Saturday, October 4, 2008

Flowers Blossom Into Icehouse

Without doubt one of my all time favourite artists are the mercurial Australian pop-rock band Icehouse, led by the musical genius Iva Davies. From their very earliest incarnation as Flowers, through to the era during which the name Icehouse was ostensibly just a vehicle for the creative articulation of Davies, this brilliant pop-rock entity helped to shape the Australian music-scape for well over a decade. I was fortunate that same decade or more coincided with my own formative years, and from my very early teens through mid twenties, not a year went by without at least one Davies conceived gem providing a magical musical haven to retreat to, overtime cultivating a collective sensory oasis to be enveloped by. Only a handful of artists have done likewise for me thus far, among them the Beatles, Genesis, E.L.O., Stevie Wonder, the career work of Neil Finn, Brian Setzer and more recently Ben Folds. But the career and works of Iva Davies are perhaps less well known to some, so it’s time to use this little backwater of cyberspace to explore the world of Icehouse and pay due homage to the brilliance therein.

Iva Davies (born Ivor Davies in 1955) began his love affair with music as a teenager. He studied the oboe, of all things, at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, going on to play in The ABC National Training Orchestra. Davies taught himself the guitar as a teenager and quickly became swept up by a passion for popular music, leading him to record and submit several demos to record labels in the mid 70s. RCA signed Davies to a record deal before his 20th birthday, and the one time oboe player released his debut single ‘Leading Lady’ in July 1975. The single was incorrectly credited to ‘Iva’ Davies at the time (I guess the name stuck), and in keeping with the current wave at the time, it was a glam rock style song. In fact Davies was quoted during this period as citing some of his major influences as Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolan, Elton John, George Harrison and David Bowie. The follow up single was another glam rock effort titled ‘Back To California’, this time credited to Iva Davies and Afghan. Neither single sold enough to chart, or even pay the bills, so Davies made a living during this period writing transcripts for music publishing companies, as well as working as a cleaner at a squash court. It’s as well Davies kept the candle burning on his dreams to become a fulltime musician, otherwise a prodigious talent may have gone to waste.

When the punk-new wave movement swept into Australia during 76/77, Davies saw an opportunity to reinvent his sound and image. He bought himself a Les Paul electric guitar and a black leather jacket, and via a chance meeting with bassist Keith Welsh (through Davies’ job as a cleaner) found himself fronting a hard edged Sydney based glamour-punk band calling themselves Flowers (they jokingly dubbed themselves this as a comic counterpoint to their rough and tough visual image). They started out playing well oiled cover versions of rock standards by T-Rex, Lou Reed and David Bowie, being referred to at times as a virtual ‘punk jukebox’. The first Flowers’ line-up comprised Davies (vocals/guitar), Adam Hall (keyboards), Welsh (bass) and Don Brown (drums). During 1979 John Lloyd (ex-Paul Kelly and the Dots) took over from Brown on drums, and Michael Hoste replaced Hall on keyboards. The quartet were soon touring the country in support of established acts like The Angels and Cold Chisel, and found themselves opening for the likes of British punk-pop/new wave acts XTC and Magazine.

It was during that period Iva Davies began introducing original material into the Flowers’ live shows, most of which he penned. In January 1980 Flowers were signed to the Regular label and began work on their debut album. About half way through the sessions Anthony Smith assumed keyboard duties in place of Michael Hoste. Smith was actually the original keyboardist under the pseudonym Adam Hall, but went under his own name during this stint. In May 1980 Flowers issued their debut single ‘Can’t Help Myself’. The darker toned guitar-synth pop fusion was a great match for the lyrics which dealt with the unsettling internal mindset of an obsessive character who “can’t put the brakes on”. The song didn’t apply its brakes until it had reached #10 on the Australian charts mid year. It promised much for Flowers, who would soon go on to deliver on that promise, and more. The follow up single ‘We Can Get Together’ was released a couple of months later and debuted on the Australian charts in early October 1980. It was another first rate synth/guitar driven pop-rock track, very atmospheric again - a trait that Davies would regularly employ to great effect. I loved John Lloyd’s drum track on this one, and Davies’ vocal style was really coming into its own. ‘We Can Get Together’ peaked at #16 on the Australian charts late in 1980.

Around the same time that ‘We Can Get Together’ was climbing the charts, Flowers released their debut album ‘Icehouse’ (co-produced by Davies and Cameron Allan). The title refers to an Australian slang term for an insane asylum. The dark and brooding title track certainly reflected the meaning behind its name (and had in part been inspired by an old mansion used for a related purpose that Davies lived a short distance from). The third single ‘Walls’ was released in early 1981 and is my favourite track from the album, well second to favourite. ‘Walls’ also performed well on the charts (#20), helping to further propel the album ‘Icehouse’ up the Australian charts where it reached a peak position of #4 (US#82), going on to sell over 100,000 copies. Flowers were firmly planted alongside INXS as the next big thing on the Australian music scene. In March ‘81 they received the Countdown Award for ‘Best New Talent’ of 1980. The album also yielded the single ‘Sister’, which is my favourite track, though I’m not certain as to the release date (couldn‘t find it on any discographies) - I do recall it being released as a single because Flowers appeared on Countdown performing it (I know I’ve got an old video copy of that show I taped from when it was repeated on ABC’s Rage - but I haven’t got a lot of my old Countdown’s catalogued so haven’t found it yet to get a date).

Following their enormous success at home Flowers were signed up to an international distribution deal with Chrysalis. Due to legal restrictions they were forced to dispense with the name Flowers for their international releases (there was apparently another band by that name in Scotland). I guess they figured since their album was titled ‘Icehouse’ that would be a good choice to go with, and they may as well change their name at home to avoid confusion later on. And so during 1981 Flowers bloomed into Icehouse - actually the last time the band performed under the Flowers’ moniker was at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney during June ’81 (with the new Icehouse name announced to the audience at the end of the show). The single ‘We Can Get Together’ was released in both the U.K. and U.S., and did in fact reach #62 in the U.S., but Icehouse would have to wait a few years to break through in a big way Stateside. The band set off on an extensive European and North American tour during July ‘81 (including opening for Simple Minds), during which time the first fractures started to appear in the newly evolved house of ice. During the initial stages of recording their follow up album, a major split occurred in Icehouse, out of which bassist Keith Welsh and keyboardist Anthony Smith would depart for good (Welsh went on to manage both Do Re Mi and Boom Crash Opera - see future posts). Out of those early album sessions (recorded in London) was salvaged the single ‘Love In Motion’, a brooding slower tempo track that signalled a bit of a departure from earlier work. ‘Love In Motion’ hit the Australian charts in October ‘81 and managed to move as high as #10.

The departure of his band mates didn’t hinder Davies’ work on the album ‘Primitive Man’ during the first half of 1982, which though released under the Icehouse banner, was essentially a solo effort by Davies. With complete autonomy (and cutting edge recording technology) at his disposal, Davies set about creating a new scope to the Icehouse sound. The haunting ‘Great Southern Land’ was the lead out single, hitting the Australian charts during August ‘82. It was a stark contrast in style to Men At Work’s ‘Down Under’ which had been released a year or so earlier, but ‘Great Southern Land’ would soon assume the same iconic status on the Australian pop-rock landscape - becoming an unofficial anthem of sorts - and at the time staked a claim at #5 on the charts. ‘Great Southern Land’ would later be used in the hit 1988 film ‘Young Einstein’, and Davies would re-work the song in 1999. Drummer John Lloyd must have still been involved with things at this point, because he makes an appearance in the promo clip alongside a very Gary Numan-esque looking Davies.

The album ‘Primitive Man’ (co-produced by Davies and Keith Forsey) was released around the same time as ‘Great Southern Land’ was scaling the charts, and would soon evolve into a #3 album nationally (US#129), again breaking the 100,000 sales barrier. ‘Hey Little Girl’ proved a very strong follow up single, peaking at #7 in Australia in late ‘82, and it was the first song to break Icehouse in the U.K. (#17), where the new look band performed it on Top Of The Pops, and went on to reach #14 in Sweden, #13 in Holland, #5 in Germany, and #1 in Switzerland - the band’s first chart topper. A repackaged version of the album ‘Primitive Man’ was released shortly after in Britain and Europe as ‘Love In Motion’ (UK#64, Top 10 in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland). The third single lifted was the brilliant ‘Street Café’, which though my personal choice as the greatest Icehouse track of that era, performed relatively poorly on the charts in early ‘83 (OZ#57/UK#62) - maybe so many people had bought the album by that time, it impacted on the single’s sales. The promo clip for ‘Street Café’ was among my favourites from the early/mid 80s - the exotic locales (it was shot by Russell Mulcahy on location in Tunisia) were very reminiscent of the clip for Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’ and ‘Living On The Ceiling’ by Blancmange (see earlier post).

By early 1983 Icehouse were on the verge of the international big time, with really only the U.S. yet to succumb in a major way. During the same period Iva Davies had assembled a new Icehouse line-up, featuring class of ‘79 keyboardist Michael Hoste and Flowers’ era drummer John Lloyd. Added to the mix were guitarist Robert Kretschmer (ex-Parachute), bassist Guy Pratt (ex-Killing Joke/future Pink Floyd/Gary Moore), and keyboardist Andy Qunta. During 1983 the new roster released the EP ‘Fresco’, and embarked as the support act on the European leg of David Bowie’s ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour. Like INXS, the sky seemed the limit for Icehouse.

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