Australia has had its fair share of musical exports, from the ’60s folk of The Seekers to the harder edge of AC/DC and pop princess Kylie Minogue.
The vast majority of these acts firmly cement Australia as an idyllic sun-bleached paradise where the beaches are endless and the beers are always cold. INXS or Cold Chisel always seem to be the soundtrack to a Sunday barbecue, staples of every dad’s record collection.
But in the 1980s, there was a burgeoning Australian music scene that celebrated going off the beaten track. It spoke of experimentation and exploring a level of songwriting that went deeper than the surface level of sun, sand, and vegemite. Fronted by groups such as The Church, The Go-Betweens, and The Triffids, this scene had a name: alternative or indie rock.
A deviation from the mainstream pop hits, Australian alternative rock aimed to challenge. It broke away from commercial pressures and tried to be something unconventional. Its sound has been captured in many albums, but at the forefront is The Church’s landmark 1988 record Starfish.
An ethereal, atmospheric album, Starfish extended beyond the boundaries of its native music scene and worked its way into the record collections of alternative rock fans all over the world. The second track, ‘Under The Milky Way’, became the band’s best known song and an unofficial ‘alternative anthem’ in its own right.
They could pull a crowd at a mainstream venue and you might hear their songs on Triple M, but they’d come from an underground scene.
It has also recently been the subject of a new book in the 33⅓ Oceania series, a spin-off of the popular book series 33⅓. In both collections, each book focuses on a single album; the newer Oceania spin-off caters to albums solely from Australia and New Zealand.
Author Chris Gibson, a musician and professor of Geography at the University of Wollongong, said of the period: “It was really at that exact moment in Australian cultural history and in pop music history where things were really about to change. Music had changed a lot. It had really, really exploded.
“Musicians made more strident, challenging comments about the mainstream industry and seemed to be doing something different. Something a little bit challenging, edgier, more personal, less commercial and less dictated by the corporate music scene at the time.”
But it also held sentimental value for him.
“Of all their albums, Starfish has simply meant the most to me,” Gibson writes in the book’s prologue.
“Like many a longtime fan, it marked my transition from childhood to young adulthood, leaving behind lemonade and listening to the record charts for another adult world, its concoctions rather more intoxicating.”
Gibson had moved from London to Australia with his family just before his ninth birthday in 1981. Confronted with a strange new world and harbouring an obsession with music, the Australian pop du jour made its way onto his mixtapes, including The Church’s sophomore single, ‘The Unguarded Moment’.
At the time of Starfish’s release in 1988, Gibson was in high school and working at a record store. A Festival Records representative would bring in promotional material and often reserved certain releases for Gibson, including a signed copy of Starfish’s first single, ‘Under The Milky Way’.
“I was already primed to like [The Church],” says Gibson. “I enjoyed their previous album Heyday a lot, and they were part of a kind of burgeoning independent, alternative style of music which didn’t really have those labels at the time, but it was definitely growing.
“They were an interesting band because they could pull a crowd at a mainstream venue and you might hear their songs on Triple M, but they’d come from an underground scene.”
Each 33⅓ book is different from the last, with authors choosing which angle to take. Some are personal essays, others in-depth technical analyses of the music. Throughout his exploration of Starfish, Gibson uses his geographer’s background to his advantage, drawing links between the album and the sense of place that can be felt within each song.
“There’s a kind of disorientation, a feeling of alienation and displacement in their music,” he says. “It’s still really geographical, but it’s not just about belonging to a place. It’s about feeling estranged from a place.
“It’s about the weird emotional mix that you get when you’re travelling and you don’t quite fit in or know where you are, or whether you belong.”
It’s also this displacement that made The Church never really feel like an Australian act, according to Gibson. While other Australian artists wore their heritage on their sleeve, The Church didn’t particularly fit in anywhere.
Frontman Steve Kilbey was the son of English immigrants. Guitarist Marty Willson-Piper had migrated to Australia in his early 20s after a stint in Europe, and had a home in Sweden during the recording of Starfish.
“I think they’re a much more cosmopolitan band,” says Gibson. “And that was always how they were kind of known.
“It might come up in conversation, you know: ‘The Church are Australian.’ ‘Oh, really? I didn’t know that!’ Because they just sounded European.”
But while The Church may have grappled with finding a geographical identity, they slotted neatly into the alternative music scene.
Garnering a devoted following, Starfish became the group’s most commercial success. ‘Under The Milky Way’ became a chart success, won Single of the Year at the 1989 ARIA Awards, and has been dubbed the band’s ‘signature’ track’. Starfish was also featured in the top 40 segment of 100 Best Australian Albums in 2010.
“After Starfish came out, one of the more influential aspects of it was to demonstrate to the Australian public that a left of centre band could actually have a commercial hit, and particularly in the US,” says Gibson.
“It didn’t come from a band like INXS or Kylie Minogue. It had come from this left of centre place, had been a huge success, and had been critically acclaimed as well. It kind of broke down the binary between the mainstream and the underground, and contested those categories.”
Now as Starfish approaches its 35th anniversary this coming February, it continues to endure in the Australian music canon. Its otherworldly atmosphere and sleek production gives the record a timeless feel, and its divergence from a typical bright Australian sound has earned it a universal audience.
“For me, it was really the album that showed that Australian music had grown up and could be a complex, nuanced adult,” says Gibson.
“It was a worldly Australian album, and I think that’s what made it so special. I do think it will endure as an artistic statement of the times in a way that a lot of those more patriotic Australian bands probably won’t.”
The Church’s Starfish ($34.99, Bloomsbury) by Chris Gibson is out now.
Main image Central News Canva montage of front and back of album.