Sunday, October 5, 2008

From Electric Blue To Code Blue...And Beyond

In June 1987 Icehouse released the first single from their forthcoming album. ‘Crazy’ was about as far into commercial pop-rock territory as Icehouse had ventured thus far, and soon found the band venturing once more into the Australian top 10 singles chart (for the first time in almost five years), peaking at #4. ‘Crazy’ finally broke Icehouse on the U.S. Hot 100 charts (#14) and also reached a respectable #38 in Britain a few months later.

The follow up single ‘Electric Blue’ was released in August 1987 and immediately made an impact on the Australian charts. By November it had reached the coveted #1 position, becoming the only chart topper of Icehouse’s long career. ‘Electric Blue’ also went on to electrify the U.S. Hot 100 (#7), but only had enough charge in Britain to reach #53 in early 1988. The track was another catchy pop-rock number, co-written by Davies and John Oates (Oates had already visited the U.S. Top 10 an impressive fifteen times as part of the hugely popular pop-soul duo Hall & Oates, including six number ones). John Oates joined Icehouse on stage at an October ‘87 Madison Square Gardens show to perform ‘Electric Blue’ with the band. Shortly after ‘Electric Blue’ hit the Australian charts, Icehouse unveiled their landmark album ‘Man Of Colours’. It would represent the high watermark, both commercially and critically, for Davies and the band. It debuted on the Australian charts during September ‘87 and by October had reached the #1 spot. ‘Man Of Colours’ spent a mammoth eleven weeks at the summit, eventually selling a staggering 540,000+ in Australia alone. Only the second coming of John Farnham proved more popular on the Australian music scene than Icehouse during 1987/88. ‘Man Of Colours’ was Davies’ tour de force and showcased a songwriter and musician in total command of his craft. The album earned ‘Best Album’ and ‘Highest Selling Album’ gongs at the 1987 A.R.I.A.’s, and remains won of the all time biggest selling albums in Australia by an Australian artist. It reached #43 in the U.S. (mainly on the back of the hits ‘Crazy’ and ‘Electric Blue’) but didn’t paint quite the same picture of success in Britain (#93).

‘Man Of Colours’ yielded three other top thirty hits in Australia during the first half of 1988, with my favourite track ‘My Obsession’ (#12/US#88), the majestic ballad ‘Man Of Colours’ (#28) and the high energy ‘Nothing Too Serious’ (#29), achieving the honour of being the first Australian album to yield five top thirty singles on the local charts. By comparison 1989 was a relatively quiet year for Iva and the boys. A double album compilation titled ‘Great Southern Land’ was released late in the year (OZ#2), featuring two newly recorded tracks, which were both released as singles. ‘Touch The Fire’ was another strong pop-rock number (OZ#15/US#84) in late ‘89, and it was followed by ‘Jimmy Dean’ (OZ#41) in early 1990. During this period long time guitarist Robert Kretschmer left the band.

After reaching the apex of commercial and critical achievement in Australia with ‘Man Of Colours’, anything that Iva Davies and Icehouse released subsequently was a fair bet to suffer by comparison. Before work commenced on the band’s next album, keyboardist Andy Qunta left the fold, leaving Davies to be supported in the studio by Simon Lloyd, Paul Wheeler and Stephen Morgan, whilst Paul Gidea (guitar) and Roger Mason (keyboards) were later added for touring duties. The advance single was the slightly top heavy ‘Big Fun’ (#51) in August 1990, quickly followed by the more radio friendly ‘Miss Divine’ (OZ#17). The eagerly awaited album ‘Code Blue’ was revealed to the world in October 1990. It reflected a songwriter and performer, in Davies, who wasn’t afraid to push the stylistic envelope. But as good as ‘Code Blue’ was, and as a stand alone album it’s very, very good, it was never going to satisfy an appetite conditioned by the five star experience offered by its predecessor. Though ‘Code Blue’ reached #5 on the Australian charts, and sold in excess of 70,000, it was considered pale by comparison to the vibrancy of ‘Man Of Colours’. The third single ‘Anything Is Possible’ (#46) proved to contradict its title in early 1991, whilst my personal choice of best album track ‘River Meets The Sea’ sailed past the ‘port of chart’ shortly after. Davies apparently considered ‘Code Blue’ as the album he’d most like Icehouse to be remembered for. The title ‘Code Blue’ originates from something that Iva Davies came across whilst researching material for the song ‘Charlie’s Sky’ - it was used as a verbal code by pilots in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Iva Davies kept a low profile over the next couple of years, and the next official Icehouse material to be released was the compilation ‘Masterfile’ (OZ#25) on CD and video (of which I bought both at the time) in late 1992. ‘Masterfile’ covered the Flowers/Icehouse hits/singles from ‘Icehouse’ to ‘Measure For Measure’, with one new track included. A reworked version of the 1981 Icehouse hit ‘Love In Motion’ with Divinyls siren Chrissie Amphlett. The tempo was slowed right down with Davies’ original and Amphlett’s newly recorded vocals trading shots throughout. Apparently Iva Davies had no direct involvement with that recording, which was produced by Bill Laswell. I recall initially not really liking the reworked version , but over time I’ve come to actually prefer it to the original, though the 1992 release didn’t even crack the top 75.

By November 1993, it had seemed like an eternity since the last Icehouse album, and it had in fact been three years since ‘Code Blue’. With the album ‘Big Wheel’ Davies kick started Icehouse back into motion again. Accompanying him this time were Lloyd, Wheeler and guitarist David Chapman. Despite ‘Big Wheel’ being every bit as deserving of its place in the Icehouse discography, the album stiffed big time in commercial terms (not even cracking the top 40), with none of the three singles lifted - ‘Satellite’, ‘Spin One’, or ‘Big Wheel’ - troubling chart statisticians. It must have been a bitter pill for Iva Davies to swallow, having produced such a quality collection of songs, only to find the fickle record buying public had moved on to grunge and hip hop in place of finely crafted pop-rock. The ‘Big Wheel’ CD also reflected Iva Davies ongoing love affair with cutting edge computer technology, this time in the form of a limited edition run of the album featuring one of the first deal interactive computer disk/CD packages released in Australia. If you happened to own an Apple computer and loved Icehouse, you could access lyrics, album credits, animated graphics, artwork , a written history of Icehouse, complete discography and even the storyboard graphics for the ‘Satellite’ promo clip. All of that mightn’t sound special by today’s standards, but circa 1993 it was pretty special - sadly I didn’t own an Apple computer though, so have never seen first hand what was on offer.

During 1995 Iva Davies undertook another project with the Sydney Dance Company, this time recording an album of cover songs as the score for the ballet production of ‘Berlin’. The album release was simply titled ‘The Berlin Tapes’ - repackaged in 2004 as ‘Heroes’ to coincide with the Athens Olympic Games - and though under the Icehouse banner (well Iva Davies and Icehouse), it was essentially a solo project for Davies (collaborating with pianist Max Lambert). Almost twenty years into the Icehouse journey, Iva Davies returned to some of his formative influences for the choice of material, including David Bowie, Lou Reed and Roxy Music, supplemented by the work of several of Icehouse’s ‘new wave’ peers including Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, Killing Joke (Guy Pratt’s old band), XTC and Simple Minds. I have to confess I don’t own a copy of ‘The Berlin Tapes’ - that’s a definite oversight I’ll have to remedy one day. During the ballet’s season Iva Davies gathered together his Icehouse cohorts to perform the score at each show. In 1997 the double album ‘Full Circle’ contained remixes of some of Icehouse’s earlier hits. The album had been completed back in 1993 but shelved at the time, aside from a low key EP release titled ‘Spin One’, featuring the track ‘Shakin’ The Cage’.

As mentioned in my first Icehouse post, Iva Davies revisited the band’s anthemic 1982 hit ‘Great Southern Land’ during 1999 with Richard Tognetti and Christopher Gordon. The original five minute track was expanded into a forty minute mini-pop opera titled ‘The Ghost Of Time’ (a line from the original lyrics). It was released on CD, then on New Year’s Eve 1999 Davies performed ‘The Ghost Of Time’ live on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House. The performance, which also featured former Icehouse bassist Guy Pratt and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, was broadcast live across Australia. During 2001 Iva Davies began work on a planned Icehouse album, with the working title ‘Bi-Polar Poems’. When the official Iva Davies-Icehouse website was launched in 2004 several tracks were made available for download, including ‘Chemicals’ and ‘Your God Not Mine’, but at time of writing the album is still a work in progress. In the intervening years Davies worked on digitally remastering the Icehouse back catalogue for re-release on Warner Music Australia, and composed/performed the soundtrack music for the 2005 motion picture ‘The Incredible Journey Of Mary Bryant’. During 2008 Iva Davies lent his expertise as a judge on the TV talent show ‘Battle Of The Choirs’. On the show’s finale Davies led Icehouse in a rare appearance, performing ‘Great Southern Land’.

Icehouse were officially attributed icon status on the Australian music scene when they were inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall Of Fame in 2006. My own humble view is that next to Neil Finn, Iva Davies is the finest popular music composer that Australasia has produced, and the music that he channelled through Icehouse, in terms of its consistent quality, truly stands at the limit of endless ocean.

If, like me, you love the work of Iva Davies and Icehouse, I can highly recommend the website Spellbound’s Icehouse (from the same people behind the Icehouse fanzine ‘Spellbound’) - it has some great features and provides a much more comprehensive (and undoubtedly more accurate) take on all aspects in the careers of both Iva Davies and Icehouse. You’ll find it here:

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