The Triffids | 08/05/08

Image: triffids_web

Very few artworks haunt me. Our culture itself haunts me, haunts the fuck out of me. Art, music, literature, in that they reflect, in that they sometimes glance ahead of a culture, might get a stranglehold on a mood, a day, a season – but they rarely haunt me. The music of the Triffids haunts me.

 I am a musical pantheist – I love good examples of all music. Still, large scale orchestral works, symphonic pieces from the late-classical through romantic periods, tend to speak most to me, and it’s because they are sophisticated works that address the soul in great detail. Their themes are timeless, they paint struggles, pains, and longings that are human workloads at all times. Yet for me no expression of any age or complexity more evokes our culture’s hell-bent departure from innocence than the careless genius of David McComb and The Triffids. I will try to explain why.

Beneath the sequinned stage where we spent the 1980s, there lay a darker space, empty of shoulder pads and mascara. A real place, but experienced as if through a dream. Perhaps picture a desert, with a gutted stately home, buffalo roaming in perspective around it; and inside, the remains of a grand ballroom lit with neon and flame – and there a band, laughing and jamming. I mean the kind of place that wouldn't be there if you returned the next day. Just as, in fact, it wasn't. The 1980s had such a place. It was a music scene curiously epicentred in Australia, where Gordon Gecko’s ideology, pastel interiors, and MTV were slower to arrive – they were distant promises of change seen from a desert, almost another planet, where girls still tasted salty, where widowed parents stayed single rather than admit to their kids they might shag. Around the edges of this Southern desert the real soul of an age was beating, and admitting things weren’t that clear or hunky dory anymore.

We were departing from a known reality into an age where you could make things up as you went along, anything at all, as long as you kept a straight face. For me it is impossible to overestimate the extent to which certain Australian bands were in synch with that frontier time, had just the right distance from that true border between The Good Life and Big Brother. And snap: it happened around 1984. Under the noses of fluffy New Romantics, of gender benders, even of a wider alternative music scene, the likes of the Birthday Party, later Nick Cave and The Bad Seed, and the Go-Betweens, overspilled from the punk era to darken and dry around the stove of the 80s, a rich counter-argument to the age’s froth. Some of this was very dark music, gloriously so, and some of its melancholy soaked into the Triffids, who were unashamed to paint with all shades of music, even from generations before them, and places far away. But for me there was light around the band that set it apart from the scene. The Triffids weren’t dark for the sake of darkness or style. They weren't sordid, or gloomy. They took no delight in countering jollity. Rather, they played familiar jolly comforts, used familiar jolly tricks, knowing they were devices from an innocence ebbed away; and it’s that knowing that gives the work its bittersweet depth.

This powerful, sometimes devastating music isn't static nostalgia; it peers across the sea we're adrift on and sings knowing we're here; not capturing an age and its values, but the sound of their doppler shift receding. As affable, light, and ingenuous as these songs get, they never fail to find us in our time and leave it rusty with yearning and dismay. I was prepared at the time of The Triffids' outbreak to call them art. Twenty years later I call them true and great art because the haunting grows, culture drags their relevance with it day by day, and I am now certain this brief eruption of songs is a farewell waved and sung from the shore of a friendly and innocent past. Don’t be fooled by the whiff of high-school band, the hit-and-miss of sweet cliché, the stock vehicle of lost love: the wistful soul of The Triffids was a painful knowing that innocent times were gone for ever. Their music is a celebration of that knowing. That the band survived its brief time on critical acclaim and not commercial success confirms to me that culture flowed away past them as they sang to a culture flowing away past. Now stop and listen. They're still there, waving – and knowing where we are.

DBC Pierre December 2007