I was witness to a slightly surreal event recently when I attended the weekly Corktown Ukulele Jam in Toronto. There were about 80 ukuleles all strumming the chords to the Church’s 1988 hit “Under the Milky Way”, with as many voices singing it.
What did they do when it was time for the bagpipe solo? Someone pulled out a kazoo, and started blowing on it to the encouragement of the group leader to “make it more mysterious sounding”. I don’t know how mysterious you can make a kazoo, but the 80 ukes all strumming in unison did create a rich and surprisingly mysterious-sounding rendition of the song.
Events like that signify that a song has made it into the cultural lexicon. Large groups of school kids have also sung “Under the Milky Way” together, as the PS22 school in Staten Island, New York has done, not once, but twice. In addition, there have been numerous covers by other musicians and bands, many in the last few years. YouTube is rife with amateur covers of the song and it’s been featured in many commercials.
Yet, for a song that resonates with so many people, the composer, Steve Kilbey (lead singer and bassist for the Church), considers the song nothing special compared to others he’s written. “It’s an accidental song I accidentally wrote and accidentally became a single and accidentally became a hit”, he said in a 2011 interview with News.com.au (“The Church milk their own song”, by Cameron Adams, 14 December 2011)
“Under the Milky Way”‘s humble creation certainly didn’t hint at its popular future. It was written by Kilbey and his girlfriend at the time, Karin Jansson (of the Swedish all-girl punk band Pink Champagne) at his mother’s house in Australia. According to Kilbey in an interview for The Great Australian Songbook and on his blog, he was outside at his mother’s house one night smoking a “special musician’s jazz cigarette”, and went back in and played some chord patterns on an old piano, while Jansson and he composed the lyrics in a few minutes in a sort of stream of consciousness method, tossing ideas back and forth.
Originally it was a more jazzy tune and Kilbey imagined himself in a late-night bar at closing time in the opening line “Sometimes when this place gets kind of empty…”
He put down a home-recorded demo on cassette and filed it away as “just another song”. Months later, he and the Church were on their way to Los Angeles to record their next album, Starfish. They had been slowly but steadily gaining a wider audience, so their record company Arista set them up with bigger name producers Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel. In many ways, it was a strange pairing – Ladanyi and Wachtel were most known for their work with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, and other artists on the mellow, takin’-it-easy ’70s Southern California scene.
By most accounts, studio tensions were quite high during the sessions for Starfish as the studio pros worked with the younger, comparatively inexperienced band. The producers were especially hard on drummer Richard Ploog, to the point where session musician Russ Kunkel was brought in later to replace Ploog’s drumming on “Under the Milky Way”. Ladanyi was also reportedly in the middle of a big cocaine habit at the time, which couldn’t have made working with him any easier.
Due to the strained relationship between the band and the producers, neither Kilbey nor the rest of the Church has especially fond memories of the recording of Starfish. Yet, it’s a strong album, mostly due to the quality of the songs and playing, but also due to the crisp, rich, and powerful sound of the record.
The year 1988, when the album was released, is just far enough back that the world was quite different than it is today. The Internet was still in its infancy, with the first major computer virus appearing, and the first commercial email provider being launched. Prozac also made its debut in 1988. The first George Bush was elected president of the US that year, taking over from Ronald Reagan.
Popular music at that time consisted of a lot of slick dance-pop from George Michael, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, and Whitney Houston. Mixed in was the last gasp of hair metal bands like Whitesnake and Poison before grunge would help wipe that genre out. Guns n’ Roses were riding high and the Church’s Australian compatriots INXS were everywhere with “Need You Tonight”, “Devil Inside” and “New Sensation”.
Into this musical climate came “Under the Milky Way”, a moody, jangly song that didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the pop chart. The closest contemporaries in sound were R.E.M. and the local “paisley underground” scene of Los Angeles, which included bands like The Bangles and Rain Parade.
The largely acoustic “Milky Way” stands out on the mostly electric Starfish. The chord structure is questioning, dark, and mysterious – evocative of its starry night title. Lyrically, it’s somewhat disconnected and ambiguous. It’s not a straight narrative. Rather, we’re left to color in the details.
I’ve read various interpretations of the meaning behind the lyrics – from it being a reference to Amsterdam’s Melkweg (translated as “Milky Way”) music venue (due to an erroneous press release issued with the song) and even to it being an account of a sexual encounter in Memphis, Tennessee. I think we can safely assume that the Memphis in the song most likely refers to the original Memphis in ancient Egypt, an interest of history and occult buff Kilbey.
“Milky Way” nicely links with the immediately preceding song on the album, “Destination”, with the use of that word in the lyric “It leads you here despite your destination / Under the Milky Way tonight”. Another nice touch is the placement of the shimmering synthesizer that comes in immediately preceding and foreshadowing the line “something shimmering and white.”
The words that really make the song, though, are “Wish I knew what you were looking for / Might have known what you would find.” The first part of the phrase is recycled from a previously unreleased earlier song called “Anna Miranda” where he just sings “wish I knew what you were looking for”, and we’re in the dark as much as he is. On “Milky Way”, he adds the line “might have known what you would find”, making it a whole other thing and totally changing the effect. Now he’s clued in, but we’re still not. Will he reveal more? We want to keep listening to discover what was found. Can we read between the lines of the rest of the song to discover for ourselves what she found? We’re left with the impression that it’s something dark.
Besides the engaging lyrics, the song is unusual for its left-field “bagpipe” solo. In actuality, the instrument is not a bagpipe, but an electromagnetic device called an ebow used on a guitar and recorded through a synclavier synthesizer. One can only guess why they chose this bagpipe sound, though Scottish band Big Country had achieved a similar sound on their single “In a Big Country” a few years before. It adds an exotic feel, inasmuch as a bagpipe can be exotic. If nothing else, it takes the song to a different, majestic place.
“Under the Milky Way” was an international hit, going to #26 on the US charts and winning the 1989 Aria song of the year award (Aria is Australia’s equivalent of the Grammies). It was used in an episode of the ’80s TV show Miami Vice, as was Starfish’s “Blood Money”. After that, the song could have faded into obscurity, destined to appear on ’80s compilations and be remembered nostalgically by those who heard it when it was new. But, a funny thing happened. It began finding a new life, years after its first popularity.
Much of this can be attributed to the 2001 film Donnie Darko. “Milky Way” was used in a climactic and memorable part of the original film (replaced years later on the director’s cut with “The Killing Moon” by Echo & The Bunnymen, though it’s still heard in a car scene) and a new generation heard it for the first time and were intrigued by the mystical and mysterious song. “Milky Way” began to be used in commercials and to be covered by new bands such as The Killers, as well as music industry veterans like Rick Springfield, Grant-Lee Phillips, and Matchbox 20. In 2008, Weekend Australian Magazine called it the best Australian song of the last 20 years.
“Milky Way” had always been a concert staple for the Church, but they recorded an all-acoustic, slowed-down version, complete with a mournful harmonica solo in 2005 for their El Momento Descuidado album. The following year, the band performed it with a symphony orchestra and the accompaniment of a cadre of ballet dancers being encircled by a gang of trick motorcycle riders at the opening ceremonies of The Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Kilbey also made the negligible decision at that event to change the line “lower the curtain down in Memphis” to “raise the curtain up in Melbourne.”
The success of Starfish, propelled by “Under the Milky Way”, brought the then eight-year-old band to new audiences and introduced them to new vices, with Kilbey sliding into a heroin addiction he wouldn’t break until the end of the next decade. Another hit with the stature of “Milky Way” never did come again for the Church, though they’ve continued making strong music. Their most recent album, Untitled #23 came out in 2009, to some of the best reviews of their career.
Like all long-lasting songs, “Under the Milky Way” has a universality that connects with many people. The melody is insidiously catchy. It leaves you wanting more. The song conveys a feeling of unsolved mystery. The feeling that the more you listen to it, the more you may hear, the more you may understand, the more you may find what you are looking for.