In April 1988 – three decades ago! – “Under the Milky Way” by the Church began to inch up the pop singles chart, after establishing itself as a rock, alternative and MTV hit. To commemorate its 30th anniversary, I thought I’d re-post a piece I wrote for the now-defunct MOG website in 2009 (a flashback within a flashback).
A friend I worked at Arista with, a lifetime and a half ago, sent me an e-mail asking me if I’d heard that car commercial with some girl singing ‘Under The Milky Way.’ I had, from another room in my apartment, and I didn’t recognize the singer (Sia, it turned out), but it was one of those ‘what’s that?’ moments, when something you know so well, but haven’t heard it ages, comes back in an altered form, and you’re not quite sure what’s going on.
Another thing I didn’t know: ‘Under The Milky Way’ is all over the place. Just go to YouTube if you don’t believe me. There’s a clip of The Killers doing it with an assist from Chairlift, and an acoustic version by Nicole Atkins, and Matchbox 20 give it a shot… I mean, the thing is more than two decades old, and this is The Moment of Rediscovery. How randomly the wheel of pop spins.
‘Under The Milky Way’ played a pretty significant part in my own story, which I’ll tell you as succinctly as possible. I was knocking out advertising and marketing copy at Arista Records, and getting really restless. How many ways can you hype Air Supply? What more was there to say about Barry Manilow? You see my dilemma: on the one hand, I was employed at a record company, on the other hand, Air Supply and Barry Manilow. A couple of A&R people left the label, and I lobbied for a shot at the gig.
And got an unequivocal no. Which was understandable. It’s a desirable job, and I had no experience at it, and didn’t exactly know what it entailed (I knew that the A&R guys tended to show up for work later than the rest of us, and I liked that idea). But I kept being a noodge, and basically said, look, I have no idea if I can do this, and I’m not asking for a new title, or more money, or a bigger office. Just give me demo tapes, send me to showcases, have me call song publishers, and we’ll give it a trial, and meanwhile I’ll keep doing my real job even if it means more Manilow copy.
So I found a couple of songs for Arista artists to cut. And I got some artist demos, one of which was by The Church. They’d already been on Capitol and Warners, and hadn’t broken, but they had a little following, and college airplay, and Arista could use a band with that kind of cred. OK. On a cassette I got from the manager was a song called ‘Under The Milky Way,’ and I breathed a little sigh of relief, because it was simply perfect, in its way, It was moody, and hooky, pop enough but not too pop, slightly Pink Floydish, and yet modern and not prog-ish (and still, neo-prog band Coheed & Cambria have lately been known to play it at Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, so maybe it’s more proglike than I’d like to admit, given my progophobia).
It became the lead single and centerpiece of the band’s Arista debut ‘Starfish.’ And it crossed over from college radio to AOR to pop radio when it was difficult to make that transition, and the album went gold, and I was officially an A&R guy, because my first artist signing had worked.
What I think now (late 2009), is that ‘Under The Milky Way’ is mysterious, but childlike. It’s abstract, but has a melody that sticks with you. It’s certainly a Rock Song (which is why The Killers can do it), but it’s also, stripped down to its basics, folk-strummy (which is why Nicole Atkins can do it), and it’s Pop (which is why Rob Thomas can do it). As Sia’s Lincoln spot proves, it even works in a 30-second version. I have not heard the recordings by Rick Springfield and Echo & The Bunnymen, but the fact that it has been done by both Rick Springfield and Echo & The Bunnymen speaks much about its adaptability.
What I though then (1988) was that it was a hit, and I’m happy to see that it still is.
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