When Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi were brought onboard to produce the Church’s fifth album, Starfish, they sought to shift the Australian band away from the soothing, swirling psychedelia that was their defining sound. So when bassist and lead singer Steve Kilbey brought in a song called “Under the Milky Way,” which he’d written with his girlfriend at the time, Karin Jansson, the producers were unimpressed. Their view was shared by almost everyone, except the people who got to decide which songs got priority treatment. “When we made the record, no one thought ‘Under the Milky Way’ was a hit,” recalled Kilbey. “The producers didn’t think it was anything special, and it wasn’t even considered a single. It was kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arista Records came in, and as soon as they heard that song, they all got immediately excited and said, ‘We promise you that this will be a hit.’ I’ve never seen a record company, before or after, make their own prediction come true. Arista threw everything they had into making that song a hit.” In this instance, sheer force of corporate will succeeded. “Under the Milky way” was released as a single in 1988 and became the sole Top 40 hit for the Church, peaking at #22. As for the deeper meaning of the song, Kilbey says there are no hidden secrets there. “It’s not about anything,” Kilbey later said. “Like all my songs, it’s a portal into your own mind where I give you a guided meditation. It’s a blank, abstract canvas for people to lose themselves in.”
Given the colorful, combative prominence of lead singer John Lydon, it’s easy to think of Public Image Ltd. as a band in name only, a dismissive assessment further bolstered by the undeniable fact that the former Johnny Rotten is the only mainstay across the group’s multi-decade history. In the band’s most shining moments on record, though, it was a clear and crackling collaboration. As an example, “Seattle,” the lead single from the 1987 album Happy?, was well into its creative journey before Lydon even got his hands — and yelping, yowling voice — on it. “‘Seattle’ was a strange one, because the band was up there a week before me, because I had other things to do that I fail to remember at the moment,” Lydon later told the A.V. Club. “But they’d laid down that backing track, and I got there and I was really impressed! Really, really moved. And so I found that the lyrics just flowed almost free-form out of me. I’m very, very proud of that one.” Ostensibly written about the Pacific Northwest city where it was first hatched — while the band was touring in support of their previous album — “Seattle” may have been a clear group effort, but it wasn’t merely preceding fame that made Lydon the center of Public Image Ltd. His contributions held a high value. “It was a nice bouncy groove, but it was nothing until John sang on that,” said bassist Allan Dias. “Once he added some vocals to it, I was flipped out, it just became amazing.”
In recounting the genesis of “Roxanne,” the author of the seminal entry in the Police songbook is characteristically cerebral. “I wrote ‘Roxanne’ in Paris in 1977,” Sting wrote in his book of collected lyrics. “The band was staying at a seedy hotel near the Gare Saint-Lazare. I had a set of descending chords starting in G minor and a melancholy frame of mind. Inspired by the romance and sadness of Edmond Rostand’s great play Cyrano de Bergerac and the prostitutes on the street below my window, ‘Roxanne’ came to life.” With equally characteristic candor, Police guitarist offers an account that largely aligns factually, but is delivered with a noticeably different tone. “We were supposed to do this shitty little gig with The Damned, and we’d driven to Paris from Holland in my Citroen Dyane 6,” Summers said. “The night before, we all went our separate ways and Sting was wandering around, looking at all the hookers.” (For the record, the Damned had fled Paris without ever playing the show, leaving the Police somewhat stranded.) The band recorded the song as part of the sessions that became their 1978 debut album, Outlandos D’Amour. Since “Roxanne” was quite a bit slower than most of the band’s jittery, punk-influenced output, they didn’t expect much to come from the track until Miles Copeland — brother of the Police’s drummer, Stewart Copeland, and soon to found I.R.S. Records — gave it a listen and pronounced it, according to Summers, a knockout. Miles Copeland helped to get the Police signed to A&M Records and “Roxanne” became the band’s third official single. Although “Roxanne” went on to be arguably the best known of all Police songs, it was dud upon its original release, in no small part because BBC Radio banned it on account of its supposedly salacious subject matter. That decision angered the man who wrote the song. ““There was no talk about fucking in it, it wasn’t a smutty song in any sense of the word,” Sting said at the time. “It was a real song with a real, felt lyric, and they wouldn’t play it on the grounds that it was about a prostitute.” Now, of course, the occupation of the song’s title character barely stirs a worried thought. In addition to its venerated place on almost all backwards-looking playlists, the track has proven to be surprisingly effectively in impish acts of comedic tinkering.
As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.
The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.