Listen to this track by Antipodean post-punk quartet The Church. It’s “Under the Milky Way”, their breakthrough single in the North American charts as taken from 1988’s Starfish. The single would be released in February of that year, scoring #24 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song and the record off of which it comes was recorded in Los Angeles, produced by stalwart session guy Waddy Watchel (Stevie Nicks, Keith Richards) and Greg Ladanyi (Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon). Maybe the backgrounds of these two slick and professional L.A mainstream rock guys didn’t exactly match up with the post-punk, neo-psych, laid-back sensibilities of a band who’d come out of Australia like the Church.
Yet, the record would be the Church’s most commercially successful record to date, and with this song a big hit. It would appear in an episode of Miami Vice – surely a sign of late ’80s mainstream success!
But, the song was born out of a place that was largely the opposite of the euphoria of success.
When a song crosses borders and even oceans, that’s usually a good sign. But, before that happens, often the acts who create the music have to cross borders and oceans too. This is what happened with this band, removed from their cultural context in Sydney, and transplanted to L.A, with new personalities, new approaches to making music, and a certain level of discomfort at having to adjust to it all.
They were a long way from home. And this is a far from home kind of song.
“Under The Milky Way” has a mournful and somehow wearily resigned feel to it that is also darkly beautiful at the same time. Written by bassist and singer Steve Kilby, the song is full of 12-string guitar flourishes matched with a spacious, almost ghostly backing. The bagpipe-like whine of an e-bow-equipped guitar adds some pretty odd, yet compelling textures.
The song is the sound of loneliness itself, with lowering curtains, ghostly objects “shimmering and white”, and being led to places “in spite of your destination”. Existential angst, the totality of the universe and our smallness in comparison to it, doubts about the meaning of existence, and the more shadowy corners of one’s mind is where this song tends to live. It’s no wonder that it would be used in a pivotal scene in the 2001 film Donnie Darko, a movie that deals with many of these same themes.
That far from home feel seems a lot further than the distance between Sydney and L.A. The distance that seems to be evoked here ceases to be about geography, and is more about the spiritual implications. That’s really what raised this song up – that it came out of the personal impressions and reflections that were fueled by a not-very-enjoyable experience in L.A , and became universal instead.
The lines in the song invite listeners to imprint our own reflections and inner struggles onto it rather than being a song that simply hard codes Kilby’s experience in a strange town. This is the key ingredient to all pop music; that it lives beyond the times in which it’s made, and beyond the writer too.
The Church are an active band today. Check out thechurchband.net.