first round game
(4) the church, “reptile”
(13) 16 horsepower, "black soul choir"
118-42 and advances to the second round
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 2.
james charlesworth on "reptile”
One night in 1987, at a beach house on the central coast of New South Wales, near Sydney, Australia, Steve Kilbey stepped outside to smoke a J.
Thirty-three years old, handsome in a secret-agent sort of way, the singer, songwriter, and bass player for the almost-famous neo-psychedelic rock band the Church was joined by his then-girlfriend Karin Jansson: former guitarist for the Swedish feminist punk band Pink Champagne and the future mother of the first of two sets of twins Kilbey would father. They stepped out into the darkening night, warm and ocean blown, the grass cool beneath their feet. As they passed the joint back and forth, making tracers in the silence, they watched an ocean of stars bloom against Sydney’s muted city glow to the south.
As always, there was a song in Steve Kilbey’s head. “Perhaps I looked up at the wonderful glittering heavens and was inspired,” he would later say sardonically. “I don’t know.” More likely he and Karin were jointly experiencing one of those mystical and revelatory moments for which marijuana is famous, characterized by statements such as “Dude… the universe is so big…” But there is a creative potential in these moments. If you can reach through that murky veil of awe, if you can access the uninhibited mind and harness its ramblings before they dissipate like vapor, if you can delay the race to the telephone to order an extra-large pizza with cheesy bread and garlic knots, you can synthesize a lasting magic.
When the joint was finished, Kilbey and Jansson stepped across the back yard to a little detached flat. Inside, encased in French doors and moonlight, sat a piano. “If it takes longer than a half hour to write the words,” Kilbey once said, “there’s something wrong.” In the case of “Under the Milky Way,” he claims it took them less than ten minutes. And within an hour, the song that would eclipse twenty-six albums and over thirty years of the Church’s material, that would win an ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Award that Kilbey would refuse to accept and be voted in the twentieth anniversary edition of The Sunday Australian as the Best Australian Song of the Last Twenty Years—in just an hour, the song that would guarantee Steve Kilbey royalties for life, and follow him like an annoying shadow, was finished.
Though it references the Garden of Eden, “Reptile” lacks an origin story. No pot-smoking Adam and Eve (or Karin and Steve) amble profoundly beneath galactic panoramas in the compositional history of the song that bears the notoriety of being “Under the Milky Way’s” less successful follow-up. It shares a similar lunar quality though; a sort of glitzy barrenness permeates its sonic mood.
It was written in Los Angeles, where the Church had convened to record their fifth full-length album, Starfish, and been put up by their new record company in the Oakwood Corporate Apartments on Sepulveda Boulevard. Two Aussies, a Brit, and Steve, who was a little bit of both, driving tiny rental cars on the wrong side of the road, not a thing to do when they weren’t at the studio but smoke pounds of weed and lie on stuffy beds smelling of sanitizer watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” At this moment, only months after that night at the beach house, The Church seemed poised on the brink of taking their heretofore moderate and mostly domestic success to a new global level. They’d recently finished up a U.S. tour with Echo and the Bunnymen and had another lined up with Peter Murphy, former frontman of the legendary goth band Bauhaus who was now pursuing a solo career. Their most recent album, Heyday, had earned them a four-record contract with Arista, who had flown them to L.A. and signed on Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi, famous for their recent work with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne, as producers.
A long way to come for a band of self-proclaimed “Aussie hippies” that had taken its first tentative steps in 1973 when Kilbey met guitarist Peter Koppes in Canberra at a shared rehearsal space in the back room of—wait for it . . . a church. It was not until 1980, however—after Kilbey had spent four years honing his craft alone, hawking homemade T-shirts on the street to pay the rent while writing and recording hundreds of songs on a four track in his cockroach-infested apartment in Sydney—that the two reconnected and started a band called The Church of Man, in reference to an inscrutable David Bowie lyric from “Moonage Daydream”: “The church of man love is a holy place to be . . .” The name was soon shortened, thankfully, and a second guitarist named Marty Willson-Piper was added a few months later when he wandered into their dressing room after a show—a handsome long-haired cigarette-smoking Keith Richards clone in a leather jacket and tight jeans—and was hired on the spot.
That’s Willson-Piper at the beginning of the video, dressed in his trademark leather, face obscured by dark lank locks, picking out the entrancing opening riff of “Reptile” on his Rickenbacker. Hypnotic and atmospheric, the repeated arpeggio pulses and sets a scene. A single bass note arrives with a rattling cymbal, a brief cameo from drummer Richard Ploog (affectionately known as “Ploogy”). Now a second guitar, Peter Koppes playing long drawn out notes with slow bends on his Stratocaster. The lyrics seem to arrive somehow mid-stream, as if they have been reverberating at a distance and we have simply accessed the correct frequency, Kilbey’s low-pitched delivery—which the Los Angeles Times once deemed “too deep and brooding for mass acceptance”—providing a haunting voiceover to lure us through this ethereal aural landscape.
Too dangerous to keep / Too feeble to let go / And you want to bite the hand / Should’ve stopped this long ago…
Like most of Kilbey’s lyrics, these are not quite unintelligible, not quite accessible either, a “portal into your own mind where I give you a guided mediation… a blank, abstract canvas for people to lose themselves in.” Abstract they certainly are, but as the song moves along the gist becomes clear: A serpentine woman with diamond eyes has coiled herself around Steve’s arm, has become the apple of his eye only to bite his hand and slither away, all flickering tongue and rattling scales. Like a real reptile. She is fleeting; she is cold-blooded; she is gone.
The video was filmed during the Starfish tour at a show in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater, whose dim lighting and balconied seating arrangement serve as a surreal backdrop to the performance, a crowd of mostly white-clad spectators bouncing zombie-like, entranced. The band certainly seems at the height of their powers. When Willson-Piper scampers across the stage to stand next to Koppes as they both solo their way toward the song’s fade, you would never know that the two barely spoke offstage, except to argue. You would never know that the filming of this video had to be paused at several points because Koppes stopped playing and stormed off the stage whenever he felt the camera was spending too much time on Willson-Piper. You would never know that Ploogy was only months from being thrown out of the band due to a potentially hallucinogen-induced psychosis. And you would never know that Steve Kilbey was smoking so much pot he often coughed up blood, that he was only three years away from embarking on a ten-year heroin addiction.
“It’s like one of those classic things,” Steve Kilbey says now with regard to the way the Church fumbled their success, “where a wrestler has just knocked his opponent out and he’s lying on the floor, and instead of finishing him off and getting the count, he jumps up on the ropes and sort of taunts the audience. Meanwhile the guy on the ground comes back to life, jumps up and throttles him. That’s pretty much what we did.”
Thirty-two years have passed since that night Steve Kilbey and Karin Jansson wandered out into the backyard of that beach house outside Sydney. Thirty-two years since the Church signed that four-record deal with Arista and flew to Los Angeles and imagined the vast palaces visited by Robin Leach on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” would soon be theirs. Though they never again repeated the international success of Starfish, their career as a band has continued basically non-stop, through various permutations and hiatuses and lineup changes, three decades of diligently produced output ranging from the eclectic to the mainstream to the bizarre, including a confusing assortment of side projects and collaborations and semi-anonymous releases under pseudonyms with song and album titles often featuring odd punctuation (Refo:mation, Priest=Aura), obscure quasi-religious references (The Hologram of Baal), or just pure nonsense (Pharmakoi/Distance-Crunching Honchos with Echo Units).
Trying to summarize or put a label on the career of the Church is a complicated process, because they’re a band whose legacy differs hugely depending on perspective. Ask the Passionate American Church Fan—someone who grew up on their early bootlegs and witnessed their steady rise toward Starfish—and they will wax poetic regarding the band’s underappreciated-ness and their subtle influence. They will praise the Church as a college-rock act, like XTC or Robyn Hitchcock or the Replacements or R.E.M., who paid their dues for years before achieving moderate mainstream success. The Passionate American Church Fan will remind you that Thom Yorke of Radiohead allegedly once called the Church his “musical roadmap” and claim that they (the Fan) might never have picked up a guitar were it not for Koppes and Willson-Piper’s complex dueling interplay. But ask the average American and they will remember the Church, if they remember them at all, as one-hit wonders—and if it weren’t for “Under the Milky Way’s” inclusion in the 2001 film Donnie Darko and various television advertisements, most Americans under the age of thirty would never have heard a Church song.
And yet we are also talking about a band that was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2010, a band that performed with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of the 2006 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, a band that many Australians view not at all as some underground cult classic but rather a mainstream act who roared out of the gate on a major label and with a popular radio hit (1981’s “The Unguarded Moment”) and stood in vast contrast to bands, like the Go-Betweens and the Laughing Clowns and the Birthday Party, who carried the Australian punk and new-wave movements in the early 80s.
Truth is, the story of the Church is the story of a hugely prolific band that just missed being something more than merely prolific. It’s the story of a group that created some truly avant-garde and unclassifiable music that also just happens to be remembered mostly for a four-chord mainstream ballad that, like a weighty prologue, unbalanced everything that came after.
As for Steve Kilbey, he’s carried on. Once famous for his brash eccentricities, generally known as “a bit of a nutter,” known to prance around rehearsal spaces in a silk bathrobe drinking from a carton of chocolate milk and, later, to have once recorded an entire album with a feedbag attached to his face so he could lick opium without putting down his instrument, he has become self-effacing and humble with age. He acknowledges the bridges he burned and the affectations he took too far in his youth. He has managed his way through, in his own words, “my insular, confused, sulky stage, which preceded my arrogant and blasé stage, which gave way to my ugly junkie phase.” He has also been clean of heroin for nearly twenty years, and though Karin Jansson doesn’t speak to him, he has rekindled a relationship with their once-estranged twin daughters, Miranda Anna and Elektra June Kilbey-Jansson, who now front a Swedish synth-pop band called Say Lou Lou.
He even seems to have come to a grudging acceptance that, despite the fact that he has penned something like 2,000 songs, 750 of which are registered with the Australian copyright agency, and was the primary song writer on 26 Church albums, 14 solo albums, and somewhere around 20 collaboration albums, the only song in that entire vast oeuvre that most people remember is the one he jotted off while stoned out of his mind on an otherwise forgettable night on the central coast of New South Wales.
I should’ve believed Eve, Kilbey sings in the final verse of “Reptile,” after the dissonant guitar mash that serves as a middle eight has relented to a cool silence, after Marty Willson-Piper’s hypnotic opening riff has returned to kill the stillness again. But maybe it wasn’t a woman at all that Steve Kilbey was singing about in “Reptile.” Maybe that ephemeral creature that coils around his arm and then slithers away is something else entirely: the unaccountable inspiration that appears to us in unexpected moments, that leads us along damp flagstones into the night and sits us down at a piano bench encased in glass.
She was the apple of my eye, Kilbey sings. It wasn’t long ago…
But really none of that matters. What matters, ultimately, is the question of whether the Church deserves your vote in March Vladness, whether they should earn your approval over any or all of the black-clad legions that make up the rest of the field in this tournament of Goth. Maybe the answer to that too lies in history, on a night when the Church came on stage in some forgotten city in some darkened venue to a surprising sight. Late summer, 1988, the middle of the Starfish tour, and though “Under the Milky Way” was rising up the Billboard charts and Starfish was well on its way to going gold in the U.S., Kilbey and Koppes and Willson-Piper and Ploogy stepped on stage to witness the mass exodus of a third of the crowd, causing a moment of confusion until they realized that these shadows shuffling toward the exits were all pale-faced with black-dyed hair, wearing black period-style clothing and eyeliner and silver jewelry, a somber subculture dispersing into the night because the deity they had come to worship had departed: Peter Murphy, his days in Bauhaus long behind him, the Godfather of Goth now relegated to opening for a bunch of Aussie hippies just because they had an accidental hit song on mainstream radio.
Lifting the strap of his bass over a shoulder, Steve Kilbey stepped up to the microphone and said, “It’s the biggest retreat of the Goths since the fall of Rome!”
James Charlesworth’s debut novel, The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill, was published in January 2019. An early draft of this essay incorporated a discursive section on his roommate, who happens to be a reptile.
matthew vadnais on “black soul choir”
Growing up, I’m not sure I understood Goth as something distinct from depression. If I had been asked to define the genre or subculture—both of which I was adjacent to but not really a part of—I think I would configured it as a movement intent on the creation of an economy of sadness by which the miserable and isolated could consider themselves wealthy. This definition largely reveals how poorly I understood mental health issues at least as much as it reveals reasons why I was obsessed with the Cure and had several Sisters of Mercy songs on mixed tapes made by friends but never identified as Goth. It’s not that I was a stranger to depression or the desire for alternative economies. Though I’m not sure I could have framed my concerns as such, the sticking point for me was Victoriana.
Part of the Goth ethos has to do with depression as temporal displacement; the lexicon for this displacement has largely been the British 19th century and its literature and fashions. While the instrumentation—the synthesized bombast and subterranean vocal range—of Goth as a musical genre would have been anachronistic to Victorian England, they continue to read as modern analogues to an empire reliant upon industrialization and the subordination of human appetites. Whether or not this is actually true or was understood by Goth-identified folks, I understood Goth as means to personal salvation that relied upon the rejection of Empire—but not of its spoils—in service of seclusion and a self-fashioned Dracula’s castle of one’s own. Part of my understanding or misunderstanding of Goth may have to do with when it, as a genre and ethos, found me as a teenager in Reagan-era America, looking for a way to disavow an American century without having to relinquish any of the privilege that it afforded me. Which is to say that my reactions to Goth—as a culture, as a genre, and, potentially, as a mental health crisis—had to do with a central paradox in which it felt simultaneously correct and too inordinately self-centered to add up to anything.
Here, the vampire analogy seems apt; I understood becoming Goth as becoming a vampire as represented by one of the early scenes from Interview with a Vampire, the one in which Brad Pitt is essentially infected with vampirism and, without actually changing anything about his plantation world, wakes up to the nocturnal and visceral gifts of altered perception. Ironically, of course, Goth, as a movement, served to create communities and the strength in numbers upon which all subcultures rely upon; nonetheless, any revolutionary aspects of becoming Goth felt like revolutions of the self. Goth, for me at least, was fiercely individualistic, rooted in the first-person narrative.
As I grew older and completed more graduate degrees, my objection to Goth become more formalized: if Goth required a rejection of the Apollonian in favor of a Dionysian truth rooted in individual perception and selfhood, it seemed no accident that folks who did not enjoy full personhood in the systems of power Goth appeared to reject would also find discomfort in Goth communities; subsequent narratives regarding pervasive racism from Goths of color reified my concerns. Of course racism and misogyny remained intersectional systems of power and oppression in the sweaty, strobe-lit rooms where Goth ruled; of course an economy of sadness would value white, male sadness more than any other.
Preparing to write about this song and to revisit March X-ness questions of semiotics and nomenclature in order to make an argument that 16 Horsepower’s inability to pass a Goth purity test should not be disqualifying, I have realized that there were parts of the Goth-adjacent scene that offered something more akin to what I was actually looking for. This is not to say that a Goth scene that centered 16 Horsepower would have hastened an intersectional approach to anything; however, the banjo-driven, post-religious ethos illuminated by this song offers very real alternatives to Goth as largely individualized experience.
Part of this has to do with a continental shift in the historical lexicon used to redefine or re-contextualize feelings of disconnect with modernity. By trading the language of vampire and Victorian recluse for sonic and linguistic touchstones of the American nineteenth century—traveling freak shows and preachers—16 Horsepower located their metaphors in a moment that included Reconstruction and the creation of localized and isolated communities, a moment that, while ultimately undone by the codification of America as an empire, came before an Empire-centric state of being, as opposed to rising out of it. In other words, something about the diction of this darkness feels like a call to have done things differently, a call I don’t hear in Goth steeped in a Victorian desire to roam the hearth in the rain while the Empire exists fully formed just beyond one’s property; I’m likely splitting hairs here, but part of my trouble with Victorian England as a Goth touchstone is that, even as we were consuming the music, we had evidence that it was Empire itself that was the force that could survive death; relocating the Goth touchstone to an American moment that could have seen the formation of something different—and I should admit that my interest in the potentialities and alternative futurities of Reconstruction are not explicitly in the band’s catalogue –locates the source of meaning in a moment that was killed by Empire as a concept as opposed to being created and empowered by it.
Even if I am over-reading this song, there is a collectivity and a call to action in the chorus: “every man is evil / yes and every man’s a liar / unashamed with the wicked tongue / sing in the black soul choir / roll your eyes and fly away.” While it matters to me that some transcriptions believe the lyrics are “yes and an everyman’s a liar,” I do not need to song to offer an explicit deconstruction of literary individualism to make the argument that this song doesn’t just offer strength in numbers by presenting a sing-along chorus (which is present in more conventional Goth) but by collectivizing the Goth awakening. Perhaps this reading relies on one’s reading of the black soul choir and what it means to fly away, but the instrumentation here –particularly the banjo and particular cadences with origins in union songs like “Boil that Cabbage Down”— offer, for me at least, an economy of sadness that does not presume individualism.
Look, I want this song to advance in this tournament. It’s catchy as hell and interesting enough in its lyrical and sonic ambiguity—I found four completely different transcriptions of its lyrics—that I may have been better off just advocating its inclusion based on its own affirmative merits. And yet, part of my attraction to this song has to do with an argument about what Goth could have been and may still become. If Goth is typically a vampire, the invading force of this Goth-ness is a distinctly non-Christian (or maybe post-Christian) Holy Spirit. I find this anachronistic play, more familiar to the best parts of Americana than Goth, more interesting and less solipsistic than the pale-faced Victoriana I failed to fully fall in love with as a teenager. Of course, Americana is every bit as prone to whitewashing and the pitfalls of institutional white supremacy as any other genre, but Goth is always a bit about time travel and the weeks I have spent with this song—thinking about its project with my 2019 politics—suggests that the Gothic enterprise may contain additional promise and utility if it is about the revaluation of communal sadness and suffering as opposed to the personal.
Even the undead need to organize.
Matt Vadnais is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver. Online, he writes about music and comic books. He teaches college English and theatre classes in the Milwaukee area.