second round game
(4) the church, “reptile”
(5) dead can dance, “the ubiquitous mr. lovegrove”
and will play in the sweet 16
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 13.
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.
SARAH EINSTEIN ON “THE UBIQUITOUS MR. LOVEGROVE”
We were always hoping for magic.
Jeffrey made masks of pagan spirits and wore crystals on embroidery-thread rope around his neck. Sally built an altar and covered it in river stones and beeswax candles. The old woman whose name I can’t remember—the one with the frightening drinking problem and the unsettling habit of showing up even when she’d been specifically asked not to come to the party—read Tarot and tea leaves. Marybeth drew pentagrams in menstrual blood on the doors of our ex-lovers when they wouldn’t leave us alone, and Jackson whittled whistles shaped like phalluses and pitched to minor keys.
There was also a lot of acid, which might explain the whole thing.
The soundtrack of those years was varied, but always included Dead Can Dance. We danced in dervish circles to “The Arrival and the Reunion,” spun around fires to “Black Sun,” came down to “Wilderness.” But we fucked to The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove. We called it World Music then, not Goth, but we wouldn’t have called anything Goth because Goth seemed to a watered-down version of who we were, the sort you could buy at Hot Topic for nineteen ninety-nine.
It’s the tabla that makes The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove such a great fuck song; it beats a slow tattoo at just the right speed for approaching and retreating. The sarod weaves in and out, languid and seductive. The synth hooks is catchy, but not disruptive. Things speed up, slow down, in a circular pattern. If you put it on repeat, you could fuck for hours. Or could have, when you were as young as we were then, which now seems younger than anyone has ever been.
It’s also a bitter song, more suited for hate-fucking than for the passion of new love, and by this time we had all slept with one another at least once—in interesting but ultimately doomed combinations—and were so familiar with one another that hate -fucking was all we had left. And that was okay, as we were just at that point in adulthood where the tiny community of misfits we had formed was atomizing as we all left our little college town for real jobs, real relationships, real ways of changing our lives and the world. Or, at least, those of us who made it out at all made it out then. I hear there are still one or two of us at the old bar every night, but that’s too sad to think about.
Brendan Perry manages both to be wounded and condescending as he croons the vaguely threatening lyrics. (Why might she never wake up from this sleep?) The song has a strong pop sensibility; we would sometimes see people dancing to it in clubs instead of around bonfires. Perry’s voice has always been more pedestrian and glossy than Lisa Gerrard’s, and “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” lacks the soulfulness of the songs on which she sings. It was, we said with some derision, one of their more commercial songs. And so maybe, if we had thought of it, we would have called it Goth, but we’d have said it as if we were spitting something nasty from our mouths.
Now, I play Dead Can Dance only on winter afternoons, when I want to feel nostalgic. But it’s almost always their older albums I play—especially Aion—because I want to be nostalgic for the magic, not for what came once we realized there wasn’t any.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and The Tripart Heart (Sundress 2019).. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK and other journals. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is the founding editor of Signal Mountain Review.