Obituary: David McComb

AUSTRALIAN ROCK acts exist in a cultural vacuum and have to earn their dues overseas before being accepted back home.

The Triffids, whose tall and charismatic front man was David McComb, followed in the footsteps of the Birthday Party and the Go- Betweens and relocated from Perth to London in the mid-Eighties. Their distinctive melodramatic songs earned the band a big cult following in Britain and the rest of Europe but, despite the critical acclaim given to albums like Born Sandy Devotional, Calenture and The Black Swan, mainstream success eluded them.

Born in 1962, McComb was the youngest of four sons in a medical family, his father a plastic surgeon of Protestant Northern Irish stock and his mother a geneticist with Huguenot ancestry. Religious images and medical references, along with maritime metaphors, abound in his haunting songs and sea-shanties.

Growing up in the coastal town of Perth, in Western Australia, McComb eschewed the beach-bum culture, attended Christ Church Grammar School and proved a gifted student, winning prizes in English literature and divinity. While still at school, he formed his first band, Dalsy, with Alsy MacDonald on drums. Dalsy was a multimedia project, producing music, books and photographic work, and its output reflected McComb's early interests, in Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith.

Going on to embrace disparate elements of popular music from country to electronic via the arty punk of Television and Talking Heads, Dalsy had, by 1978, evolved into the Triffids, and also comprised Martyn Casey on bass, Phil Kakulas, soon replaced by Jill Birt, on keyboards, and one of McComb's brothers, Robert, on violin, keyboards and guitar.

McComb went on to Curtin University, in Perth, to study journalism and literature. In 1980, the Triffids won a band demo competition and released their first single, "Stand Up", on the Shake Some Action label, the following year. By then McComb had decided to give music a real go. From their remote base, the Triffids moved to Melbourne before eventually settling in Sydney.

After a couple of singles and EPs, the group had saved up money from support slots with the Hoodoo Gurus, the Church and Hunter and Collectors, and in 1983 completed a debut album, Treeless Plain, for Hot Records, a Sydney independent. However, McComb later recalled:

In Australia, we were stuck between two worlds. We were trying to balance the harshness of Australian nature with a sense of romance. We were neither an art band nor a rock band like Cold Chisel or Midnight Oil. The Triffids had critical recognition and a thriving audience - as much as an Australian independent band could cheerfully expect. But since we had already hauled ourselves 3,000 miles from our home town, we decided to head for the UK. This wasn't meticulously planned; it was just less trouble than getting US work visas.

The Triffids arrived in London in 1985 and with the addition of "Evil" Graham Lee on pedal steel guitar, recorded the Born Sandy Devotional album (1986) and Wide Open Road EP, and played a series of "aggressive, cathartic shows. Even the ballads were confrontational," said McComb. The group were hailed by the British media, were featured on the John Peel show and supported Echo and the Bunnymen, and could now go back and take part in the "Australian Made" tour, headlined by INXS, in January 1987. "An Adelaide paper called the Triffids the most un-Australian and the most European band on the bill," said McComb.

Down under again, the Triffids had built an eight-track machine inside a shearing shed in the outback and cut the country-like album In the Pines (1986). On their return to the UK, they signed to Island Records. Armed with the considerable budget of pounds 125,000, and the production skills of Gil Norton, David McComb and his cohorts - including a new recruit, Adam Peters, on guitar - concocted the lush orchestrations of the poignant "Bury Me Deep In Love" and the melancholic wide-screen atmosphere of the subsequent Calenture album (1987). The title was a reference to "a fever or delirium when sailors have been away from land a long time and they start going loopy. They're convinced the rolling waves are green fields, so they jump overboard in a sort of homesickness gone badly wrong," explained McComb.

Despite the release of another two excellent tracks as singles ("Trick of the Light" and "Holy Water"), Calenture didn't have the impact expected of it. "We realised we had been touched by the blessed hand of Spinal Tap when we found ourselves to be certifiably . . . big in Belgium, Holland, Greece and Scandinavia," said McComb. "It was obvious a beautiful era was at an end." In 1989, the "Goodbye Little Boy" single featured in the Australian soap opera Neighbours but, following The Black Swan (1989) and a live album recorded in Stockholm, the Triffids split up.

McComb subsequently worked with the Blackeyed Susans, recorded a single, "The Message", and covered "Don't Go Home with your Hard-On", for I'm Your Fan, a 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album. In 1994, he issued a fine solo album, Love of Will, on Mushroom Records, who also issued Aus-tralian Melodrama (1994), a Triffids compilation album.

Backed by the Red Ponies, McComb toured Europe but was taken ill while travelling to New York later that year. A successful heart transplant in early 1995 enabled him to resume his studies, at Melbourne University, where he formed a new band, costar, which played sporadically.

On 30 January, David McComb was injured in a car accident. He was released from hospital, but died suddenly at his home in Melbourne two days later.

David McComb, singer, songwriter and guitarist: born Perth, Western Australia 17 February 1962; married; died Melbourne, Victoria 1 February 1999.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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