Under the Milky Way (Jansson/Kilbey) – The Church 1988
After the band’s initial success with Unguarded Moment and their second album The Blurred Crusade (#10 in 1982), the band struggled to hit the charts consistently and had a disappointing tour of the UK in support of Duran Duran. Michael Chugg was the band’s manager at the time and he recalled his disappointment when the band pulled out of the Duran Duran tour halfway through, and before the European leg had commenced, in his memoir “Hey, you in the Black T-shirt”, he lamented “…the band were hard to like…Kilbey was hard work. You could guarantee that where they had to be nice, it wouldn’t happen.”
In 1988 Steve Kilbey and his then-partner bassist Karin Jansson, of alterna-pop group Curious (Yellow) wrote Under the Milky Way, the song traded on jangly guitars, moody chords and ebow instrumental inserts, achieved by playing an ebow on a Fender Jazzmaster guitar and recording it on a synclavier to achieve a sound that is reminiscent of bagpipes. Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi produced the recording in LA and brought their expertise to the studio to deliver a timeless song shimmering with starry effects. Regular drummer Richard Ploog couldn’t produce a drum track that sounded right so they played a click track and later, session percussionist Russ Kunkel added the final drums and percussion.
There is an ethereal, dreamlike, haunting, and mystical, quality to the song “…wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find …” lyrically and musically it evokes that blissful around the campfire feeling that has endeared it to many fans over the decades.
The song is built on Marty Willson-Piper’s twelve-string acoustic guitar refrain and restrained keyboards, an impressive arrangement, and subtle orchestration, which lifts it to anthemic status, albeit its purpose remains strangely undefined and open to interpretation, making it highly accessible at a personal level.
Kilbey is famously elusive about the meaning of the song, he was apparently inspired by the name of a Dutch musical venue he frequented called Melkweg (Dutch for Milky way), and at times he has volunteered that it is variously about time and distance, the future and the past, nothing and everything, a personal and universal sentiment, as well as outer and inner space – there you go, that clears it up, OK?
Well maybe not, more recently Kilbey has volunteered that his inspiration to write this song was to avoid having to dry the dishes after dining at his mother’s house, having reckoned that if he went to the family piano his then-partner Karin Jansson would converse with his mother and most probably dry the dishes for her. It has also been suggested that the inspirational provenance for the song had more to do with smoking marijuana under a blanket of stars after dinner at his mother’s house -take your pick!
Kilbey’s fellow bandmates didn’t like the song, he said they were envious and negative when it became a hit, but their manager saw its potential, as did Clive Davis, head of Arista Records, and they pushed it into the top thirty in the US and toured the world on the strength of it.
Kilbey has professed a love/hate relationship with the song as it has tended to dominate the public’s perception of the band following their initial breakout hit Unguarded Moment in 1981, which Kilbey didn’t particularly like either.
He believes that Under the Milky Way is an all-purpose song, that is popular with people at crucial moments in their lives – losing your virginity, getting married, and dying, as Kilbey has observed “it can be whatever the listener wants it to be, a portal to fulfilment or happiness, because we are the masters of ambiguity.” It won the 1989 ARIA Award for Single of the Year, charted at #22 locally and #24 in the US and featured on the soundtrack of the movie Donnie Darko in 2001, the song has also been variously covered by such artists as Sia, Jimmy Little and the Killers.