by Neville Davies
Icehouse on Record
Slow and Steady
Icehouse have never had the reputation of being a prolific recording band. Rather, its history has been one of both fans and music industry clamouring for the production and release of overdue recordings. During the ten years following the release of the Flowers debut album, Icehouse, in 1980, only a further four studio albums and a "best of" compilation were released. Then, almost on the tenth anniversary of the Icehouse release came the sixth studio album, Code Blue.
This rate of production of little more than an album every two years is somewhat less than most other bands of the period, and, doubtless, is attributable to the perfectionist principles of the man at the forefront of Icehouse productions, Iva Davies.
However, the same reason can explain why the old adage "slow and steady wins the race" has rarely been more vindicated than it has by the results of Icehouse recordings. The common reaction to all of its products has been that they were well worth the wait.
Another rare feature of the recording history of this band is rather ironic in the light of its origins as a covers performer. In this first decade of recording, its releases were entirely of its own songs and music. In fact, with the exception of a few instrumental tracks appearing on the B-sides of some of the more recent singles, all of this recorded music was composed, either alone or in collaboration with other members of the band, by Iva Davies.
A Memorable Debut
The anxious awaitings of Icehouse albums go right back to the late seventies, when the young Flowers was being predicted as the great new recording hope of 1980. The multi- platinum success of the Icehouse albumin Australia and New Zealand and its moderate, if not spectacular, acceptance overseas justified this prediction and firmly established the young group as one of Australias quality recorders.
Nor was this early reaction short-lived. These first record releases have passed into legend. To some minds, later more sophisticated Icehouse products suffer in comparison through their diminished degree of "nervous energy that made the early singles or debut album so strong," and many others still hearken back to Flowers Icehouse as one of the best records of the Eighties.
More of the Same?
These first successful efforts only whetted appetites and fuelled impatience for further records. Demands for a follow up album soon began to dominate press articles referring to the band. The popular catchcry was that the way to consolidate the massive success of the debut album was to quickly come up with more of the same.
Icehouse, the band, had been too busy touring and performing to have assembled the material for a further album, but some response was made to this pressure for new product by entering a London studio in July 1981, in the midst of their first overseas tour. Two songs were recorded on this occasion, "Love in Motion" and "Goodnight Mr. Matthews." The latter had made a few appearances in the Flowers performance repertoire, but "Love in Motion" was written by Iva Davies immediately before and during the recording session.
The appearance of these two songs as a single in late 1981, and the subsequent chart success of "Love in Motion" on the home front, kept the critics of Icehouse's tardiness in coming up with new record product at bay through the early months of 1982. The single also raised a large question mark as to whether the sequel to the debut album was really going to be more of the same.
Back to the Primitive
When Iva Davies withdrew to his newly set up studio room in his inner suburban Sydney home in early 1982, three things made him better equipped to write songs than he had been for the creation of the debut album. Firstly, he found himself possessed of a new enthusiasm for the task of songwriting. Secondly, he now held two years experience of the hard, but highly instructive work of performing his own music in a variety of ways to an even greater variety of audiences. Finally, he, at last, had sufficient resources to commence his exploration of, and experimentation with, the rapidly developing computer-based technology for musical composition and recording.
The last of these factors placed him in the forefront of the application of computer technology to the rock music industry in Australia, a role to which he has steadfastly clung ever since. All three factors combined to produce an album of such quality and sophistication as to almost mock its title of Primitive Man. How this album and its strange title came to be is, perhaps, best described in Ivas own words:
"I moved to this place with a whole array of newly acquired machinery and a renewed vigour to start work. I had here a small Fostex eight track taping system, a number of synthesisers, and a notable addition, the Linn Drum Computer. I also had among this collection of tools a piece of graphic art which you will now find on the front cover of this album.
"This piece of art for me has had a strangely simplistic, naïve, and yet sophisticated quality to it, which has fascinated me since the day I first saw it some six months ago. It could have been the work of artists thousands (indeed hundreds of thousands) of years apart in history, and this lead me to question whether anything had really changed at all during that time.
"The first song I wrote in this room was Great Southern Land and it was from this song that I drew the title Primitive Man."
From Southern Land to European Success
"Great Southern Land" was released in Australia as a single some weeks in advance and was already established high in the singles charts when the album hit the streets. The song became a major hit and has remained an Australian favourite to this day; witness its use in the soundtracks of more than one Australian film. However, its peculiarity to Australia precluded its use as a single overseas and it was left to the two later singles to carry the successful run of the second Icehouse album in Europe and America. In fact, one European release of the album was under the title "Love in Motion," incorporating the song from an earlier single as its title track. It is more than a little ironic that the song which lent such a distinct signature to the Primitive Man album in Australasia, and enjoyed such popularity within the shores of the Great Southern Land itself, had to wait seven years, till 1989, to be released as a single with the Chrysalis label.
The second single from the album, "Hey Little Girl," besides making the top ten again in the Australian national charts, became a major hit throughout Europe and really established the name of Icehouse there. It gained the top twenty in the U.K. and rose high, even to number one, in many other European countries. Its performance was announced in numerous languages from both sides of the Iron Curtain and it was even reported as being in Prince Andrews playlist of favourites as he recuperated from his efforts in the Falklands War. It was followed by the single "Street Café" which also acquitted itself very well, particularly in the European sphere.
A Thinking Primitive Man
Overall, the Primitive Man album received high or, in some cases, extremely glowing critical acclaim. Apart from the songs released as singles, several from this album, such as "Trojan Blue" and "Goodnight Mr. Matthews," have been claimed as rock classics. Others such as "Uniform" and "Glam" became favourites of live performances. The album was accepted as a solo effort, evoking such descriptions as "a tribute to Davies unnerving vision" and earning for Iva Davies himself such titles as "a unique local talent," "a classically trained composer with a rock and roll heart" and "Australias thinking man of rock."
Hard Act to Follow
Perhaps the only negative aspect of Primitive Man was that, in creating this masterpiece, Iva Davies and Icehouse had set themselves a near impossible task to match it with a comparable sequel. This aspect was made somewhat more apparent by the comparative lack of success of the next album, Sidewalk.
Not that this third Icehouse album can be rated as a failure by any means. Indeed, many of the reviews of it were highly praising, and most of those which have not been were only so in retrospect and in the light of its poorer commercial showing. However, in spite of the fact that many, including Iva Davies himself, still consider that some of his best work is included in the Sidewalk album, its public acceptance, as measured by sales and chart performance of this album and the singles drawn from it, remains far below that of the previous two albums.
Except perhaps for the final recording stage, Sidewalk was just as much the sole work of Iva Davies as Primitive Man. All of the tracks were written by him alone and, for the first time, he produced the album without the services of a co-producer. This album also rates as a major stepping stone in the incorporation of computer technology into Icehouse compositions. Its production followed immediately upon Ivas first (and, so far, only) essay into composition of music for film soundtrack. For this he had acquired and used the then revolutionary new Fairlight Computer. The same technology, in conjunction with the guitars, vocals and other more traditional rock music sound sources, was used for the Sidewalk album.
Although the release of Sidewalk in June 1984 was almost two years after that of Primitive Man, most of this intervening time had been taken up with other activities. There was extensive touring, particularly in Europe where the second album had been so successful. Then, Iva Davies spent some months writing the music for the film Razorback. As a result, the writing and recording of the tracks for the Sidewalk album were crammed into a few short months. This has been suggested as one possible explanation of the unfavourable comparisons with previous albums. Perhaps, the same uniformly high standard and the same variety of songs was not achievable with this hurried approach.
On the Sidewalk Down but not Out
The first single, "Taking the Town," preceded the album release and failed to make the impact necessary to establish the album in the market. Similarly, the two succeeding singles, "Dont Believe Anymore" and "Dusty Pages," enjoyed only moderate chart success, although both have often subsequently been quoted as being much underrated. The latter was even re-recorded for the single using an acoustic guitar accompaniment, which became a feature in later live performances. The second single, "Dont Believe Anymore" must enter the category of a classic, if for no other reason than the soul searing saxophone solo performed by Joe Camilleri (front man of Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons and, more recently, the Black Sorrows).
In the final count Sidewalk became the first Icehouse album to miss out on platinum status in Australia (although it reached platinum in New Zealand). Similarly, it had little impact in Europe and North America, notwithstanding one or two rave reviews there.
Back to the Drawing Board
Just as Sidewalk immediately followed the composition of the music for a film, the fourth Icehouse album also arose from one of Iva Davies excursions outside the realms of rock and roll. This time it was the co-operative venture of Icehouse with the Sydney Dance Company to create and perform the ballet Boxes. The songs which appeared in the album Measure For Measure were written in conjunction with the music for the ballet and, in fact, two of them, "No Promises" and "Regular Boys," actually form part of the music and action of Boxes.
However, learning from the Sidewalk experience, quite a few changes were made in the approach to Measure For Measure. From the outset, Iva Davies abandoned his practice of the previous two albums of going it alone, and drew far more on the skills of the other members of the band. In the composition stage for both the ballet and album, he combined with Icehouse guitarist Bob Kretschmer. The songs for Measure For Measure were the product of the interplay of two minds rather than Iva Davies alone, and a new dimension was thereby added to the music and lyrics.
Then, considerably more care and effort was put into the production and recording of this fourth album. Production of the tracks was divided between two eminent and carefully chosen British producers. The first of these, Rhett Davies, had produced Brian Ferry and Roxy Music and also worked with Brian Eno. The music of these artists has often been nominated as major influences in Iva Davies songs, providing an ironic twist to the selection of Rhett Davies as an Icehouse producer. The other, David Lord, who had worked with such well known artists as Peter Gabriel, XTC, and Echo and the Bunnymen, had a background in classical music, an attribute which has inspired considerable empathy between him and Iva Davies.
The album was recorded mainly in England, much of it at a studio owned by Brian Ferry and Brian Eno. The latter even contributed some keyboard performance, and, (a somewhat more unusual role for Eno), backing vocals in one of the songs, "Cross the Border."
Perhaps the last subject of the careful consideration which pervades the whole exercise of producing this fourth album was the selection of its title. Unlike the previous albums, there is no one track on Measure For Measure to which the title specifically relates. The origin of the title, and some insight into the nature of the album, is given by another quotation from Iva Davies.
"Its just a matter of trying to balance everything; the way we did things all the way through, balancing between music and lyrics, between tidy and untidy, controlled and uncontrolled. Its a fairly nebulous idea, but it was a matter of getting the proportions right this time. I guess its vaguely pertinent, to describe music in terms of measures. It was a matter of weights and measures."
Measured Steps Upward
Doubtless, it was this heavy investment of thought and care into the writing, production and recording of Measure For Measure that helped earn for it such critical comments as, "the most polished and streamlined Icehouse album to date," and "a revitalized and seamless blend of the bands principal virtues of electronic experiments and thick head rock stomps."
On the home front, Measure For Measure seemed to find more response from the critics than from the record buying public. In fact from a record sales aspect, the album was no more successful in Australasia than Sidewalk. The first single, "No Promises," was released in Australia some six months before the album and only briefly held a relatively inauspicious position on the national charts. On the other hand, it was voted as the best single of the year 1986 by the critics of Rolling Stone Magazine and has continued to receive steady and significant airplay ever since its release. The subsequent singles, "Baby, Youre So Strange," "Mr Big," and "Cross The Border" fared somewhat better, particularly the former which held sway in the top ten for some time and contributed greatly to placing Icehouse squarely in the public eye in Australia and New Zealand yet once again.
The reception of Measure For Measure in North America was rather contrary to that in Australia. Six weeks after its release saw it placed at number 55 on Billboard, 13 on Radio and Record, and 11 on Album Network charts. The single "No Promises" was included in the top 5 dance hits and broke into the top 20 in many places throughout the U.S.A. during 1986. The video for "No Promises" became quite popular and received considerable airplay on the North American MTV network.
All in all, this rather mixed bag of success at home and overseas would rate Measure For Measure as a definite step up from the slump surrounding Sidewalk. Icehouse worked very hard with this album, both in its production and in touring for its promotion, and have always been a little disappointed that it did not receive greater acceptance. However, the hard work did produce more result than commercial successes at the time indicated, and, even commercially, Measure For Measure remains important as the harbinger of better things to come.
An Explosion of Colours
Those better things arrived with the fifth Icehouse album Man Of Colours, which virtually exploded onto the Australian music landscape only sixteen months after the release of Measure For Measure, the shortest interval between Icehouse album releases up to that time.
This masterpiece has since made history by becoming the second highest selling record ever in Australia, well exceeding the half million sales mark. The first place is held by John Farnhams Whispering Jack album which captured the market in the preceding year.
The comparatively speedy release was not a reflection of any more slapdash approach to its production. In fact, Man Of Colours was put together by a continuation of the same painstaking and careful work that accompanied the production of Measure For Measure. With one exception, the songs were written in a three month period between November 1986 and February 1987. The exception was "Nothing Too Serious" which ultimately became the fifth single to be drawn from the Man Of Colours album. This had been written by Iva Davies some months before, and, together with the title track, became one of the two songs on the album written by Davies alone. Of the remaining songs, six were composed by the Iva Davies/Bob Kretschmer partnership. The now famous "Crazy" was written by a combination of Davies and Kretschmer with Icehouse keyboard player Andy Qunta. The even more popular "Electric Blue" resulted from a songwriting collaboration of Iva Davies with John Oates of the highly successful American duo, Hall and Oates. This excellent collection was fine tuned and honed to perfection by David Lord, imported to produce this new album following his impressive work with some of the Measure For Measure tracks.
First Gold Single
The first appearance was made by the single "Crazy" in early June 1987. Its catchy tune and rather kinky video clip soon gained it a dominant position on the airwaves and in the top ten on the national singles charts. It was still holding position when the second single "Electric Blue" was released and commenced its own meteoric rise up the singles charts. By the time the album was ready for release in late September 1987, "Electric Blue" had climbed to number 5 and "Crazy" held at number 17 on the national ARIA chart.
The popularity of these two singles no doubt stimulated the anticipation for the album release. So keen was this, that Man Of Colours jumped straight into the top of the national album charts, stuck in the number one spot for eleven consecutive weeks and remained in the top ten for some months into 1988. Meanwhile, "Electric Blue" continued its rise up the Australian charts to become the first Icehouse single to reach number 1 and to achieve gold record status. It was followed by three further singles, "My Obsession," the title track of the album "Man Of Colours," and, finally, "Nothing Too Serious," all of which performed quite creditably, if somewhat less spectacularly than "Electric Blue," in the popularity stakes.
A Record Commercial Success
Overseas, Man Of Colours made considerably more impact for Icehouse than any of the earlier albums. "Crazy" made the top twenty in the American national singles charts and "Electric Blue" reached number 5. The album itself became the first Icehouse album to reach gold status outside Australasia, doing so in Canada and only narrowly missing gold in the U.S.A.
Somewhat ironically in the light of this major commercial success, Man Of Colours received far short of universal acceptance from the critics. Indeed, overall it could be said to have received less critical acclaim than Measure For Measure. Of course, there were some critiques which simply announced every one of the ten tracks a winner, but those purporting to be reviewing in depth tended to be rather severe on more tracks than they praised. Greatest targets for denigration were the songs which became the most popular singles, as illustrated by one reviewers terse judgement on "Electric Blue": "this must be the worst Icehouse song ever." Conversely, the track to receive most universal critical acclaim was, undoubted classic though it be, the last track on the album, the thoughtful, moody and dramatic "Sunrise."
These critics would quite rightly claim that criticism is about standards of intrinsic excellence, not predicting public appeal or commercial success. Nevertheless, the comparative critical histories of Man Of Colours and Measure For Measure provide an illustration of how often these standards as interpreted by the rock gurus can vary from, or even juxtapose with, those of the general audience.
Notwithstanding, in the Australian Record Industry Association awards for 1987, Icehouses Man Of Colours album was voted the Best Australian Album, in addition to the Highest Selling Australian Album, and its prestigious place in the annals of Australian rock music is assured.
Back to Origins
It was highly appropriate that Icehouse, which came into prominence as a recording band at the very beginning of the Eighties, should release, in late 1989, a compilation of some of its most significant songs of the decade. It was the more appropriate that this compilation should bear a title signifying the land of origin of the band, Great Southern Land.
Iva Davies, in his comments accompanying the album, gives his own reason for the selection of the title:
"Great Southern Land was chosen as the title of this collection because it is the song of which I am most proud. In describing the soul of the place in which I was born I attempted to avoid the cliches for which Australia has since unfortunately become recognised internationally (I think you know the ones!). I still believe that these are some of my best lyrics and yet fear they do not do justice to the subject."
While the title track originated, of course, from the Primitive Man album, this new collection draws from all of the previous albums with the exception of Man Of Colours. This was excluded because it was so recent. In its stead, and as a means of spanning the whole decade, two songs, newly written and recorded in 1989, were incorporated. These were "Touch The Fire" and "Jimmy Dean."
In America and Europe, "Great Southern Land" was released as a single for the first time in 1989. The album Great Southern Land followed a month or two later and, overseas, consisted of a single LP including the two new songs and eight of the earlier ones.
In Australia, Great Southern Land was released as a double album with sixteen tracks: four songs from the Icehouse album, three from Primitive Man, one from Sidewalk, four from Measure For Measure, the two new compositions, and one song, "Love in Motion," which had previously been released here only as a single.
The end of 1989 and the Eighties decade found this sixth Icehouse album in the top ten of the Australian national charts, having already reached platinum status. The first single "Touch The Fire" was just dropping from its top twenty position and the second single "Jimmy Dean" about to be released. The latter achieved no great chart success, but the album went on to reach double platinum status.
A Mission for the Nineties
Also at the end of the Eighties, the material had been assembled for the next studio album. Iva Davies, at times in conjunction with Bob Kretschmer or Simon Lloyd, had been songwriting ever since the end of touring for the Man Of Colours album in mid 1988. However, the work was interrupted by the Life in a Paintbox Tour in early 1989 and then by the release and promotion of the Great Southern Land compilation album. Indeed, some of the songwriting effort had to be channelled into producing the two new songs for the compilation.
The first song written for the studio album, "Charlie's Sky," was composed by Iva Davies alone because the subject of it is so peculiarly personal to him and his own family circle. Not long before, his mother and other members of her family had flown to New Guinea for the funeral of her brother, a World War II bomber pilot whose plane and crew had been missing since 1942. The chance discovery of the wrecked aircraft deep in the New Guinea jungle by a hunting party in late 1987 had led to the recovery of the remains of the crew members and their interment, with full military honours, at Lae War Cemetery a few months later.
Iva, inspired by the strong emotional impact of these events within his family, wrote the song as a tribute to the Uncle Charlie he had only ever heard of, but never known, and the many other unsung heroes who had perished in the defence of his homeland. This, in turn, added impetus to an idea he had conceived a few months before for an album based essentially on the social history of Australia. The original prompting of this idea is described by Iva Davies himself in the notes prepared for the album release.
"At the end of August 1988 Icehouse performed the last show of the Man Of Colours World Tour, completing 13 months international touring, at the closing of World Expo 88. As I stood amidst the celebrations at this, Brisbanes contribution to our Australian Bicentenary year, I found myself pondering the question of what we were celebrating, and what, of the last 200 and previous hundreds of years of Australian history, I, or any of my fellow Australians, in fact know or appreciate."
Over the next year the Icehouse songwriters assembled a collection of songs each inspired by some element of Australian heritage places, characters, attitudes, events, either typical or particular and collectively directed towards some insight into the essential human spirit of the nation which had so recently celebrated its origins. "Charlies Sky" and the vibes generated by its background story remained a pervading influence in the collection, ultimately providing the theme for the cover artwork, the final track and, indirectly, the title of the album. How the latter was derived is again explained by Iva Davies.
"During my research for Charlies Sky, I found myself reading some of the records of the Royal Australian Air Force and came across a signal which was used by some of the fliers to express Go for it... this is your mission...! The signal is... CODE BLUE."
Art or Commerce
It might well be questioned as to whether pitching an album at this conceptual level was a valid strategy for trying to match the commercial success of its predecessor. One album review made the point simply in these terms:
"Given that Davies last album gave him a top 10 hit in the US it is bravery, or even foolhardiness, to write a bunch of parochial songs about Jeff Fenech, Tilly Devine, the beauty of Pittwater, the plight of victims of domestic violence in Australian country towns, the excitement of Kings Cross, Bea Miles, the harshness of convict life, the persecution of Aborigines, and unsung local heroes."
Certainly, the strong Australian bias could cost appeal in overseas markets and, even at home, there would be a far larger population of record buyers seeking light entertainment rather than a stimulation of their national consciences. The intention was, of course, to produce a collection of songs which stand alone as entertainment value without the need for the background stories to present them. Indeed, there is much evidence from the press reviews of the album that this aim was well met. Nevertheless, the underlying concept itself could well be a little frightening in some quarters and is probably one of the factors reflected in the comparatively lower commercial performance of this album.
The whole evolution of the Code Blue album appears to have been plagued by a series of frustrations and delays militating against its successful release. At the eleventh hour for entering the studio, David Lord, the producer who had been so successfully involved with the previous two studio albums was unavailable. After some delay the services of another English producer, Nick Launay, were obtained. Then, for a variety of reasons, the recording itself extended over a longer period than usual and was not ready to be marketed until the latter half of 1991. By this time, the economic recession in Australia was starting to bite and the music industry, along with many others, was encountering increasing difficulty in marketing its product in any of its facets.
Not Such Big Fun
The acceptance of Code Blue was further prejudiced by an unfortunate choice for the first single to precede the album release. The song "Big Fun" satirizes the great Australian party with the aid of lyrics assembled by the clever integration of a number of familiar nursery rhymes, in a musical setting somewhat heavier and noisier than the usual Icehouse. Which of these attributes most induced the negative reactions greeting its release as a single in July 1991, from press, radio and public alike, is a matter for conjecture. Certainly, the satire received little appreciation, more from lack of awareness than from its tilt at one of our favourite institutions. The majority of first listeners interpreted the lyrics as a puzzling regression by Davies and Kretschmer to infantile burbling, rather than as a vehicle for meaningful communication of any sort.
Whatever the causes, the single rapidly dropped out of charts and airplay and was replaced in a few weeks by the single "Miss Divine." This was more favourably received and had reached a peak position of number sixteen on the national charts by late October when the album Code Blue hit the streets.
In the midst of all the hassles of the period, it was scarcely realised that the final release date for Code Blue was within a few days of the tenth anniversary of the release of the first Icehouse album in Australia. It was left to the third single from Code Blue, appropriately entitled "Anything Is Possible" and a subsequent live tour, to formally commemorate the anniversary of this so significant event in the history of the band. The single even included a bonus recording of live performances by Flowers of two of their early covers captured on tape a few weeks before the debut album first emblazoned the name Icehouse across the Australian music scene.
The critical response to the Code Blue album ranged from mildly favourable to extremely high acclaim. Some reviewers were suspicious of the concept, or even the very idea of a concept album, but still praised the songs. Some, sadly, seemed to be more than a little motivated in their comments by a lingering dismay at the outstanding popularity of the previous Man Of Colours album. However, any of the minor reservations expressed from these sources must be set against the likes of one summation of Code Blue which says:
"This album achieves far more simply by existing, than the sales figures and ARIA awards for Man Of Colours say that album achieved."
Code Blue has, of course, enjoyed nothing like the popularity and acceptance in Australasia that Man Of Colours did and its acceptance elsewhere has yet to be tested. Nevertheless, it cannot be rated as less than successful on any criterion. It charted in the top ten nationally and achieved platinum sales in a very depressed market period.
While there has not been the time for the longer term judgment of it to be made, it is already clear that, to many, Code Blue is the finest Icehouse album to date. Certainly, this would appear to be the case for its principal creator. There is no question that Iva Davies was referring to this album as the work for which he would wish to be remembered in his statement:
"Id rather die with a legacy of quality that was obscure than a legacy of incredibly successful trash."
Just as it is now possible for us to appraise the standing of the earlier Icehouse albums in the light of a decade of exposure, a further ten years will test the truth of the denouement of another Code Blue review:
"Unlike 1987s Man Of Colours, this albums predecessor, Code Blue is not an immediate aural prize. It takes time to understand and fully appreciate.
"The best ones always do."
© 1992 Neville Davies