Key Tracks: The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”

The story of an Australian anthem that might have never been released

First formed in 1980, Australian rock band The Church has undertaken quite the journey since its members first came together in Canberra behind frontman/bassist Steve Kilbey and guitarist Peter Knoppes, both of whom remain in the group today. Early efforts from the Church, including 1981 debut LP Of Skins And Heart and 1982 sophomore effort The Blurred Crusade, were stylistically indebted to ’60s psychedelia, but while those records led to success in Australia and some high-profile touring slots around the globe, the band initially struggled to make a major impact in the US and Europe. Nevertheless, the band soldiered on, releasing several more full-lengths and ultimately hitting paydirt with 1988’s Starfish, which included the international smash “Under the Milky Way.”

Though the group had moderate success with 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix and 1992’s Priest = Aura, fans who had come aboard because of Starfish and “Under the Milky Way” didn’t all come along for the ride. The song has lived several lives since – in this excerpt from his Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio, Steve Kilbey shares the story of “Under The Milky Way”’s origins and surprise success, and his ongoing efforts to understand it.

Malcolm Viles

I used to make cassettes, and cassettes of cassettes, and I gave [our manager] this cassette with 100 songs on it. When we were making Starfish he rang up, he was going, “When are you doing that ‘Under the Milky Way’ song?” We did “Under the Milky Way” at his behest, but strange enough, “Under the Milky Way” was the black sheep of that record. The producers didn’t like it, the band didn’t like it and I didn’t really like it, either. We did [it] and then we only discovered it was a hit single when Arista came into the listening party.

We played most of the album and [were told], “Good album Steve, good, good.” “Under the Milky Way” came on. Clive Davis came up to me and went, “Stop, I don’t want to hear anymore.” Shook my hand, went “That’s a hit, Steve.” Then one by one all the Arista guys came out and went, “That’s a hit, that’s a hit.” There was one guy I knew at Arista and he said, “Anyway, that’s a hit.” I went, “You really think so?” He said, “Believe me, that’s going to be a fucking hit.”

It was half a hit already, and then Arista made it a hit. They fucking pulled out every stop they had to make it a hit. I didn’t spot that one coming. No one did. We didn’t rehearse it and it was recorded on its own. I recorded most of it on my own in another studio because nobody really wanted to know about it. Nowadays people go, “How could you not hear that was a hit?” I’m like, “I don’t know.”

The Church - Under The Milky Way

I remember going home and playing it to some friends of mine and going, “Arista says this is going to be a hit.” People were laughing, going, “Man, it just sounds like all of your other songs, why would that be a hit?” I guess it had some universality that I hadn’t heard before. All of my other songs were very specific and you had to understand who I was and who the Church was and where we were coming from. Then suddenly, with that song, you didn’t have to understand any of that. It could stand on its own.

In the intervening years a couple of Aboriginal guys in Australia did a version of it. They adopted it – it was voted the most popular Australian song of the last 35 years. It’s become one of those songs. If you don’t barrack for a football team or a basketball team or something, when people say, “Hey, who’s your basketball team?” you go, “The Lakers.” It’s just something you say. So people who don’t really like music, when someone would say “What’s your favorite Aussie song?” they go, “What would everybody else say? ‘Under the Milky Way.’” There’s a snowball effect the bigger it gets. Now they use it for tourism, it’s been used for advertisements. One day I sat down on YouTube and I got sick of it after about 300 versions.

The Killers feat. Chairlift - Under The Milky Way

It’s one of those songs that is so adaptable. The Killers do it and everybody does it; It’s become the “All Along the Watchtower” of the 2000s or something. Denis Leary put it in the movie [Monument Ave]. I remember I met Denis Leary at this award [show], saying “Why did you put my song in there?” He said, “Because I made this film about Boston in 1998 and if you went in a fucking bar in Boston in 1998 that’s the song you would hear. Where people were playing pool and drinking, it was ‘Under the Milky Way.’” People get married to it, people play it at their funeral. It’s just become this universal song for all occasions.

It’s a blank canvas and I never seem to really have managed that before that or since then. They are too specific; not everybody can embrace them. But something about “Under the Milky Way,” everybody can understand that. I’m not exactly sure why, but that’s why there’s always this unknown factor operating with music, this maverick thing that no one can predict. Of course it became very frustrating for all the record companies. They had gone, “Why don’t you write another ‘Milky Way’?”

I’m thinking, “I fucking would if I could!” But I don’t know how I wrote that and I don’t know what it is about it that’s so great. I’ve never managed it again.

By Steve Kilbey on August 8, 2016

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