In 1976 in Perth, high school students, David McComb on acoustic and bass guitars and vocals, and Alan ‘Alsy’ MacDonald on drums and vocals, formed Dalsy as a multimedia project making music, books and photographs. They wrote and performed songs with Phil Kakulas on guitars and vocals (all three later in The Blackeyed Susans), they soon became Blök Musik, and Logic (for a day). In May 1978, they became The Triffids, taking their name from the post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids. They were soon joined by Andrew McGowan on guitar and Julian Douglas-Smith. When Byron Sinclair joined on bass guitar in September, McComb switched to rhythm guitar. The Triffids began partly in response to the punk rock movement. Writing in his diary as a teenager, McComb traced the band’s emergence in Perth:
"On the night of November 27, 1976, a tape was made by Alsy MacDonald, playing a single toy drum, and Dave McComb playing acoustic guitar. The multimedia group ‘Dalsy’ had come into being. Dalsy went on to make several remarkable tapes (mainly of original material): The Loft Tapes, Rock ‘n’ Roll Accountancy, Live at Ding Dongs, Bored Kids, Domestic Cosmos, People Are Strange Dalsy Are Stranger, Steve’s and the seminal punk work, Pale Horse Have a Fit.… Dalsy did paintings, sculptures and poetry, and wrote a book named "Lunch". They were tinny and quirky, obsessive and manic, versatile and productive. They were also immensely unpopular…. The members of Dalsy grew to hate their audience. They still do, and this hate is an integral part of their music. Dalsy split up towards the end of 1977…. They launched into 1978 as Blok Musik, with their famous Blok Musik tape.… In April, they played at the Leederville Town Hall Punk Fest, alongside Perth’s punk rock contingent but, as usual, no one danced. After that they went home and metamorphosised into Logic. Within a day they changed their minds, and metamorphosised into the Triffids."
Between 1978 and 1981, McComb had written over 100 original songs and The Triffids had recorded and independently released six cassette tapes simply called, 1st (1978), 2nd (1978), 3rd (1979), 4th (1979), Tape 5 (1980) and Sixth (1981) (see List of The Triffids Cassettes). By 1979, Kakulas and Sinclair had left and were replaced by David’s older brother, Robert McComb on violin and guitar, and Will Akers on bass guitar, in 1980 Margaret Gillard had joined on keyboards. At year’s end, the band won a song competition run by the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University) Student Guild’s radio show on 6NR (now Curtin FM) and, in July 1981, they released their first single, "Stand Up" on Shake Some Action label. MacDonald had briefly left the band for two months and the single was recorded with Mark Peters as drummer.
Gillard and Akers left in February 1982 and were replaced by Jill Yates on keyboards and a returning Sinclair. April saw the release of Reverie, a four-track EP on Resonant Records. Around this time, due to the small population/market in Perth, the band started the long journey driving from Perth to Sydney, then Melbourne (and back again) to play shows, do some recording and to live for large periods of time, often in quite squalid conditions. By mid-year Sinclair had left again, Martyn P. Casey joined the band on bass guitar in September 1982, For $150 a night, The Triffids’ services as a support act were procured by The Reels, The Sunnyboys, The Church, Hunters and Collectors or Uncanny X-Men.
As a four-piece—Casey, David & Robert McComb, and MacDonald—they signed to Mushroom Records’ White Label in Melbourne and released a single "Spanish Blue" in October 1982 and the Bad Timing and Other Stories EP in March 1983. By then, back in Sydney again, Jill Birt had joined on piano, organ and vocals. Soon after the release of Bad Timing and Other Stories, Mushroom Records let the band go. They signed with new Australian independent label, Hot Records, which brought the independent scene some much needed cohesion. The Triffids were one of the bands leading Hot’s drive into overseas markets, which partly led to the label’s demise. The Triffids’ debut album, Treeless Plain, released in November 1983, was a critically acclaimed and brilliant album—described as a "magnificent, muscular piece of work that pounds out simple powerful rock songs – one of the best indie rock albums of its day"—but no singles were released from it. All tracks for Treeless Plain were recorded over twelve midnight-to-dawn sessions at Emerald City Studios, Sydney in August and September 1983 with The Triffids producing. Their next single, "Beautiful Waste", appeared in February 1984 and was followed by the Raining Pleasure 12" EP in July—the title track, "Raining Pleasure", featured Birt on lead vocals, was cowritten by David McComb with Sydney musician, James Paterson (JFK & the Cuban Crisis). Another track, "St. James Infirmary", is a traditional blues folksong with their version preferred by Australian rock music journalist, Toby Creswell in his book, 1001 Songs.
The Triffids, without Birt, recorded Lawson Square Infirmary at the Sydney Opera House where they worked with Patterson on vocals, guitar, mandolin, and piano; Graham Lee (JFK & the Cuban Crisis and in Eric Bogle’s backing band] on vocals, dobro and pedal steel guitar; and Daubney Carshott (a.k.a. Martyn Casey) on bass guitar. The six track country music-style EP was issued by Hot Records in October under the band name, Lawson Square Infirmary. Lee recalled:
"I taught primary school, travelled and ended up in Sydney, where I met the Triffids and first sat behind a pedal steel (in that order actually) […] I met Dave [McComb] through James Paterson, who played in a band in Sydney called JFK and the Cuban Crisis. My initial impressions of Dave were: slightly eccentric, driven, something of a perfectionist, very intelligent."
By mid-1984, The Triffids had spent so much time travelling the 3,972 km (2,468 mi) between Perth in the west and Sydney on the east coast of Australia—David McComb estimated that they made this trip between 12 and 16 times—that they decided to travel that little bit further and headed to Europe.
In late August 1984, the band relocated to London, where Treeless Plain and Raining Pleasure had been issued by Rough Trade Records to positive critical reception. With little savings and five return plane tickets due to expire by Christmas, they gave themselves three months to make inroads in the UK. For their London debut they supported Rough Trade labelmates The Monochrome Set. Success was confirmed when they graced the January 1985 cover of the influential UK magazine NME, which predicted it would be ‘The Year of The Triffids’. On 6 November 1984, they recorded, Field of Glass, a three track 12" EP, mostly live in BBC Studio 5 in London, which was issued in February 1985. Title track, "Field of Glass", was not released on CD as the master tape could not be found—it was eventually discovered under David McComb’s bed. During the Australian tour in early 1985, the band acquired their final permanent member, Lee, who had performed on the mini-album, Lawson Square Infirmary. Together the six-piece—Birt, Casey, Lee, MacDonald, David & Robert McComb—recorded a 7" EP You Don’t Miss Your Water, the A-side is a countrified version of William Bell’s "You Don’t Miss Your Water", which was released in August by Hot Records, but by then they were already back in London.
During 1985, The Triffids had toured Europe, they were feted by the European press and played from tiny clubs to stadiums supporting Echo & the Bunnymen. A grass roots following developed as they toured western European countries, finding pockets of popularity in: Holland, Greece, Scandinavia, Ireland and Belgium. The band toured as part of the Summer Eurofestival circuit, performing at Glastonbury, Pinkpop, Waterpop, Seinäjoki, Roskilde (40,000), T&W Belgium (35,000) and den Haag’s Parkpop (pushing 100,000).
Unable to raise a major record deal and with low finances, Born Sandy Devotional was recorded in London in August 1985 with Gil Norton producing (worked with Echo & the Bunnymen), and was released in March 1986. According to Ian McFarlane, Australian rock music historian, "[It] was full of some of the most lonely, spacious songs ever written, and it remains one of the best Australian albums of the 1980s." In 2007, the album was featured by SBS Television on the Great Australian Albums series. The band issued two versions of the "Wide Open Road" single—both a 7" and a 12" version. Born Sandy Devotional reached # 27 on the UK albums chart and "Wide Open Road" peaked at #26 on the UK singles charts but only reached #64 on the Australian Kent Music Report Singles Chart.
Creswell stated, ""Wide Open Road" was "an angry song that finds the cost of freedom is aloneness" in his book, 1001 Songs. In May 2001, the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), as part of its 75th Anniversary celebrations, named it as one of their Top 30 Australian songs of all time.
Their critical success in the UK boosted their profile back in Australia where they recorded In the Pines in early 1986, while awaiting the release of Born Sandy Devotional, which eventuated in March. In The Pines was recorded at the McCombs’ family property in Ravensthorpe, 600 km (373 mi) south east of Perth, in a shearing shed on basic eight-track equipment. It was issued in January 1987 and took The Triffids deeper into folk and country music, with a lo-fi sensibility reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. The band backed Scottish musician, Bill Drummond, for his 1986 solo album The Man. The Triffids toured UK later in the year.
From 26 December 1986 to 26 January 1987, The Triffids were on the bill of the Australian Made tour, which was the largest touring festival of Australian music talent attempted to that point. Jimmy Barnes and INXS headlined and the rest of the line-up featured Mental as Anything, Divinyls, Models, The Saints, I’m Talking. A concert film, Australian Made: The Movie, was directed by Richard Lowenstein and released later that year. Lead singer of INXS, Michael Hutchence had insisted on The Triffids being part of the bill. 1987 also saw the release of 3 tracks recorded for John Peel on 5 May 1985, The Peel Sessions.
The Triffids were courted by several UK major record labels, based on the success of Born Sandy Devotional, eventually signing a three record deal contract with Island Records in the UK in November 1986. Between April and August 1987, the band worked again with Norton, to record Calenture, their Island Records debut. The album, released in February 1988, saw them explore themes of insanity, deception and rootlessness—the title refers to a fever suffered by sailors during long hot voyages. The Triffids were nomadic, travelling back and forth from Australia to England to record the ‘difficult’ album—initial recordings with US producer Craig Leon were abandoned—and obviously related to the disoriented sailors. It provided the singles, "Bury Me Deep in Love" in October 1987 and "Trick of the Light" in January 1988.
After, Born Sandy Devotional, they graduated to the festival circuit and played alongside Iggy Pop, Ramones, The Fall, Anthrax and Echo & the Bunnymen. By 1988, their fame was such that NME invited them to contribute a cover version of The Beatles’s song, "Good Morning Good Morning" to the tribute album, Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father, alongside songs by Billy Bragg and Wet Wet Wet.
The Triffids wanted to record the next album in Australia but, after the Calenture experience, Island wanted to keep the band nearby. The Black Swan was recorded between September and October 1988 in Somerset, UK and produced and engineered by Stephen Street. It was well received by critics, but the commercial success was not overwhelming, which disappointed band members. That, together with being tired from the constant travelling and touring, led to The Triffids being dissolved. The group travelled to the US in 1989 for a pair of New York dates before taking a much needed vacation – one which turned permanent:
We didn’t know they were final performances. Dave wanted to do a solo album and we were due to get back together after that. Much to his chagrin his solo album took longer than expected and he kept writing songs that sounded like Triffids songs. Domesticity snuck up on most of us, poor health snuck up on Dave, a planned ’94 reunion tour was put on hold, and the Triffids faded into the mist. – Graham Lee
The band’s last Australian shows were towards the end of 1989, with the final at the Australian National University, in Canberra on 14 August 1989. 1990 saw the release of the live album, Stockholm, which completed their contractual obligations with Island.
In 1990, David McComb moved back to London with the aim of pursuing his solo career. In 1992, after no success, he returned to Australia to make some solo recordings for Mushroom Records (featuring both Casey and Lee) releasing just one solo album, Love of Will, in 1994. He also worked with many other musicians on various projects, including assembling a band, the Red Ponies, to tour Europe. Another project, costar, was formed when David moved to Melbourne, but due to his ill health they only played sporadically around Melbourne, although recordings had begun and a single was ready for a limited release.
Following the Red Ponies tour David McComb suffered substance abuse-related health problems, which ultimately resulted in him undergoing a heart transplant in 1996. Following a car accident in Melbourne, David McComb was admitted to St Vincents hospital. Only 3 days later he died at home, on February 2, 1999, just a few days short of his 37th birthday.