If you care to watch the 1984 Band Aid video, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (I advise you think carefully before doing so), you will see some of the worst haircuts ever sported by humankind – or rather, by mankind, as all the worst offenders are men. Simon Le Bon, Bono, Paul Young, George Michael: it’s a roll-call of hirsute horror. Only three women – the ladies of Bananarama – featured in the original Band Aid ensemble, and none of them get a prominent vocal spot. In their rush to feed Africa, songwriters Bob Geldof and Midge Ure left gender equity by the wayside.
Blow-dried mullets are not the only aspect of Band Aid, and the attendant rise in rock n’ roll charity fundraising that it spawned, which retrospectively appear in bad taste. Band Aid is at once overblown as a spectacle and, as a response to the famines ravaging Ethiopia during the 1980s, manifestly inadequate. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ brought together a bunch of wealthy rock stars, and the British public bought the song in droves, making it the highest-selling UK single of all time until Elton John’s similarly mawkish ‘Candle In The Wind’ (in memory of Princess Diana) eclipsed that sales record. No doubt everyone’s desire to help was genuine. But lyrically, the song creates an insurmountable barrier between the rich (participating musicians, the listening public) and the poor (those other people, over in Africa), whose suffering becomes an object of pitiable contemplation. Bono even sings at one point ‘Well tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of you’. Someone’s gotta starve, eh? Glad it’s not me!
So how did a severe famine in an impoverished African country, created by a complex array of political, environmental, and economic factors, become a cause celebré in affluent Western countries? In one word: television. The horrific conditions of the 1984-5 Ethiopian famine were brought home to British audiences via news broadcast – the BBC were the first foreign television network to report on the famine, in October 1984 – much in the way that the Vietnam War had been, for American audiences in the 1970s, their first televised glimpse of a battlefield. The response, naturally, was more television. The video clip for ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was put together, like the song, in little more than 24 hours and rushed into high rotation, while Band Aid’s accompanying 1985 concert Live Aid was watched globally by an estimated 2 billion people.
Bob Geldof was one, very well connected viewer prompted to action by the news reports. His Irish band The Boomtown Rats, who rode the crest of New Wave into number one with ‘Rat Trap’ in 1978 and ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ in 1979, had pushed him into the milieu of jet-setting rock stars, and he called upon all of them (using a Rolodex, perhaps?) for his hastily-conceived Band Aid plan. The song was co-written with Midge Ure, of Ultravox, and utilised the combined talents of – well, if you really need to know, watch the video. David Bowie was drafted to contribute but couldn’t make it. Boy George was flown by Concorde from New York to London in order to record his lines, at which point the unintended irony metre had to be sent away for repairs.
Celebrity was Geldof’s main criteria for Band Aid: he wanted huge stars to ensure huge sales. On that level, no one can deny the success of his formula, which was swiftly repeated in the US with ‘We Are The World’ (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, et al). The air of 19th century philanthropy that clung to Band Aid – See these generous rich people! Doing things for free! – showed up the fact that by the mid-1980s, popular music was not just big business, it was respectable business. Rock stars were no longer a tacit threat to the social order: bigger than Jesus they might have been, to use John Lennon’s phrase, but that was just fine. Celebrity musicians became substitute politicians, which says as much about the reduction of politics to populism as it does about the fuzzy ‘inclusiveness’ of stadium rock. At political rallies and arena concerts, the idea was the same: raise your hands in the air and sing along.
Live Aid certainly managed that: held on 13th July, 1985, it brought over 70,000 people to London’s Wembley Stadium and close to 100,000 at the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. An Australian version, Oz for Africa, was held at the Sydney Entertainment Centre on the same day. In the UK, the concert cemented U2’s live reputation and gave glam rock titans Queen the opportunity to lead the crowd in fervent self-congratulation with ‘We Are The Champions’. INXS, then at the height of their fame, headlined Oz for Africa with Countdown’s Molly Meldrum as host.
Live Aid has been used as a template ever since for large-scale charity concerts that combine live music, television and radio broadcasts, and an element of home-viewer fundraising, generally a telethon. The most recent local examples have been Australia Unites, held on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House in early 2005 to raise money for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and Sound Relief, in March 2009, for those affected by the Victorian bushfires and the Queensland floods that year. Like Live Aid, Sound Relief was held at two venues simultaneously – the Sydney and Melbourne Cricket Grounds – and featured a line-up of contemporary, early 00s favourites (Wolfmother, Eskimo Joe), reunited oldies (Midnight Oil, Hunters & Collectors), and Jet, who literalised their name by flying cross-country between both venues. Also, Kings of Leon had the tact not to perform ‘Sex On Fire’.
The million-dollar question – literally – pertaining to Band Aid, Live Aid, and its many subsequent imitators, is where does the money go? The BBC was forced to apologise to Bob Geldof in November 2010 after airing a series of reports which suggested that money raised by Band Aid for famine relief in Ethiopia had instead been diverted to armed rebel groups. The fact that some aid money had been used for such a purpose was not in dispute, but whether or not any of this money had originated from Band Aid. Geldof insisted no, and after initially standing by its reports, the BBC apologised without reservation.
But the difficult issue remains of how humanitarian fundraising, particularly in massive amounts, is distributed in a way that ensures it helps, rather than hinders, the people it was intended for. Aid expert David Rieff has raised detailed concerns that a good proportion of the roughly 50 million pounds raised by Geldof’s musical charity went to NGOs who colluded in the forced resettlement of more than half a million Ethiopians. “There is no necessary connection between raising money for a good cause and that money being well spent,” wrote Rieff in British newspaper The Guardian, “… there is ample reason to conclude that it [Live Aid] did harm as well as good.” (June 24, 2005). Somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 people died in the resettlements – likely as many as were saved from famine by fundraising efforts. As most rock stars know from experience, a lot of money can be a dangerous thing.
The first album to sell one million copies on compact disc alone was Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, a fact that does nothing to boost this writer’s faith in the collective good taste of humankind. Brothers In Arms knocked Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required off No.1 to become best-selling album on the Australian charts during 1985, and was beaten in 1986 only by Whitney Houston.
The first album to be manufactured on compact disc by the Phillips-owned PolyGram pressing factory was ABBA’s The Visitors, in 1981, and the first album commercially released on compact disc came the following year, with Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. This roll call of pop’s biggest stars indicates just how advantageous the compact disc (CD) format was to major artists, and to the record labels that owned their work. Like no other format before or since, the CD became a financial bonanza for major labels – labels that, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, increasingly became subsidiaries of enormous multinational corporations.
Credit for the development of compact disc technology is generally given to the consumer electronics companies Philips and Sony, who joined forces in 1979 in order to speed up the research and development of a digital audio disc, which both companies had been working on independently. In his book Appetite For Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, writer Steve Knopper points further back – all the way to 1965, and the height of the vinyl era – in locating the origin of CD technology. American physicist and inventor James T. Russell, who worked for Battelle Laboratories, worked throughout that year in building a prototype “mechanical-optical structure” that used binary-encoded glass plates, read by an optical laser, to play recorded sound. Patents filed in 1966 by Russell would be used, decades later, in court cases brought against Philips and Sony for royalty payments owed. Both companies agreed to pay US $10 million, but the money didn’t go to Russell. It went to the Optical Recording Corporation, who had bought the inventor’s patents in 1985 – the same year that Dire Straits became the first recording act to sell one million CDs worldwide.
The specifications of CD technology make for dull reading, but it’s worth knowing the basics. A CD is a polycarbonate plastic disc, with a thin reflective layer of either aluminium or gold applied to it. Binary data (the zeroes and ones that form the basis of digital files) is encoded as a series of microscopic ‘pits’, read by a laser and converted to audible sound. Sony launched the first commercially available CD player in Japan during 1982, and the CD format was aggressively marketed as a solution to the characteristic ‘crackle’ of vinyl, caused by the accumulation of dust in the record’s grooves. Thirty years on, we know that CDs are just as susceptible to scratches and damage as vinyl – not to mention ‘disc rot’, bronzing and other defects that render them unplayable – but upon first appearance, many people believed the CD represented an infinitely stable format that would perfectly reproduce recorded sound. Classical music was – and still is – a huge sector of the CD market, with audiophile listeners taken by the crisp, crackle-free playback of their favourite symphonies.
CDs and their associated technology – pressing plants for manufacture, digital tape recorders and mixing desks for use in the studio – were expensive, which is why the technology benefited large companies. Philips and Sony both owned major record labels in the early 1980s (PolyGram and CBS, respectively), which in turn incorporated dozens of smaller ‘imprints’, or subsidiary labels. Both companies also had enough money to build and operate CD pressing plants. A company able to manufacture CDs with music recorded on one of its own labels, and with the enormous marketing budget to promote that music via press, MTV and radio, stood to make a lot of money.
Because CDs were more expensive to produce than vinyl records, they were also more expensive for listeners to buy. A key factor in the resistance of major labels to the rise of MP3 and web-based music distribution in the late 1990s and 2000s was the dramatic – and rather literal – reversal of fortunes from the hugely profitable 1980s. As Knopper points out in his book, labels used the advent of the CD to restructure the contracts they signed with musicians, deducting as much as 25% of royalty payments earned in order to cover the cost of packaging and manufacture. Musicians were paying for their label’s overheads, while fans were paying steadily increasing prices for CDs – buying new music, but just as often replacing their vinyl collection with CD reissues.
While vinyl never disappeared entirely as a format – and has in fact undergone a noticeable revival this decade – during the 1980s it increasingly became the preserve of second-hand collectors, DJs, and independent bands. The ‘DIY’ aura of a self-pressed record, or the outré finds of a dedicated crate-digger, did nothing to dent CD sales which made the US record industry $103.3 million in 1984 alone, just two years after the format became commercially available. As record stores dispensed with their vinyl ‘bins’ – large racks in which to display 12” vinyl records – the main alternative format to CD in the 1980s remained the cassette, which, being significantly cheaper than CD, was especially popular with teenagers. The Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player available in Japan from 1979 and in the US from 1980, was the listening device du jour for surly adolescents, bored commuters and perspiring joggers alike. Though Sony portable CD players were released as early as 1984, they did not achieve global popularity until the early 1990s. For Sony, the money rolled in any which way: from their record labels, and from the company’s market dominance in the manufacture of CDs, CD players, and Walkmans.
One format that the CD did away with almost entirely – except in the genres of punk, reggae and indie rock – was the 7” single. CD singles were certainly pressed and sold, but unlike their vinyl counterpart they never represented value-for-money. Individual songs were increasingly promoted by video, especially on dedicated music television channels like MTV, and the onus was on fans to buy the accompanying album. Gone were the days of stand-alone singles (unless the song in question was a real one-hit wonder) and a carefully chosen B-side. The very idea of the B-side as a repository of an artist’s interesting failures or non-album gems gave way to cheaply produced remixes, essentially aural padding for CD singles. Only in dance music and hip-hop, where producers knew their craft and catered to vinyl-loving audiences, was the single remix – generally on 12” format – taken seriously.
A CD’s capacity for 74 minutes of data (later stretched to 80), as opposed to an average of 40 minutes (20 each side) for vinyl, encouraged artists to record longer and longer albums – or alternatively, for labels to stuff CD album releases with remixes, ‘bonus’ tracks, demos and other filler, particularly in the lucrative market of CD reissues. The Beatles hit number one in Australia for 30 weeks with their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which at 39 minutes, 42 seconds was very close to the absolute length for a vinyl album. Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, by contrast, was 55 minutes long, while thirty years after Sgt Pepper’s, Celine Dion ruled the Australian charts in 1997 with Let’s Talk About Love, which clocked in at a bloated 74 minutes and 35 seconds, the outer limit of the CD format. (No prizes either for guessing which company profited from Dion’s excess: Sony, who owned the Epic label that the Canadian star was signed to).
So if the CD format put paid to the single, made overlong albums technologically viable, sidelined vinyl and brought in billions for multinational companies, then what were the benefits for listeners? Debate still rages as to whether CD or vinyl is the better format for audio storage and reproduction, with many musicians, engineers, producers and fans arguing for the ‘warmth’ of analogue over digital sound. But there’s no denying that for the average music buyer, the convenience of hitting ‘play’ on a CD player, without the careful handling, dusting, and flipping of sides necessary to vinyl, was key to the CD’s commercial success. If stored properly – away from heat and light, in plastic cases – CDs do last a long time, and are certainly superior to cassettes for long-term storage. Their durability and relative compactness compared to vinyl (it’s the compact disc, remember) has been the basis of CD ubiquity in the computer industry, at least until recent years, with CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW and CDPhoto formats all proving massively popular for data storage. And without the optical technology that brought CDs into being, we wouldn’t have DVDs or BluRay. In fact, we’d probably still be watching VHS, which beat out Sony’s Betamax to become the reigning video format of the 1980s. It’s one of the few times Sony has ever lost a lot of money, or launched an electronic technology that it didn’t then dominate – until Apple’s iPod changed the music industry all over again.
The Smiths, regarded by many critics as the finest guitar band of the 1980s, have always ignited contrary passions. Ferociously snobbish punks, who wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead listening to anything less bellicose than Black Flag, will weep at ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’. Morrissey’s Los Angeles fanbase of gay Latinos is legendary. The Smiths unite punks and skinheads, cardigan-clad indie kids and ageing rockers, shy girls and shyer boys, as few other bands can. On the other hand, their musical classicism and cultural nostalgia, mixed in with their singer’s occasionally dubious pronouncements on race, have long provoked ire.
The British music press, so pivotal to the group’s rise, were divided from the start. Certain writers at the NME and its rival Melody Maker threw their lot in early with The Smiths, championing the group as British guitar music’s brightest hope for the 1980s. The Smiths, signed to the independent label Rough Trade, were seen as an alternative – musically and ethically – to the noveau riche froth of synth-pop bands like Duran Duran and Tears For Fears. Morrissey once quipped that he would rather “talk about athlete’s foot or death than about synthesisers”. To other critics however, it was Morrissey’s unashamed musical conservatism that was the problem. The Smiths positioned themselves explicitly against the emergent genres of hip-hop and dance music. “Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ”, Morrissey sang on ‘Panic’, and for some, this hostility appeared at least in part to be racially motivated. Morrissey’s declaration that “All reggae is vile” – he later claimed it was a deliberate wind-up to the NME – certainly didn’t help to win over his detractors.
And this is before we get to the tabloid controversies. From vegetarianism (‘Meat is Murder’), to republicanism (‘The Queen is Dead’), to the Moors Murders (‘Suffer Little Children’), it is easy to forget how inflammatory The Smiths were in their time. They look benign from a distance of several decades, with their baggy sweaters and upright hair, but they wrote about subjects that had barely been touched before in popular music. Morrissey’s coy, ambiguous sexual persona – he publicly declared himself a celibate, yet his lyrics and The Smiths’ carefully chosen sleeve art were brimming with gay signifiers – was intriguing to some and infuriating to others. ‘Handsome Devil’, a B-side to The Smiths’ first single ‘Hand In Glove’, was targeted by tabloid newspaper The Sun for its supposed paedophiliac sympathies, which Morrissey wittily – perhaps too wittily – denied. “I don’t even like children,” he lamented. The furore over ‘Handsome Devil’ was entirely homophobic: a resistance to the song’s exploration of youthful, gay sex.
The topic was central to several early Smiths songs (‘Reel Around the Fountain’, ‘This Charming Man’), while Morrissey’s short-lived affair with singer Billy McKenzie, of The Associates, resulted in one of The Smiths’ most wistful tunes, ‘William, It Was Really
Nothing’. (McKenzie replied with ‘Steven, You Were Really Something’). A feminist sympathiser, Morrissey’s lyrics also took a mordant perspective on heterosexual relationships: “Loud, loutish lover/Treat her kindly/Though she needs you more than she loves you”, he sang on ‘I Know It’s Over’, perhaps The Smiths’ saddest song. This doesn’t quite explain ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’, which threw away one of Johnny Marr’s most ethereal, melancholy guitar riffs on a lyric better fit for a saucy seaside postcard, circa 1945. Still, it was memorable.
This symptomatically British nostalgia was, of course, largely the point. The Smiths looked backwards for their musical and aesthetic influences to a degree that was unusual amongst their peers. In our current decade, when almost every popular indie band is a dull tribute-show retread of past innovations, such overpowering nostalgia can pass without comment. But during the 1980s there still existed an active sense amongst artists, critics and fans that ‘newness’ was the key to musical achievement. Morrissey had lived through the year-zero of punk, after all, in which anything was possible. Synthesisers, sampling, DJs and MCs were on the rise: stylistic and technological innovations that would, combined, result in hip-hop, which changed popular music forever. The Smiths turned their backs on all of it, constructing for themselves a duotone universe of French film stars (Jean Marais, Alain Delon), Warholian icons (Joe Dallesandro, Candy Darling) and northern British actresses (Pat Phoenix, Billie Whitelaw). Their music married the jangling guitar tones of The Byrds to the pop melodrama of Dusty Springfield. The Smiths were firmly and stubbornly stuck in the 1960s, but it was not a ‘swinging sixties’ of psychedelic drugs and London fashion; it was northern, and working-class, centred on the terrace houses, boxing clubs and wild moors of Manchester. The Smiths’ aesthetic touchstone was the British ‘New Wave’ cinema of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, and especially A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney’s groundbreaking depiction of interracial romance, teenage pregnancy, and gay life in Salford, Manchester. Delaney herself, nineteen when she wrote A Taste of Honey as a stage play, appears on the cover of The Smith’ singles collection Louder Than Bombs.
On the one side a working class, female playwright and on the other an aristocratic, defiantly gay Irish dilettante: Oscar Wilde, Morrissey’s great literary idol. Wilde’s sharp wit and taste for camp aphorisms goes a long way to explaining The Smiths’ own humour – and they were funny, a fact which even their fans can sometimes overlook. It’s hard to pin down The Smiths’ intentions: they can be spectacularly self-pitying and make fun of self-pity, often within the same song. Johnny Marr’s minor-key melodies are moving and quite straightforwardly beautiful, but when they get mixed up with Morrissey’s indulgent wail and comedic figures – vicars in tutus, fat bald Buddhists, buck-toothed girls from Luxembourg – the effect is rather complicated. Are we meant to cry or laugh? Both, is probably the answer, but the mixture of tones is one of The Smiths’ divisive qualities, and comedy is a notoriously subjective field: if you don’t find The Smiths funny then you probably won’t care for them at all. I’m not the only fan who has discovered that The Smiths’ humour is a quality that lets you grow older with them, and vice versa. What seems like desperate, lovelorn tragedy to a fourteen year old – ‘How Soon Is Now’, for instance – becomes more and more amusing as you age; what’s best is that the knowingness is built into the song. “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar”. Now that is deftly, flamboyantly funny. And Morrissey remains one of the only songwriters to have anticipated his own redundancy at the very height of his fame, with the brilliant ‘Rubber Ring’: “But don’t forget the songs that made you cry/And the songs that saved your life/Yes you’re older now/And you’re a clever swine/But they were the only ones who ever stood by you.”
The Smiths were certainly famous in their time, with each of their four albums reaching either No. 1 or 2 on the British album charts, but they were not superstars in the way that U2 were, and their singles often failed to make the top thirty. They fell out with Rough Trade over the delayed release of their third album, The Queen Is Dead, and signed to EMI for what became their final record, Strangeways Here We Come, in 1987. Their switch from an independent to a major label provoked criticism among fans and the press – this was when the difference between the two types of company actually meant something; before most purportedly ‘independent’ labels became imprints of large corporations – but it was growing, eventually irresolvable tensions between Morrissey and Johnny Marr that split the band up. They remain one of the few high-profile groups of the 1980s to have not – so far – reunited, having turned down rumoured offers of as much as $40 million to play again. Their legacy is, I would argue, all the more potent for having never been compromised: so attuned to nostalgia and the melancholy glamour of passing youth when they were actually young, it makes perfect sense that The Smiths would refuse to countenance a vision of themselves as ageing stars, gathered onstage for one last reel around the fountain.
Even without a global reunion tour or a Don’t Look Back concert, The Smiths’ influence is pervasive. It began when they were still together, with British indie also-rans like James copying their gentle melancholy, and continued shortly thereafter with The Stone Roses, fellow Mancunians who were equally as fond of a jangly pop tune but not nearly so hostile to dance music. Like The Smiths, The Stone Roses were powered by a song-writing partnership of peculiar intensity: this very British tradition runs from Paul McCartney and John Lennon through The Smiths (Morrissey and Marr), The Stone Roses (Ian Brown and John Squire), Suede (Bernard Butler and Brett Anderson), to The Libertines (Carl Barat and Pete Doherty), each duo touched, to a greater or lesser degree, by a latent homoeroticism that eventually – perhaps inevitably – gave way to acrimony and estrangement.
During the 1990s, Suede best capitalised upon The Smiths’ combination of lyric realism and bohemian flamboyancy; their first album very consciously echoes The Smiths’ first in being self-titled, using a sexually ambiguous image on its cover, and opening with precisely the same drumbeat that introduces The Smiths. Suede also revived the art of 12-inch singles and accompanying B-sides that The Smiths had done so well: far from being throwaways, The Smiths’ B-sides were among their best work and featured heavily on compilations like Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen. Britpop peers Pulp also inherited something of The Smiths’ legacy: Jarvis Cocker’s wit, his fondness for writing about awkward sexual encounters, and his working-class, northern British pride (Pulp were from Sheffield) all found their antecedent in Morrissey. Radiohead have periodically gone in for the intricate guitar melodies that were Johnny Marr’s musical signature, and Thom Yorke’s high tenor voice treads a fine line between miserable self-indulgence and conscious self-parody in a way that Morrissey’s once did. Colin Greenwood, too, is the most quietly inventive bass player in a British rock band since Andy Rourke.
Though their female fans are legion, it is more difficult to pick female artists who have been influenced by The Smiths. 1980s duo Shakespeare’s Sister named themselves after a Smiths song (which was in turn a reference to Virginia Woolf’s influential feminist essay A Room Of One’s Own), and Russian lesbian teenagers Tatu scored a Eurovision hit with their cover of ‘How Soon is Now’ in 2002, but beyond this the trail is harder to follow. Morrissey’s feminist sympathies co-existed with an uneasiness towards women that is apparent on Smiths songs like ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’ and ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ (“How can you stay with a fat girl who says/’Would you like to marry me’?”). It’s no surprise that the sexual universe of The Smiths has made itself most felt amid male songwriters, whether flirtatiously androgynous (Placebo) or openly gay (The Magnetic Fields).
Beyond – and sometimes in spite – of their taboo-breaking sexual mores, The Smiths’ legacy can be seen and heard in countless fey indie bands who flaunt prescription glasses, charity shop clothes and paperback novels as signifiers of entirely un-rock-n-roll (and therefore hip) rebellion. Thin, pale Morrissey with a bunch of flowers in his hand is the antithesis to a bare-chested rock god like Iggy Pop. It’s worth remembering though that The Smiths’ air of underfed, over-read intellectualism was on par with their peers The Fall: working-class northerners who loathed the very idea of employment; autodidacts and aesthetes whose class resentment never wavered. Every member of The Smiths left school at 16, and their eccentric pantheon of literary, cinematic and pop music idols, so beautifully displayed across their cover art and through their lyrics, was an exercise in self-education that they shared with fans just like themselves. It is their best legacy.
If Standing on the Beach – their first and best singles collection – is included, The Cure released one album for every year of the 1980s, except for 1983 and 1988 – the latter, of course, the year of Acid House, and of Sub Pop 200, a compilation featuring Mudhoney, Green River, and a song called ‘Spank Thru’ by a little-known bunch of Aberdeen hicks called Nirvana, originally recorded under the sumptuously unpromising moniker Fecal Matter.
1988, then. The Cure stopped to draw breath – after Seventeen Seconds, Faith, Pornography [pause to punch each other up, disintegrate, go camping, write ‘The Lovecats’, ‘The Walk’ and ‘Let’s Go to Bed’, meet Tim Pope, make videos, become unlikely pop stars, release the not-quite-album Japanese Whispers and for Robert Smith, additionally, to record with the Banshees and with Steve Severin as The Glove, The Top, The Head On the Door, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me: that’s a discography not to be sniffed at, though getting it onto tape may, by several accounts did, involve a lot of sniffing of certain contraband substances; “Cocaine phase”? The Cure had a cocaine decade – and the tectonic plates of popular music did a little dance beneath them. Rave on one side of the Atlantic and grunge on the other: on one side Ecstasy; on the other Misery of a discordant, raw-throated kind, utterly alien(ated) in spirit from The Cure, for all their expertise in emotional shades of grey through to black.
But there was one more year of the decade left, and one more album to see out the decade (with legitimate claim to being an Album of the Decade) for The Cure, which they spent 1988 preparing for; little knowing, then, that their time as a band of their time was nearly up. (Odd, really, for an artist as obsessed with the passing of time as Robert Smith that he demonstrates so little awareness, as the years tick by, of ever being, once and for all, out of time). There was 1989, and there was Disintegration, the most adult album The Cure ever made, before teenagers with fresh moves and fresh misery displaced them.
Why not start with ‘Love Song’, which happens to be on my headphones as I type this sentence? Why not indeed, seeing as how The Cure’s entire oeuvre from beginning to (as yet undesignated) end has been the love song? ‘This Is Not a Love Song’: Robert Smith never acted upon John Lydon’s memo, though I like to imagine that he listened to it, back in 1983, his “holiday” from The Cure, when he managed to chart off the back of Pornography (love songs of the most obsessive, crippling, misanthropically interdependent kind) by writing ‘Let’s Go to Bed’, which was in its own self-amused and prettily cynical way also Not a Love Song. Perhaps he had it on his headphones while camping in rural Wales, which was, according to reports, where he vanished to after Pornography had very nearly sent everyone involved with The Cure to a place bearing some resemblance to Syd Barret’s rocking chair. Perhaps Smith realised then that it didn’t all have to be so serious, that the punk spirit he’d first discerned as a teenager in the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ could admit of a little humour, now and again.
But back to ‘Lovesong’, which is a love song, generically named as such, with a refrain that runs I will always love you, surely the Ur-text of love songs. It could have been written for anybody, to anybody, as if the writer had sipped Pure Essence of Love Song, and if there’s any lyricist drunk on the anonymous second-person pronoun it’s Robert Smith, who can barely go a song without an unnamed ‘you’ making itself (un)known. ‘Lovesong’, however, was written for a somebody, a very special somebody: Robert Smith’s long-time partner Mary Poole; not only that, it was Smith’s wedding present to his new wife when, after nearly fifteen years together, they chose 1988 in which to marry. Now there’s a humdinger of an occasion for a love song, and I restate these well-known biographical facts if only to underline how little headway can be made once having fallen into the treacherous waters of the Biographical Fallacy. For you see, ‘Lovesong’ neither grows nor diminishes as a song with this knowledge added to it; it’s still nothing more or less than a love song which could have been written to anybody, for anybody, as if, having spent the decade of the 1980s and nearly half a one before that at work upon love songs written to an unidentified second-person pronoun – the sort of love song that the pop world turns on – Robert Smith couldn’t quite switch back from his Public Image Ltd to the personal, and so wrote what one might ostensibly view as his most personally significant love song, which, perversely or predictably, depending on which end of the telescope you’re inclined to look through, turned into the biggest hit The Cure ever had, charting at Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and making The Cure the kind of stadium-touring American superstars that British bands often dream of being, and very rarely become.
[Unless, of course, every love song that Robert Smith ever did and ever will write was addressed to the same somebody as 'Lovesong', which would make Smith something like the musical equivalent of Michael Apted, a documentarian in it for the long-haul, obsessively revisiting his subject: a big question, that, but not in the last a particularly interesting one, pop music being at its least compelling when considered as a transparent window onto living.]
And what does ‘Lovesong’ sound like? It sounds like The Cure, who quite early on got very good at sounding like an amalgam of half-memories of different artists but most especially like themselves. It has a very simple keyboard refrain that can be played with one hand, a steady heartbeat of a rhythm that never once threatens to accelerate – no Acid House party would ever invade The Cure’s front lawn – and a bass line played high up on the fretboard as a contrapuntal melody to the keyboards and vocals: a style of bass line which Peter Hook lays trademark to and claims The Cure stole from him one day in 1983 shortly after the release of ‘Blue Monday’ when he wasn’t sufficiently on guard, though at this point I think he really should just let it rest, imitation being the best form of flattery and all that and anyway, Simon Gallup is still better looking.
Robert Smith’s vocal on ‘Lovesong’ finds him in “sweetly pensive” mode, or rather mood – for a man with such limited natural vocal ability, because of it, Smith changes emotional tone like the Horse of a Different Colour changes coats as it trots around the byways of the Emerald City: abruptly and often, from one monochrome to the next – the pensiveness helped, one might say created, by a chord change in the middle of that generically sincere refrain, I will always love you, from A minor to C major; when measured against the scale a tiny adjustment from G# to A for the fingers and the voice, the increment of a semitone, the smallest measurable interval in Western music. This relative insubstantiality of distance between one note and the next never quite detracts – as anyone who’s spent time playing a instrument can attest – from the uncanny magic of hearing a raised seventh, the note that gives a minor key what we call melancholy, its Essence of Minor, resolve itself into the sun-blessed dawn of a tonic note shared with the major key. It’s the harmonic equivalent of drying one’s tears, and the fact that a love song so unabashedly straightforward as ‘Lovesong’ should be written around the elementary switch from the simplest harmonic minor key to its equally simple relative major is, in its own humble way, quite brilliant, the sort of musical elegance that the pop world turns on.
Robert Smith is passingly good at many things – wearing eyeliner, sacking band members, sniping about Morrissey – but he is surpassingly good at crafting a particular kind of pop song, a particular kind of love song, one that trembles on an edge between togetherness and separation; in which the love object is always threatening to be lost or to make themselves lost; and where small but simultaneously cosmic miscommunications between lovers happen at the chord change from minor to major and back again.
Consider ‘Plainsong’, which puts us back at the beginning of Disintegration with another generic title, this one not so much an essence as an eau de Catholicism. It opens with synthesised bells – they sound a little cheap, to be honest – and continues to like a ship letting out sail with billowing, organ-toned keyboards. (The Cure being a band of their time, and this being the 1980s, it’s almost a guarantee that every instrument that sounds as if it falls outside of the drums/bass/guitar parameter is a Roland keyboard factory preset). ‘Plainsong’ is more likely wedding music than ‘Lovesong’, only waiting for a slow-motion waltz up the aisle to consummate its grandeur. But then Robert Smith begins to sing, and the words he sings are the only Cure lyric I ever feel the urge to quote in full, as evidence that, for all his writerly faults – and Smith has a few – he is eminently capable of crafting a lyric as tight and graceful as the best short story:
“I think it’s dark, and it looks like rain,” you said.
“And the wind is blowing like it’s the end of the world,” you said.
“And it’s so cold it’s like the cold if you were dead.”
Then you smiled for a second.
“I think I’m old, and I’m feeling pain,” you said.
“And it’s all running out like it’s the end of the world,” you said.
“And it’s so cold it’s like the cold if you were dead.”
Then you smiled for a second.
Sometimes you make me feel like I’m living at the edge of the world.
Like I’m living at the edge of the world.
“It’s just the way I smile,” you said.
It’s that last move which moves me every time, in which miscommunicating lovers (mis)read each other’s thoughts; where the unspoken edge of all things is replied to, and turns out to be the twist of a face. And Smith sings the whole lyric so gently, choosing not to compete with the instrumentation in a way that so often gives his voice a panicked yelp; here, buoyed along by generous reverb, he’s melodic and tender and almost preternaturally calm, the calm before the dark and long storm of Disintegration, which I declared at the top to be the most adult album The Cure ever made, because every song on it sounds like the creation of a mind that has given long thought to the difficulties and bewilderment, the joy and the fear, of commitment.
Are we back at the Biographical Fallacy? Smith has gone on record many times to say that Disintegration came about in large part out of his own dissatisfaction at turning thirty years old, the decisive tick of the clock over into adult time, and I believe it, especially as I edge towards thirty myself. But a successful creative work is more than the sum of its creator’s conscious intent, and Disintegration succeeds because its emotional reach goes beyond mere birthday angst or post-wedding nerves; because Smith is a surpassingly good writer of pop and also not-very-pop songs with incredibly wide appeal, and because Disintegration distills every melancholy Cure moment into a potent elixir, adds one drop per song, and makes of its concentrated, committed intensity a luxuriantly aqueous world of sadness.
What use eyesight if it should melt?
When you move from one end of the world to the other, the colour of money changes, and so does the colour of the sky. The new money is confusing: it makes you slow and clumsy at the supermarket checkout, but the new sky leaves you turning in circles, looking for the old one. It is not simply disorientation. The elements have realigned themselves.
Everybody who has ever left Australia – and maybe or maybe not returned to it again – will tell you that you will miss the sky, and miss the light. They told me, and I believed them, but I didn’t realise how immediately or how deeply the longing would take hold. I arrived in New York City at the end of summer, when the weather is at its brightest, and within a week I was walking along the Hudson River shoreline, still fighting jetlag and the sense that with yellow taxis and yellow traffic lights and external fire escapes and American accents I’d just landed on a film set, disconsolately seeking a shade of blue that wasn’t there to be found.
Once, years ago, I saw a cartoon that had been reproduced from The Bulletin (at least I think it was The Bulletin), originally printed not long after the magazine’s founding in 1880. The Bulletin became known during its earliest, most influential era in Australia as “the bushman’s bible”: it was a startlingly racist and rabidly conservative magazine that pioneered a now-familiar editorial approach whereby the best interests of the business class were slyly championed as the popular causes of the common people. “Australia for the white man”, ran its masthead, at least until it became profitable after World War II to import migrant labourers at knock-down prices.
This cartoon depicted a young British woman, an English Rose, the best of the free-settler stock (to be distinguished from the shameful rabble of dirty convicts who had begun arriving almost a century previous), and comprised a sketch of her profile before-and-after landing in the colony. There she was with her dainty features, demure expression and pale, pale skin; “Three weeks later”, ran the caption, she was a squinting, ragged harridan, deformed by the light of the sun as it shone with relentless intensity across the southern sky. Now, The Bulletin being a pile of paranoid, xenophobic claptrap doesn’t make the sentiment behind this little cartoon mistaken. The Australian sky – and the sun, and the light – is incomparably harsh. It makes you squint and grimace. It can, given the right or wrong circumstances, make you crazy.
Missing it brings its own craziness. How to describe in words the quality of light? I’ve tried for years, and failed; if I ever manage then I’ll consider it my supreme achievement, and happily put down the pen. It is white – white in a way that has nothing to do with the white of skin – irradiant: colour not as a hue but as a force. On clear days it makes the sky the most brilliant azure blue you will ever see, a sky that arcs up and up and seems to know no horizon. The heat of it in summer can strip paint, kill dogs, and make your skin burn and blister. In 1968 The Velvet Underground called their second album White Light/White Heat, but those New York habitués with their sunglasses after dark couldn’t have known what they were talking about. They’d never seen Australia.
You don’t miss your water
In 1986 The Triffids put a photograph on the cover of their second album, Born Sandy Devotional, which gives some sense of this light, and of the colours it creates. The photograph is of Mandurah – a coastal inlet 70 kilometres or so south of Perth, The Triffids’ hometown – taken in 1961, when the place was a sleepy holiday destination of fibro beach houses dotted along the shore of an enormous estuary that feeds straight into the Indian Ocean. I have only to look for a moment at this aerial shot and the sense memories of Australian summers come rushing back. Blinding white sand, baked by the day’s sun to such a temperature that it nearly scalds the arches of bare feet as you run desperately towards the water; upon entry the ocean cold, sometimes shockingly so, the depth of colour changing with the depth of the water, light transforming it into a hypnotic, interlocking sheet of cerulean, turquoise, aquamarine, moss and sapphire facets. In the distance the smell of burnt and yellowed grass, and everywhere the taste of salt.
Not much had changed along this coast by the time The Triffids up and left: Perth was still, in character and appearance, not much more than a rural town. But Western Australia’s contemporary mining boom now makes Perth the least-affordable city in the nation, and Australia’s role in the current global economy comes in good part thanks to this voracious plundering of the elements – natural gas, iron ore, gold, diamonds – that lie beneath the soil of the continent’s western edge. When there’s nothing left to dig then the property prices will fall again, the miners will leave, and perhaps a few fibro shacks will remain from another era. The light and the ocean will always remain.
‘The Seabirds’, which opens Born Sandy Devotional, recalls this beachside Australia of budget motels, caravan parks, and flimsily built beach houses: it still exists in pockets, but it’s getting harder to find as the service industries – tourism, hospitality – pick up speed, for when the gas and gold run out. And perhaps the loss of accommodations where no flyscreens and a synthetic mattress wrapped in thick brown vinyl represents the best that can be expected of comfort – a near-unbearable arrangement in summer, when you lie awake for hours listening to mosquitos whine about your head, and then peel yourself off in a morning lather of sweat, knowing that an ocean swim is the only way to feeling human again – is not much of a loss at all. The loss inside ‘The Seabirds’, however, is greater than that of no longer having a cheap and anonymous bed to run to when money and love have both run out. It’s a song about exile written whilst in exile: Born Sandy Devotional was made in London, which is about as close to the other side of the world from Perth as you can get before you start coming back around again. The Triffids had arrived there in 1984, at the end of a northern summer, and almost exactly a year later they began recording their album. A London summer rarely gets above 25 degrees Celsius, and it’s a national news event if the thermometer tops 30, which is around the starting average for a summer back in Perth. The winters are grey, and if the sun is visible it’s a pallid wash that at its mid-afternoon height resembles, at best, the pre-dawn rays of an antipodean morning. The Triffids must have missed the light, during their many seasons away from home. Everyone who leaves Australia does.
Where were you?
Born Sandy Devotional is a great album title. Like Thriller or The Marble Index or Forever Breathes The Lonely World, it evokes a tantalising aesthetic universe before the music has even begun. It might have been called Greetings From Mandurah, W.A., or Love In Bright Landscapes, another great title that sums up The Triffids’ main thematic preoccupation better than any other, and was later used for a now out-of-print Triffids compilation. But Born Sandy Devotional has an added poetry, a concentration of meaning that draws you back to it, wondering, about how sand and devotion and birthplace might fit together.
I came late to The Triffids, intrigued by that title and by the cover art, which occasionally glanced out at me from racks of second-hand LPs, long before I could come to terms with the music. Every few years I would try them again, and the only song that ever made sense to me was ‘Raining Pleasure’, with its droning violin and Jill Burt’s superbly detached vocal performance making it one of the oddest, most arid songs about the sweaty intimacy of sex ever recorded. I still think it’s among The Triffids’ finest moments, though what this says about my own erotic sensibilities is probably best left unexamined. As for the rest of The Triffids’ music, I found it odd in a way that was off-putting: it sounded excessive but without richness, pretentious but without flair. They struck me as a poor woman’s Bad Seeds, and I felt slightly embarrassed for them, caught in that unenviable zone between underground credibility and stadium supremacy. Countless bands have toiled and died in this middlebrow wilderness, and I thought that The Triffids were one of them, only partially redeemed by their long-standing historical and critical association with the infinitely cooler Nick Cave.
This early misunderstanding is partly a consequence of my age: I had my adolescence during the 1990s, when it could be argued that Australian music was less enamoured of its immediate pre-history than ever before. Like every other country that plays a role in the Western music industry, Australia suffered through a Nirvana Effect: corporations strip-mined a small but energetic independent scene and sold it back as “Alternative”, the lamest genre categorisation ever invented. A combination of peer and industry pressure meant that most bands – the ones with guitars, that is, who weren’t pioneering Australia’s hip-hop or electronic scenes – looked to America for their cues: acceptable musical models were Sonic Youth and Pavement, or locally, Radio Birdman, Sydney’s quintessential garage-punks, who reformed in 1996 thanks to their influence on everybody – at least it felt like everybody. Britain and Europe, the lands of promise and acclaim for Australian post-punk’s holy trinity – of which The Triffids formed one-third, alongside The Go-Betweens and The Birthday Party – were largely ignored throughout the 90s: Britpop, trip-hop and jungle barely made a dent. British influences were seen as an affectation, whereas American music carried the stamp of rock n’ roll authenticity, even if it was calibrated on a major-label budget. ‘Don’t Wanna Be Grant McLennan’, sang Smudge, an endearingly slack Sydney trio whose chief songwriter, Tom Morgan, was great pals with The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando and shared a similar – I would say superior – gift for writing two-minute songs that hid their pop nous in a wrapper of carelessness, as if Morgan had tossed them out during cigarette breaks. Grant McLennan tried too hard and The Go-Betweens were effete, like David McComb and The Triffids; Nick Cave was exempt thanks to the cachet of his well-documented heroin addiction, which fit the opiated tenor of the times – no matter that both McLennan and McComb had their own, less publicised struggles with the same drug. Plus, the yawping nightmare blues of The Birthday Party could still shock your parents, whereas they might be passingly familiar with The Go Betweens or The Triffids. Liking the same music as a bunch of middle-aged bores is rightly anathema to the teenage mind: who wants to be regarded as “mature” before you have to be?
Such assumptions and cultural prejudices are of course unfair; unfair to the The Triffids, who were in fact very young when they relocated to London. David McComb was twenty-three when Born Sandy Devotional was recorded, a good half-decade younger than his songwriting compatriots in exile: Cave, McLennan and Robert Forster. But then, perhaps you have to be very young to want to sound as old as The Triffids do on this record, desperate and exhausted, at the end of their tethers. At twenty-three it is important to love without moderation, to live as if you will never be able to redeem yourself and with the firm conviction that you will never care to do so. The first adult regrets and the first true heartbreak are the worst that you will ever know, and a person who can’t understand this will never sing a torch song. Born Sandy Devotional deals in immoderate and unrequited love; love in bright and distant landscapes; love and homesickness commingled, and when at last I did come to understand it – one day I put it on to listen to, a last-ditch attempt; I thought, if I don’t get The Triffids this time then I never will – I had to be old enough to appreciate the drama but not want to flinch away from it; old enough for it to not sound overwrought and anti-pop; young enough to still know what the drama feels like. I put the record on and then listened to it back-to-back at least twenty times in two days. I finally got it, suddenly and completely.
Washing the salt off
Of course, I’m by no means the first listener to find something remarkable in The Triffids, and Born Sandy Devotional in particular: it’s an album almost guaranteed to make ‘Best Australian Albums’ or ‘Best Albums Of The 1980s’ or some other ‘Best Of’ list, the kind that magazine and newspaper editors like to print partly as consumer guides and partly as nostalgic exercises in canon-building, rather than letting their critics actually write articles. The patina of critical appreciation surrounding them is partly what makes The Triffids difficult to approach, though perhaps less so if, like me, you were born too young to have much immediate investment in their mythology. Listeners of my generation have to make an effort to seek them out: though they are embedded in the Australian musical consciousness The Triffids have never been fashionable or popular in their own country; few artists sound anything like them and equally few will admit to them as an influence. The assertion is true: Born Sandy Devotional is a great Australian album, though glibly stating this is hardly enough to make it true. Why is it remarkable, and what can it still say about Australia nearly a quarter of a century – sobering calculation! – after its release?
If it were simply a warm homage to seaside provincialism it would be much less interesting than it is, but Born Sandy Devotional is affecting for the way in which the Australian landscape becomes strange again through the songs. The circumstances of its creation work in the album’s favour: made at such a distance, it reveals an estrangement from the land that has been fundamental to Australian life since colonisation began.
For all the patriotic paeans that one learns to recite or to sing in primary school – Dorothea McKellar’s ‘My Country’, Peter Allen’s ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ – for every cringe-inducing Crocodile Hunter and erstwhile fearless explorer, there runs through white Australia’s relationship with the natural environment a profound unease and distrust; a conviction that the land must be fought against. Unlike the mystical utopianism that colours American depictions of the frontier, combining a sense of divine purpose with the conviction that the continent will, in the end, provide for all those who seek its bounty, Australians are scared of the huge space they inhabit. The vastness is a threat, the seeming emptiness of the country’s interior – where desert abuts desert and human habitation leaves few visible marks – deeply unnerving. Australia wasn’t colonised as a New Jerusalem but as a prison, and a sense that the entire project has been cursed from the start, cursed rather than blessed, is scored into the national subconscious.
I say subconscious because this estrangement rarely reaches the level of conscious articulation – rarely, because to do so would involve an acknowledgement of the horrific violence that has shaped Australian colonisation, an acknowledgement that, historically, we have been very poor at making. Australia is emptier of people than it might otherwise be because large swathes of the indigenous population were shot, poisoned, starved, moved onto missions, and otherwise eradicated in both systemic and ad-hoc attempts to “breed out the colour”. The legal fiction on which Australia was founded – Terra nullius, empty land – might have been officially overturned in 1992, but the violence it took to sustain, both literal and philosophical, had done irreversible harm. A sense of the country’s capacity for violence, a suspicion that if you stray too far from the inhabited coastal centres then terrible things might happen – worse, you might do terrible things, as if possessed by the land’s own haunting – is present in much of the most compelling Australian art. The Triffids don’t take as many words to say it, but their music sounds as if they know it, which when you’re writing songs and not essays in cultural criticism is by far the better option.
A few of The Triffids’ musical contemporaries said it more explicitly: Midnight Oil – whose legacy as the musical voice of the Australian left has been rather undermined in recent years by their singer’s second-wind career as Environment Minister for a determinedly centre-right Federal government – and the singular, overlooked Sydney post-punk outfit Tactics. But Midnight Oil never rose above a cod-proletarian, “workman-like” hard rock, and Tactics, for all their worth, remain of interest for their intellectualism – a rare trait in Australian music – more than for their sound. Both lacked the emotional and musical grandeur of which The Triffids were more than capable, and which reaches its apex on Born Sandy Devotional.
It begins with ‘The Seabirds’, where the ravens of Gothic imagination are re-imagined as gulls who, though they’ll “pick the eye of any dying thing” refuse to peck at the tormented protagonist pleading to end it all. Musically it begins with Alsy McDonald’s snare crack fifteen seconds in, his drumming giving a nasty edge to an arrangement that might otherwise verge on the plush. It’s Sinatra for smacked-out squatters. ‘Estuary Bed’ is a calypso for lost childhood days in the briny surf only if you wilfully ignore the deliberate Macbeth references – sleeplessness, bloodstains that won’t wash off – and the overwhelming presence of a very adult desire, a desire that tastes like the salt of the landscape itself, as bodies merge with it.
The haunting really gets underway with ‘Tarrilup Bridge’, a creaky, queasy melodrama of an unhappy woman recalling her own death. Sung by Jill Birt in a gauche, wavering voice reminiscent of Young Marble Giants’ Alison Statton, ‘Tarrilup Bridge’ is a tale of stoic country town misery that ends in a suicide that is possibly disguised as an accident. God knows how many such deaths occur across Australia year in and year out: cars on deserted roads that have been driven inexplicably into rivers or bent around tree trunks. The privacy to destroy oneself in rural isolation is a perverse benefit of having so many roads for so few people. The song’s spookiness carries a hint of carnival panache: herky-jerky strings and ghost train xylophone, a smatter of demented laughter added to the mix. The sideshow quality – Hear The Sad Lady From Beyond The Grave! – makes the song stranger and better. And then there’s ‘Lonely Stretch’.
Now, there’s no denying the influence of Nick Cave on The Triffids. The Triffids never denied it themselves. Through both The Birthday Party and his earliest work with The Bad Seeds, Cave’s Gothic sensibilities are writ all over his younger contemporaries. The admiration wasn’t one way, either: Cave loved The Triffids back. But here’s one key difference: I don’t believe that Nick Cave has ever written a single memorable song that actually deals with his experience as an Australian. He would have been a happier man, one gets the impression, had he been raised in New Orleans, Berlin or Paris – anywhere more exotic than plain old Melbourne. David McComb – another child of the upper-middle classes – shared Cave’s fondness for European literary sophistication, and historically, I think that the aforementioned sense of British and European musical influences on Australian artists being an affectation stems from this standing association of “European” tastes with the expensively educated: in Australia’s anti-intellectual milieu, only posh snobs read difficult books. But McComb was drawn as a songwriter, even in his earliest work, to articulating an experience with Australian landscape and culture, with its isolation and its strangeness: “Nothing happens here/Nothing gets done/But you get to like it”, he sang on ‘Spanish Blue’, The Triffids’ second single. Nick Cave has never been obliged to do similar, but his towering influence over Australian music has brought increasingly diminishing returns, as young bands persist in imitating his signifiers of late-1970s Berlin decadence at nearly three decades remove from their original context. The Triffids took Cave’s peculiar musical take on Weimar cabaret via the Baptist pulpit – “Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham”, indeed – and turned it to the purpose of Australian Gothic, a genre with its own local history, and one well-suited to stirring up the ghosts of the country’s past.
A first listen to ‘Lonely Stretch’ brings ‘From Her To Eternity’ – newly released in 1984, and the first sound of Cave’s post-Birthday Party incarnation – unmistakably to mind. The booming vocal swathed in a reverb that can bode no good; the oscillating organ and clanging, percussive spasms caused by someone – probably David McComb’s older brother, Robert – hitting their guitar strings; the drums that sound like a malevolent midnight junkyard: all these things recall Cave’s still-astonishing track, in my opinion the best solo work he ever recorded before embarking on a twenty-five year downhill slide. The Triffids, on the other hand, have a musicianship that the Bad Seeds have always struggled to approach, and David McComb is a forceful, emotive singer. Musicianship can kill a song stone dead when a too-tasteful execution trumps feeling, but in this case their discipline as a band – achieved through countless live performances – keeps The Triffids on a leash of just the right tension. They snap and release, limbering up for the first minute or so before tightening into an emphatic rhythmic thump, and then ploughing on through the final section with increasing speed and frenzy: cymbals crashing, McComb calling down the heavens, the melodic instruments veering off into an atonal screech like metal grinding on metal as a nasty, nasty car accident looms up in the front windscreen. And yet it still sounds like a pop song: the melody gets stuck in your head, and McComb leads the lot with a vocal performance – call-and-response with the rest of the band included, plus a couple of exuberant “Woos!” thrown in to mark particular points of acceleration – which convinces you that he dreamed of lit podiums, well-cut suits, and a live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
‘Lonely Stretch’ is about a car accident – or at least, it’s about the sort of car accident that you can have on an Australian road whilst driving from one isolated nowhere to another. Across the endless flat, your mind plays tricks on you: something appears in the headlights, or does it? A remnant of the past, a wraith reminding you of all the bad mistakes you’ve ever made. It flickers and then vanishes again. You want to chase it down, but out here a wrong turn is fatal: in a week you’ll be a local headline, and in three your missing vehicle will be found with your parched and lifeless body inside of it, going rotten in the sun. But in the end it won’t be the desert climate of hot days and freezing nights or the unmarked track that kills you. “Baby I was wrong/I was wrong from the start/You could die out here/From a broken heart”. What makes men and women send their cars crashing into trees and off of bridges? A broken heart can drive you to terrible things, which become more terrible in a depopulated landscape, where no decision can be redeemed or reversed by another human being. ‘Lonely Stretch’ is about unrequited love, oh yes, but there is no one left inside the song for that love – now turned hard and desperate – to be directed at. There is only the land, which offers no comfort; which for all its space begins to close down upon you, just like the music, its cavernous dimensions become claustrophobic, as if the entire thing was a thunderstorm happening inside your own head.
Crying in the wilderness
The Triffids recorded a handful of other songs that reached the same visionary power as ‘Lonely Stretch’ – in fact they recorded them earlier on, not long after arriving in London, for a Peel Session that would be released as the Field Of Glass E.P. The leap between these three live tracks – ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, ‘Monkey On My Back’, and ‘Field Of Glass’, none of which were ever re-recorded – and the material on their first album, Treeless Plain, which had been released only twelve months previous, is quite staggering. Treeless Plain is by no means a bad record, but it does occasionally lapse into country-rock plod. The most striking tracks – ‘Red Pony’, ‘Hell Of A Summer’ – have a certain awkwardness to their arrangements: you get the clear sense of a band with musical ambition, but lacking the skills or budget to be able to pull off what they want to hear. As a live song ‘Hell Of A Summer’ would become a behemoth, with Martyn Casey (later, of course, to join the Bad Seeds) creating a bassline that prowls its way through a complement of humid organs and squalling strings. It’s this live sound that astonished overseas audiences of The Triffids, and was captured for posterity on their Peel Session and a couple of performances for British television.
The Peel Session – particularly ‘Field Of Glass’ – are evidence of deep immersion in the most powerful post-punk sounds: The Birthday Party, but also Joy Division and Suicide, belying the myth that Australian bands of the time evolved their sound in freakish isolation, the musical equivalent of our flora and fauna. If there is a star it’s Jill Birt, whose keyboard playing gives every track a dark, rolling momentum and a sense that her melodies might conceivably fill a cathedral with their weight and volume.
Bruce Springsteen is the other, perhaps unexpected influence on the doomy, reverberant turn that The Triffids’ music was taking – he would pop up again as an explicit reference point in David McComb’s notes for the recording of ‘Lonely Stretch’: “‘State Trooper’ (vocal echo)”. ‘State Trooper’ is certainly there in David McComb’s vocal for ‘Lonely Stretch’ – the song’s rhythm is similar too, as is the poisonous atmosphere of guilt, with a narrator on the brink of madness. Like Born Sandy Devotional, Nebraska is a great road album, and it retains a sizable cult following among Australian bands with hundreds of kilometres to travel between shows: the ultimate downer soundtrack for the long drive across state borders while battling a morning hangover. Springsteen too is interested in what happens when people take their demons and their miseries out onto the road, across the desolate badlands of America where dreams of freedom and opportunity for all have gone very sour. The Springsteen of Nebraska, emotionally defeated but nevertheless determined to engage with the realities of his home soil, makes an instructive comparison with Born Sandy Devotional – though the latter is as musically lush as the former is barren – and a more helpful comparison that the lighters-aloft Springsteen of ‘Born To Run’, with which The Triffids have also been compared. “‘Wide Open Road’ is our ‘Born To Run’”, said Steve Kilbey, singer and songwriter in 1980s art-rock ensemble The Church, “it should have been an Australian hit.” Whether it should have been a hit is a debatable point, though it was the second closest that The Triffids ever came to a hit in their own country – Number 64 with a bullet. It depends on whether or not you think that writing a chart-topper is a blessing. ‘Wide Open Road’ should have been a hit? Maybe. But it is not our ‘Born To Run’.
There exists a piece of footage filmed on January 10th, 1987, when during a brief return home The Triffids played on the bill of the Australian Made tour, a summer festival with stadium-lite rockers INXS headlining. An opening helicopter shot gives a glimpse of Perth: the Swan River, the Indian Ocean, that blue sky and the parched summer paddocks surrounding Subiaco Oval, more commonly home to Australian Rules football matches. “With a band like us it’s difficult to know how to write the setlist at the start of day,” begins David McComb, his high speaking voice a surprise in comparison with the resonant, velvety baritone of his singing, “cos we’ve had so many hits in this country.” The polite irony of his tone is lost in the air above the enormous audience, but damn, the sharpness of his stage presence is unmistakable. In a stripy blue-and-white neckerchief, a collared white shirt, black trousers and sparkling gold waistcoat he still looks ineffably cool, which means that in 1987 he probably looked like an alien. I hope for his sake that he didn’t try walking around the streets of Perth in that ensemble, but what a shame they hadn’t invented Jumbotron television screens back then, so that the people five hundred metres back from the stage could have appreciated the sartorial effort. And then The Triffids launch into ‘Wide Open Road’, a good performance, though it can’t top the studio version on Born Sandy Devotional.
‘Wide Open Road’ is the one Triffids song that has impinged to any significant degree on the Australian public consciousness. Even if you know nothing else about The Triffids then you’re likely to have heard it, through one of those mysterious instances of cultural osmosis whereby a song that hardly ever gets played on the radio and hasn’t been sold off as an advertising jingle is, somehow, still present in your head. I could sing the chorus of ‘Wide Open Road’ years before I could have told you the name of any other Triffids song. Like most songs that are encountered more often as myth than as fact it has been over-simplified, though musically it would be hard for the song to get any simpler than it already is: a wash of ethereal keyboards, a pedal-steel guitar deployed by “Evil” Graham Lee like a theremin, and the rest of the instruments kept under due restraint. The arrangement is put together with the delicacy of a card tower, which is particularly startling coming straight after the full-fisted throttle of ‘Lonely Stretch’. There is a trace of Joy Division’s most melodic moments – ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – and just as ‘Lonely Stretch’ took on the Bad Seeds, ‘Wide Open Road’ answers back to that other, now-mythical Australian song of the 1980s, The Go-Betweens’ ‘Cattle And Cane’.
Perfect pop songs come to most artists only once, if they come at all; what is remarkable is that within three years of each other two Australian bands, exiled to London for want of any decent audience back home, playing chaotic tennis matches with each other in between recording sessions, could have both written songs that still remain so perfect, absolutely undiminished no matter how many times you encounter them. What is more, that both songs are landmarks of distinctly Australian writing – songs that take on, in music and words, the task of conveying what it feels like to live here. There. Here. Where is home? Nothing focuses the mind on the qualities of your own landscape – its colours and light, its temperature and topography – quite like being away from it, and missing it constantly, even when you’re trying not to miss it or denying that you are missing it or never expected to miss it in the first place.
To a large extent I thank that other, oft-overlooked female participant in Australian post-punk, The Go-Betweens’ drummer Lindy Morrison, for the impact of both. Her technique of following the melody and not the beat – ‘Cattle And Cane’ is in 11/4 time, by the way, should you wish to try and play along – is inimitable, but Alsy McDonald came closest on ‘Wide Open Road’, partially assisted by a drum machine. The result in both songs is an ambiance that still feels contemporary – nothing, bar nothing, dates a recording like the drum sound – set off by the lightest of rhythmic touches; shifting and subtly alive. The space opened up by the lack of strictly measured, forward propulsion is also what allows the songs’ melancholy moods to spread out like watercolour, and it is the same space that makes the songs sound – and not just read – Australian. There is a vast distance between the sugar cane fields and the limit of the sky, or between the bitumen and the horizon on the highway that cuts across the Nullabor Plain, between Caiguna and Norseman, which is ostensibly the setting for ‘Wide Open Road’.
‘Wide Open Road’ is not just melancholy, it’s sad. Anyone who maintains that it’s a song about the pleasures of taking off in a car across Australia’s massive expanse is not listening properly; they’re engaging with the myth of the song, and not the fact of it. “So how do you think it feels?/Sleeping by yourself/When the one you love, the one you love/Is with someone else”. The loneliness and wanting is unambiguous. “Well it’s a wide open road/A wide open road/And now you can go any place/That you want to go” – anywhere, which when you’re heartbroken and alone means nowhere, turning in hurt and bewildered circles.
Just a dot on the map
Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’ is not a particularly happy song either, it must be said, just as ‘Born In The USA’ is not a patriotic one, but nevertheless it has a certain defiant optimism that ‘Wide Open Road’ doesn’t; a tinge of against-the-odds triumph which is probably inevitable when you’re playing stadiums and every song needs to be somehow buoyant. Apart from their slot on the Australian Made tour The Triffids never got to play stadiums – it’s hard to tell if they ever wanted to.
Australian artists and listeners have absorbed the tropes of American popular music just as completely as other non-American audiences, but Americans have yet to return the favour. I realised this not long after landing in New York, when I was turning in circles, searching for a familiar sky and missing everyone I’d just left. They were 20,000 kilometres and 14 hours in front of me now, across meridian lines, everyone I’d ever known and loved. On a day when the initial bout of homesickness had a particularly strong grip I went looking for Triffids records: I knew that buying stuff wouldn’t really help me to feel better but I wanted an object to hold onto in the absence of anyone to hold; a talisman of home. I didn’t have a record player but I figured that if there was anywhere in the world where I could walk in off the street and find the records that I wanted lying in the vinyl bins, it would be New York. You can buy anything here, right? About four stores into my search I summoned up enough courage to approach the counter – I’d barely spoken to anyone in a fortnight and American voices still sounded very, very strident to my ears, as if everyone was speaking at least ten decibels louder than was necessary.
“Could you look something up for me, maybe?” I hesitantly asked the shaven-headed young man behind the desk of a fashionable record store that was blasting out dubious 80s hair-metal ballads over the shop stereo, and which boasted a prominent wall display of vintage lounge music LPs depicting bosomy young ladies in states of carefree undress: long hardened against the casual sexism of the music business, I had proceeded with only mild disquiet to the second-hand vinyl racks. “What do you want?” he replied, sounding aggressively bored. “Er, do you have any old Triffids records?” I asked, with a premonition that this would not be a very productive conversation. “What?” the young man responded, his face folding into that contemptuous expression well-honed by record store clerks down the ages, an expression that communicates to you, the unworthy customer (a) I have no idea what you are talking about (b) because I’ve never heard of it, it must be so far off the radar of cool as to be utterly pathetic. “Um, The Triffids?” I tried again, trying to speak up just in case he’d misheard me, but knowing really that the endeavour was hopeless. “No,” he answered, not even bothering to pretend that they might have one old 12” tucked away in a box, waiting to be found if we both looked hard enough. I walked away. I sighed inside. It was the first time in years that I’d felt personally stung by a record store clerk who didn’t care and didn’t want to care about the music that I was searching for. Probably I would have had better luck in London.
The Triffids always had a much bigger audience in Britain and in Europe than they had in Australia – they got to play on The Tube, ‘Wide Open Road’ made Number 26 on the UK charts, and they were anointed with critical approval to such a degree that they not only nabbed themselves a Peel session but, for its first issue of 1985, the cover of the NME too, a feat not to be repeated by another Australian act – aside from Nick Cave – until The Vines in 2002. “THE YEAR OF THE TRIFFIDS” boomed the caption – sub-editors, eh? What larks! – with Jill Birt looking sullenly down the camera above a smaller headline: “MINERS! DESPATCHES FROM THE FRONTLINE.” In the end 1985 would be the year of the Miners’ Strike much more than it was the year of The Triffids, but just about every aspiring Australian indie band since then has been aware that The Triffids are the ones to beat. The dream of near-instantaneous critical acclaim in a foreign country, particularly in Britain, where people are still to be found who think that condescending jokes about scruffy convicts from the colonies are ticklishly original – more, that they’ll actually get a rise – has a strong hold on Australian artists across many fields: we worry a great deal about whether we’re any good or not. This sense of creative insecurity used to be called “cultural cringe”, and people argue that it’s dying out these days, which may be so; if it is then it’s not because we’ve gotten objectively any “better” at making music. Rather, the rise of internet-based music distribution has made it significantly cheaper to develop at least some foreign audience, as compared to the days when you had to up sticks and physically relocate for years on end, and this alone has doubtless helped to boost the confidence of young Australian musicians. Our almost comical distance from the rest of the world matters less and less, in economic terms. But I wonder at the long-term cost to our creativity; to any imperative that might exist for artists to try and figure out what an Australian music might actually sound like. The possibility of cultural homogenisation is not a new complaint, but I make it here if only to sound a small note of disquiet: maybe having instant access to the latest sounds of Brooklyn or Brazil, and being able to knock up a local variant before the MP3 blogs have done buzzing about the original, is not an entirely wonderful state of affairs. The global cutting-edge gets its blade a little blunted when everyone is striving to sound as instantly and profitably up-to-the-minute as possible.
I don’t think that the situation would be improved if only more Australian bands sounded like The Triffids. The point is not to look for the next Born Sandy Devotional but to bear in mind the circumstances that went into making it. Does voluntary, self-imposed exile even matter as an emotional state, anymore? What does homesickness mean when you can write emails home all day, if you want to?
Yet still, the email timestamps will tell you that Australia is as far away as it ever was – always half a day ahead of the rest of the world’s circadian rhythm, sometimes more. The virtual erasure of distance has not removed the real physical gulf that lies between Australia and everywhere else: the Indian Ocean to the left, the Pacific to the right. Having left, I still feel as if I’m living simultaneously in two time zones: always picturing to myself what the people I love might be doing during their hours; always with one eye on the clock.
It’s getting dark earlier now
‘Tender Is The Night’ – another literary reference amongst the dozens that would pepper The Triffids’ career – is the fade-out to Born Sandy Devotional, and the last voice belongs to Jill Birt. This couldn’t be a song about anyone else but David McComb; a song to himself – it’s transparently autobiographical in a way that the more hallucinatory songs on the album aren’t. But it’s written in the third-person and Birt sings it for him, and the deliberate distancing increases its emotional power. It’s a maudlin song, an appropriate enough mood with which to end a record that makes use of the word ‘maudlin’ on its very first track, but it could have well tipped over into self-pity if McComb had taken the vocal. Birt doesn’t emote – she might not even be able to, much less want to, with her high and colourless singing voice – and so the task of creating drama falls back upon the instruments. The key change just after the third verse, where she’s told us that ‘He made a point of losing her address’ is the moment at which the whole song shifts. It’s not as if the discreet string section gets any louder, in fact it momentarily disappears: starker, the mood rises in intensity. And then the sucker-punch: ‘Well I spoke to a man who says he’s done it all/And the only thing that pleases or excites him now/Is hurting, hurting and hurting some more’. How can you be so young and want to write words of such damning finality? Because it’s entirely possible to be convinced at twenty-three or even younger that you are damned, and not beautiful to go along with it: just a sorry, ugly, hopeless mess. ‘Tender Is The Night’ doesn’t sound damned though, not like ‘The Seabirds’ or ‘Lonely Stretch’ or ‘Life Of Crime’. It sounds like its title says – tender, tender as that refrain – ‘It’s getting dark earlier now/But where you are it will just be getting light’ – that encapsulates so beautifully what it means to be living a long, long way from home, when you can’t even comfort yourself with the thought of lying down at the same time as an absent lover, because your night is their day, and their day is your night, and so the only hours when you might possibly be thinking of each other at the same time are the earliest and the latest ones, at midnight or at dawn. And so the song rises, pulling up and away into the air on a violin and a chime, and the album is gone before you’ve had a chance to prepare a goodbye. This takeoff is the musical equivalent of the aerial shot on the cover: the details disappear, and you’re left with an impression of sky and of light.
Let her run away
I’m glad now that thanks to stubborn curiosity I finally found something in The Triffids, after years of puzzlement. Glad is possibly the wrong word, thankful might be better: I can’t actually think what it would have been like to imagine my way into leaving Australia, and then doing so, without having The Triffids to listen to. Born Sandy Devotional helped me get ready to leave, and has comforted me since I did leave – on my second night away when I realised that I wouldn’t see the constellation of the Southern Cross in the sky anymore; during those early, exhausting weeks of trying to figure out everything new from the currency to the correct names of vegetables, while missing everything familiar from the format of newspapers to the texture of the pavement. And it still comforts me, in the way that you want to be comforted when you’re lonely and young enough to want something to inflame the loneliness a little bit more, needing the drama of it. “Remember, love songs don’t have to mention”, reads a sentence from David McComb’s notebooks for Born Sandy Devotional, and then it cuts off. Don’t have to mention love.
Epilogue (The long fidelity)
I immersed myself so deeply in The Triffids’ back catalogue during the six months before I wrote this piece that I feared I’d ruined my relationship with them forever. And then, a year later, during another northern winter, I began listening to Born Sandy Devotional all over again, walking lunch hours with my gloved hands in my coat pockets, stepping over icy puddles down under the Manhattan Bridge. I have to be near water to hear this record properly. And then, unexpectedly called home, suddenly swapping winter for summer, I walk into a record store and find a promotional 7” of ‘Wide Open Road’ pinned to the wall. A simple black and white portrait of the band on the front cover, taken at Primrose Hill, a place in London I walked not too many months ago, without realising that once The Triffids walked there too. Robert McComb standing perfectly at ease in a waistcoat, Jill Birt holding – is it a drumstick? – Martyn Casey staring level at the camera, David McComb tallest of all, half-smiling, and focused on a point quite distant, Alsy McDonald privately amused, as if he’s just about to lean in and tell you a great story, “Evil” Graham Lee with boffin spectacles half the size of his face. On the back cover, another black and white photograph: the Western Australian border, ‘COME AGAIN TO WESTERN AUSTRALIA’ partially obliterated by a wag vandal who’s sprayed “Marching Orders” across the bottom of the road sign. “WELCOME TO SOUTH AUSTRALIA” beckons a bit further down the highway, a BP petrol station further still. From Regents Park to the Nullabor – “no trees” – and back again, with the flip of a record sleeve.
The Eyre Highway runs west to east for 1,675 kilometres from Norseman in Western Australia to Port Augusta in South Australia, and the population of the Western Australian section stood, last official count, at 86. A good luck charm, this record will return to America with me and sit on my desk in Brooklyn – population 2.5 million – next to my vinyl copy of The Drones’ Gala Mill, another band originally from Perth who’ve travelled vast distances across the planet and who confront the Australian landscape and psyche with peerless vigour. It took me a long time to understand The Drones, too, though at least they return home on occasion, and to great acclaim and excitement. Have we learned something in the intervening decades, having lost The Triffids so early in their career? Hopefully yes, and yet musicians with the ambition to make Australia the subject of their music remain so rare – and it is ambition that’s needed, because this country is huge and difficult and unrelenting, and to respond in kind, to make work that is honest and unsentimental (because God knows we’re a sentimental bunch, despite the straight-talking reputation), is a task that requires no common amount of vision.
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