The cathedral of the Triffids


The cathedral of the Triffids

First there were mix tapes, then CDs, but now people mainly stream music and the playlist is the way to share what you love, writes FRED DE VRIES.


I’M sure most of you music lovers have encountered this problem. There’s a band you really like and you want someone else — a new partner or a new friend — to like them just as much, in order to deepen a fresh but fragile bond.

So how do you go about it? Way back, let’s say 40 years ago, you would make them a compilation tape, cramming your favourite tracks onto a C60 or C90 cassette. That involved a lot of work and a lot of thinking about sequence, build-up, narrative arc. In fact, it was a hell of a job. You needed a record player, a tape recorder, a blank tape and vinyl records. Recording was done in real time. It was a cumbersome process.

Then there was the eternal question of what to do with that bit of tape at the end, too short for a whole song but too long to leave it blank (I usually solved it by putting an instrumental track at the end). Cassette tapes were great, though, because you could also make a little cover containing a drawing, a collage or a cut-up photograph. They were treasures to behold, little works of art, which gave them special meaning and (hopefully) lifted the appeal of your beloved artists to a new level. They were, as Thurston Moore points out in the book Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture (Universe Publishing, 2005), “mementos of devotion". You could play them on your tape deck and later on your Walkman or ghetto blaster. It was all about sharing: sharing music, taste, messages, vulnerabilities.

Then came the CD-R, which made the recording process easier: you compiled a list on your computer, listened to it, fiddled a bit with the sequence then burnt it onto a blank CD. I used to love getting homemade CDs from people whose musical taste I trusted. My friends artist Mark Kannemeyer and poet Danie Marais were particularly good at making fantastic compilations. I still have a number of CDs and cassette tapes Mark made for me, complete with weird drawings and featuring songs by bands I had never heard of but have come to love, names such as Melt Banana (Japanese noise), Oblivians (raw garage rock from Memphis) and The Urinals (punk rock from California).

Danie is a proper music evangelist — he still posts his latest discoveries on social media. I remember a few compilations from the days when we had just met (actually, I don’t think I even knew him, our mutual friend Sonja Loots had made me copies). We called them “The Danie Mix" and he introduced me to exceptional bands such as Ben Folds Five and The Handsome Family. I still have those mixes and play them every now and then because they bring back so many good memories of those crazy days in Johannesburg, 15-odd years ago.

The Handsome Family.
The Handsome Family.

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In this digital age when people mainly stream music (and don’t seem to care about the loss of sound quality along the way), the playlist is the new way to propagate what you like. The playlist is the new mixtape. I know people who make tons of playlists and send me links. And to be honest, I never listen to them. It’s too much and too easy. An old-school mixtape demanded work, love and devotion. Compiling a mix CD was less cumbersome, but you still needed to own the songs and upload them onto your computer. And there was also a length restriction: a CD can have 74 minutes of music (apparently so it could fit Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125). That was just about right.

Unlike Danie, I lack the energy to convince other people they are missing out on something truly fabulous. When I’m excited about a band, I tell friends but I don’t go all evangelical. At high school and university I used to make mix tapes, especially for girls I secretly fancied (cue hidden messages in some of the songs), and later I made mix CDs, which were great for road trips. Occasionally I would make one for a friend. But there was always that lurking feeling of apprehension that the other party “wouldn’t get it" and complete silence would ensue, or some absent-minded comment about “not having had the time to listen". In other words, a waste of time and energy.

But occasionally I did try. I vividly remember how I wanted to convince my partner when we were still in our courting stages (that’s after I took her to see the movie Ken Park on one of our first dates and asked her to rate it on the scale of ten. “Three", she hissed) that The Replacements were one the greatest bands ever. I mean, who wouldn’t fall for the raspy voice of Paul Westerberg, the ramshackle guitars, romantic lyrics about eternal losers (Here Comes a Regular, Skyway, The Ledge), magnificent pop tunes (Alex Chilton, Can’t Hardly Wait) and even the silly adolescent stuff like Gary’s Got a Boner or Dope Smokin' Moron. I played them to her, even suggested that Westerberg’s solo track Dirty Diesel could be “our song", but she didn’t fall for it — she preferred the sweeter Americana sounds of The Jayhawks and Golden Smog. Perhaps The Replacements were too much “boy music".

The Replacements.
The Replacements.

So I gave up. Sod everyone and their abysmal, impenetrable taste. But then I made a new friend. She lives in the UK, we met during an All About Writing retreat in Venice, which my partner runs. We bonded over football and music. She supports Brighton & Hove Albion, I support Sparta Rotterdam, both middling teams that dream of bigger things. She, like me, thinks The Kinks are the best band ever. Better than The Beatles, better than the Stones. So, my hopes restored, I decided to try it one more time: I was going to go all hip and modern, I was going to make her a Spotify playlist with the best songs of one of my favourite bands, The Triffids. As a little aside, I should confess that I had tried that before with my partner and that it was, again, a complete failure. She hated the singer’s voice and said some of the songs made her nauseous.

Now let me tell you a bit about The Triffids. I stumbled upon them in 1983 in Get Records, a music store in Amsterdam. Those good old days when the guys behind the counter would play something obscure, almost forcing you to ask: “Who is this?" Then they would show you the cover and 15 minutes later you would walk out with that album in a plastic bag. That’s how I heard the first Triffids album, Treeless Plain, released in 1983. The cover showed five serious-looking young people (four guys and a girl) in front of a white wall and some palm trees. It was set somewhere in Australia (the band were from Perth) but it could have been Mexico, a country from which I had just returned after six months of research for my studies. We stayed in Chihuahua, not far from the Texas border, a semi-desert landscape full of cacti, rolling tumbleweeds and treeless plains.

The Triffids.
The Triffids.

The opening track, Red Pony, caught me straight away. Thanks to the violin, it sounded truly majestic. In a strong yet sensitive voice, the singer related a tale of giving someone a red pony to ride into the desert, away from him. “Red pony, it’s a gift from me/ from me to you/ Ride it well my love, hold your head up high/ across this land/ Sand in your eye, sun upon your back /Next to you my love /all colours turn to black." The title refers to a novella by John Steinbeck, indicating that the singer and songwriter, David McComb, was the bookish type. On the cover he looked very cool, dressed in black with a long lock of hair covering part of his face.

The other songs were great too. I mean, you can’t go wrong if you name your songs My Baby Thinks She’s a Train or Hell of a Summer. They sounded mysterious, exotic and intellectual, influenced in equal measures by Leonard Cohen, Flannery O’Connor, The Velvet Underground and punk, outsiders in a country full of surfers and yobbos.

I remained a devoted fan, bought all their albums, including the extended rereleases with numerous extra tracks. Their songwriting got better and better, full of religious imagery, desolate Australian landscapes and doomed love. Most people consider Born Sandy Devotional from 1985 their apex (they might be right, just listen to the opening track, The Seabirds, and the three cinematic tracks, Lonely Stretch, Wide Open Road and Life of Crime). It was ranked number five in the book 100 Best Australian Albums. By then they had acquired a sixth member who played steel guitar, while the vocals of keyboard player Jill Birt added a child-like innocence to the serious lyrics.

The Urinals.
The Urinals.

My favourite album is The Black Swan, their swansong from 1989, which musically is the most diverse (there are some hip hop influences, as well as tango, country and 50s cabaret). It has a beautifully polished sound and some of the most melancholic lyrics McComb wrote, on par with some of the work of Ray Davies of The Kinks. Fairytale Love, for instance, starts like a 19th century romantic poem: “In an earlier time, in a green land above/ By the mill and the willows we made fairytale love/ With the sky a warm blanket, and our backs to the rain/ We thought that our pleasure would always remain.” But of course, this idyll has to end. And indeed it does, as McComb sings: “The last moment we touched, by the river you shone/ The black swan spread its wings and hissed /Lo! the night came on."

And the night came on indeed. The Triffids, who had moved to London in search of success, returned to Australia, devoured by homesickness. They split in 1989. McComb made an okay solo album but his health deteriorated rapidly, a combination of a heart problem and self-medication through alcohol and drugs. The man who had sung “You could die out there from a broken heart" had a heart transplant in 1996 and died three years later at the age of 36. His broken heart had finally given up.

So I made my English friend a Spotify playlist of 30 Triffids songs, and sent her the link. I waited. And waited a bit more. Silence. Eventually, I asked if she had had a chance to listen, knowing very well what the answer would be. Yes, she replied, she did listen. And no, it didn’t do much for her. “Nothing really grabbed me."

I smiled sadly when I read it. Maybe I should have started with five or 10 songs? Nah, The Triffids will from now on remain my property. Music is something very personal. It gets that extra dimension and meaning because of context and memories, which have grown over the years into some kind of internal, unfinished cathedral, not unlike Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia. It can change, it may lose some of its power and meaning, but it can never really be understood in the same way by anyone else. I have been listening to The Triffids since 1983, I associate them with my time in Mexico, my student life, my years in Amsterdam. They have travelled with me as LPs and CDs. I even interviewed four of the six members many years ago in Australia. In Perth, I bought a book of poems by McComb and a book with essays about him and the band. It all added to that monument. And now I dumped a big pile of data on someone’s virtual lap and expected her to listen and get something similar out of it.

How stupidly naive.

Spotify playlist — Triffids

This week Fred has been listening to The Clientele, a British guitar group that has been making autumnal music since the late 1990s. Their latest album, I Am Not There Anymore, came out in 2023 and is more experimental and psychedelic than previous works, but still utterly enjoyable. Find the full album here.

♦ VWB ♦

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