back cover, he points to the title’s ambiguity by noting its grammatical structure. ‘Born’ is a verb, an action. ‘Sandy’ is a proper noun (a boy’s name or a girl’s name), or an adjective, a qualifying description (as in the line, ‘a sandy beach’). ‘Devotional’ can also be a noun or an adjective. So what does all this mean? We can read the title as being about devotion to some person called Sandy — an object of desire. Alternately, it may be about devotion to a geographical region — devotion to sand and surf as practiced by many West Australians. Thinking metaphorical, it may be about devotion to the childhood memory of sand and surf, devotion to some formative experience. The verb ‘Born’ conveys a sense of inevitability, pre-destiny, or perhaps vocation — born to be devoted to ‘Sandy’, whoever or whatever ‘Sandy’ might be. Of course, there’s no imperative, or injunction to settle on a definitive interpretation; it’s possible to luxuriate in the uncertainty.

While many uncertainties inhabit the album’s title, there is nothing ambiguous about David McComb’s talent, although he seems to have had his doubts. The aforementioned booklet that accompanies the album contains a note McComb scribbled sometime in the 1980s.

 

The biggest joy/spur is the perverse question hanging over my head 24 hour per day — am I the stuff of greatness, or am I just another of the thousands of ugly despicable beings in their bedrooms clutching glasses of vodka, with a bunch of filthy exercise book.

 

For me, the answer to the question is simple: David McComb was the stuff of genius,

This is a photograph of David McComb, the lead singer and main songwriter for the 1980s band, The Triffids. I snapped this picture with a no-frills Praktica SLR as part of a class exercise whose purpose I can no longer recall  (I was a student at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in 1981, and David was a member of my photojournalism class). A few years ago, I found the negative amongst a pile of forgotten papers and files from my student days, and decided to finally bring it into the realm of visibility.

I took the photograph when David was 19 years old. He didn’t know it, but he’d already lived more than half his life. This is a tragic fact — he looks so young and innocent, almost cherubic. I didn’t really know David very well. He seemed an affable sort, and was always friendly and polite in class, but I only ever exchanged pleasantries with him on a few occasions. I was aware he was in a band called The Triffids, but I didn’t become a fan until a few years later, so I was unaware of his extraordinary talent when our paths crossed briefly all those years ago. At the time, I was also conscious of David’s charisma — he seemed to have many friends, and people spoke about him with admiration and reverence. By 1983, after attending my first Triffids gig, I knew why — he was a captivating, enigmatic performer, and, in my view, easily one of the best songwriters of his generation. The fact that relatively few people acknowledged his genius during his short life is inexplicable.

I’m the first to admit that the photograph is ordinary in technical and formal terms (I never pursued photojournalism as a career because I really sucked as a photographer). Largely, my fascination with the image is personal. David looks so cool, and, in a way, out of time, a bit like his music. His clothes and hairstyle, for example, don’t look like they belong to the 1980s. Of course, they were many people who dressed in a similar way during this period, although it’s hard to appreciate the fact when you look at films and photographs from the era. Mainstream hairstyles and fashion in the 80s look abominable today — women had a penchant for sticky product and poodle-like curls, and don’t get me started on men’s fashions, and haircut bands. Mr. McComb was nothing if not elegant and tasteful, even in his everyday student garb.

I wonder what David was thinking as stared into the lens of my camera, standing so tall and straight? I suspect he was hoping this impromptu photo shoot would come to a swift end. Who can tell? All I know is that the image evokes a strong sense of melancholy laced with a bittersweet nostalgia for a person and an era that has passed. Roland Barthes believed that the essence of photography lies in the brute fact that ‘the thing has been there’ (Camera Lucida, p. 76). Photography, in his view, is testimony: ‘what I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject’ (Camera Lucida, p. 77). The photograph always speaks of the past, and, ultimately about death. David McComb was absolutely present at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in 1981, and the light reflected from his body, the light emanating from his corporeal presence preserved an ordinary instant in the life of an extraordinary man.

A thick sludge of nostalgia covers my memories of the Triffids. It’s sticky core is made from hot summer nights spent in smoky pubs and clubs, watching throngs of black clad bohemians shake, shimmy and stare at the band in wide-eyed wonder. As I recall, Triffids’ fans were not very good dancers. People would rhythmically sway to the music, jump up and down on the spot, or just stare at the mesmeric spectacle, lost in private reverie. I remember one devoted fan, a petite young girl in a little black dress who used to do an especially well-mannered version of the hokey-cokey every time the band played an up-tempo number (right leg in, left leg in, and shake it all about, daintily). I never spoke to her, or knew her name, but she’s part of the sludge, and I see her pretty, clear skin face, framed by straight black hair cut in a neat bob, through aging layers of wistful sediment.

I can also see a group of friends singing along to the Triffids’ rendition of ‘Suspicious Minds.’ They’re young, definitely drunk and appallingly off key, but smitten with an exuberance and enthusiasm rarely found in people over 25. One of them takes large sips from a hip flask he’s snuck into the gig, as he whispers something in his girlfriend’s ear. Another fiddles with his Sony Walkman, which he uses as a surreptitious recording device. For many years, I couldn’t disentangle the music from these personal memories. I can’t hear ‘Beautiful Waste’ without thinking about my first girlfriend, Fiona, who gallantly endured my rabid proselytising about the band’s brilliance. My memories of Triffids’ gigs fill me with a warm glow, a sentimental longing for a generally happy time now long past. This is perhaps why it took me so long to appreciate their brilliance. While they never conquered the world or found commercial success during their heyday, the Triffids were a world class act, and David McComb was a song writing genius, one who fully deserves to share the penthouse suite in the tower of song with luminaries such Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

I lived in the band’s hometown of Perth, the world’s most isolated city, when the Triffids were at the height of their powers in the 1980s. I feel privileged to have been in the right place at the right time, for once in my life. For a local, I came to the band relatively late — I missed their early gigs at the Stoned Crow, and certainly didn’t attend any performances during their formative years. The band were already very impressive and accomplished when I first saw them in 1983. By this time, they no longer lived in Perth, but returned periodically for weeks at a time, playing regularly at venues like the Shaftesbury Hotel and the Red Parrott, both long gone (not even dots on today’s map of metropolitan Perth).

I saw The Triffids as often as I could, sometimes two or three nights a week. I even saw them twice in a single night once — the second performance that evening was memorable because a fight broke out between two drunken louts. I seem to recall McComb heroically restoring order by jumping off the stage and separating the principal aggressors.

I’m sure the band had its bad nights, but I don’t recall a single bad gig, although McComb was not averse to admonishing the sometimes complacent crowd for requesting familiar songs, and cover versions of other people’s hits (which the band appeared to enjoy playing). There was always one or two die-hard fans that felt the need to share their intimate knowledge of the band’s most ancient songs by rowdily requesting ‘Butterfly’ or, more often than not, ‘Farmers never Visit Nightclubs’. Depending on his mood, McComb would acquiesce or contemptuously dismiss these calls from the crowd.

Friendly hecklers notwithstanding, the band was palpably committed to their music — their shows comprised of furious sermons from the pulpit, atmospheric missives from a lonely place, and twee ditties delivered with just the right degree of irony. For all the dark and brooding songs in McComb’s canon, the band had a sense of humour, and revelled in playing cheesy Vegas-era Elvis covers alongside incendiary garage band classics like ’96 Tears’ and ‘No Fun’. Their version of the theme from Gilligan’s Island underscores their eclecticism and capacity for comedy. However, I think their affable presence, and droll irony often masked their brilliance. In any case, the energy and visceral power of the Triffids on stage resides only in the memories of those lucky enough to witness those astonishing gigs, although the band’s live recordings and videos capture something of their astounding prowess as a live act. However, as good as they were live, it’s the song writing I want to celebrate (even if my commentary does a violent disservice to McComb’s sublime compositions). I want to add my praise to the ever-increasing body of critical work devoted to McComb’s oeuvre by appraising the songs on Born Sandy Devotional, an album considered by most to be the band’s greatest artistic achievement.

David McComb brought a rare sophistication to the art of song writing, which is never more evident than on this album. His lyrics here are poetic without being forced or pretentious, and, more often than not, they’re imbued with a paradoxical sense of melancholy, tender and transcendent, deranged and insightful. His protagonists, often possessed by a feverish intensity and panic, wounded by a lover’s abject dismissal, find themselves marooned in a solitary space emptied of solace. The band creates compelling washes of sound that support the songs, providing a cinematic bed for these intricate ruminations on lost love. The songs explore various heightened states of being; states induced by love’s traumatic aftershocks.

McComb’s characters roam through his landscape of love, some delirious with fever, other stoic with resignation. They fall into its ‘frighteningly silent abyss,’ and few attempt resurrections. Of course, this virtual landscape has much in common with the Australian outback. The lonely, barren expanses of the island continent’s unpopulated land provide an appropriately desolate metaphor for songs about unrequited love, the album’s major theme. Yet, Born Sandy Devotional is no simple-minded paean to Australia. The country’s landscape is inherently mysterious, especially so for European settlers; McComb preserves its enigma by eschewing literalism in favour of a gripping ambiguity that demands close attention if the listener wants to appreciate its extraordinary nuances. The album’s very title is mystifying, and puzzling. It’s taken from a song that doesn’t appear on the album, a song McComb was never sufficiently happy with, so while the Triffids played the song live, they never officially released a definitive version (an incomplete take appears on In the Pines).

The deluxe edition of the remastered album contains a revelatory booklet containing McComb’s various notes for the recording. On the back cover, he points to the title’s ambiguity by noting its grammatical structure. ‘Born’ is a verb, an action. ‘Sandy’ is a proper noun (a boy’s name or a girl’s name), or an adjective, a qualifying description (as in the line, ‘a sandy beach’). ‘Devotional’ can also be a noun or an adjective. So what does all this mean? We can read the title as being about devotion to some person called Sandy — an object of desire. Alternately, it may be about devotion to a geographical region — devotion to sand and surf as practiced by many West Australians. Thinking metaphorical, it may be about devotion to the childhood memory of sand and surf, devotion to some formative experience. The verb ‘Born’ conveys a sense of inevitability, pre-destiny, or perhaps vocation — born to be devoted to ‘Sandy’, whoever or whatever ‘Sandy’ might be. Of course, there’s no imperative, or injunction to settle on a definitive interpretation; it’s possible to luxuriate in the uncertainty.

While many uncertainties inhabit the album’s title, there is nothing ambiguous about David McComb’s talent, although he seems to have had his doubts. The aforementioned booklet that accompanies the album contains a note McComb scribbled sometime in the 1980s.

‘The biggest joy/spur is the perverse question hanging over my head 24 hour per day — am I the stuff of greatness, or am I just another of the thousands of ugly despicable beings in their bedrooms clutching glasses of vodka, with a bunch of filthy exercise book.’

For me, the answer to the question is simple: David McComb was indeed the stuff of genius,

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One response to “A Trick of The Light: The late, great David McComb

  1. Pingback: Cover Versions: 5 Fave The Triffids Covers – a1000mistakes

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