The Triffids, Wide Open Road (1985)

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Artist: The Triffids
Title: Wide Open Road
Description: single; album track, Born Sandy Devotional
Label: Mushroom
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1988

By the time I arrived, in my art school dungarees and with a green Pentel behind my ear, at the NME offices in 1988, The Triffids had already been anointed as An Important Band. And quite right, too. Traditionally under-appreciated in their native land, they had done what all interesting Australians do and travelled. They’d already done Perth to Sydney in search of a record deal. By 1984, they were Australians in Europe, tracing the footsteps of the Go-Betweens and the Birthday Party before them to London. These rock’n’roll Clive Jameses did as he did: enrich our culture with their wide eyes, itchy feet and tall stories.

As told elsewhere, one of my first responsible jobs in the NME art room was to design and illustrate the packaging for the paper’s latest compilation cassette, Indie City. One of the gems nestling within its three-disc tracklisting was Wide Open Road by the Triffids. I had yet to hear the incredible LP from whence it came, Born Sandy Devotional – whose title alone ought to have caused me to buy it, had money not been so tight in the days before I got on the record company mailing lists – but the song caused proverbial guns to go off in my chest. I had never been to Australia. I’d barely been further than the Channel Islands in 1988 and had to apply for a passport when the NME sent me on my first foreign trip to France later that same year. Wide Open Road was my imaginary visa to the other side of the world.

I’ve still never been to Australia, incidentally, but find myself a sucker for its myth and legend through films (the Australian New Wave, anyone?), TV and music. The Triffids, though expats, immortalised the land down under like no other group of battlers before or since. Their titles bespeak both a deep communal link to their native country and a yearning to travel: You Don’t Miss Your Water (’Til Your Well Runs Dry), Estuary Bed, In The Pines, Tarrilup Bridge, Suntrapper, Hometown Farewell Kiss, Jerdacuttup Man, Bury Me Deep In Love, even Calenture, which is a word for cabin fever at sea. It’s made by men and a woman with guitars and drums and keyboards and a violin, but The Triffids’ music is elemental – beaches, estuaries, reefs and saltwater seem to define them – and I have adored exploring my way through their catalogue in the years since 1988.

We must speak of David McComb. When the Triffids enjoyed their first cover during my tenure at the NME, this Byronic, windswept poet-warrior was photographed crawling up a beach in his native Perth, as if shipwrecked. It captured his spirit perfectly, as if newborn, certainly sandy, and always devotional. To mark the release of Black Swan, their proposed commercial breakthrough (although not in actuality; it reached number 63 in the UK, and became their swansong), NME had flown a writer more senior than I to Australia and found the band cast asunder before a tour, some of them working, some gardening. Our tour guide, McComb was a mass of anxieties about national and Western Australian identity, the Perth music scene (which the journalist described as “moribund” and “third or fourth world”), and his preference for “moontanned” women over bronzed bikini babes. Before the year was out, the Triffids had jacked it in. Within a decade, McComb would be dead, despite getting a new heart in ’96. His lifestyle had not been one to ensure long live, and it’s a shame he wasn’t better recognised in his home country as a songwriter of quality and distinction, other than perhaps posthumously.

Which is why to rewind to Born Sandy Devotional is to discover the Triffids at their transformative best. Recorded in London and Liverpool, thus planting them in the their adopted home, and the home of their ancestors, producer Gil Norton found shape in their raggle-taggle sound and its fulcrum, Wide Open Road, feels so optimistic, so swollen with possibility. Written as a hymn to what McComb described as “a particular landscape”, specifically a stretch of highway between Caiguna and Norseman in Western Australia that’s apparently one of the longest straight roads in the world. You can sort of tell that without looking it up, as drums “roll off” in the singer’s forehead while he remembers carrying a baby, “crying in the wilderness.” (I did say “elemental.”) That Alsy MacDonald’s drums do indeed roll off to illustrate the lyric underscores the literal nature of the song’s mission: to describe the world around it. For a tune built on an electronic rhythm and washed with synth, it feels as organic as the “big and empty” sky above.

This is pop music as psycho-socio-geography that carves a narrative out of the rock – it’s Walkabout, it’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, it’s Wake In Fright. “I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin, I cut them off as limbs,” McComb wails, before confessing to “hunting down you and him” on the flatlands with his “chest filled to explode.” You picture a car, but the protagonist is clearly on his knees in the treeless, post-apocalyptic plain when he yells his “insides out at the sun”. It’s wide open to interpretation.

Their only hit in the UK (they couldn’t even break the charts with Bury Me Deep after it had been used on Neighbours), Wide Open Road still feels like the widest and longest four-minute song in the world.

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Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, City Of Refuge (1988)

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Artist: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Title: City Of Refuge
Description: album track, Tender Prey
Label: Mute
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

You better run, you better run …

At the end of 1988, the staff of the NME voted It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back its album of the year. And quite right, too. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey came in at number 17, and it’s an album I played just as often as Public Enemy’s. It also had a more personal provenance. Here’s why.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the year I crossed the Rubicon from NME reader to NME contributor (or “NME reader with a typewriter”, as the late Steven Wells incisively dismissed me). I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing at the beginning of the year, but that summer, having taken the requisite DIY route to publishing of typing up and photocopying my first and only fanzine, This Is This, I duly mailed a copy off to James Brown, incumbent features editor at my weekly bible and refugee from the ’zine hinterland. I know now how statistically unlikely it was that he’d even open the brown envelope, let alone read further than the front cover, but luck was a lady that day and the content – or maybe just the neat, Pritt-assisted layout, or the Deer Hunter-referencing title – caught his eye, and he called me up.

I wasn’t quite the chorus girl plucked from the wings to write the next cover story, but it got me over the threshold of the NME and into the heart of darkness, where I landed paid work as the assistant to the art editor. It was from the vantage point of the “art room” that I plotted my insurgency. I was, initially, another type of nightmare: an “NME reader with a scalpel and a can of Spray Mount”, laying out pages week in, week out, without glory, but learning a trade in the post-hot-metal but pre-desktop publishing era. And then, in what must have been August, the art editor went on holiday for a fortnight, leaving me in charge. The first cover I laid out featured Nick Cave. (I told Nick Cave this, about 20 years later when he and I coincidentally shared the table on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, thanks to the publication of my book That’s Me In The Corner, and the release of the first Grinderman record.)

The cover story involved Cave saying things about heroin that he later regretted into the tape recorder of interviewer Jack Barron and the kerfuffle that ensued. It made great copy, although if I’d been Jack I’d have been less gung-ho about going public with it. (I was not a journalist in my bones. Jack was.) The editorial top dogs headlined the story, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a Neil Young reference I confess I didn’t get in 1988. Aussie photographer Bleddyn Butcher’s portrait was fabulous, taken before Cave went off on one. Thus, my first ever cover of the NME looked terrific. (All I had to do was arrange the Letraset around his striking mien and make sure nothing was upside down.)

The album this cover story flagged up was Tender Prey on the eve of its release. Although years earlier I’d bought Release The Bats by The Birthday Party – and loved its rickety, yelping energy and obscure sleeve – I’d never invested in a Bad Seeds album. After Tender Prey, I would go back and rectify that, but it holds a special place in my heart for self-evident reasons. The Mercy Seat is its blockbusting track, and it tears my guts out every time I hear its repetitive death-row mantra, but not this, nor the singalong Deanna, nor the sensual Watching Alice, comes close to the allure of City Of Refuge. It was no wonder to me that Cave crossed paths with movie soundtracks. He’d already had songs used in Dogs In Space and Wings Of Desire at the time of the handsomely red/black-packaged Tender Prey, but in City Of Refuge, he and the Seeds created a five-minute movie using just instruments and voices which, in troubling tone and world’s-end atmosphere, presages his work with Warren Ellis on The Road, also about 20 years later.

It rolls into view out of a heat-haze of howling harmonica and guitar strummed in readiness for something wicked which presumably this way comes. “You better run, you better run …” Cave warns, quietly at first, then with increased urgency. “You better run and run and run …” Only when Thomas Wydler’s snare rattles into life and the other instruments gather in step around it, does Cave specify where you better run to. That’ll be the City Of Refuge. Refuge from what? All manner of bad deeds: gutters running with blood, days of madness, the “Hell-mouth”, a grave that will “spew you out, it will spew you out.” This journey we’re being sent on is not one you’d look back over your shoulder at. I couldn’t have imagined it specifically in 1988 but when I picture it now it’s those diabolically encroaching walls of dust after 9/11 that are in pursuit of you as you run towards refuge.

Spinning my prized vinyl copy of Tender Prey endlessly, alone in my studio flat in Streatham, often over a bowl of Start to set me up psychologically for the commute to the NME offices, I understood what the fuss was about and why Nick Cave had earned cover-star status at my place of work, a Satanic Tom Waits dancing on the jailhouse roof. His debonair lounge-lizard appeal enveloped me. On City Of Refuge – itself inspired by a Blind Willie Johnson song of similar title that I have never heard – he testified like a pitch-mopped preacher and jumped-up devil combined. I imagined multitudes like ants at his feet, scurrying away to save their souls. And all this before breakfast! (Some mornings I required the bump and jive of hip-hop to start my batteries; on others, it was the Gothic splendour of the Bad Seeds. You should never restrict your options.)

I have stayed loyal to Nick Cave and his revolving carousel of outlets ever since, finding so much to latch onto in his swoopingly literate garage rock, not least his devastating use of the word “frappuccino” on Abattoir Blues in 2004, a song I wrote into the soundtrack of a rejected comedy-drama script called The Hoares, never to see the light. I finally witnessed he and the Seeds live at the parched end of Glastonbury ’09, with fellow fan Robin Ince at my side. It was glorious, as of course it was always going to be.

I decided in that heady moment that Worthy Farm was the City of Refuge. I’d made it, and I’d made it alive. The Spray Mount hadn’t killed me in the interim.