The idea of an Australian music as recognisably Australian as Italian Opera or American Jazz is a difficult sell. Before the composer Peter Sculthorpe began exploring instruments and sounds that reflected the landscape in which he lived, Australian music was pretty much variations on a European theme. It lacked the bone dry greys and harsh yellows of the interior. Its desolate unforgivingness. Its space.
In the ‘70s, The Bushwhackers fused American Country with Anglo-Celtic Folk into an Australian bush music and took it overseas to some acclaim, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that bands began singing about where they lived. The Go-Betweens, Paul Kelly, even Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel, turned the urban experience of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney into lyrics that spoke of people’s homes, their streets, bus trips up and down the east coast and pubs. Bands in pubs. Working class venues for working class songs. It was a kind of cockney, an unashamedly parochial song-line that didn’t speak for everyone but said it in a distinctively Australian way. And part of that white song-line addressing what it meant to be Australian but a little off to the side of the mainstream was The Triffids.
The Triffids formed in Perth in the late ‘70s. On the surface, they were just another group of fashionably melancholy and disenfranchised malcontents on the literary fringe of rock. Post Punk. But their music had a kind of landscape: big without being anthemic, vast without being too long. There was a heat to their music, a dryness; a space between the chords that gave it a height and distance more profoundly haunting than the guitar based rock of their contemporaries.
“Wide Open Road” was the first single from The Triffids’ 1986 album Born Sandy Devotional. It’s a perfect example of how the band evoked the brutal reality of place, of Australia, and the interminable endlessness of country and its impact on the soul. “Wide Open Road” is a state of mind. It is the search for love, home, hope, but perhaps condemned, like Sisyphus, to the wide open road of futility and disappointment. When The Triffids’ chief vocalist and songwriter David McComb asks how it feels:
Sleeping by yourself
When the one you love
The one you love
Is with someone else
The answer is simply:
It’s a wide open
A wide open road
There’s nothing else. Going on for miles with no enforceable speed limit and flanked as it is by spectral eucalypts and road kill; embodied by the zero desolation of Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris or Nic Roeg’s Walkabout; the word DIG carved into the hide of a coolabah tree by Burke and Wills on Cooper Creek; a dingo ate my baby. There’s nothing back to nature about this Australia. It’s too bleak and forbidding to be sound tracked by violins or middle eights or the tight vocal arrangements of pop or rock. It’s a mirage, where the very stuff of identity is consumed by the ever-shifting horizon promising a connection but:
I reach out just to touch you
Then I realise
It’s a wide open road
David McComb’s vision as a songwriter was a constant grappling with a vernacular for the journey we’re on in this strange and semi-mythical place called Australia. It’s a vernacular of identity. And one could argue this grappling for identity is the very job of the artist, both on an individual and a larger socio-political scale, and that finding a music for this journey is as fundamental to a nation’s character as its architecture, its stories, its coat of arms or flag. “Advance Australia Fair” might rouse us to our feet to open major sporting events, but a people needs a music that scratches beneath the surface of jingoistic nationalism and through the murky interiors of what defines us. That acknowledging the cultural and historical relevance of Gallipoli while viewing the violent liberation of Aboriginal peoples from their families and land as a thing of the past might not be as Australian as we’d like to think.
The Triffids’ unique take on the relationship between place and music was as much a lament as it was a love song, a yearning for something lost or for something never there to begin with but remembered on some deep cellular level as our home. Like American Jazz, maybe this pining for a home we’ve never known is the beginning of a white Australian music, a music of displacement, searching, a music that truly encapsulates the wide open roadness of our place in this place.
McComb, David. “Wide Open Road”. Born Sandy Devotional. Mushroom, 1986. LP