Bury him deep in love: why has it taken so long for the Triffids’ David McComb to get his due?

The singer-songwriter is the subject of a new documentary, 'Love In Bright Landscapes', that should start to cement his legacy

David McComb should be as familiar a name as Paul Kelly or Nick Cave to even the most casual of music fans.

As the voice and key songwriter of the Triffids, he cut a striking figure on the Australian independent scene of the ’80s, building a fanatical audience in Australia before following the well-worn path of all non-pub-rock bands of that era and moving to London’s far more welcoming music scene.

With McComb’s timeless songcraft, the band seemed the most likely to succeed among their expatriate peers such as the Birthday Party, the Moodists and the Go-Betweens. And indeed,the Triffids racked up multiple UK magazine appearances – including the cover of the NME in 1985 – and rave reviews from major tours and festival appearances, developing a massive European following over their years in the Northern Hemisphere.

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McComb and the band also enjoyed commercial success: singles like ‘Bury Me Deep In Love’ and ‘Trick of the Light’ were far bigger hits than anything Cave, Dave Graney or Robert Forster and Grant McLennan managed at the time (the former even got a late-life bump as the wedding song for Harold and Madge on Neighbours at the height of its cultural cachet).

The Triffids maintained a degree of local rock cred, too, getting a spot on the touring bill for the legendary Australian Made concerts in summer 1986-87, headlined by INXS along with Jimmy Barnes, Models, Divinyls, Mental as Anything and I’m Talking.

And, of course, there’s that song.

Every list of classic Australian singles features the sparse, evocative ‘Wide Open Road’ towards the top. Sure, it’s about a specific area on the Nullabor Plain that McComb knew from the drive east from the Triffids’ hometown of Perth (the 500km of Eyre Highway between Caiguna and Norseman, if you fancy a road trip), but I’m sure stretches of highway everywhere in Australia have prompted drivers to bellow “Well the drums rolled off in my forehead…” at one time or another.

And yet despite all of this McComb himself remains comparatively little known, with his legend already diminishing before his tragic, too-early death in 1999 aged only 36. Fortunately, the new documentary Love In Bright Landscapes addresses that imbalance by celebrating his life, talent and music.

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“I’d always wondered what had happened to Dave,” says Johnathon Alley, the film’s writer/director. “I used to go see him play with the Blackeyed Susans and I’d always been struck by the obvious charisma that he had and most performers don’t possess. It made me wonder why he wasn’t bigger than he was and why people didn’t recognise this world-class performer who was playing to 250 people in a pub in Melbourne.”

And it was that desire to tell his story before it was forgotten – including the voices of McComb’s family, bandmates, friends and partners, as well as that of the musician himself – that prompted Alley to spend over a decade making the film. It’s clearly a labour of love, but it’s also a valuable cultural service for an artist that deserves to be remembered.

“David made his own decisions from the get-go. He was a very driven person that was in charge of his own destiny”

When seeing it all laid out over two hours, the quality of McComb’s lifetime of work is remarkable. The Triffids deservedly take up much of the runtime, but Love In Bright Landscapes also takes in McComb’s records with the Blackeyed Susans, Kostars and his solo material (especially his sole album under his own name, the magnificent ‘Love Of Will’).

The film demonstrates that McComb was an Australian singer and songwriter of rare talent – which makes his relative obscurity so much harder to understand. The unexpected death of his contemporary Grant McLennan at 48 from a heart attack in his sleep led to a national outpouring of grief in 2006 – why did that inspire so much mourning, while McComb’s passing drew a comparatively muted reaction?

“I think it was more of a shock to people because Grant was doing a lot,” Alley suggests. “[The third Go-Betweens post-reunion album] ‘Oceans Apart’ had not been out too long and he and Robert were obviously working together for another one. Conversely, David had really been out of the public eye for some years when he’d passed away.”

Timing was also crucial – more specifically, that McComb was incredibly unlucky with it. In short, McComb died before his band were rediscovered.

Triffids
Triffids. Credit: Andrew Catlin

“You have that combination of the Triffids ending at the end of the ’80s and then pop culture completely changing immediately afterwards, with things getting much more flexible and diverse. So-called ‘alternative’ bands found it a lot easier to get some real attention,” says Alley. “And then his solo career was quite compromised by his health going.”

McComb’s life was complicated by a congenital heart defect, exacerbated by a lifetime of drinking. That habit had developed into serious alcoholism toward the end of the Triffids, and led to the 1996 heart transplant that saved his life.

However, he struggled with complications and debilitating pain as a result. That prompted a return to drinking, and then heroin use. His death a few days after a seemingly minor car accident was ruled by the Victorian coroner as due to heroin toxicity.

Another reason that McComb doesn’t share the national treasure status his contemporaries now enjoy is down to luck. Cave survived his addictions, McComb didn’t. Forster and McLennan successfully reformed The Go-Betweens, while the Triffids’ plans for a 1995 reunion tour were sidelined by McComb’s heart problems. Graney went from being a little-known indie trier to a triple j darling and respected author. As for McComb: “If he’d been able to carry on, who knows what would have happened?”

At least we now have Love In Bright Landscapes, a fitting tribute to a singular Australian talent who might finally get the recognition that largely escaped him in life.

“David made his own decisions from the get-go. He was a very driven person that was in charge of his own destiny,” Alley sighs. “For good, or bad.”

Love In Bright Landscapes is now showing in Brisbane and Adelaide theatres. It opens February 2022 in Sydney and Melbourne

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