The Church’s story is probably one of the most unlikely in rock history – the band, who had little success outside their homeland of Australia, got signed by the same man who was guiding Whitney Houston to superstardom, namely Clive Davis. The label mogul who had a penchant for psychedelic jamming must have seen something in the underground band when he signed them to Arista Records in 1988.
Even stranger was their choice of producers – Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel, two LA sessionmen who were coming off success with Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”. Not surprisingly, the match was not a harmonious one, as the band constantly clashed with them. Yet, from chaos often beautiful things emerge. The result was Starfish, The Church’s highest charting album.
The centerpiece of the record was the dreamy “Under the Milky Way”, a surprise hit in the spring of 1988. With its swirling keyboards and odd bagpipe solo – it sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time. And although “Under the Milky Way” receives the lion’s share of attention from mainstream music fans, the band’s catalogue has far more to offer than gentle, chiming pop. In fact, some of its best songs feature a jagged, piercing sonic assault, especially the enchanting, almost sinister “Reptile”.
“Reptile” was the second single from the album Starfish, and should have been as big a hit as “Under the Milky Way”. While it doesn’t have such a ghostly romantic lyric, the hook here is both catchy and rather insidious. Leave it to American radio to drop the ball and not play it – not that they played “Under the Milky Way” too much until it became a staple on “Hits from the 80s” radio stations.
As a college rock stalwart during the ’80s, The Church emphasised sonic textures to inject their music with ethereal, dreamlike qualities. Steve Kilbey’s husky, brooding vocals and the sense layers of ebbing and flowing guitar sound like the Byrds with Lou Reed on vocals. These four musicians are warmly granted to those who are so skilful and courageous with voluminous guitars, mixing chords, throaty chants and carefully crafted lyrics. Anyone who spans catchy melodies so casually and charmingly over pulsating rhythms must not miss the attention of a mass audience.