Born Sandy Devotional
Guest Blog: The Omnivore's Jeremy Taylor steps up (yet again) and gives me a break. Yes, yes, he should write more music blogs. And I shouldn't. And blah blah blah - thanks very much (yet again) for this, JT.
In the very rare instance that anyone asks me "what's your favourite album of all time?" I usually find myself terribly conflicted. I mean, I know who my favourite band is - The Smiths, no contest. And even then, I don't think they are the best band of all time (that would, realistically, be The Beatles) - they are just the band who opened the gates of the kingdom for me, a band whose progress was contemporaneous to my own developing tastes. I would actually find it difficult to pick a Smiths record over the others (at a push, Hatful of Hollow, even though I know it is a compilation, so it's sort of cheating).
I love the first Stone Roses record - I think it is pretty well perfect (even if I do usually skip the backwards track), and has probably the best opening and closing track combo (I Wanna Be Adored/ I Am the Resurrection) on any debut album, at the very least.
I love the second Bill Fay album, Time of the Last Persecution - so austere, such genuine warmth, and such great playing, much of it improvised.
But the record that I keep coming back to, that I have played as much as any record I own, is the second studio album by the Perth, WA band The Triffids, Born Sandy Devotional.
I can't even remember where I first heard it - I didn't buy it in 1986, when it was released - I would have been far too heavily ensconced in Morrissey-world to have even paid any attention to an Australian indie-rock record (which would have probably just sounded like INXS or Midnight Oil, anyhow). But still, I bought it sometime, and, over the years I have played it a lot. A ridiculous amount.
I have obsessed over it - I have thought about it in terms of songwriter David McComb's fabulous evocation of the barren Australian landscape, of "Evil" Graeme Lee's floating pedal steel, and the band's rumbling, dusty-sounding, haunting beauty. I have tried to decode it, to find out what it means. And, while I now know it extremely well, it still holds a mysterious allure. If there was an Australian version of the US "Americana" description, then this would surely be it - "Australiana"?
It begins, as all great records must, with a man pondering death (his own), and a dazzling opening line:
"No foreign pair of dark sunglasses could ever shield you from
the light that pierces your eyelids, the screaming of the gulls..."
Whoa - this is heavy s**t, and it's only track one, The Seabirds. This is Beckett, Faulkner and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner all rolled into one, with Bob Dylan editing, Link Wray lending guitar twang and the Bad Seeds rhythm section (well, Triffids bassist Martyn P. Casey did go on to join the Seeds).
It is littered with brilliant lyrics - the question "are you drinking to get maudlin, or drinking to get numb?" soon rears its head, before even the gulls refuse to devour this useless wretch of a man. It is an amazing way to begin an album.
I think one of the most incredible things this album does is describe the colour of the light. I can remember the first time I went to Australia, I felt like the light was almost unbearably bright, that it made you feel vulnerable and exposed, and I feel that McComb does an incredible job of describing the same - the subsequent track, Estuary Bed evokes this, coupled with childhood memories of days that seemed endless, of being unencumbered by the responsibilities of adulthood. Chicken Killer is all rickety rhythm, and the mocking children who sing their nursery-hymn as McComb searches in vain for a lost girl; "they poke and they prod and they peer at our prone bodies lying there, like roosters picking at the body of a hen..." - death is never far away.
Tarrilup Bridge again seems to capture those sorts of memories that you are never sure are real or a dream; "I packed my bag, left a note on the fridge, and I drove off the end of the Tarrilup Bridge" sings keyboardist Jill Birt, in her creepily childish, faux naïf voice. Side one's closing track Lonely Stretch, takes the horror of the heat and distance even further - "I took a wrong turn off an unmarked track, I did seven miles, couldn't find my way back... I was wrong from the start, you could die out here of a broken heart" - physical distance and being lost serve as a perfect metaphor for emotional estrangement. It's hard to tell exactly what is going on here, but, whatever it is, you just know it ain't anything good.
Side two opens with the broad sweep of Wide Open Road, probably the album's best-known track, and conversely, probably my least favourite. The dark and lovely Life of Crime and Personal Things continue the momentum, before a closing one-two punch that I reckon to be among the greatest in popular music history.
Stolen Property, the penultimate track, is one of those gloriously epic and heart-stopping tracks that never fails to put a chill down my spine. From its first sonorous bass notes, to the swoops of strings, and shifting tempos, and McComb's growing agitation as he declares:
you just lie around waiting on a signal from heaven,
you never had to heal any deep incisions,
darling, you are not moving any mountains,
you are not seeing any visions,
you are not freeing any people from prison,
just an aphorism for every occasion...
I find it crushing - the weight of these words coming from a man who I think was a great, great artist and songwriter - someone who lived and loved just a little too much, and who was dead by the age of 37 after a car accident, but actually due to complications from alcohol and heroin addiction, and his body rejecting a heart transplant.
For me, McComb was the artist that Nick Cave thought himself to be - Cave himself acknowledging as much in the 2009 book Vagabond Holes. With this knowledge, it is hard not to see the closing track, the Jill Birt-sung Tender Is the Night (The Long Fidelity) as a kind of self-penned epitaph:
I knew him as a gentle young man
I cannot say for sure the reasons for his decline
we watched him fade before our very eyes
and years before his time...
...every trinket that she ever touched
he keeps locked away, and just burns up in the furnace of his chest
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...
...let's go out tonight, it's getting dark earlier now
but where you are, it's just getting light
where you are it will just be getting light
I find this almost unbearably poignant and sad.
It is an extraordinary end to an extraordinary album - not least because it was made in London and Liverpool (with producer Gil Norton, who later helmed Pixies' Doolittle and, um, the feelers' Communicate), some 10,000 (or so) miles from the place where its heart and roots clearly lie.
So, my favourite album? It's not that I think it is the greatest record ever made, nor do I think it will be to everyone's taste. But it is a phenomenal set of songs, which describe a man's singular and distinctive vision of his homeland, and the people and things that he loved. It is great art, and it is a record that amazes me every time I play it.
RIP, David McComb, and thank you - whatever else you may have done, you left the world a vividly beautiful, poetic, epic portrait of your world to remember you by.
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.