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 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 here. Starfish 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.
A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade
Here is the second and final installment of my feature looking back at music and some related events in the ’80s. This part is focused on the second half of the decade. As noted in part 1, it isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review but instead a selection of things I find noteworthy.
To me the key music event during this year and perhaps the entire decade was Live Aid. I was watching it on TV from Germany while simultaneously taping it on music cassette from the radio. Organized by Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure as a fundraiser to fight starvation in Ethiopia, Africa, the benefit concert was conducted on July 13 simultaneously in the U.K. at London’s Wembley Stadium and the U.S. at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Among others, it featured Status Quo, Queen, U2, David Bowie, The Who and Paul McCartney at Wembley, while some of the performers in Philly included Joan Baez, Madonna, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and, in a less-than-stellar appearance, a reunited Led Zeppelin featuring Phil Collins on drums. The concerts were watched by an estimated global TV audience of 1.9 billion across 150 countries and raised approximately 150 million British pounds.
Other events that year included the official launch of VH-1 on cable TV in the U.S. (Jan 1); recording of the charity single for Africa We Are The World (Jan 28), co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and performed by USA For Africa, who apart from Jackson and Ritchie featured Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Cindy Lauper, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and numerous other top artists; release of Dire Straits’ fifth studio album Brothers In Arms, their best-selling record that among others became known for its exceptional sound quality due to its all-digital recording (May 13); Michael Jackson’s purchase of the publishing rights for most of The Beatles’ catalog for $47 million, out-bidding former artistic collaborator McCartney whose success in music publishing had inspired Jackson to increase his activities in the business (Sep 6); and Roger Waters’ announced intention to leave Pink Floyd, which marked the start of a two-year legal battle over the rights to the band’s name and assets.
The biggest hit singles of 1985 were Shout (Tears For Fears), We Are The World (USA For Africa), Take On Me (a-ha), I Want To Know What Love Is (Foreigner) and Material Girl (Madonna). Following is Money For Nothing, the second single from Dire Straits’Brothers In Arms album, which they performed at Live Aid. Like on the studio recording, it featured Sting on backing vocals.
On Jan 30, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony. The first batch of inductees included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. While over the years since, there has been much debate over who should be in the Rock Hall, the selection process, the award categories, etc., I think there is no doubt that the above artists all well-deserving inductees.
Other events: Bob Geldorf’s knighthood award to recognize his work for Live Aid and other charity concerts for Africa (Jun 10); release of Madonna’sTrue Blue album, the best-selling record of year (Jun 30); and disbanding of The Clash, Electric Light Orchestra (revived by Jeff Lynne in 2000) and Men At Work.
The top-performing hit singles included Rock Me Amadeus (Falco) – the first German-language song to top the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, Papa Don’t Preach (Madonna), The Final Countdown (Europe), Take My Breath Away (Berlin) and West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys). The 1986 tune I’d like to highlight is Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, which was first released as a single in April. It also appeared on his fifth studio album So that came out the following month. Here’s the song’s official video, which won multiple accolades in 1987, including a record nine awards at the MTV Music Video Music Awards and “Best British Video” at the Brit Awards. It’s definitely one of the most memorable music videos of the decade.
Some of the events in music during that year included the induction of Aretha Franklin as the first woman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 3); release of U2’s fifth studio album The Joshua Tree (Mar 9), which topped the charts in 20-plus countries and became one of the world’s most commercially successful records, selling more than 25 million copies; Whitney Houston’s second studio album Whitney, the first record by a female artist to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 (Jun 27); launch of MTV Europe (Aug 1); and release of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, Pink Floyd’s first studio album after the departure of and legal battle with Roger Waters (Sep 7). Waters finally wrapped up his legal separation from the band later that year.
The highest-charting hit singles were La Bamba (Los Lobos), Never Gonna Give You Up (Rick Astley); I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me (Whitney Houston), It’s A Sin (Pet Shop Boys) and Who’s That Girl (Madonna) – I remember each of these songs like it was yesterday! Here’s Where The Streets Have No Name from my favorite U2 album The Joshua Tree. Credited to the band (music) and Bono (lyrics), the tune was released as the album’s third single in August 1987, five months after the record’s appearance.
Some of the music events that year included the induction of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Drifters, Bob Dylan and The Supremes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 20); near-death experience for Alice Cooper on stage after one of the props, the Gallows, malfunctioned – yikes! (Apr 7); sale of legendary soul label Motown Records to MCA and financial firm Boston Ventures for $61 million (Jun 27); John Fogerty’s win of what sounds like a frivolous self-plagiarism lawsuit Fantasy Records had brought against him, claiming his 1985 comeback tune The Old Man Down The Road was too similar to Run Through The Jungle, which he had recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970 (Nov 7); and final concert by Roy Orbison in Akron, Ohio (Dec 4) prior to his death from a heart attack only two days thereafter.
Leading hit singles: A Groovy Kind Of Love (Phil Collins), Don’t Worry Be Happy (Bobby McFerrin), Always On My Mind (Pet Shop Boys), Heaven Is A Place On Earth (Belinda Carlisle) and Take Me To Your Heart (Rick Astley). One 1988 song I like in particular is Under The Milky Way Tonight by Australian outfit The Church. Co-written by Steve Kilbey and Karin Jansson, it became the lead single to their excellent fifth studio album Starfish. Both were released in February that year. Here’s a clip.
I can’t believe I made it to the last year of the decade! Some of the events I’d like to highlight are criticism of Madonna by religious groups worldwide over alleged blasphemous use of Christian imagery in her music video for Like A Prayer (Feb 23), which had premiered on MTV the day before; release of Bonnie Raitt’s 10th studio album Nick Of Time, one of my favorite records from her (Mar 21); release of Tom Petty’s excellent debut solo album Full Moon Fever (Apr 24); Ringo Starr’s formation of his All-Starr Band (Jul 23); opening of The Rolling Stones’ North American tour in Philadelphia to support their comeback album Steel Wheels (Aug 31), two days after the album had dropped; and release of Neil Young’s 17th studio album Freedom (Oct 2), best known for the epic Rockin’ In The Free World.
Key hit singles were Like A Prayer (Madonna), Eternal Flame (The Bangles), Another Day In Paradise (Phil Collins), The Look (Roxette) and Love Shack (The B-52s). The final ’80s tune I’d like to call out via clip is Down To London by Joe Jackson, an artist I’ve listened to for many years. He recorded the song for his 10th studio release Blaze Of Glory, which appeared in April 1989.
Of the more than 20 albums I reviewed over the year, TajMo (Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’), Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter) and Southern Blood (Gregg Allman) touched me the most. There were new releases from younger artists in the blues rock arena I find exciting. If there is any truth to the often heard sentiment that (classic) rock music is dying, this certainly doesn’t seem to the case for blues and blues rock!
Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/TajMo (May 5)
Overall, TajMo represents uplifting blues, which sounds like an oxymoron. “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal who has been known to mix blues with other music genres. From the very first moment I listened to it, this record drew me in, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it! You can read more about it here.
Here’s the fantastic opener Don’t Leave Me Here.
John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter/Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (April 28)
John Mellencamp is one of my long-time favorite artists. I know pretty much all of his albums. While I dig the straight rock-oriented music on his ’80s records like American Fool, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow, I’ve also come to appreciate his gradual embrace of stripped down roots-oriented music. That transition started with my favorite Mellencamp album The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies probably is as rootsy as it gets for the Indiana rocker. For more on this outstanding record, you can read here.
Following is one of the album’s gems, Indigo Sunset, which Mellencamp performs together with Carlene Carter, who co-wrote the tune with him.
Gregg Allman/Southern Blood (Sep 8)
Southern Blood, the eighth and final studio album by the great Gregg Allman, is the 2017 release that touched me the most emotionally. Reminiscent of his 1973 debut solo release Laid Back, this album feels like Allman came full circle. Given how ill he was at the time he recorded the ten tracks, it is remarkable that the record doesn’t project an overly dark mood like David Bowie did on Blackstar. Instead, it portrays a man who appeared to have accepted his time was running short and who took a reflective look back on his life. I also find it striking how strong Allman’s voice sounds throughout.
Here is the official video of My Only True Friend, the only original song Allman co-wrote with Scott Sharrad, the lead guitarist and musical director of Allman’s band. Damn, watching is getting to me!
New music from young blues rock artists
There are some kick-ass younger blues rock artists who released new music this year. The first coming to my mind are Jane Lee Hooker and their sophomore album Spiritus, which appeared last month. This five-piece all-female band from New York delivers electrifying raw blues rock power. While you can read more the record here, how better to illustrate my point than with a clip: Gimme That, an original tune with a cool Stonesey sound.
Another hot young blues rock band is Greta Van Fleet, who also came out with their sophomore album in November. It’s called From The Fires. These Michigan rockers almost sound like a reincarnation of early Led Zeppelin. I previously reviewed the album here. Check out this clip of Safari Song. At first sight, these guys might look like some high school band, but they sure as heck don’t sound like one!
Next up are two blues rock dudes who are more established than Jane Lee Hooker and Greta Van Fleet but who are still fairly young artists at least in my book: 35-year-old Casey James and 40-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Plus, ultimately it’s about their music, not their age.
Casey James from Fort Worth, Texas, who was a third-place finalist on American Idol in 2010, started out playing pop-oriented country rock music. While his eponymous debut album from March 2013 brought some success, it didn’t bring him the happiness he was looking for as an artist. So he decided to leave the country world behind for electric blues and in June this year released Strip It Down. Here’s a clip of the nice opener All I Need.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd is hardly a newcomer. The guitarist from Shreveport, La. has been active as a musician since 1990. In August this year, he released Lay It On Down, his eighth album. In my opinion, Shepherd is one of the most exciting younger artists out there, who are keeping the blues alive. Here is the official clip of the record’s great opener, Baby Got Gone – my kind of music!
Anniversary editions of standout albums
As a die-hard fan of The Beatles, to readers of the blog it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I was particularly excited about the 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which appeared in May – in fact, so much that I decided to get the double LP-set, my first new vinyl in 30 years! Producer Giles Martin, the son of the “fifth Beatle” George Martin, and music engineer Sam Okell created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967. Here is more about this amazing reissue. Following is the official anniversary trailer.
Another great anniversary reissue, which was released about four weeks ago, is a deluxe edition of Hotel California by the Eagles. The original album appeared in December 1976, so this special edition came out almost one year after the actual 40th anniversary. While Hotel California is my favorite Eagles album, more than the studio versions of the original record, it’s the live tracks that excite me in particular. Released for the first time, they were recorded prior to the album’s appearance during the band’s three-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum in October 1976. For additional thoughts on this anniversary edition, read here. Meanwhile, here is a clip of one of the live tracks, Hotel California, one of the first live performances of the epic tune.
The last special release I’d like to highlight is the 25th anniversary edition of Automatic For The People by R.E.M., which appeared in November. As I previously pointed out here, the 1992 release was the band’s 8th studio album, earning significant commercial success and a general positive reception from music critics. Here is a clip of what to me is the album’s standout, Everybody Hurts.
After raving about Under The Milky Way Tonight in my previous post, I thought I might as well put up a clip of the tune. Apparently, this live performance was captured during the induction of The Church into the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame in 2010.
Steve Kilbey, the band’s songwriter and bassist co-wrote the tune with his then domestic partner Karin Jansson, guitarist of the Swedish punk band Champagne. It was included on The Church’s fifth studio album Starfish, released in February 1988. The song also appeared separately as the record’s lead single.
Under The Milky Way Tonight brought The Church significant mainstream success in Australia and beyond. In the U.S., the track peaked at no. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 and climbed all the way up to no. 2 on the Mainstream Rock chart. It also charted in New Zealand, Canada, the U.K. and The Netherlands. While I don’t know about the German charts, I definitely recall the song got significant radio play at the time. That’s where I first heard it.
Aussie band continues signature sound that cemented its ’80s cult status
Readers of the blog may be surprised that I’m posting about The Church, which clearly falls outside the type of music I typically cover. While Classic Rock, Blues and British Invasion represent my main wheel house, I actually have a fairly eclectic taste. This Australian band is one example.
The Church first entered my radar screen in 1988 when they released a seductive song called Under The Milky Way Tonight, the lead single for their fifth studio album Starfish. The tune combines spacey sound and psychedelic lyrics with a catchy melody. It also features a cool bagpipes-resembling solo. I ended up buying the album at the time, which I still dig to this day.
Fast-forward almost 30 years to October 6, 2017, when The Church released their 26th studio album Man Woman Life Death Infinity – quite a heavy title! I only came across it coincidentally when browsing Apple Music earlier today. Admittedly, I never explored the band’s catalog beyond Starfish and had completely lost track of them.
The Church’s long history goes far beyond the scope of this post. In a nutshell, the band was formed in Sydney in 1980. Two of the founding members, Steve Kilbey (lead vocals, bass) and Peter Koppes (guitar) are still around, though Koppes left the band in 1992 and returned in 1997. The current line-up also includes Tim Powles (drums, percussion, vocals, guitar), who has been with the band since 1994, and guitarist Ian Haug, who joined in 2013. While The Church didn’t have mainstream success beyond Starfish, the band retains a large international cult following, according to Wikipedia.
After listening to Man Woman Life Death Infinity a few times, the music clearly reminds me of Starfish, except I haven’t discovered any tune yet that stands out to me like Under The Milky Way Tonight or Reptile do on the 1988 album. The record’s opener Another Century pretty much sets the stage for the album’s sound. AllMusicdescribes it as “atmospheric space rock with a hooky pop sensibility.” I think that’s not a bad characterization of what essentially is the band’s signature sound. Here is the official video of the track.
A recurring topical theme on the record is water. Australian music site Music Feedsquotes Kilbey, who typically writes the lyrics to the band’s songs: “I guess water is my element. I’ve always marvelled at the sea and rivers and rain. It wasn’t conscious at all but on reflection, it definitely is a preoccupation on this record. What that means, I don’t know.” Well, if Kilbey doesn’t know, how would anyone else? Here’s a clip of Undersea.
I Don’t Know How I Don’t Know is another tune I like, which AllMusic describes as “moody Byrdsian.” I suppose the guitar is a bit reminiscent of The Byrds, though the track’s sound is much more layered, but let’s not over-analyze it. The song also appears to establish a pattern where Kilbey doesn’t seem to know what he is doing – on a more serious note, here is a clip of the tune.
The last song I’d like to highlight is Something Out There Is Wrong – that may well be the case, though not with this tune! Here’s a clip.
Man Woman Life Death Infinity was produced by Ted Howard, who has frequently worked with the band since the early 2000s. While the music becomes a bit repetitive after a while, there is just something about it. I’ve always been drawn to spacey music. I suppose that’s why I’m such a huge fan of Pink Floyd, especially their ’70s albums up to Wish You Were Here. I also know no other band that sounds quite like The Church. At some point, I may start to further explore their catolog. If anyone reading this is familiar with the band, please feel free to send any recommendations you may have.
Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, Music Feeds, YouTube