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Under the Milky Way - an accidental Australian anthem Print E-mail
Monday, 14 July 2014

The Guardian has a nice interview with Steve about the band's most well-known song and his changing attitudes towards it.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/culture/australia-culture-blog/2014/jul/15/the-church-under-the-milky-way-an-accidental-australian-anthem

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Like its titular galaxy, Under the Milky Way is a song that feels as though it has always existed. Only the mullet hairdos in its brooding video clip betray its true age.

The single dropped in 1988, eight years into the life of Sydney new-wave band the Church. INXS and George Michael were going galactic as Under the Milky Way slid on to the airwaves with a meteor shower of jangly guitars, moody A-minor chords, ebow instrumental interludes and otherworldly lyrics about “something shimmering and white” that “leads you here, despite your destination”.

With its anthemic chorus, “Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find,” Under the Milky Way catapulted the Church on to the world stage (the song peaked at No 22 on the US charts) and earned the band single of the year at the 1989 Aria awards.

Since then, Under the Milky Way has never drifted far from the airwaves – or the campfire. It has soundtracked car advertisements and movies (the surreal house party sequence in Donnie Darko introduced the Church to a whole new generation of indie kids), was once voted the best Aussie song of the past 20 years, and has been covered by buskersflashmobbers and children’s choirsThe KillersGrant-Lee PhillipsSiaJosh Pyke and the late, revered Indigenous singer Jimmy Little have all made it their own.

Brides continue to walk down the aisle to it. The dying request it at their funerals. The band’s loquacious lead singer and bassist, Steve Kilbey, has lost count of the number of people who’ve told him they lost their virginity to it.

If Under the Milky Way is the most successful and universally loved song of the Church’s 34-year (and counting) career, it is also the most despised. Ironically, its biggest critic has been its own co-creator, Kilbey. What began as self-inflicted tall poppy-chopping (Kilbey refused to collect the song’s Aria) soon morphed into resentment as Under the Milky Way threatened to eclipse everything the Church released in its wake.

Frustrated at how crowds would dissipate at gigs right after Under the Milky Way had been played, for a few years around the turn of the millennium, the Church refused to play it — or their other 80s hits, Unguarded Moment and Almost With You — live, lest they be seen as “a bunch of old hacks regurgitating our golden years”.

So how did the song that Kilbey once branded “flat, lifeless and sterile” and saidhe "accidentally wrote and accidentally became a single and accidentally became a hit" ever come to see the light of day?

Kilbey wrote Under the Milky Way with his then girlfriend, Swedish musician Karin Jansson. The couple, who went on to have talented twin daughters, were visiting Kilbey’s mother on the New South Wales central coast. After dinner, Kilbey snuck outside to dodge his washing-up duties and smoke a “special musicians’ jazz cigarette”.

“Perhaps I looked up at the wonderful glittering heavens and was inspired – I don’t know,” he recounted years later. Kilbey drifted back indoors and began tinkering on the piano. Jansson sidled up and, before long, a melody had formed. “We agreed on the lyrics within three minutes,” he said.

As for what the song’s about, Kilbey tells Guardian Australia: “It’s not about anything. Like all my songs, it’s a portal into your own mind where I give you a guided meditation. It’s a blank, abstract canvas for people to lose themselves in.”

When Kilbey played Under the Milky Way to his bandmates — drummer Richard Ploog and guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes — they were far from bowled over. It was the Church’s manager who insisted it make the cut on their fifth album, the Los Angeles-recorded Starfish. And then Arista Records founder Clive Davis, who recognised a cash cow when he heard one, made it the album’s first single.

The 90s saw the Church saddled with far greater problems than an attention-seeking hit single as “girls, drugs and geography” threatened to tear the band apart. Certainly economics played a part, but at some point in the mid-noughties, Kilbey made a sort of peace with his famous song.

In 2004, the Church released an LP, El Momento Descuidado, which included an ethereal acoustic version of Under the Milky Way. Two years later the band performed it with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, complete with aerial ballerinas tumbling through the night sky. And in 2010 the Church performed the song on national television as they were inducted into the Aria hall of fame (the band actually bothered to turn up this time).

These days, Kilbey is kinder about his breakthrough hit. While he says “I’d be happy to never play it again,” he admits it has “been a nice earner”, although laments “somehow I got the mixture exactly right with that song and never was able to again”.

While it was never his intention, he’s chuffed at how “Australians have adopted it as their own song”.

“I keep joking I’m going to sell it to the bloody Liberal party [Ed note: that's the conserative/right-wing political party in Australia] or something as the next Australian anthem,” said Kilbey a couple of years back. “Because it’s becoming so Australian, it’s unbelievable.”

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