Threescore Devotional - Celebrating David McComb, The Betsey Trotwood, London, 17th February 2022
I bought a cassette in 1987 by a band called The Triffids. It was an album called Calenture and I rather liked it for three reasons:
The Triffids by John Wyndham was one of my favourite books so any band that named themselves after it must be good
No one else at school had heard of them so I had a little bit of exclusive cool amongst my fellow music fans
It was really good.
There was a guy I worked with at my Saturday job called Phil who was a bit older, doing a teaching degree whilst I was in 6th form. He was four years older than me, which felt a huge amount then - he seemed wildly sophisticated to me. He knew The Triffids and was impressed (which made me feel very cool) and taped me their previous album, Born Sandy Devotional (sorry Triffids' publishers - I have since bought it on CD and vinyl, you have got your royalties in the end, I promise). That album was even better to my ears, particularly Wide Open Road.
The Triffids live, 17 August 1982, The Albion Hotel, Perth, WA (L-R Jill Yates, Allan MacDonald, David McComb, Robert McComb and Byron Sinclair). Picture courtesy of Pat @ RockSteady, Melbourne
Somehow I missed their last album, The Black Swan and then they were gone. I then picked up the I'm Your Fan tribute compilation to Leonard Cohen in 1991, which included their singer David McComb covering Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On. This was something I did frequently at the time as I was regularly crashing and burning at University, to the point where my 'friends' would hum the dambusters theme as I approached any woman on a Friday night in Exeter's University nightclub, The Lemon Grove. It was fair enough, and I would skulk home with them, rejected and dejected.
I also bought a fantastic 12 inch, The Message, by David and then that was it. But the time his solo album came out, Love Of Will in 1994, I had lost interest. Shame on me, but Britpop had kicked in and if it didn't sound like The Beatles, The Who or The Kinks, I probably wasn't interested.
Fast forward to 2015. I have met an Australian woman, who I have once again crashed and burnt with on our first date. However, without the distraction of Stevey behind me humming the Dambusters' theme, I manage this initial rejection well. I convince said Australian to ditch our date and we go to the pub instead and talk about pop music. We talk for a couple of hours, without the pressure of romance and at the end, I tell her if she ever needs a gig buddy, give me a call. She does and the next 14 months are filled with friendship and gigs, me using any Australian band coming to town as an excuse to drag her out to shows (no bad thing - it prompted me to rediscover singers like the marvellous Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens, who we saw at a tiny venue and I have now acquired all his wonderful solo albums).
Then I saw an advert for The Triffids playing London! I knew McComb had passed away - it was the band with a number of different singers so this became yet another excuse for us to hangout.
By the time the gig came round, we were dating (reader, I married her) and we went to see the revived Triffids. It was magnificent (dating her and the gig, obvs). And I had since gone back and listened to their back catalogue, as well as discovering a whole wealth of Australian music.
Regular trips to Melbourne (pre-pandemic) have given me a love of many Aussie bands, and one of my top three record stores in the world is RockSteady in Melbourne. There, I spotted a picture of a very young David McComb playing in a bar and chatted to the owner, Pat. David was one of his close friends so we chatted about their music, that wonderful gig...I still give them a spin regularly now.
Anyway, that is a very long introduction to this - I spotted an ad for this event, an evening in a pub in Farringdon to celebrate what would have been David's 60th birthday (he died in 1999). It's unclear what this will be, but a list of musicians from The Weather Prophets, The Servants, Dream City Film Club and peers of that era from the London indie scene will be there to pay their respects. It's a tenner a ticket so I take a punt.
Mrs JO'B has just gone back to Australia for seven weeks to see her family when the show takes place, so my friend Paul deputises (just for the gig, not any other Mrs JO'B activities with me). We have no idea what to expect - the gig listing sounds little bit like this could be a belated eulogy, with the unusual line:
An elegant suffix of more circumspect souls have also expressed interest but remain as yet uncommitted: “ask me again nearer the time”.
So, Thursday comes. We meet for the obligatory pre-gig pint and exchange stories about how The Triffids from Perth, Western Australia came into our respective worlds. Love Of Will is now on Spotify, so I have been playing it through the week, ahead of the show. Born Sandy Devotional has also been spun - I have done my homework it feels, though if homework was this much fun, I would have done a lot more of it and got better exam results.
A couple of catch up pints are necked and we head into the venue, curious to see what on earth we are exactly going to. But as we arrive, the poster looks good...
We wait downstairs, trying to guess who is going from the hip afterwork crowd. A curious Welsh designer accosts us to ask if we like country music. I tell him I like both kinds of music - country AND western. The joke is lost on him, but he is funny and enthusiastic and we discuss hardcore punk, why Generation Terrorists by Manic Street Preachers is amazing and I insist he goes home and listens to the Manic's Holy Bible album. He has never heard it and is skeptical. I do hope he checked it out. (It turns out he designed the cover for Gwenno's album Le Kov, which I love - he is cool). We also chat with a nice chap called John who promotes a comedy night at the venue on Mondays and promise him we will go. Then this cramped and intimate show begins.
Mat Snow, a journalist from the NME's heyday (when it really mattered) is our genial host. As he takes the stage (well, floor), I hear someone behind me say "he's no Angry Anderson" - I worry we have taken a wrong turn and are at a reenactment of Scott and Charlene's Neighbours wedding, but it's ok, we are in the right place!
Mat asks David Lance Callaghan from The Wolfhounds to read a piece about getting The Triffids to play Romford, and he finishes reading Mat's first live review of the band when they played London. It's sweet and funny and I wish I was a few years older so I could have been at these gigs (and it's rare I wish I was older these days). Mat then introduces David Westlake of The Servants plays a solo Estuary Bed (I think - my note taking is a bit rubbish at this point). He is quickly followed by The Country Widowers, playing Life Of Crime and Rosevel. I have not heard the latter in decades, but am playing it now as I type - how brilliant it is.
He is followed by Gary Robertson of Swinging Time, accompanied on 12 string guitar by Rob Collins of The Dentists. They play Day Of My Ascension from Love Of Will and A Trick Of The Light from Calenture. These were the two chaps standing behind me chatting just before the show - suddenly as they play they are transformed and the two geezers make sweet, wonderful music.
Mat reads another piece, this time by Triffids’ publicist Mick Houghton - Mick can't make the show, but his tribute recalls meeting McComb for the first time, and been blown away - not just by the £250 in readies he'd been given to promote them but by the band and their potential. The Triffids were a mix of Stooges, Velvets, the usual touchstones, but also Southern country soul, Laura Nyro - like the Bonanza theme played in the style of New Order. How wonderful they must have been.
Mike Perrett of The Dog Roses then performs Too Hot To Move, Too Hot To Think - it segues into a cover I didn't know - Mike's voice had me mesmerised so I wasn't really focused on the song. Not a bad feat. He then makes the heroic / foolhardy move and plays Wide Open Road. And does a quite sterling job - I video the performance, something I never do these days as it's so annoying. But I wanted to listen back today and his gentle guitar picking transforms the song from an epic, huge number into something fragile, quiet and beautiful.
Nick West, from Bucketfull of Brains magazine, reads a piece from the photographer Bledwyn Butcher, but I am distracted by the last song - the lyric "I wake up in the morning, thinking I'm still by your side" has hit hard as I miss Mrs JO'B. I suspect I will be listening to a lot of Aussie music in the next few weeks.
The final act of the first set is Pete Astor of The Loft and The Weather Prophets. He looks insanely good and I promise myself I must hit the gym. I also want to know where he got his glasses. He looks a little how Morrissey might have if he hadn't become a dick. Pete recalls playing Glastonbury with The Weather Prophets, going on stage after The Triffids' set. They'd finish their set with Wide Open Road Pete remembered...a real "oh fuck" moment - how did he follow THAT? He is generous and kind and plays The Seabirds, accompanied by the amazing Jack Hayter on pedal steel guitar and finishes with the b-side of David's first solo single The Message. The single was too produced, trying too hard, aiming for the hit - to the point David gave a copy to Bledwyn Butcher and scratched out the a-side. Just play the b-side he recalls - a sad story to finish with, but also a beautiful song to close the set - I've Heard Things Turn Out This Way.
There is a second set, this time with bass and drums, but sadly Paul and I head off. We are tiddly, tired and also there is a storm coming (literally). A sensible move as it turns out, because trains are already cancelled and getting home is a bugger. Such a shame to miss the last set, but we have heard some beautiful voices playing some songs that will last forever and a day. It's so sad David is not here to see what he would have done next, what songs he would have given us. But wherever he is, it's nice to know there is a bunch of random strangers in a room above a pub in London listening to his songs and remembering him fondly - I think he would be pleased things turned out that way.
Thanks to Gurbir Dhillon for putting on a great night.