A Crash Course In The Church: Disc #1 – “The Glory Days”

Church_80sPromo

(The Church, 1980-1990. Left to right: Marty Willson-Piper, Richard Ploog, Peter Koppes, Steve Kilbey)

As outlined in my previous entry, here is the track listing for the first disc of my three-disc compilation drawn from The Church’s back catalogue. The compilation as a whole is entitled A Crash Course In The Church, since essentially that’s what it is: a crash course to prepare the listener for the upcoming UK live dates that’s less time-consuming to play than the band’s entire recorded output. You’ll notice that I didn’t call it The Best Of The Church or suchlike – partly because I object to the words ‘The Best’ appearing on a compilation (since when has any compilation really featured the best that a band or musician has to offer? Never, in my view), but partly because I wanted to set it apart from a collection of my personal favourites. I do love each and every song here, but they are not all my favourite Church songs. Three discs would be altogether to small a space to fit all those songs in for starters; also I’m not arrogant enough to think that my own personal favourites are the songs that would most appeal to new listeners. There are a few personal favourites on the compilation that may seem like odd inclusions to some, but we’ll come to that in due course.

The subtitle of the compilation – The Glory Days – is meant to be self-deprecating on the part of the band. For me personally, this is probably my least-loved of the three discs that make up the compilation, for all that there are no songs here I don’t enjoy or in most cases adore. There’s nothing amiss with this material at all – I love it all, frankly; I just slightly prefer where The Church have ended up to where they started. That said, there’s a grain of truth in the subtitle: The Church were truly in the ascendance by the end of the 1980s, and the sizeable commercial success of the Starfish album and its associated singles seemed to be a launchpad to even greater things, commercially speaking. Alas, it was not to be: but then, everything happens for a reason, and the music that The Church made after Starfish is more than adequate compensation to these ears.

Without further ado, then…

[01]  The Unguarded Moment (from the album Of Skins And Heart, 1981)

It would have been almost unthinkable not to open this compilation with the band’s debut single. An outsider’s anthem, painting a picture of a man hiding his emotions behind a barrier put up to avoid the scorn of more superficial peers, this comes across as equal parts early Rush and The Byrds, it’s chiming guitars and rock breakdowns given a satisfying velocity by Kilbey’s thudding bass line. The band’s early success all happened in the shadow of this song, a fan favourite and a song that remained an albatross around their necks for some years – consequently they largely disowned it until it was rehabilitated for their acoustic album, El Momento Descuidado, in 2005.

[02]  Is This Where You Live (from the album Of Skins And Heart, 1981)

One of two songs that only made an appearance on this compilation because they were being played by the band on their recent US tour. Initially I was more tempted to include Bel-Air, which remains a big personal favourite, but the more I thought about it, the more sense the inclusion of this near eight-minute behemoth made. For one thing, it demonstrates plainly that The Church always had progressive rock tendencies (never mind the length, check out the time changes!); for another, lyrically it’s an early example of Kilbey’s gift for taking personal experiences and self-mythologising them into a form that has universal appeal. As the 80s boom felt across the developed world took hold, Kilbey’s lingering looks at a world becoming submerged in the material struck a chord with many.

[03]  In This Room (from the Sing-Songs EP, 1982)

The Sing-Songs EP doesn’t often get mentioned, but for me it’s where The Church sound really gelled. The first album possessed a wiry New Wave energy, but only flirted with the rock crunch and anthemic choruses that were to typify some of their most successful work. Listening to this song now, it’s easy to see the seeds of the Starfish album taking root. Guitarists Koppes and Willson-Piper set up a spare framework for Kilbey’s typically self-lacerating lyric about the dissolution of a relationship that wasn’t. There are some great lines in this one, too, which have endeared it to me for a long time. “There are no windows in this room / Which we’ve been sitting in all our lives“. Ouch!

[04]  When You Were Mine (from the album The Blurred Crusade, 1982)

By the time of The Blurred Crusade, The Church had played a large number of live shows and had really honed their new material, as demonstrated by the lengthy intro to this little classic, which begins almost standing still before steadily into a breathless adrenaline rush. When Willson-Piper’s scratchy run down the fretboard breaks into the chiming central riff, it’s a glorious moment. One of the catchiest melodies the band have ever penned, supported by one of their finest riffs, this was always a fan favourite, and with good reason.

[05]  You Took (from the album The Blurred Crusade, 1982)

A much longer song, You Took also betrays its origin as a live favourite with another lengthy intro. What is ostensibly a song about being jilted possesses an almost mythic quality in Kilbey’s hands, and it’s breakdowns from thundering rock juggernaut to sparse, intense verses are another indication of the band’s increasing flirtations with progressive rock influences. Both guitarists excel here, but it’s Koppes’ truly outstanding solo turns that steal the show.

[06]  It’s No Reason (from the album Seance, 1983)

A wonderfully unsentimental but emotive song about the inevitable entropy and decay of the world and the people who inhabit it, It’s No Reason is wonderfully matter of fact about death and its place in human existence. It’s woozy synth strings and Kilbey’s truly outstanding lyric make for an unusual personal favourite from one of the band’s more controversial records – the bizarre production feels distinctly lo-fi after the lush dramatics of The Blurred Crusade. The fact is, the New Romantic movement had really gathered steam by this point, so someone somewhere probably thought that this was how rock bands should sound. They were wrong, and it’s really only because some of the material was so strong that it survives its dated treatment.

[07]  Electric Lash (from the album Seance, 1983)

The Seance album is largely mid-paced and downbeat, so this jangly little treat probably stands out as much by dint of its being light relief as for any other reason. Ignore the horrible treated drum sound and relax into the gorgeously Byrdsian guitars and Kilbey’s pretty daydreaming lyric. The closing round (with Willson-Piper singing backup) is one last perfect flourish.

[08]  Remote Luxury (from the Remote Luxury EP, 1984)

An early instrumental track by the band, that really showcases the two guitarists, particularly Willson-Piper, whose lead playing is unmistakable. Rather than being showily virtuosic, it takes a relaxed, warmly ambient feel that generates a wonderful atmosphere. I did wonder about including one of the other (sung) tracks from the EP, but I realised early on that although the band had made many instrumentals, not many of them were going to feature on the compilation and I wanted to ensure that that side of their output was represented. That, and yeah, OK, it’s a personal favourite as well. You got me.

[09]  Shadow Cabinet (from the Persia EP, 1984)

Constant In Opal seems to be the acknowledged classic from the Persia EP, but I wanted to showcase a phenomenon which was by now becoming increasingly regular: that of the band writing as a unit. Previously many of the songs were written by Kilbey alone, and it was only after some friction within the band that it was agreed that the other musicians, all of whom were writers, would get more input. Again, the seeds of Starfish are writ large here: the central riff foreshadowing the cyclical, chiming feel of Reptile, and Kilbey’s wonderfully vivid lyric floating over the top of a extraordinarily memorable melody, underpinned by some of drummer Richard Ploog’s most muscular playing.

[10]  Myrrh (from the album Heyday, 1985)

Heyday returned the band to the general feel of The Blurred Crusade: guitar-heavy and veering away from the synthy sound they’d experimented with on Seance. This, the opening track, is a fine example of The Church in their pomp, possessed of seemingly unstoppable momentum, leavened with some fun pinched harmonics and another superb Kilbey lyric that foreshadows some of the problems that greater success was to prove to have for Kilbey and the band: “Oh my Lord I trust your intentions / But money strangles our love.

[11]  Tantalized (from the album Heyday, 1985)

A still explosive live favourite introduced by a thundering blur-handed extended intro from Willson-Piper and one of Kilbey’s most thunderous basslines, this technicolour marvel introduces another element to the band’s sound, as brass (in this case trumpets) adds a fanfare to the triumphal verses. The arms aloft sing-along choruses remain naggingly memorable, but Kilbey’s lyric details a man hiding from his friends, continually absorbed in his own pursuit of an escape, and in hindsight the seeds of Kilbey’s own problems with drugs were clear to see, as his protagonist reveals that “I gave money to ghosts, I insulted my hosts / I could never get off the stuff that spellbound me.

[12]  Under The Milky Way (from the album Starfish, 1988)

The Church’s Stairway To Heaven, this very nearly didn’t even make the album – and yet it marked their commercial high-water point; a late 80s favourite that remains fresh in the minds of everyone who came into contact with it, it manages to sum up the isolation but also the hope of growing older in a time when we were becoming increasingly aware of our place in the universe. The bagpipe solo is an unusual touch in such an anthemic song, but perhaps one of the things that enabled it to stick in people’s memory so powerfully.

[13]  Reptile (from the album Starfish, 1988)

A truly venomous kiss-and-tell, this song casts an unnamed woman as the titular villain. It’s far too specific in its accusations to be misogynistic, but Kilbey’s imperiously dismissive lyric still chills to this day. Instrumentally it’s a thing of endless invention: from the rattlesnake-like shaking of a tambourine to the guitarists’ truly wonderful interplay that really shows off Willson-Piper at his string-bending best. Rather than winding down or building to a climax and stopping, the song steadily builds in speed and intensity, and we’re treated to a long slow fade as Koppes and Willson-Piper do their best to outdo each other, as Kilbey’s bassline thunders towards the horizon. Still every bit as thrilling as when it was released, Reptile remains a live favourite for the band and fans alike.

[14]  Metropolis (from the album Gold Afternoon Fix, 1990)

The lead single from the follow-up to Starfish, Metropolis is actually the first Church song I ever heard, late one evening in 1990. A few days later, I owned both the Metropolis single (oddly enough re-titled Megalopolis) and Gold Afternoon Fix, and my own love affair with the band began. It’s warm, jangling charm and endearingly Dali-esque lyrics brought a smile to my face and still do, but even at their most wide-eyed and entertaining, there’s still the chill of lengthening shadows in the lyric, as Kilbey refers to the apocalypse and wonders aloud “What’s it all leading to?

[15]  Grind (from the album Gold Afternoon Fix, 1990)

A truly chilling and downbeat end to Gold Afternoon Fix, this song remains one of my personal Church favourites – when I sat down to compile this collection, it was one of the first titles I wrote down. With less than a mere decade to go until the start of a new century, Kilbey’s lyric of hopelessness in the face of an uncaring world and an even more indifferent universe (the “disgraceful sky flecked with a nightmare of stars“) sees us all painted as marionettes in the hands of callous manipulators, obsessed with minutaie and consumed by our own vanity and short-sightedness. His grimly compelling words are given the perfect vehicle by the band who deliver a progressive rock masterpiece, complete with sudden silences, a piano interlude and one of Willson-Piper’s most intense recorded solos. Kilbey’s horrified cynicism resonates still:

Long distance century buzzes and fades
I hope the deaf can lead the blind
Lift me up into those whirring blades
I’ve got to grind, grind it out
You got to grind, grind it out
We’ve got to grind, grind it out

And so the first disc of this compilation closes with pre-millennial tension: and the fracturing of the line-up that made the albums up to that point, as drummer Richard Ploog left the band. Although Gold Afternoon Fix wasn’t a commercial disaster, the band were disappointed in it, themselves, and their label for looking for something that could repeat the unexpected success of Starfish. Kilbey’s own problems with drugs were getting the better of him, and generally there was a sense of disappointment in the Church camp. The 90s would be one hell of a roller coaster ride for the band.

Next time: Disc #2 – “The Wilderness Years”

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One Response to A Crash Course In The Church: Disc #1 – “The Glory Days”

  1. Pingback: A Crash Course In The Church: Disc #2 – “The Wilderness Years” | Tales From The Riverbank

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