Musings of the Past

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

It’s already been more than a month since the last installment of this irregular feature, so I thought this would be a good time to unearth another previously published post. This one, about the storied Apollo Theater in New York City, first appeared in November 2017, about one and a half years into my blogging journey. It has been slightly edited.

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

The history of the Apollo Theater and a list of artists who performed at the legendary venue

The Apollo Theater has fascinated me for a long time. At around 2003 or so, I watched a great show there, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire and The Temptations. According to its website, the storied venue in New York’s Harlem neighborhood  “has played a major role in the emergence of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues and soul.” When you take a look at the artists who are associated with the performance venue, I guess the claim is not an exaggeration.

To start with, Ella FitzgeraldBillie HolidayCount Basie OrchestraSarah VaughanSammy Davis Jr.James BrownGladys Night and “Little” Stevie Wonder are some of the artists whose journey to stardom began at the Apollo.  Countless other major artists, such as Miles DavisAretha FranklinB.B. King  and Bob Marley, have performed there. Oh, and in February 1964, a 21-year-old guitarist won first place in the Amateur Night contest. His name? Jimi Hendrix.

The long history of the venue starts with the construction of the building in 1913 to 1914, which would later become the Apollo Theater. Designed by architect George Keister, it was first called the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater after its initial producers  Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon. As was sadly common during those times, they enforced a strict “Whites Only” policy until the theater closed its doors in 1928. In 1933, the property was purchased by businessman Sidney Cohen and following extensive renovations reopened as the Apollo Theater in January 1934. Cohen and his business partner Morris Susman adopted a variety revue show format and targeted Harlem’s local African-American community. They also introduced Amateur Night, which quickly became one of New York’s most popular entertainment events.

After Cohen’s death, the Apollo merged with the Harlem Opera House in 1935. This transaction also changed its ownership to Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher whose families operated the theater until the late ’70s. From 1975 to 1982, the Apollo was owned by Guy Fisher, the venue’s first black owner. Unfortunately, Fisher was also part of African-American crime syndicate  The Council that controlled the heroin trade in Harlem during the ’70s. He has been serving a life sentence at a New York federal prison since 1984. Following the death of an 18-year-old due to a shooting, the Apollo was closed in 1976.

The theater reopened under new management in 1978, before shutting down again in November 1979. In 1983, Percy Sutton purchased the venue. Under the ownership of the prominent lawyer, politician and media and technology executive, the Apollo was equipped with a recording and TV studio. It also obtained federal and city landmark status. In 1991, the State of New York purchased the theater and created the non-profit Apollo  Theater Foundation, which runs the venue to this day. The years 2001 and 2005 saw restorations of the building’s interior and exterior, respectively. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Apollo established a historical archive during 2009-10 season, and started an oral history project in collaboration with Columbia University.

Now comes the part of the post I enjoy the most: clips capturing performances of some of the artists who have performed at the Apollo Theater. First up: Count Basie Orchestra playing One O’ Clock Jump and He Plays Bass In The Basie Band. Apparently, this footage is from a 1955 show. I just get a kick out of watching these guys and the obvious fun they had on stage.

Sarah Vaughan was one of the many artists who won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1942. According to Wikipedia, her prize was $10 and a promised engagement at the venue for one week. The latter materialized in the spring of 1943 when she opened for Ella Fitzgerald. Here’s a clip of a tune called You’re Not The Kind Of A Boy, which apparently was captured in 1956.

Perhaps the artist who is best known for his legendary shows at the Apollo  is James Brown. Various of his gigs there were recorded and published as live albums, such as 1963’s Live At The Apollo and 1968’s Live At Apollo, Volume II, both with The Famous Flames, and Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Volume III (1971). Here’s a clip of a medley including It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and a few other songs. The footage is from James Brown: Man To Man, a concert film recorded live at the Apollo in March 1968 and broadcast as an hour-long TV special. The intensity of Brown is just unreal. No wonder they called him “Mr. Dynamite” and “The Hardest Man Working In Show Business.”

In 1985, the Apollo celebrated a renovation with a 50th-anniversary grand reopening and a TV special called Motown Salutes the Apollo. Very fittingly, one of the performers included Stevie Wonder. While I wish he would have played Sir Duke in its full length, I just find Wonder’s tribute to the great Duke Ellington beautiful and inspirational.

The Apollo is mostly known to focus on African-American acts, but white artists have performed there as well throughout its history. More recent examples include Guns N’ Roses, who were there in July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 studio album Appetite For Destruction. In October 2015, Keith Richards played at the Jazz Foundation of America’s  annual benefit concert. Here’s a great clip of Gimme Shelter, which he performed in honor of Merry Clayton. The American soul and gospel singer sang on the original studio version. Richards was backed by Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville  (keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums), his solo band also known as the X-Pensive Winos, as well as Sarah Dash (vocals), and longtime Rolling Stones backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler.

Today, music remains at the core of the Apollo Theater’s offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. In fact, the current schedule lists Amateur Night at the Apollo Quarterfinal for tomorrow night (May 25), the first time the competition returns after being dark for nearly two years. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.

– End –

Pre-COVID, the Apollo Theater attracted an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. I imagine it is going to take some time to restore this kind of visitor traffic. But the level of activity seems to be picking up.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apollo Theater website, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Edgar Winter Celebrates Brother’s Legacy With All-Star High-Octane Tribute Album

To any more frequent visitors of the blog or folks who know my music taste otherwise, this post shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. As somebody who digs blues and blues-rock, I simply couldn’t ignore Brother Johnny, Edgar Winter’s blazing new tribute to his older brother and Texas blues legend Johnny Winter, which came out last Friday (April 15). Sure, packing an album with impressive guests like Joe Bonamassa, Keb’ Mo’, Billy Gibbons, Joe Walsh and Ringo Starr doesn’t automatically guarantee a great outcome but, man, this album truly cooks!

In addition to renditions of Johnny Winter originals Mean Town Blues, I’m Yours and I’m Hers, Stranger, Guess I’ll Go Away and Self Destructive Blues, the 17 tracks on Brother Johnny feature a number of classics the guitar slinger from Beaumont, Texas covered, such as Johnny B. Goode, Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Got My Mojo Workin’. There are also two new songs written by Edgar Winter.

According to this Rock & Blues Muse review, the idea for a tribute album first emerged in the wake of Johnny Winter’s death in July 2014 at the age of 70.  “Many people immediately started trying to convince me to do a Johnny Winter tribute album,” Edgar recalled. “But I was totally devastated, and the timing just didn’t feel right to me.”

Edgar added, “It wasn’t until after I completed the Rock ‘N’ Blues Fest, a tour we were meant to do together with our respective bands, that the idea of a tribute record started to take form.” Looks like from there it still took quite a bit of additional time for the project to materialize, but the wait was certainly worth it. Let’s check out some of the goodies!

The fireworks start with the opener Mean Town Blues, featuring Joe Bonamassa on badass slide guitar. First released on February 18, the track is one of three songs that appeared as singles ahead of the album. Johnny Winter originally recorded Mean Town Blues for his 1968 debut album The Progressive Blues Experiment.

On Lone Star Blues, one of the tunes penned by Edgar Winter, things turn acoustic, sparse and personal. Keb’ Mo’ does a neat job on what sounds like a resonator guitar and also shares vocals with Edgar. “I don’t think this album would be complete without at least one, heartfelt, personal tribute from me to my brother–in the form of a song,” Edgar wrote in the album’s liner notes, as separately reported by Rock & Blues Muse. Well, I was born in Beaumont left when I was in my teens/I hit the highway, going down to New Orleans/I was playing music, searching for just what life means

One of Brother Johnny’s standouts is I’m Yours and I’m Hers, featuring Billy Gibbons and Derek Trucks. Winter included this original tune on his eponymous sophomore album that came out in April 1969. With Trucks arguably being one the best contemporary slide guitarists and Gibbons being no slouch either, you just know this rendition has to be good. Well, check it out!

This review wouldn’t be complete without highlighting Johnny B. Goode, a track Winter recorded for his third studio release from October 1969, a double album somewhat misleadingly titled Second Winter. Johnny B. Goode became a regular of Winter’s live set. On Brother Johnny, the Chuck Berry classic is delivered with help from Joe Walsh (lead vocals), David Grissom (lead guitar), Bob Glaub (bass) and Gregg Bissonette (drums). Meanwhile, Edgar Winter demonstrates his saxophone chops with a nice solo. Additional vocals are provided by guitarist Phil X. Yes, Johnny B. Goode has been covered a million times, but this is just a killer rendition.

Let’s do one more: Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Winter included what is one of my all-time favorite Rolling Stones songs on his first live album Live Johnny Winter And, released in March 1971. Johnny Winter And was actually the name of Winter’s band at the time. This new version features the above-mentioned Phil X.

Some additional comments about the other musicians on the album. The above-mentioned Gregg Bissonette provides drums on all tracks except Stranger, which features Ringo Starr. Sean Hurley and Bob Glaub share duties on bass. Other guests include Doyle Bramhall II, John McFee, Robben Ford, Warren Haynes, Steve Lukather, Michael McDonald, Doug Rappoport, Bobby Rush, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Waddy Wachtel.

The album also features the late Taylor Hawkins who provides lead vocals on Guess I’ll Go Away. This marks the ex-Foo Fighters drummer’s first posthumous recording following his untimely death on March 25, as reported by Rolling Stone.

Here’s a Spotify link to the album.

The album was produced by Edgar Winter and Ross Hogarth. According to Discogs, his previous production credits include artists, such as Melissa Etheridge, Ziggy Marley, Rita Coolidge and Gov’t Mule. The album appears on Quarto Valley Records. According to Rock & Blues Mule, label founder Bruce Quarto was and remains a loyal and enthusiastic fan of Johnny, classic rock, and blues music. It was his positive energy that made Edgar realize that the time to pay musical respects to his departed brother had finally arrived.

Brother Johnny is a true labor of love. The one thing I find a bit unfortunate is the total absence of female artists. It certainly cannot be for lack of talent. Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge, Shemekia Copeland, Ana Popović, Dani Wilde and Sue Foley are some who in my mind could have been great fits. I understand Raitt and Wilde have shared the stage with Johnny Winter. Of course, there could be legitimate reasons for what on the surface does look a bit surprising.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rock & Blues Muse; Rolling Stone; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This latest installment of the recurring new music feature must acknowledge two albums that dropped today by two of the most influential music artists of our time: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I already covered Young’s record in my previous post, so I’m skipping him here. There is also a new band of veteran session musicians who recently released their first single in the U.S., a great rock tune by an Australian band and a song from a German blues singer-songwriter and guitarist.

Bob Dylan/Goodbye Jimmy Reed

Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a tune from Rough and Rowdy Ways, the new and widely anticipated album by Bob Dylan. It’s his 39th studio record and the first with original material since Tempest from September 2012. In-between, the great music poet put out three cover albums with standards from the American Songbook. I was going to add all that’s missing is a Christmas collection when I just noticed Dylan already checked off that box in October 2009 with Christmas in the Heart. If you’re frequent visitor of the blog, you probably know my sentiments about Dylan range from outstanding to less than brilliant and everything in-between. Regardless, there’s no doubt Dylan is one of the most important singer-songwriters of our time. I also give him huge credit that age 79 instead of releasing yet another cover album, he dropped a collection with brand new songs. Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a tribute to the American electric blues guitarist who influenced Elvis Presley, Hank Williams Jr., The Rolling Stones and many other artists who I have no doubt include Dylan.

The Immediate Family/Cruel Twist

The Immediate Family is what you could call a super group featuring five veteran session musicians: Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Leland Sklar (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Steve Postell (guitar). Between them, they have worked individually and together with artists like Jackson Browne, Carole King, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Keith Richards, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Joe Walsh – and the list goes on and on. It’s yet another illustration that great musicians like to play with great musicians. But throwing together a group of top-notch musicians doesn’t automatically guarantee the outcome is as great as their skills. In this case I have to say I really like what I’m hearing! Cruel Twist is the group’s first U.S. single released on June 12. As reported by Rolling Stone, an EP is planned for October, followed by a full-length album next year.

Datura4/Give

According to their website, Datura4 are a Western Australian band combining full-tilt boogie, heavy psychedelia, blues and classic rock’n’roll for a sound heavy on riffage and mind-bending wig-outs – okey dokey. Founded in 2009, the band includes Dom Mariani (guitar), Bob Patient (keyboards), Stu Loasby (bass) and Warren “Wazza” Hall (drums). They released their debut album Demon Blues in 2015, followed by sophomore Hairy Mountain in 2016. Give is a great rocker from Datura4’s most recent album West Coast Highway Cosmic, which appeared on April 17. I dig the harmony guitar playing and the keyboard work. These guys are cooking – check it out!

Michael van Merwyk/We’re Human

Michael van Merwyk is a blues singer-songwriter and guitarist from Germany. According to this biography, he has become famous as one of only a few lap steel guitar players in the blues business. Michael performs and entertains fans at large festivals and also smaller clubs throughout Europe, either together in an acoustic duo with a blues harp player and singer Gerd Gorge as Delta Boys or his own band called Bluesoul. The (German) website of Bluesoul also notes van Merwyk started playing guitar at the age of 15 and has been an active musician for almost 35 years. I had never heard of him before. We’re Human is from what appears to be his most recent CD The Bear released on May 8. According to Discogs, the CD was recorded live in studio in December 2019 and January 2020.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Last.fm; Bluesoul; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Stevie Nicks/Landslide

Stevie Nicks, one of the distinct voices in pop rock and a great songwriter, turned 72 years old today. To celebrate the happy occasion, here’s one of my favorite tunes written by her: Landslide. According to Songfacts, Nicks wrote that song about a father-daughter relationship on the guitar in about five minutes in Aspen, Colo.

“My dad did have something to do with it, but he absolutely thinks that he was the whole complete reason it was ever written,” Nicks stated. “I guess it was about September 1974, I was home at my dad and Mom’s house in Phoenix, and my father said, ‘You know, you really put a lot of time into this [her singing career], maybe you should give this six more months, and if you want to go back to school, we’ll pay for it. Basically you can do whatever you want and we’ll pay for it – I have wonderful parents, and I went, ‘cool, I can do that.'”

She went on, “Lindsey and I went up to Aspen, and we went to somebody’s incredible house, and they had a piano, and I had my guitar with me, and I went into their living room, looking out over the incredible Aspen skyway, and I wrote ‘Landslide.’ Three months later, Mick Fleetwood called. On New Year’s Eve, 1974, called and asked us to join Fleetwood Mac. So it was three months, I still had three more months to go to beat my six month goal that my dad gave me.”

Landslide was first recorded for Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 10th studio album released in July 1975. Nicks also included a live version performed with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on her compilations Crystal Visions – The Very Best of Stevie Nicks and Stand Back from March 2007 and March 2019, respectively.

The above live version appears to have been captured in Chicago in 2008. I believe the musician backing Nicks is well known session guitarist Waddy Wachtel.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

You’re So Good, Baby, You’re So Good

A tribute to the amazing voice and versatility of Linda Ronstadt

The other night, I caught the great documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice on CNN. While I had been well aware of Linda Ronstadt’s amazing vocals, I had not fully appreciated her musical versatility. I’d like to focus this post on the latter, since it’s safe to assume her biography has been covered a million times.

Yes, Ronstadt “only” performed music written by others, which perhaps in part explains why it took me so long to write about her. But it would be a serious mistake to underappreciate her. You don’t need to take it from me.

Let’s start with a few comments from other artists I dig, who are featured in the documentary. “Linda could literally sing anything” (Dolly Parton). “Linda was the queen. She was what Beyoncé is right now” (Bonnie Raitt). “Linda was a very determined woman” (Don Henley). “There’s just no one that will have a voice like Linda’s” (Emmylou Harris). “Try following Linda Ronstadt every night” (Jackson Browne).

Linda Ronstadt Feb 2019
Linda Ronstadt in Feb 2019

And then there’s Ronstadt’s sheer success. The documentary noted she “was the only female artist with five platinum albums in a row:” Heart Like a Wheel (November 1974), Prisoner in Disguise (September 1975), Hasten Down the Wind (August 1976), Simple Dreams (September 1977) and Living in the USA (September 1978). I assume that statement refers to the ’70s only. According to Wikipedia, Mad Love from February 1980 also hit platinum, which would actually make it six such albums in a row. Plus, there’s another series of five platinum records in a row Ronstadt released between September 1983 and October 1989.

Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with Rescue Me, from Ronstadt’s eponymous album, released January 1973, her third record. Co-written by Raynard Miner and Carl Smith, this nice rocker was recorded live at The Troubador in Los Angeles. In addition to Ronstadt’s great vocals, I’d like to call out her impressive backing band: Glenn Frey (guitar, backing vocals), Don Henley (drums, backing vocals) and Randy Meisner (backing vocals), along with Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar), Moon Martin (guitar), Michael Bowden (bass). Among the album’s many other guests was Bernie Leadon. Following the record’s release and with Ronstadt’s approval Frey, Henley, Leadon and Meisner formed that other band called the Eagles.

When Will I Be Loved is one of the gems on Ronstadt’s breakthrough album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974. The Phil Everly tune nicely illustrates her ability to select great songs and make them her own. I dig the original by The Everly Brothers, but Ronstadt took it to another level. Apart from beautiful harmony singing, it’s the guitar work by Andrew Gold that stands out to me. Similar to her eponymous album, Heart Like a Wheel features an impressive array of guests, including Frey, Henley, J.D. Souther, Timothy B. Schmidt, Russ Kunkel, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris, among others. Once again, it goes to show great artists like to play with other great artists.

In September 1977, Ronstadt released her eighth studio album Simple Dreams, which became one of the most successful records of her entire career. Among others, it includes Blue Bayou, one of her best-known songs. And then there’s this fantastic version of Rolling Stones classic Tumbling Dice. Check out that great slide guitar solo by Waddy Wachtel, who in addition to electric also played acoustic guitar and provided backing vocals, together with Kenny Edwards. According to It Came With The Frame, Ronstadt at the time had a fling with Mick Jagger who helped her overcome challenges in mastering the song’s lyrics. That little help from her friend came to end when Bianca Jagger flew straight to California to confront her husband. Apparently, she actually liked Ronstadt as long as she didn’t get too cozy with Mick!

After having become one of the biggest female music artists on the planet and having firmly established herself in the country, pop and rock genres, Ronstadt took the gutsy decision to turn to Broadway in the summer of 1980. She became the lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, alongside actor and vocalist Kevin Kline. While people in the music industry tried to talk her out of it, saying it would be the end of her career, it all made perfect sense to Ronstadt. Her grandfather Fred Ronstadt had once created a musical arrangement of The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt also co-starred in the 1983 film version of the operetta, for which she won several Tony Awards and earned a Golden Globe nomination. Here’s Poor Wandering One.

During her Broadway and operetta phase and beyond, Ronstadt continued to release studio albums and took excursions into new musical territory.First up: An album of pop standards, ironically titled What’s New and featuring songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Sammy Kahn. It was the first in a trilogy of jazz-oriented albums. Again, Ronstadt’s record company Asylum and her manager Peter Asher were quite reluctant to produce such a record. But Don Henley didn’t call her “a very determined woman” for nothing, and in the end, the record label and Asher knew they couldn’t talk Ronstadt out of it. The album actually turned out to be a success, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spending 81 weeks on the chart. Here’s Ronstadt’s take of I’ve Got a Crush On You, co-written by George Gershwin and his older brother Ira Gershwin.

In 1987, Ronstadt took yet another musical turn. Inspired by her Mexican heritage (her father Gilbert Ronstadt was of German, English and Mexican ancestry) and her exposure to Mexican music, which was sung by her family throughout her childhood, she recorded Canciones De Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mariachi music. Released in November 1987, it became the first of four Spanish language albums Ronstadt released. It also remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in American record history, with 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. and nearly 10 million worldwide as of 2012. According to Wikipedia, it also is the only recording production that used the three best Mariachi bands in the world: Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Los Camperos and Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. Ronstadt simply didn’t do anything half-ass! Here’s Tú Sólo Tú.

If you’re new to Linda Ronstadt, I suppose by now, nothing would really surprise you. Plus country isn’t perhaps as big a leap as operetta and Mariachi music. Here’s a tune from Trio II, the second country collaboration album Ronstadt recorded with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. The album appeared in February 1999. I have to say I’ve rarely heard such beautiful harmony vocals. It’s like angels singing. And dare I add it as a huge Neil Young fan, I like Ronstadt’s take better than the original, which is one of my favorite Young tunes.

I’d like to wrap things up with one more song: Back in the U.S.A. Ronstadt’s cover of the Chuck Berry tune was the opener of Living in the USA, released in September 1978, her third and last record to peak the Billboard 200. Back in the U.S.A. also became the album’s lead single in August of the same year. Dan Dugmore and Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Don Grolnick on the piano do a beautiful job. Russ Kunkel (drums), Kenny Edwards (bass, backing vocals) and Peter Asher (backing vocals) round out the backing musicians.

Linda Ronstadt has had an exceptional career. In addition to having released more than 30 studio albums, including three no. 1 records on the Billboard 200, she has appeared on approximately 120 albums by other artists. According to her former producer and manager Peter Asher, Ronstadt has sold over 45 million albums in the U.S. alone. She has also produced for other artists like David Lindley, Aaron Neville and Jimmy Webb. In April 2014, Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also became a Kennedy Center Honoree last year.

In a February 2019 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Ronstadt said that it was in 2000 when she started noticing something was wrong with her voice. “I would start to sing and it would start clamp up. It was like a cramp. It was like a freeze…It’s very slow-moving this disease, so it took a really long time to fully manifest.” After these first signs, Ronstadt recorded one more album, Hummin’ to Myself, released in November 2004. During an April 2011 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said, “I’m 100 percent retired and I’m not doing anything any more. I’m at the ripe old age of getting to be 65 and I find that I don’t have the power that I had and that’s not worth inviting people to spend their money.”

While Parkinson’s is a bad disease, especially for a vocalist, Ronstadt is very gracious about it. “You know, I’m grateful for the time I had,” she said in the documentary. “I got to live a lot of my dreams and I feel lucky about it…Another person with Parkinson’s said that life after death isn’t the question. It’s life before death. So how you gonna do it? How you gonna live?” BTW, in good old CNN fashion to repeat content, the documentary airs again tonight at 9:00 pm ET and tomorrow (January 5, 12:00-2:00 am ET). If you like Linda Ronstadt, I highly recommend it.

Sources: Wikipedia; It Came With The Frame; CBS Sunday Morning; Arizona Daily Star; YouTube

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