THE 1980’s – Big Hair, Boomboxes, Synths, and New Wave – The Church

Unguarded Moment (M Uniacke/S Kilbey) 1981 and Under the Milky Way (Jansson/Kilbey) – The Church 1988


Steve Kilbey (1957) and his family emigrated to Australia in 1962 and settled in Canberra (ACT), he formed his first garage band, the 5-piece cabaret outfit Sage, and would segue through several rock groups – Precious Little, Baby Grande, and the new wave Tactics, until 1980 when the original Church line up formed. Steve Kilbey (bass/vocals), Peter Koppes (guitar), Nick Ward (drums), who were soon joined by Marty Wilson-Piper (guitar), and signed with Parlophone. Below L-R Koppes, Wilson-Piper, Ploog (replaced Ward), and Kilbey


Their debut album Of Skins and Heart was released in 1980, featured jangly Byrds-style guitars and charted #22 locally, #7 in NZ and #13 in Sweden. The second single lifted off the album was the propulsive Unguarded Moment, with an 80’s version of psychedelia that boasted killer hooks, dense and tightly constructed lyrics which used cryptic metaphors – “rifles for minds...”, “horses for hearts...” and “cameras for eyes...”, which added to the mystique of the song, “So deep, deep without a meaning/ I knew you’d find me leaving/Tell those friends with cameras for eyes/That their hands don’t make me hang/They only make me feel like breathing/In an unguarded moment”.

Unguarded Moment was written by the then-husband and wife combination of Steve Kilbey and Mikela Uniacke (aka Michelle Parker) and was notably influenced by the Beatles Ticket to Ride which lead to some criticism of the band’s music being derivative, and unoriginal. But this view may simply reflect on Kilbey’s wham bam, thank you maa’m approach to songwriting, and his heroin addiction, rather than a deliberate attempt at artful plagiarism as he commented to David Nichols in “Dig: Australian Rock and Pop Music 1960-1985“, when describing his creative processes” It seems to me if you’re working really hard on music, there’s something going wrong, because I feel that it should just flow out.” The song chronicled a failed relationship with former lovers making the transition to life afterwards and wary of that time when unexpectedly their paths may cross – that titular “unguarded moment”, it charted #22 in April. Around this time Kilbey and Uniacke were estranged, and he had commenced a live-in affair with the then-3XY journalist Jennifer Keyte (above centre), who would later become a high profile newsreader on the Seven Network. Following his divorce from Mikela, Kilbey rather ungraciously noted that he had now “escaped the regimented drudgery of his first marriage.” .

Unstoppable jangly guitar riffs, seductive vocal harmonies, cryptic lyrics, what’s not to like.

After the band’s initial success with Unguarded Moment they 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.” Below L-R – The Church, Steve Kilbey, Michael Chugg.

While being inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2010, their former manager Michael Chugg howled from the audience ““Why couldn’t you have been like this 25 f—in’ years ago?” to which Kilbey finally responded in his memoir, Something Quite Peculiar, (2015) “Why does it take someone so long to arrive and be what they could’ve been all along. Chuggy had managed me during my insular, confused, sulky stage, which preceded my arrogant and blasé stage, which gave way to my junkie phase, which in turn begat my eccentric uncle phase – the one I’m currently in.” Below L-R The Blurred Crusade, Sing Songs, Seance.

Their second studio album was 1982’s The Blurred Crusade, produced by American Bob Clearmountain which was a local hit at #10 and featured the single Almost With You (#21) but their US label Capitol rejected the whole album, and advised the band to pursue a more Little River Band-West Coast style of music, which horrified Kilbey, and this tended to stall the band’s attack on international markets for the next six years. Several EPs’ followed – Sing Songs, Persia, Remote Luxury (#32), and the album Séance (#18), but their singles market had evaporated. Below L-R – Remote Luxury, Persia, Heyday.

In 1984 they entered Studio 301 in Sydney with producer Peter Walsh (Simple Minds) and emerged with the album Heyday, awash with strings and horns, which charted #19 locally but produced no memorable singles. In 1988 they returned to LA to record the studio album Starfish, with gun US producers Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi, the result was a bright, spacious, uncluttered sound, unlike the layered orchestration of Heyday and it bristled with potential radio-friendly hit songs like Under the Milky Way, Reptile, Destination, and A New Season, although only the former, a blissful evocation of the band’s dense, shimmering, guitar pop, Under the Milky Way charted, when it climbed to #22 in early ’88. Below L-R – Starfish, Karin Jansson, Under the Milky Way

Steve Kilbey and his then-partner bassist Karin Jansson, of alterna-pop group Curious (Yellow) wrote Under the Milky Way, it was warm and melodic, and traded on beguiling 12-string guitar riffs, light keyboards, minimal, moody  electric guitar chords, and ebow (a hand-held battery-operated electronic device for playing the guitar) instrumental inserts, achieved by playing an ebow on a Fender Jazzmaster guitar and recording it on a synclavier to achieve a sound that was reminiscent of bagpipes. 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, but Kilbey and the band delivered a timeless song, shimmering with starry effects.

Church 1

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 evoked that blissful around the campfire feeling that has endeared it to many fans over the decades. The song is built around Marty Willson-Piper’s twelve-string acoustic guitar refrain and 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? Below – Steve Kilbey with his mother.


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 at Smith’s Lake on the NSW mid-coast, 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! Below – The Milky Way over Australia – Normansville (SA), Uluru (NT), Taylor’s Lake (Horsham, Vic)

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 forty in the US and toured the world on the strength of it, ultimately it sold a million copies.

Beautiful imagery, haunting and eerily engaging melody and great vocals.

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. In his less charitable moments he has described Under the Milky Way as “flat, lifeless, and sterile”, but in recent times he has spoken fondly of its great earning capacity, and the way it connects with a vast global audience.


He has also been critical of the whole US recording industry at the time, his thoughts on this were captured by Jeff Jenkins in his book 50 Years of Rock in Australia (2007). “1987, out of nowhere after being dropped by warmer brothers (Warner Brothers) and capital punishment (Capitol), we were signed up by a-wrister records n tapes (Arista), who insisted that we come to LA so they could keep an eye on us. They say “Why dontcha work with Waddsy Wok-tell (Waddy Wachtel) and Grog Lady-ani (Greg Ladanyi). We thought OK. Why not.”

Kilbey bemoaned the fact that the Americans didn’t like Under the Milky Way, that he recorded it mostly on his own in a small programming studio, and after resisting attempts by Wachtel to de-prioritise the listing of the track on their album Starfish, that it confounded the critics and hit the charts, although Kilbey claimed that the band didn’t make any money because it cost so much to make.


It seems that Under the Milky Way is an all-purpose song, that is popular with people at crucial moments in their lives – losing their 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. In 2020 Under the Milky Way was re-birthed as the theme song for the movie Dry, an adaption of Jane Harper’s debut best-selling novel, starring Eric Bana. Its wistful lyrical metaphors and moody musical nooks and crannies, were perfect for a film that brilliantly captured the grim and threatening ambience of Aussie noir – murder in a remote outback community. Below twins Miranda and Elektra Kilbey, perform as Say Lou Lou in Sweden.


Kilbey and Janssen would have twin daughters Miranda and Elektra in 1991 and she would return to Sweden several years later with the children as Kilbey had become addicted to heroin, the twins have become successful performers in Sweden under the name Say Lou-Lou, and Kilbey would also father three children with Natalie an American painter, twins Eve and Miranda, and Scarlet.


The Church were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2010 along with The Loved Ones, the Models, John Williamson and Johnny Young.

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