Years Before His Time – David McComb documentary

You never forget when you start to lose your musical heroes. David McComb’s death in 1999 at the age of 36 wasn’t quite the first (sadly) but reading of his death on Teletext in those pre-internet days was a real shock, particularly since we were born in the same year.

In production for more than a decade, ‘Love in Bright Landscapes’ documents McComb’s life story and career telling a compelling story destined to end tragedy.

Director Jonathan Alley has succeeded in getting all the major characters in Dave’s story on camera to allow him to assemble a picture of McComb the man and the songwriter.

The personal is covered by interviews with family, including both his now deceased parents (Dave’s decision to pursue music as his calling was the source of some tension), and lifelong friends. Access to films and photos from the McComb family archive allows the story to begin with Dave as a child.

His musical journey starts with his first partnership with Alsy MacDonald in Dalsy. Just about every significant musical collaborator, including Triffids from different incarnations, establish not just what influenced Dave but also the impact that the Triffids had on Australian music. That’s illustrated by the wealth of archive material, particularly from Australia in the band’s early days.

But what maybe elevates LIBL above similar endeavours is the presence of McComb’s voice throughout – in part in contemporary interviews which obviously went far beyond the sort of surface level chat you often get but also, in an inspired move, through author DBC Pierre’s reading of Dave’s original letters and poetry.

The film does illustrate that the Triffids trod something of a quixotic path.

In terms of their UK profile, the records were always a little out of synch with what was going on. Take their decision to record a country track (‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’) as their first single after their thunderous early performances in the UK or their decision to record an album in a woodshed (‘In The Pines’) as a placeholder whilst trying (and struggling) to get signed by a major.

There’s also the fact that they seemed to be the first band in the UK to soundtrack a Neighbours wedding and not get the song to number 1 (‘Bury Me Deep In Love’ reached the giddy heights of, er, 97 in the UK charts.

Love In Bright Landscapes certainly doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the band’s history either – the incident when Island were keen to ditch bass-player Casey and drummer MacDonald for the band’s major label debut is covered (although notably not featuring contributions from either Marty or Alsy). Jill Birt also says at one point that she was afraid of Dave for half the time and Rob Snarski’s face says it all when recalling that Dave had pulled out on the eve of a Black-Eyed Susans tour.

The film suggests that Dave felt that, in not reaching a wider audience, the Triffids had failed but, with a longer perspective now, it’s difficult not to conclude that, if the band had come back, they would have been more appreciated the longer they went on.

It’s not hard therefore to imagine Dave reaching a similar exalted status of contemporary Nick Cave had he been able to continue songwriting for many more years. But, sadly, this was never likely to have happened.

The pre-titles section foreshadows the tragedy as producer Adam Peter describes coming back to his New York apartment in the mid-1990s to find Dave unconscious on his floor. But Triffids manager Sally Collins also recalls that she knew of Dave’s heart condition when she started managing the band in the early 80s. Given temptations of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, it seems that this story was always destined to be a relatively short one and partner Jo’s poignant recollections of his last years emphasise that McComb was simply incapable of helping himself in his last years.

In telling Dave’s story, the tragedy is unavoidable but the film’s main focus is on his music and songwriting. The body of work that he left remains substantial and ‘Love In Bright Landscapes’ does full justice to a singular life and talent.

The film’s limited cinema release has all but concluded but it’s now available to order on DVD here:

Film | Love In Bright Landscapes