The Church are one of the greatest one-hit wonders of the 1980s, but they get a fraction of the love they deserve. No disrespect to A-ha's "Take On Me," A Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran (So Far Away)" or "867-5309/Jenny," but I'd give you 8,675,309 Tommy Tutones for one Church.
The Church's hit in question was "Under the Milky Way," a 1988 smash that briefly made the Australian alternative rock band a staple on U.S. radio. In America, a one-hit wonder is commonly defined as an artist who only has one song reach the top 40 of Billboard's Hot 100 chart. This doesn't account for specialty charts like the magazine's Alternative or Mainstream Rock lists, where the band had success with a few songs other than "Milky Way," which peaked at #24 on the main chart.
Mention the Church, who visit the Cedar Cultural Center Thursday, to music fans in 2015 and half of them talk about wanting to take Hozier there and the other half ask why you're not spelling it with a v. It's a shame, because they made some of the most thrilling music of the '80s. Here are five reasons why this Church should be worshipped above all others.
The Church outlasted other one-hit wonders.
Fellow countrymen Midnight Oil called it quits in 2009, and Men Without Hats have gone through nearly 30 members over the past four decades. Devo once went 20 years between studio albums.
It's not as if it's always been easy being the Church. Singer/bassist Steve Kilbey's decade-long heroin addiction, financially fraught tours, bankrupt record labels, and shattered commercial expectations are just a handful of the setbacks the band has endured over its 35 years.
But the band have kept rolling since forming in 1980, releasing 21(!) full-length albums in that time. The longest they've gone between records is the five years separating 2009's Untitled #23 and last year's Further/Deeper, and even then there was plenty of touring in the intervening years. The band featured the core trio of Kilbey and guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Wilson-Piper until the latter exited in 2013, and drummer Tim Powles has been keeping time for them since 1994.
They gave birth to Starfish.
Kilbey's surreal-yet-anthemic lyrics, the jangly guitar interplay between Koppes and Wilson-Piper and a healthy dose of post-punk sensibilities are what defined the early sound of the Church, and none of those are ever on fuller display than on Starfish.
The dark, mysterious "Destination" kicks off Starfish with some classic Kilbey-isms about the uncertainties of the road ahead, but by the 10th and final track, "Hotel Womb," he's found a "wonderful room" that sounds like the perfect destination. These two essential Church tracks bookend several others on Starfish, including "Under the Milky Way" and "A New Season." The latter sports what is possibly the greatest vocal melody I've ever heard, courtesy of sometimes-singer Koppes.
Starfish's dreamy sonic landscapes come via ace songwriting and a flawless production job by Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi. The guitars shimmer, the vocals soar, and Kilbey's abstract poetry is capable of taking the listener into another world.
Despite "Milky Way" reaching #2 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart and #24 on the Hot 100 in 1988, Starfish only reached Gold status in the U.S. This record is vastly overlooked as "the one with 'Under the Milky Way,'" but once you listen to the whole thing, it becomes just another very pretty song.
People want to hear their other albums, too.
Many one-hit wonders have struggled to fill out an album that people will pay $12 for, much less want to hear live in its entirety. Ever hear of a one-hit wonder playing three records in full for a whole tour, 25 years after their peak of cultural relevancy?
While most commercial flashes-in-the-pan couldn't tour a "greatest hits" album, the Church offered fans a special treat with the Future Past Perfect Tour in 2011. The band played Untitled #23, Starfish, and 1992's Priest=Aura all the way through on this worldwide jaunt, tearing through 34 fairly lengthy songs every night.
Four years later, songs from the excellent new album Further/Deeper have dominated setlists on the Church's latest tour, which has been earning rave reviews from Seattle to Denver.
That's my kind of Church service.
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They're musical chameleons.
How fitting that the group's second most popular song on iTunes is Starfish's "Reptile," because the Church are genuine musical chameleons.
The band's 1981 debut, Of Skins and Heart, found them playing simple pop-rock songs like the shoulda-been-huge "The Unguarded Moment." The next two records, 1982's The Blurred Crusade and 1983's Seance, were practices in post-punk and other emerging sounds of the era, at times bringing to mind Echo & the Bunnymen and at others New Order.
On 1985's Heyday and follow-up Starfish, the Church discovered grandiosity and added an anthemic element to their music, resulting in perhaps the best one-two punch of their career. Later releases, meanwhile, have found the band embracing a less commercial sound and expanded song structures, perhaps best exemplified by Priest=Aura.
The common thread between the Church's nearly two dozen records is that, good or bad, they've always sounded like the Church.
Hits be damned -- they make the music they want to make.
The Church's lone big hit was a fluke in the first place. "Milky Way" was originally written on the piano as a stream-of-consciousness jazz number and only made it on the final cut of Starfish at the producers' urging. As Kilbey told an Australian interviewer in 2011, "It's an accidental song I accidentally wrote and accidentally became a single and accidentally became a hit."
They never seemed to want to craft "Under the Milky Way, Part 2." Instead the Church leaned toward trippy psychedelia on follow-up releases. Gold Afternoon Fix's "Metropolis" hit number one and Priest=Aura's "Ripple" reached number three on Billboard's Alternative Rock chart, but would anyone recognize those tunes at karaoke?
Neither album charted in the Top 40 stateside, and record label Arista pulled tour funding and eventually dropped the group after 1994's Sometime Anywhere.
VH1 compiled a list of the top 100 one-hit wonders of the '80s in 2009, but the voters had apparently watched too many Rock of Love episodes to be able to form valid opinions. Their consensus #1 was "Come On Eileen" by Dexys Midnight Runners, while "Milky Way" finished in an in insultingly low 84th place, sandwiched between Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers' "Tomorrow People" and Paul Lekakis's "Boom Boom Let's Go Back to My Room."
Even if the general consensus isn't in my favor, I'll always prefer the happy accident that is "Under the Milky Way." Without it, I'd be stuck arguing the merits of Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
The Church. With the Sharp Things. $30/$35, 7 p.m., Thursday, March 5 at Cedar Cultural Center. Tickets.
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