From its beginnings as a 1960s-inspired neo-psychedelic pop band (all jangly, Byrds-like guitar riffs and mystical imagery) to an international standing based on a series of exceptional album releases, The Church created a unique and distinctive style. With enthusiastic press and respectable sales around the world, the band spent a considerable amount of the 1980s touring the UK, Europe and the USA.
English-born singer/songwriter Steve Kilbey formed The Church in Sydney during April 1980. Liverpool, UK-born Marty Willson-Piper (guitar) joined one month later. That line-up recorded a four-song demo which they sent to Chris Gilbey at ATV/Northern. A publishing deal and a recording contract with EMI/Parlophone quickly followed. The band's first release was the low-key `She Never Said'/`In a Heart Beat' single (November, 1980). The band's debut album Of Skins and Heart (May 1981; #30 in June) and second single `The Unguarded Moment'/`Busdriver' were more indicative of an emerging style. `The Unguarded Moment' reached #22 and, despite Kilbey's dislike of the song, it remains the band's signature tune in Australia.
Eighteen-year-old Richard Ploog replaced Ward at the start of 1981, and the delightful five-track double single `Too Fast for You' followed in July. The double single initially came in a pressing of 5000 copies, after which the tracks were also issued as separate singles: `Tear it All Away'/`You've Got to Go', `Fraulein' and `Too Fast for You'/`Sisters'. The band's international debut album The Church (on Carrere in the UK and Capitol in the USA) omitted various tracks from the local release and added several from `Too Fast for You'. The Blurred Crusade (February 1982; #10 in March) was a smoother, fuller release than the debut and spawned two singles, `Almost with You'/`Life Speeds Up' (#21 in March) and `When You Were Mine'/`The Golden Dawn' (May). Around that time, Kilbey declared to RAM (Rock Australia Magazine) that he was the `best songwriter in Australia'. Whether he meant it seriously or otherwise, this resulted in a local backlash that persisted for some years.
Meanwhile, The Blurred Crusade was issued in the UK and Europe, and in October 1982 the band commenced an extended tour of those territories. In November, Carrere issued the collectable 10-inch, four-track EP Temperature Drop in Down Town Winterland (`The Unguarded Moment', `Sisters'/`An Interlude', `Golden Dawn') for the UK market. The five-track Sing-Songs EP, which included a cover of Paul Simon's `I Am a Rock', followed in December. The EP featured a sparser sound and pointed towards the next album, Seance, which reached # 18 in June 1983. That stark release explored the band's darker side, and tracks like the singles `It's No Reason'/`Someone Special' (May 1983) and `Electric Lash'/`Autumn Soon' (September) were awash with strings and other effects. In 1984, The Church added ex-Reels keyboard player Craig Hooper as an auxiliary member. Hooper contributed to the band's excellent 1984 EP Persia (August), which yielded such radiant Church moments as `Constant in Opal' and `Shadow Cabinet'. Persia had been preceded by the equally impressive Remote Luxury EP (March). The two EPs made up the international album version of Remote Luxury (issued in August) and, following strong reviews in the USA, the band undertook its first American tour (October/November 1984).
1985 was a quiet year for The Church, and Kilbey took the opportunity to issue his first solo single (`This Asphalt Eden'/`Never Come Back', `Shell'). The first Church single in two years, `Already Yesterday'/`As You Will', came out in October 1985. It was a taster for the acclaimed Heyday album (produced by Englishman Peter Walsh), which reached #14 on the national chart in March 1986. Songs such as `Myrrh', `Night of Light' and the singles `Tantalized'/`The View' (January) and `Columbus'/`Trance Ending' (May) were among the richest moments in the Church canon. With the album selling well overseas, the band left for its third international tour in April 1986.
While the band was on the European leg of the tour, Willson-Piper quit. Tensions had arisen over Kilbey's authority within the band (he wrote nearly all the band's material), and Willson-Piper only came back into the fold under the agreement that future Church compositions would be collaborative efforts. This new-found unity immediately revealed itself on Starfish (March 1988), which yielded the sumptuous ballad `Under the Milky Way' and the taut rocker `Reptile'. Both were issued as singles (`Under the Milky Way' backed with `Warm Spell' and `Musk' in February 1988; `Reptile' backed with the non-album `Texas Moon' in July). These were the band's first local hit singles since `Almost with You' in 1982. In fact, `Under the Milky Way' became the band's biggest hit ever when it peaked at #5 on the national chart in April. It also won Best Single at the 1988 Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards. `Destination'/`We Both Know You're Here' (November) was the third single lifted from Starfish.
`Under the Milky Way' also reached #24 in the USA, which led to more international touring. Starfish was the band's first release for Mushroom (and Arista worldwide), and EMI brought its Church era to a close with the double retrospective album Hindsight (July 1988). Starfish was the band's most successful album ever, peaking at #7 in Australia, while in the USA it sold 600000 copies. The Gold Afternoon Fix album (April 1990) was a disappointment, despite heady moments with the singles `Metropolis'/`Much Too Much' (March), `You're Still Beautiful'/`Hunter' (June) and `Terra Nova Cain'/`Desert' (September). In Australia, `Metropolis' and Gold Afternoon Fix both peaked at #10 on their respective national chart the same week. The album also sold 250000 copies in the USA on pre-sale orders alone.
Long-serving member Ploog left at that point to be replaced by ex-Patti Smith Band drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. The new line-up issued the 65 minute Priest=Aura album (April 1992), which concentrated on long, atmospheric pieces like `Aura', `Mistress' and the CD singles `Ripple' (March) and `Feel' (July). It sold over 200 000 copies in the USA. Koppes and Daugherty left prior to further touring and The Church emerged as a duo (Kilbey and Willson-Piper) with the 75-minute Sometime Anywhere album (June 1994). That rich, dark, epic release picked up where Priest left off with lush, lengthy tracks like `Day of the Dead', `Fly Home' and the CD single `Two Places at Once' (June). Early copies of the album came with a bonus, seven-track collection, Somewhere Else. The Church also contributed a cover of The Radiators' `Room Full of Diamonds' to the Various Artists Earth Music project (June). `Room Full of Diamonds' did not appear on the album, but emerged as a bonus cut on the CD single of Joe Camilleri's `Gypsy Queen' (originally recorded by Country Radio).
After the patchy Magician Among the Spirits album and its CD single `Comedown' (May 1996), Kilbey put The Church on hold to concentrate on production work and his solo career. The September 1996 touring line-up featured Kilbey, Willson-Piper, Peter Koppes and Tim Powles (drums; ex-Venetians). A year later, The Church signed a new deal with UK label Demon Records (home to Elvis Costello), and recommenced recording and touring. The last two albums in the Church oeuvre were the collection of B-sides and oddities A Quick Smoke at Spot's (Archives 1986–1990) and the superb Almost Yesterday 1981–1990 compilation on Raven.
Since the mid-1980s, the individual members of The Church have issued many solo outings. The most prolific was Steve Kilbey with four albums, a mini-album, several singles and a CD EP, Narcosis; he has also collaborated with former Go-Betweens member Grant McLennan as Jack Frost which resulted in two albums (Jack Frost in 1990 and Snow Job in 1996). Kilbey's solo work tended to be more adventurous, with a definite avant-garde feel. Willson-Piper has released four albums of stirring, atmospheric pop which yielded four singles `She's King'/`Frightened Because of You' (August 1988), `Questions Without Answers' (June 1990), `Melancholy Girl'/`On the Tip of My Tongue' (October 1990) and `Luscious Ghost' (October 1992). He also toured as a part-time member of UK band All About Eve in 1991–92. Koppes has released two albums and two mini-albums, and has also toured with his band The Well, which comprised Anthony Smith (keyboards; ex-Flowers/Icehouse), Jim Leone (bass; from Celibate Rifles) and Richard Ploog (drums; ex-Church).
Having reconvened in 1996, the Kilbey/Willson-Piper/Koppes/Powles line-up of The Church issued a new album in September 1998, Hologram of Baal. The initial pressing of the album included a bonus disc containing the 80-minute studio jam called ‘Bastard Universe Stages 1-6’. The album’s first CD single, ‘Louisiana’, featured a rock/ambient mix not indicative of rest of album, which strongly harked back to earlier records. Having been produced by the band members themselves, and mixed by Powles, the album showcased a band brimming with renewed vitality. The Church followed the album’s release with a tour of Australia. From there it was onto the US where The Church remains a hugely popular concert attraction.
Peter Koppes also issued his fifth solo album, Love Era/Irony, in May 1998. As with previous efforts, the album was full of dreamy pop psychedelia. As part of the 25th anniversary celebrations, Mushroom Records reissued ‘Under the Milky Way’ on CD single (April 1998).
The Church’s eleventh studio album, A Box of Birds, came out in September 1999. This covers album, of the band members’ ten personal favourites, featured a varied selection, from George Harrison’s ‘It’s all too Much’ and Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer, to Iggy Pop’s ‘The Endless Sea’ and Hawkwind’s psychedelic trance rock classic ‘Silver Machine’. Initially, it was not intended to be a full album; the idea had evolved while the band was on tour across the US the previous September.
The process began with the recording of ‘Silver Machine’ and David Bowie’s ‘All the Young Dudes’, which the band intended for release through a fanzine, on mail order only. Then the planned release of a live album, recorded in 1997 at the Metro Club, Sydney (to be called A Bag of Bones), did not eventuate – the band just decided not to release it. Instead, it was decided to expand the two-song covers idea into a full-length album for general release, with the album being completed in Sweden. Kilbey also issued his new book of prose and poetry, Nineveh/The Ephemeron (June 1999).
A month after the new album appeared in September, Kilbey was arrested in Manhattan while attempting to buy three small packets of heroin from a street dealer. Kilbey missed the band’s second, and last, New York concert of a US tour (the band’s tour manager filled in on bass). The judge ordered Kilbey to report for community service that entailed cleaning subway carriages for a day. Kilbey responded by saying ‘it’s a right of passage for every musician to get busted’.
The Best of The Church compilation CD appeared in November 1999 on Mushroom, after which the band was back in Australia for the 20th Anniversary A Box of Birds national tour (March 2000).