So this is how medieval quests begin.
A satisfying 2019 concert by the Church – original members Steve Kilbey and Peter Koppes, performing 1988’s Starfish in its entirety – featured a signature rendition of “Reptile”, which simply demanded further study. Sure enough, quality cellphone video popped up on YouTube several days later along with 40 years worth of Church performances from all cities and eras. Festivals, retrospectives, early iterations, world tours, you name it: Quite the rabbit hole for any serious fan.
One show, in particular, caught the eye. Cryptically titled “THE CHURCH | The Blurred Crusade | Live Concert 1982″, this 720p high-resolution video was posted in August 2017 by someone or something called “Music Documentaries & Concerts”. 1982? Talk about early! By that point, the boys had been playing together barely a year, still in their impeccable paisley-shirt glory. It might be worth delving into if only to appreciate a fledgling young band working out the knots prior to “Under the Milky Way” stardom.
But whoa. Lord almighty! The following 53 minutes were a revelation: One of the greatest video performances I’d ever witnessed by any band. Granted, being a lifelong Church fan, some bias might be in order; a decent home-theater setup doesn’t hurt either. Yet still.
Unfortunately, details were scarce. The video’s description contained no relevant facts save the ten-track playlist. When and where did such a video get made? Who kept it buried inside their vaults all this time, and how did “Music Documentaries” get their mitts on it? What was the story behind an incredible rock show that barely 80,000 human beings on YouTube, plus a few hundred charmed souls in attendance, had ever seen?
With no answers forthcoming, the solution was obvious. Contact the man himself – Steve Kilbey, lead singer of the Church since its inception – and get the straight skinny from one of the four people who staged such an unforgettable performance way back in that halcyon autumn of 1982.
The life of an obsessive music journalist may be a wayward and lonely existence. But it does have its perks.
FRIDAY NIGHT Down Under. It’s an overcast fall evening in Sydney, temps in the mid-60s, nearly 40 years to the day since that fateful show. Kilbey graciously answers the phone, perhaps intrigued by a landmark early concert he’s never seen in its entirety.
Sweep the obligatory fanboy praise out of the way first: Die-hard fan since the mid-’80s; favorite album would have to be 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix, despite critics’ misguided slings and arrows; soft spot for 1983’s haunted Seance, whose lilting melodies have ushered me through many an emotional bind. “Okay, okay, okay,” he waves off good-naturedly. “Fine, fine, fine.” Then, down to the business at hand.
“There was simply no way to view it back then,” says Kilbey of the Blurred Crusade video he’d never seen. “No YouTube, no internet. If you didn’t catch these things in an editing room or on television, you didn’t see them at all.” Being of a certain age myself, I wholeheartedly concur. Would he be willing to watch the hour-long show tonight (early morning stateside), then get back with his impressions – particularly of the epic seven-minute penultimate track, “Is This Where You Live”? “Certainly,” he says. “But I must invite my girlfriend because otherwise, she’ll accuse me of watching my younger self merely for some ego kicks.” Nice touch, that.
Barely 45 minutes later, Kilbey admits he got as far as “Where You Live” before stopping – evidently dissatisfied with his own vocals. (A common perfectionist thread for many singers on stage; more about that later.) To a music geek’s unending delight, he then proceeds to fill in the blanks concerning the show’s provenance.
“Footbridge Theater, Sydney. Somewhere around April or May of 1982,” he says. “Up to that point, we were used to playing pubs and such. But our manager saw another show at the Footbridge and decided to book us for two nights. We’d never played anyplace like it before – the lighting, the crowd.” And yet here’s the Aussie Fab Four onscreen, in their youthful glory. “We were each in our mid-20s except [drummer] Richard Ploog, who was all of 19. He and Marty [Willson-Piper] had been with the band barely a year by that time,” says Kilbey. “Basically we just threw on our Paisley shirts and walked onstage.”
The show opens with a bonus single, “Tear It All Away”, from their 1981 debut Of Skins and Heart, perhaps the jangliest, chimey-est song the Church ever recorded. It doesn’t take long to be struck by the feathery interplay between Koppes’ and Willson-Piper’s guitars. Who’s playing lead, and who’s playing rhythm? For most of this show, the answer is ‘both’, as they trade countless barbs, picks, and flourishes throughout each song. Accomplishing such a telepathic feat in-studio with unlimited takes is one thing. But seeing it done live on stage, without a net, can be an otherworldly experience.
To repeat: This band has been playing together for one year?
“Peter was a truly phenomenal guitar player,” says Kilbey. And not a showy presence at all – Koppes exhibits a bassist’s relaxed, aloof mien rather than a lead guitarist’s. The word we eventually settle on is ‘laconic’. “Yes, laconic. He makes it look so effortless. Yet listen to the exquisite sound being produced! It was something special.”
Next comes the exuberant “Too Fast For You”, another bonus single from their debut. Here we get our first glimpse of the clinical beatdown drummer Ploog is preparing to deliver this evening. Cramming the song’s kinky high-dive bridge with blurred fills, one is tempted to count his arms and legs just to make sure he has only two of each.
Kilbey’s praise for Ploog on this night is unstinting. “If you want to know why this show succeeds, it’s all on Richard. Nobody can be ‘on’ all night, every night – but that night he was. He’s the one buttressing us, driving us forward all the way.” Indefatigable? “Oh yes. Absolutely. One cannot say enough about him. Nineteen years old, yet he didn’t miss a single stroke that entire performance.”
For track four, the Church premieres “Electric Lash” from the forthcoming Seance album. Back in 1982 the Church had only two proper releases under its belt – Of Skins and Heart and Blurred Crusade – and many fans (including this one) consider the witchy, dreamily-paced “Lash” a harbinger of more psychedelic directions to come. Yet Kilbey disagrees. “I wrote nearly all those songs, and ‘Electric Lash’ felt like writing any other Church song,” he says today. “To me, that was our sound… I don’t hear much difference in styles.” Well, heaven forbid some grungy music columnist should disagree with the guy that wrote them. But after spending half a lifetime with these records? A difference there is young Jedi. For what it’s worth.
At this point, it pays to catch one’s breath a moment, halfway through – just before the concert blasts into rock ‘n’ roll orbit. Although Kilbey agrees his fretless bass playing was exemplary, he remains dissatisfied with his vocal performance. “There were no monitors then, so I couldn’t hear myself singing. The live mix was also primitive, meaning the guitars and drums got all the volume,” he says. “I had to shout to be heard. That left me off-key and off-register.”
That means it’s time for another professional disagreement. Everyone understands Kilbey is no howling Robert Plant; that’s not why Church fans return to these records repeatedly. His is an eerie, spooky intonation: a sort of velvety ‘murmur-plus’, perfectly suited to his nostalgic compositions. This ethereal quality shines through, especially in the show’s second half, not to mention the unforgiving stage environment, which counsels an elastic leniency inapplicable to any studio recording. But Kilbey will have none of it. “Off-key, off-register,” he maintains. Fair enough.
“You Took” begins the halfway turn with its signature bass harmonics and introductory solo. Rock history has a hallowed place for songs that place the guitar solo upfront (see the Kinks’ indelible live version of “Celluloid Heroes”). But it’s Koppes’ subsequent Townsend riffs that jack up the power, backed by Kilbey and Ploog like two jet fighters screaming high above. Koppes and Willson-Piper then echo each other note-for-note on the soft-sell bridge, seemingly communicating on levels far more subtle and comprehensive than speech.
Next comes the sparkling radio hit that broke the Church in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe – basically everywhere except the Western Hemisphere. Allmusic.com labels “The Unguarded Moment” a classic, “arguably one of the greatest singles of the ’80s”. This reviewer vividly recalls hearing the single on college radio, then rushing out to complete his Church catalog on the spot. “Moment” also supplies the biggest unbridled ‘pop’ of the entire show, as the crowd screeches its approval while bouncing wildly up and down.
So, needless to say, Kilbey absolutely loathes it.
“The song just doesn’t appeal to me. It doesn’t give me any pleasure at all,” he is quoted as saying way back in 1992. Asked if this opinion has changed over the decades, his answer is an unequivocal ‘no’. “I still cannot stand the song,” says Kilbey today, sans any hesitation whatsoever. Short, succinct, to the point. But one wonders how anybody with a pulse could behold such a ringing live performance of “Moment”, particularly the bashed-furniture finale, and not pump his or her fists with glee? Ah, well. Seems we’ll just have to differ with the rock superstar one last time.
And now – following the vivacious “Almost With You”, which keeps the crowd lustily cheering – comes a singular rock-n-roll moment as fantastic as it is unexpected. Even hardcore Church addicts might hesitate to rank the band among the Kisses, Van Halens, or Queens of the wild showmanship era. But for seven minutes and thirty seconds, “Is This Where You Live” launches the Church to a place few bands ever reach, on stage or anywhere else – a golden moment of transcendent rock joy, like few this reviewer has ever seen. Somehow they manage to transform a moderately satisfying studio number into a writhing, mind-ripping live powerhouse that builds up, rocks even harder, and then just detonates. Like being caught inside a musical foxhole under enemy fire, refusing to let your mates down no matter the cost. Sheer onstage ecstasy; praying at the righteous altar of rock ‘n’ roll; proper lightning in a bottle. The effect is overwhelming.
“Our goal was always release. Like an orgasm,” says Kilbey. “Although sometimes it’s acting, for the audience’s sake.” Oh really. How about in this case? His response may be measured, but Kilbey cannot resist praising Ploog’s drumming once more: “Watching Richard, I’d say he was really something. Pounding, driving, keeping us all afloat. Never misses a stroke.”
There were three other men on stage for this classic concert. Unfortunately, Kilbey has lost touch with all of them. Ploog departed the band around 1990; Willson-Piper in 2013; Koppes in early 2020. ‘Falling out’ is the oldest story in rock ‘n’ roll. Bandmates are worse than spouses, except without love, sex, or family to hold things together (and the spotlight constantly driving them apart). After so much time in the trenches, there’s also no way to parse the endless ‘reliably he said/he said’ discontents that may have smoldered behind the scenes. “You step on someone’s foot getting into a car, and 20 years later, it still comes up,” the singer laments. “Eventually, somebody says ‘no more’.” Yet the show does go on: Kilbey departs on a tour of the western US next month. “At some point, the others had enough,” he says. “I still haven’t.”
Despite these absent friends (or former ones), our conclusion is nonetheless tinged with sweetness. As Alan Moore wrote in Watchmen, it seems the past keeps getting brighter all the time.
“It was great to be a part of. Sad that time has to go by,” says Kilbey in closing. “You can’t remain young and beautiful forever.”
Finally, something we can all agree on.