What I’ve Been Listening To: The Church/ Starfish

Australian rock band’s 1988 breakthrough remains great-sounding album to this day

Like I suspect most folks living outside of Australia, I first heard about The Church in the late 1980s when they released Under The Milky Way. The tune’s spacey sound created by combining a 12-string acoustic with an electric guitar and keyboards in the background proofed to be an immediate attraction and made me buy the album Starfish on CD, even though I didn’t know any of the other tracks. Clearly, this was in the pre-streaming age where somebody like me who wasn’t much into singles had to buy entire albums to own certain songs.

Released in February 1988, Starfish was the Australian rock band’s international breakthrough, fueled by Under The Milky Way, the lead single that got plenty of radio play in Germany. While the lyrics of this and the other tracks on Starfish are rather dark and psychedelic, the combination of great sound and lead vocalist Steve Kilbey’s distinct voice make for an album that continues to be seductive to this day. I can’t necessarily say this about many other ’80s records.

the church 1988

The Church in 1988

The Church were formed in Sydney, Australia in March 1980. The founding members included singer, songwriter and bassist Steve Kilbey, guitarist Peter Koppes and drummer Nick Ward. Marty Wilson-Piper joined one month later as the band’s second guitarist. Later that year, The Church signed with EMI-Parlophone and recorded their debut Of Skins And Heart. It was released in Australia in April 1981 and internationally the following January as The Church with a slightly altered track listing.

Starfish was the band’s fifth studio record. By then Richard Ploog had taken over on drums for Nick Ward, who had left in early 1981. The album was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by session musicians and producers Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi. At the time, Wachtel who more recently played in Keith Richard’s backing band X-Pensive Winos, already had worked with other heavy weights, such as Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Linda Ronstadt. Ladanyi had an impressive credits as well, including production work with the likes of Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Don Henley. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the album’s great opener Destination. The tune, which also came out separately as the record’s third single in July 1988, was credited to all four members of The Church.

Next is the aforementioned Under The Milky Way. How could I possibly skip it? The song was co-written by Steve Kilbey and his then-girlfriend and guitarist Karin Jansson, founder of alternative Australian rock band Curious (Yellow).

According to the record’s description on Apple Music, the lyrics for North, South, East And West reflect Kilbey’s dark impressions about Los Angeles in the ’80s. Here’s an excerpt:  War’s being waged and the world’s just a stage (in this city)/The real estate’s prime, the number plates rhyme (liquidity)/Wear a gun and be proud, but bare breasts aren’t allowed (in this city)/ Dream up a scam and then rake in the clams (liquidity)…The tune was credited to all members of the band.

One of my favorite tracks on the album is Spark. The song was written by guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper who also sang lead.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Reptile. Credited to all four band members, the song also was released separately as the album’s second single in April 1988. Another track featuring great interplay between the two guitars, it sounds a bit like combining a Byrdsy jingle-jangle with a U2/The Edge-like guitar sound.

Since Starfish, The Church have recorded 12 additional studio albums to date, the latest of which, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, appeared in October 2017. I previously reviewed it hereStarfish remains the band’s most successful commercial release to this day. It was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in December 1992 and has sold 600,000 copies in the U.S. only.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube