by Neville Davies
Icehouse - The Music
Music Made to be Heard
Over the course of the history of Icehouse, reams have been written on the music composed written and performed by the members of this band. Yet, in the final count any music has to speak for itself - it is to be listened to rather than written about.
Thus, it is not the purpose of this chapter to enter the crowded field of musical judgment. The many learned critiques and dissertations on Icehouse which have graced the music press over the past thirteen years are so varied as to defy summary into any real consensus. Indeed their verdicts are as diverse as the items which comprise the Icehouse catalogue itself, and, even so, they only constitute a small sample of listener reactions.
Rather is the purpose here to outline what that catalogue
consists of and, perhaps, something of its evolution. The likes and dislikes
for particular components of it can remain with the individual. Again,
any attempts made here to classify the music of Icehouse will be on a
very rudimentary basis only. The more profound sport of endeavouring to
define the "Icehouse sound" or entrance into "sound-alike"
debate is better left to those with a need to demonstrate a wide range
of knowledge of popular music and its many exponents through time. For
the purposes of this review of Icehouse music, we can afford to disregard
whether its derivation owes more homage to the Beatles, Bolan, Bowie,
Byrne, Bach, Beethoven or Iva Davies.
A Mixed Bag of Sounds and Songs
Certainly, Iva Davies must be regarded as the person most associated with Icehouse music. Nevertheless, not all Icehouse music has been composed by him and not all music composed by him falls within the definition of Icehouse music. The same applies to the other members of Icehouse who have contributed to the writing of music for it.
There are more than a hundred pieces which could properly be regarded as the music of Icehouse, in that they have either been released on record under the name of Icehouse, or have been produced within the ambit of Icehouse activities. Thus, the list does not include the filmscores written by Iva Davies, Bob Kretschmer, Guy Pratt, Simon Lloyd or Roger Mason independent of their work with Icehouse. It also excludes the many songs written by various members of Icehouse for recording by other bands or performers. On the other hand, it does include all songs or tracks composed for Icehouse by band members apart from Iva Davies. It also includes all the music for the ballet "Boxes", because participation in the ballet production itself involved at least part of the band and a substantial part of the music was released in Icehouse albums and singles.
Songs Without Words
Throughout the Icehouse catalogue is a significant sprinkling of purely instrumental pieces of music. A large segment of this is included in the music for Boxes. While this did incorporate two songs, it consists, in the main, of instrumental accompaniment for dance sequences, even if not quite conforming to the popular concept of "dance music".
The other instrumental pieces are largely the results of experimentation by Icehouse members with various instruments or new instrumental sounds. As such, they have, almost invariably, appeared on record on the B side of singles, the one possible exception being the track from the Sidewalk Album entitled "The Mountain." Even this does incorporate some minor vocalising, but is essentially an Iva Davies composition for percussion, saxophone and oboe.
Iva was mainly responsible for the earlier B side instrumental tracks, including such pieces as the South-Sea-Island-styled "Paradise Lost" and the oriental flavoured "Java." However, in more recent years this type of composition has more often flown from the pen (or rather, computer) of Simon Lloyd. On a few occasions other members of Icehouse such as Andy Qunta assisted, but in the main Simon works alone. The background to this was outlined by Iva Davies in these terms:
"A lot of these things were done by Simon, who is our keyboards-sax type person - and he is a bit of a late night creator. He is, in real life, a computer boffin and this is where he channels all his energy into - creating all these pieces of music, and I think it is a perfect outlet for him. He is, also, a weird one with titles - I mean, he has some of the most peculiar titles I have ever come across."
These peculiar titles include "Komsaka B, V, Johnny Guiro" and "No Cal 818," mixed in with a few more orthodox names, "Your Confession" and "Arabia."
And Songs With Words
Significant as this instrumental music may be, it is the Icehouse songs, the songs with words, which make the greatest impact on the listening public. To Iva Davies, lyrics have tended to be a more important component of a song than they are for most other popular musicians. Indeed, he has attributed his own introduction to the popular music field to this medium, as the following quotation illustrates:
"The thing with pop music, what attracted me to it in the first place, were the lyric writers. That's an aspect which still attracts me to writing pop music and while I'll continue to do so."
So, here, more than ever, is Iva Davies the ever-present dominant personality. As the person who has to sing them he has been involved in the creation of every Icehouse song and their evolution essentially reflects his development as a songwriter.
A Songsmith is Born
Iva's involvement with the classical music field was mainly in performance of other people's compositions. So, his transfer to the rock music world was, quite naturally, to performance of covers of the classic rock pieces which he had encountered in his somewhat belated introduction to this genre. He was not immediately equipped for the role of main songwriter for an up and coming band, but such was necessary for any chance of breaking into the popular music recording field. The scale of success of the Flowers debut recordings is evidence of how effectively he contrived to fill that role within a relatively short space of time, though this achievement was not without great effort and much trauma. As he said some years afterwards:
"Learning how to write songs was like growing up in public. My very first songs ever are on record."
It was also rather natural that at least his earlier songwriting attempts would reflect his mentors in rock music. From the first releases his songs seemed to evoke criticisms of derivativeness and comparisons with earlier established rock composers, particularly those whose works had dominated the Flowers repertoire of covers. These sorts of 'sounds like' games in reference to Icehouse music have persisted throughout the life of the band, albeit to a diminishing degree in later years.
The extent to which this critical sport has affected the songwriter or his songs is dubious. There is no doubt that these influences are there to find in many Icehouse songs. In fact, there are occasions where they have been quite openly invoked, such as in the identification with the glam rock genre inherent in "Glam" from the Primitive Man Album and "Baby You're So Strange" from the Measure For Measure Album. Indeed, Iva Davies has always seemed to favour the view of popular songwriting being a craft rather than an art, and strongly questions the concept of total originality in music. To him, the weaving of ideas from a range of prior sources into a new work is a legitimate feature of his craft. As he told one interviewer in 1986:
"The masters are there to learn from, and if you think you can wake up one morning without listening to or looking at anything then you're having yourself on."
The Early Hits
Whether as a result of this background attitude or for other basic reasons, Iva Davies has always demonstrated a marked propensity to experiment with a range of styles and song types. The result has been the production of a catalogue of songs as varied as the huge range of influences the critics have claimed as apparent in Icehouse songs and sounds. Attempts to describe and define these songs over the years have probably been just as varied, but one relatively recent summation suggests that:
"Icehouse's two main songwriting modes are slow atmospheric pieces and catchy up-tempo pop songs."
Certainly, the songs from the Flowers debut album do seem, at least on first examination, to readily classify into these two strands. The title track "Icehouse" and the science fiction oriented "Sons" fit rather obviously into the first category. Again, while perhaps not being all that slow, "Walls" and the final song on the album, "Not My Kind," are also full of atmosphere.
The remaining songs on the Flowers album are probably more representative of the catchy pop songs group. The first hits, "Can't Help Myself , We Can Get Together" and "Sister," doubtless owe their enduring popularity to this very catchiness and the up-tempo "Fatman" and "Skin" clearly fit into this class.
Yet, even the early pop songs lay claim to something more than these obviously commercial ingredients and, from the outset, many have detected in them elements of the depth of emotion and drama that has come to be associated with Iva Davies' writing. This is exemplified by one British reviewer's description of "Can't Help Myself" as:
"A jolly, bubbly numero that chops along apace, but Iva's lyrics bring things back to an apparently angst-filled level, added to by a pain-wracked Ronsonesque solo at odds with the poppiness of the beat". The same review continues:
"The deceptive breeziness continues to gush through 'Sister', again an underlying menace/downheartedness brooding beneath peppy pop hooks."
Peppy Pops Pervade the Years
While comments like this may suggest that the alleged two strands of atmospherics and catchy pops are likely to be rather entangled, there are a number of Icehouse songs which could justly be claimed as lacking much dramatic atmosphere or potent meaning. When, in 1986, Iva Davies wrote the quirky "Nothing Too Serious," he was possibly, through its very title, making a justification for the inclusion of at least a sprinkling of these catchy inconsequentials throughout the Icehouse catalogue.
Songs such as "All the Way" from the early Flowers years, "Mysterious Thing" from the Primitive Man Album, "This Time" from Sidewalk, "Spanish Gold" and "Lucky Me" from Measure for Measure, and "Girl in the Moon" from Man of Colours, all light and bright little numbers of no great depth of atmosphere, have run their short course and passed into comparative obscurity.
Yet there are also quite a few songs qualifying for this light and bright category which have made a greater impact on the listening public. Even the most successful Icehouse hits from Man of Colours, "Crazy" and the chart-topping "Electric Blue" fall into this class. So too, do the slightly lesser hits "Love in Motion," "Taking the Town" from Sidewalk and "Baby You're So Strange" from Measure for Measure.
Sad Songs of Love
Love is probably the most frequently used topic in popular music and the Icehouse catalogue has its fair share of love songs. Not unexpectedly, a high proportion of the light-and-brights just listed are of this mode. On the other hand, the majority of Icehouse love songs are not nearly so light hearted as these. One comment made in respect of the Sidewalk Album makes this point:
"There's love songs aplenty, particularly about lost love, as in 'Dusty Pages'."
Indeed, throughout the Icehouse catalogue there is a strong representation of love songs which, while not being entirely confined to the theme of "lost love", do emanate much more a sense of pain, regret, melancholia or nostalgia, than joy and laughter. Even before Sidewalk, the love songs "Break These Chains" and the hit "Hey Little Girl" were more than a little tinged with one or more of these sentiments. Perhaps the Sidewalk Album represented the peak for both the number of straight love songs and in the level of atmospheric tension within them. Apart from "Dusty Pages, Someone Like You, Stay Close Tonight" and "On My Mind" all contain a fair measure of soft sad sentiment, and "Don't Believe Anymore" probably remains the most heartrending song of the whole Icehouse catalogue.
After Sidewalk, the proportion of love songs on Icehouse productions seemed to taper off a little. Those that did appear on the later albums mostly followed a brighter line with a little less gloom and doom. Not that they were necessarily lacking in depth of emotion or atmosphere. The poetic lyrics of "No Promises," composed in 1985 for the ballet "Boxes," and "Touch the Fire" of 1989 vintage clearly show this. Even on the highly popular Man of Colours Album, the 'lost love' theme makes a reappearance in "My Obsession" and some doom pervades the love story of "The Heartbreak Kid."
Then, there is the song described in a quite recent review as "one of those incurably romantic songs that have been Icehouse's constant strength", and elsewhere as "clearly a love song that is all the more powerful for never needing to mention the word love". The haunting nostalgia and pathos that dominates this sole love song from the Code Blue Album, "Where the River Meets the Sea," is Iva Davies' most recent comment in song on the topic of romantic love.
The Odd People Songs
The leaning towards pathos is not, of course, confined to the Icehouse love songs. Indeed it does seem to have been a major component of the product from Iva Davies and his co-writers from the very outset. It was reflected in many of the comments on the debut Icehouse album, such as the one which says:
"Iva Davies wrote all the compositions on Icehouse and most of the songs have an undercurrent of isolation and pain though it doesn't stop them from being catchy tunes."
This penchant for the pathetic in Icehouse songs has found expression in a number of songs focusing on people in situations of solitude, sadness, loneliness, frustration, or despair. The debut album highlighted the tragic lives of Paris street women in "Boulevarde" and a soulful soliloquy of a lonely late night city wanderer in "Not My Kind." Then, "Goodnight Mr Mathews" plumbed the depths of obsession and depression of a mental patient of Iva Davies' acquaintance. Another disturbing depressive appears in "Paradise" two albums later.
Sad and lonely ladies are well represented. Early, there was the girl inside the "Icehouse" in the song which gave its title to the band. Later came the girl from "Angel Street" (Measure for Measure Album) and the unnamed occupant of "The Kingdom" (Man of Colours Album). Even more recently, "Wind and Sail" is dedicated to those patient women awaiting the return of seafaring lovers from journeys to the South Seas.
That most of these songs were composed by Iva Davies alone evidences his strong empathy for the solitary souls depicted in them. This obvious leaning has caused some speculation as to the extent the composer is identifying personally with the odd people described in his songs. Then, when, for the title track of Icehouse's most commercially successful album, he introduced a new dimension, the loneliness of art, this speculation was somewhat reinforced. One reviewer puts it this way:
"There seems to be a clue to his personality in the hauntingly beautiful Man of Colours song. Man of Colours is about an American artist whose secret affair was the inspiration for a whole body of work which he'd kept hidden. It has a particular appeal for Iva."
Another expresses the same idea with:
"Swap the paintbrush for a recording studio and perhaps we have a vision of a different Man of Colours - Iva Davies himself?"
The Icehouse Epics
These songs of lost love and loneliness are full of drama and atmosphere, but it is those songs which Iva Davies has labelled with the term "epic" that most earn classification as "slow atmospheric pieces".
The Icehouse epical style emerged in the debut album in the form of the songs "Icehouse" and "Sons." Then, when Iva Davies entered his first simple home studio to write songs for a long-awaited second album, Icehouse manager of the day, Ray Hearn stimulated him with the command, "Write me an epic". The result was one of the most significant songs of the whole Icehouse catalogue; but further, one of the most unique dedications to the continent of Australia yet conceived - "Great Southern Land." It has been variously described as "one of the classic songs of this decade," "a classic of Australian music in its atmospheric evocation of the silent continent" or, more definitively, as "a superb reflection of a sense of endlessness, of dream-like landscapes and deserts, of mile after mile where one simply is left alone with one's thoughts and memories."
"Great Southern Land," then, besides being a milestone in the development of slow atmospheric songs, firmly established the "epic" song type as a continuing component of later Icehouse song writing. The Primitive Man Album included two further epics in "Trojan Blue," the portrait of Helen of Troy, and in the philosophical "Street Cafe." The next few albums featured further notable songs of this type; "The Flame," prompted by the 1985 shootings at Sharpesville, South Africa, (Measure for Measure Album), and "Sunrise," the ode to Japan's emergence from the impact of the World's first nuclear bombings and one of the most critically acclaimed Icehouse songs yet (Man of Colours Album).
The Australian heritage - social history theme linking the songs for the Code Blue Album would demand a strong representation of the heroic style in that collection. The surest contenders for classification as epics are "The Great Divide" and "Charlie's Sky," but the same style also comes strongly through "Mercy on the Boy, Wind and Sail" and even the song considered to least fit the album concept, the romantic "Where the River meets the Sea."
Politics or Social Comment
It was one of these epics which first raised the thought that Icehouse songs could enter the realms of politics. When, in 1986, "The Flame," with its unequivocal anti-apartheid sentiments, was tagged as "the most overtly political song Davies has written," Iva justified his apparent departure from his previous stance on political songs by the enormity of the events which had prompted the song:
" I have always been very reluctant to write any quasi-political songs, but I guess it just - actually it really did shock me."
It is true that Icehouse has always endeavoured to remain aloof from political causes of the flag-waving kind. Nevertheless, there is a good body of Icehouse songs which, if not directly political in content, are based on some degree of social comment.
This degree can vary from simple sketches of specific segments of society, such as the Chicago gangster scene of the Prohibition era captured in the Flowers song "Fatman," at one end of the scale, up to relatively definitive stances on major issues of local or international importance at the other. This latter extreme is represented by "The Flame," the rather original treatment of the subject of nuclear war in "Sunrise" and perhaps the earlier rather forthright indictment of "the American way" in the song "Sidewalk."
Between these limits lies an array of social snippets. From the Measure for Measure Album come the hymn to mateship, "Regular Boys" (the second song included in the soundtrack for the ballet Boxes), the portrait of the big dealing power broker, "Mr Big," and the song based on the infamous Berlin Wall, "Cross the Border." The Man of Colours Album produced an analogy between domestic dispute and international conflict in "Anybody's War."
These comments on various facets of the human social environment register more as distant and relatively impersonal observations, rather than any fervent or aggressive embracing of causes. This reflects the attitude of mind claimed by Iva Davies about the time of the Measure for Measure Album:
"I strive for that universality of sentiment which is so important in songwriting. If you get too specific about an event in a song, so many people can't connect. The best thing is to try and make sense to everybody as well as some sort of personal sense. Listeners should be able to superimpose a meaning of their own over what you're saying to them."
Evidence that he has usually met this aim lies in a remark made relative to the song "Sidewalk," one of his more committed social commentaries:
"Davies like a good journalist merely sets out the facts and allows the listener to draw his conclusions."
Closer to Home
This same attribute of the songwriter being an observer of the social environment has continued even more strongly through later Icehouse compositions. In fact, there does appear to have been some gravitation towards more serious subjects of social significance as the song writing has matured. This has reached a culmination in the latest batch of songs which all fall into the category of social observations with a common background of the writers' homeland. In late 1990, a reference to this most recent collection said:
"Icehouse's "Code Blue," is like some vast expansion of the themes Davies began to explore in "Great Southern Land."
This reflects the fact that this recent album consists of a series of songs sketching various facets of Australia's social history, ranging from the years of discovery and exploration of the island continent through to the contemporary scene.
The waiting and longing of the wives and sweethearts of the mariners who made the voyages in search of the Great Southern Land is recalled in "Wind and Sail," the early settlement of Australia as a penal colony in "Mercy on the Boy," and the retreat of the aborigines in "The Great Divide." Later facets of Australian life are touched on in the satire of the Great Australian "grog party", " Big Fun," and the scenes of Sydney night life in "Harbour Town."
Some songs of this collection highlight current social issues. Placing the theme of the much earlier "Boulevarde" into a local context, "Miracle Mile" takes a look at the broken lives populating Sydney's sin scene, Kings Cross. Another tragedy, the plight of victims of domestic violence is addressed is "Jericho Bay."
Then, there are the songs based, either loosely or, at times, rather specifically, on personalities or personality types significant in the evolution of the Australian society. In the former category are numbered the hymn to our optimistic eccentrics, "Anything is Possible," and the castigation of the more ruthless and designing females of our society, "Miss Divine": in the latter, the ode to Australia's fine list of boxing champions, typified by Jeff Fenech, and the war heroes who defended this land, represented by the lost airmen haunting "Charlie's Sky."
Whilst not necessarily being the most popular or commercially successful group of Icehouse songs, this recent series represents the most mature product of Icehouse composition. It probably comes closest yet to fulfilling some of the dreams that show through Iva Davies' reply to a question back in 1981, as to what he would like Flowers to be remembered for in five years' time:
"I like the idea of writing classic songs that will be sung and remembered years from now."
Another observation of the Code Blue collection makes the point more graphically with the comment; " with the past ten year's work, the Man of Colours was just beginning to prepare his canvas."
Songs to Remember
Of course, whether the Icehouse songs that have and will stand the test of durability are those which their creators would nominate for their memorials is a matter of some doubt. The general audience so often has a knack of imposing choices to confound composers and critics alike.
It might be said that Icehouse has been around for long enough for at least the earlier works to have been graded for endurance. Indeed, the popularity of many of the early songs has spanned the years exceedingly well and shows little signs of abating. The number of live performances to date of the first Flowers song recorded, "Can't Help Myself," runs well into four figures and it still regularly graces the airwaves.
There are many subsequent Icehouse songs that have joined the ranks of the classics in similar manner, and have provided a large measure of fulfillment of the objective expressed by Iva Davies in the early eighties. Yet, there have, no doubt, been some disappointing receptions to some of the songs which the composers would have numbered as among their better works. Looking back from the end of the eighties decade, Iva Davies observed:
"All we were really interested in was writing good songs and I know there have been great songs that have been lost and very average songs that have been disproportionately successful. But that seems to be the way it goes."
The wide range of views held on its music over the years to date, as well as the uncertainties of the trends which may emerge in the future, makes prediction of the ultimate musical memorials for Icehouse a pointless exercise. The simple fact is that there is, already, a catalogue large and diverse enough to have satisfied many tastes up to the present and to provide a similar promise for the future. Beyond this, we may do well to follow the advice inherent in a recent pronouncement on the matter from the leader of Icehouse:
"There's no point in talking about a song, you've gotta listen to it."
© 1992 Neville Davies