Icehouse

 Icehouse

 Iva Davies – circa 1984

“The devil lives inside the icehouse / At least that’s what the old ones say / They say, ‘He came here a long time ago / He came here in the winter snow’ / Now it’s colder every day’ – ‘Icehouse’ (Iva Davies)

Though he’s hardly ‘the devil’, the man at the centre of the Icehouse is Iva Davies.  At various points, Icehouse more or less resembles a band, but through a passing parade of musicians, the only constant is Davies.  Does this make him a cold-blooded martinet?  Is he more comfortable with chilly technology than hot musicians?

The man who comes to be known as Iva Davies is born Ivor Arthur Davies on 22 May 1955 in Wauchope, New South Wales, Australia.  His father is a forester; his mother is a pianist who sings in local choirs.  The family comes from a Welsh background.  Ivor begins to learn to play music with the bagpipes as a 6 year old.  He moves on to piano and then at 11 he switches to the oboe.  This coincides with the family’s move to Epping, N.S.W.  Young Ivor takes this woodwind instrument with him to the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music where he undertakes a performance diploma as an oboist.  It is important to realise that all through these years, he is not listening to rock music.  “I sort of missed all that because I was studying classical music,” he confirms.  There are ‘no pop classics etched in his adolescent memories.’  Once he turns 15, Ivor is ‘a professional classical musician, picking up poorly paid work in orchestras, recital groups, musical comedies and musical transcription.’  It is work of a different sort that proves more fateful for his musical career.

Despite his composing aspirations, Ivor Davies finds he needs to take a part-time job as a cleaner at a squash court in Lindfield to obtain some cash.  The woman who manages the facility has a teenage son of her own, Keith Welsh.  Ivor and Keith become friends. The two lads live near each other.  Keith has musical ambitions too, but, unlike Ivor, his interests are more inclined towards pop music.  Ivor is soon converted by Keith’s interest in rock stars.  “I had a fascination for these people almost instantly,” recalls Davies.  “I plunged in with people who had vaguely alternative heroes like Lou Reed and David Bowie…I got swept up.”

In 1975 Ivor Davies signs a solo recording deal.  His first release is ‘a glam pop’ single called ‘Leading Lady’.  On the label his first name is misspelled as Iva.  He decides to keep the new spelling as his stagename to remind himself how silly the music business can be.  A second single fails to ‘turn him into an instant star’ and Iva Davies is forced to reassess his options.

In 1977 Iva Davies decides to form a group instead of pursuing a solo career.  Iva teaches himself to play guitar and begins dressing in black leather.  He forms a trio called Flowers with old friend Keith Welsh (bass) and Don Brown (drums).  In 1978 Flowers expands to a quartet with the addition of Michael Hoste (keyboards).  They perform ‘note-for-note versions’ of songs by acts like David Bowie, Lou Reed, T-Rex, Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, The Kinks, The Easybeats and The Sex Pistols.  “It never occurred to me that it might be really uncool to do things exactly the same as the originals,” admits Davies.  Still, Flowers reputation as ‘a live juke-box’ sees them obtain a recording contract.

The list of acts whose songs Iva Davies and his buddies are performing gives an indication of the direction the band takes.  They mix together the basic songwriting appeal of 1960s rock, the flash of early 1970s glam rock bands and a late 1970s new wave sensibility.  So although these are simple tunes with strong guitar chords and big drums, there is also a creeping lyrical twitchiness and a patina of cold, technological keyboard colours.  Iva Davies is the focus of the band as singer, guitarist and songwriter.

Before Flowers first recording session, there are a couple of personnel changes.  Michael Hoste and Don Brown are out, replaced in 1979 by Anthony Smith (A.K.A. Anthony Hall) (keyboards) and John Lloyd (drums).  With this line-up Flowers cut ‘Can’t Help Myself’ (AUS no. 10).  A brooding synthesiser hovers over a simple bass and drum rhythm, then Iva Davies sings, “She comes / Walkin’ down the street / That’s the kind / Hey / That’s the kind I want to meet” [a guitar flicks] “I think I’m making it up / I should be pulling it down / And it’s beginning  to show / I get it fixed in my head / And it won’t let go / Oh, I can’t help myself / When I feel this way I want to be someone else.”  Here can be seen the simple structures of 1960s pop, the flair of glam rock and the paranoia of new wave in perfect balance.  The playing shows immense restraint, with Iva’s guitar kept in check, released only strategically – to great effect – allowing Keith Welsh’s bass to breathe and carry the melody.

A full-length album follows, ‘Icehouse’ (1980) (AUS no. 4).  Bear in mind that, at this point, the name of the band is still Flowers; only the album is named Icehouse.  This is the best album for Iva Davies and company.  Cameron Allan’s production work is excellent, particularly beneficial to John Lloyd’s drums.  Really though, this is the best complete musical ensemble for Iva’s compositions.  Their greatest song is ‘We Can Get Together’ (AUS no. 16).  A blizzard of ringing guitar notes coalesces into a propulsive pop tune.  The guitar chords thicken and Iva’s vocal performance grows more desperate as he urges, “There must be something we can talk about / Maybe there’s something here that we can do / Don’t go back home, babe / Don’t go too far / Maybe there’s one more thing / Whenever you come this way / Baby, we can get together (Ohh-oh) / We can get together.”  ‘Walls’ (AUS no. 20) claims, “Through the walls the sound is crawling / Down the corridors and halls / It cracks the ceiling / The windows and the doors.”  This brittle edginess is made more unsettling by a welter of whispers late in the song that remain naggingly difficult to decipher.  The title track, ‘Icehouse’ (US no. 28), is stately, yet frosty.  It consists mainly of synthesisers and keyboard tones over a drumbeat, with a late guitar line adding force and drama.  ‘Sister’ is also built on synthesisers, but in this case they are much busier.  ‘Sister’ is co-written by Iva Davies and former keyboardist Michael Hoste, indicating this composition probably dates back to an earlier time – though Hoste does provide additional keyboards on this album.  ‘Icehouse’ also includes an alternate version of ‘Can’t Help Myself’, which is interesting in its skittering guitar overlay, but not as sturdy as the superior version released earlier as a single.  Also present are the gangster saga, ‘Fatman’, and the anthem to alienation, ‘Not My Kind’, that closes the album.  This debut is a ‘runaway success’.

Flowers begin to attract attention internationally, but because another act has the name Flowers registered in the U.S.A., a name change is required.  This is how Flowers becomes Icehouse.  They tour the U.S. ‘with slight chart success’ and the U.K. ‘to fierce anti-Australian backlash.’  A new one-off single, ‘another strong dance cut’, ‘Love In Motion’ (AUS no. 10), is released in 1982.  While backing vocals go “Boop boop”, Ivan Davies slowly intones lines like “Oh no, there she goes / Tell you that girl is love in motion.”  It is only ‘later discovered that Iva Davies recorded the song all by himself between gigs in London.  After just one album, Icehouse is a group in name only.’

Iva Davies begins work on a second album.  Keith Forsey, an associate of disco mastermind Giorgio Moroder, produces the album and provides percussion.  The rest of the instruments – guitars, keyboards, bass, Linn drum programming and CMI Fairlight synthesiser – are all played by Davies.  “I didn’t really mean to do the album on my own,” he claims.  “My original intention was to put some demos on tape and get everyone to add bits, but when you’re working with fully programmable instruments there’s really no need for any assistance; you just set it all up, run the tape and out comes the song.”  Despite the high technology involved, the second album by Icehouse (though the first under that name rather than Flowers) is titled ‘Primitive Man’ (1982) (AUS no. 3, US no. 129, UK no. 64).  The name is taken from the opening track (and first single) ‘Great Southern Land’ (AUS no. 5, UK no. 83).  Over banks of scudding synths and a thudding beat, Iva sings of “living in the summer for a million years” and how this “burns you black…like a primitive man.”  This is a reference to the indigenous Australians, the dark-skinned aboriginal race.  The song also touches on other aspects of Australian history such as the country being used as a penal colony by the English (“anyone will tell you it’s a prisoner’s island”).  The author expresses some trepidation in a later interview about his subject: “All I knew was I’d written a song about Australia and if I got it wrong, then there was real potential of it blowing up in my face.”  Overseas, Icehouse gains a foothold in England with ‘Hey Little Girl’ (AUS no. 7, US no. 31, UK no. 17), though Iva notes, “Luck and good timing are hugely important in Britain.”  “Hey little girl / Where will you hide?” he asks in the song, “Who can you run to now?”  Inexorable synthesisers mercilessly frame the sentiment “When everything goes wrong / Sometimes it makes no sense.”  If ‘Hey Little Girl’ evokes David Bowie, then ‘Street Café’ (AUS no. 57, UK no. 62) leans towards Roxy Music.  “No matter where the road may take you / We’ll meet again someday / You know we’ll meet someday, someday / At the street café,” the lyrics conclude.  This ‘ambitious’ album stretches to include a tribute to Iva’s rock roots with ‘Glam’ and a slice of ancient history in an account of Helen of Troy called ‘Trojan Blue.’

To promote ‘Primitive Man’, Iva Davies puts together a new line-up of Icehouse in 1982.  John Lloyd (drums) is retained from the previous edition, Michael Hoste (keyboards) is recalled, and they are joined by Bob Kretschmer (guitar), Guy Pratt (bass) and Andy Qunta (keyboards).  Pratt and Qunta are U.K. musicians, giving the band a more international make-up.  Michael Hoste leaves before work begins again in the recording studio.

The third Icehouse album is ‘Sidewalk’ (1984) (AUS no. 8).  This disc is produced and written by Iva Davies and though ostensibly recorded by the group, it is alleged that the band members are only brought in ‘at the very last minute.’  The first single is ‘Taking The Town’ (AUS no. 29), an anthem to a night on the tiles: “We’re gonna turn it all upside down / Yeah, we’re taking this town.”  The cause is greatly aided by Guy Pratt’s popping bass and a lusty chorus of male voices.  Pratt uses a more rubbery tone for the reflective ‘Dusty Pages’ (AUS no. 82) which balances acoustic guitar against hanging synth notes.  The sad and gritty ‘Don’t Believe Anymore’ (AUS no. 31) features a saxophone solo from guest musician Joe Camilleri of Australian band Jo Jo Zep.

Between this album and the next by Icehouse, Iva Davies and Bob Kretschmer work on ‘Boxes’, a ballet for the Sydney Dance Company.  This is notable because it is here that Iva Davies meets Tonia Kelly, the company’s principal dancer, who becomes romantically involved with the singer.

With a new album pending, Icehouse undergoes another membership reshuffle.  Only Bob Kretschmer (guitar) and Andy Qunta (keyboards) continue, with Simon Lloyd (saxophone, keyboards), Glen Krawczyk (bass) and Paul Wheeler (drums) being enlisted.  With ‘Measure For Measure’ (1986) (AUS no. 8, US no. 55) for the first time Iva Davies shares songwriting credit for the album with Bob Kretschmer.  This ‘tougher’ album is produced by Rhett Davies (no relation) and David Lord.  The album’s title supposedly refers to ‘Iva’s desire to keep everything in balance, ‘Measure For Measure’.’  The first single is ‘No Promises’ (AUS no. 30, US no. 9, UK no. 72).  Synthesisers ooze over a click track as the vocalist conjures up “A winter’s palace / From ‘The Arabian Nights’ / White waves on an ocean / Gems from a golden age.”  He offers “No promises / But if you should fall…”  From this piece, delicate as cut-glass, the balance swings to the bruising ‘glam rock flavoured’ ‘Baby You’re So Strange’ (AUS no. 14).  “Well you tell me I’m the one / And you tell me not to come / Oh yeah,” sings Iva Davies with annoyance as guitar riffs stagger about him.  He goes on to ask in mock disbelief “Do you believe it? / Could it be another man? / Well, I just don’t understand / Baby, you’re so strange.”  He concludes that the object of this harangue is “positively weird.”  Between these two extremes, the album revisits the underworld of criminals for ‘Mr Big’ (AUS no. 18) and travels ‘Cross The Border’ (AUS no. 65, US no. 19) where one-time Roxy Music member Brian Eno offers a guest vocal, enunciating “East, west / Point to the nation / North, south / Block the connection.”

The next Icehouse album follows relatively quickly.  ‘Man Of Colours’ (1987) (AUS no. 1, US no. 43, UK no. 93) is released sixteen months after its predecessor.  Perhaps due to this brief interval, there is only one change in the musicians on board: Stephen Morgan is the new bass player.  Even producer David Lord (who produced half the previous effort) is retained.  ‘Man Of Colours’ is hailed as ‘the most focused Icehouse record yet.’  With half a million in domestic sales, it becomes Australia’s second–biggest selling album to that time (after John Farnham’s ‘Whispering Jack’); it is the first Australian album to spawn five top forty hits; and is the group’s most successful internationally.  The first single, ‘Crazy’ (AUS no. 3, US no. 10, UK no. 38), is co-written by Iva Davies, Bob Kretschmer and Andy Qunta.  Iva’s not exactly flattering response to an admirer is “You have to be crazy, baby / To want a guy like me / Yeah, you have to be out of your mind / Crazy!”  Iva co-writes ‘Electric Blue’ (AUS no. 1, US no. 10, UK no. 53) with John Oates, half of the U.S. hit-making duo Daryl Hall And John Oates.  Somewhat ruefully, Iva protests in an interview, “I never wanted to be known as the ‘Electric Blue’ guy.  That song was actually our only number one hit in Australia, but it wasn’t what I thought best represented Icehouse as I saw us.”  The album’s other hits are ‘My Obsession’ (AUS no. 5); the title track, ‘Man Of Colours’ (AUS no. 28), an ode to a painter at his easel; and ‘Nothing Too Serious’ (AUS no. 29).

Icehouse takes a breath by releasing the compilation album ‘Great Southern Land’ (1989) (AUS no. 2).  This includes two new songs, ‘Touch The Fire’ (AUS no. 13) and ‘Jimmy Dean’ (AUS no. 47).

Though Bob Kretschmer co-writes with Iva Davies most of the tracks on ‘Code Blue’ (1990) (AUS no. 9), he has left the band by the time the album is released.  Andy Qunta also departs in the wake of ‘Man Of Colours’.  Their replacements are Paul Gildea (guitar) and Roger Mason (keyboards), the latter a veteran of Australian band The Models.  ‘Code Blue’ is produced by Nick Launay.  The album is a loosely conceptual work.  Reflecting on his earlier composition ‘Great Southern Land’, Iva Davies tries to write a whole album of distinctly Australian songs.  These are not so much patriotic anthems, but stories inspired by local headlines, albeit clipped from the pages of history rather than current events.  Thus the rough likeness on the cover is that of Australian aviation pioneer Charles Kingsford Smith.  The album includes such tunes as ‘Big Fun’ (AUS no. 47), ‘Miss Devine’ (AUS no. 16), ‘Anything Is Possible’ (AUS no. 49), ‘Mercy On The Boy’ and ‘Knockin’ ‘Em Down.’

Also in 1990, Iva Davies marries Tonia Kelly, his dancer girlfriend.  The couple go on to have two children, a daughter named Brynn (born 1993) and a son named Evan (born 1996).

Icehouse record another album, ‘Big Wheel’ (1993) (AUS no. 46).  Iva Davies produces this disc himself.  As may be expected, there are some comings and goings amongst the rest of the band.  Simon Lloyd is out and Tony Llewellyn (keyboards) and David Chapman (guitar) are in, though the existing keyboardist and guitarist – Roger Mason and Paul Gildea, respectively – are still on hand.

In 1994 Iva Davies decides to deactivate Icehouse.  He remains involved with music but eschews the merry-go-round of the pop charts and the wider rock ‘n’ roll industry.

Eventually, in 2011 Iva Davies decides to promote some of the band’s history with some new musicians.  This crew consists of Paul Gildea (guitar), Michael Paynter (keyboards, guitar), Glenn Reither (keyboards, saxophone), Steve Bull (bass) and Peter Maslen (drums).

‘DubHouse Live’ (2014) sees Icehouse recasting their past hits as reggae songs.

So was Iva Davies a cold-blooded martinet?  No, that seems unlikely.  It’s hard to deny there was a large turnover in personnel in Icehouse, but there doesn’t seem to be any horror stories about Davies as the band’s director.  The loss of the other original members of Flowers appears almost accidental (“I didn’t really mean to do the album on my own”).  Original bassist Keith Welsh, later became involved in managing Icehouse, and remained a life-long friend.  Michael Hoste and John Lloyd both returned for a second tour of duty in the band.  Bob Kretschmer was given substantial creative input.  Kretschmer, Andy Qunta, Paul Wheeler and Paul Gildea all put in lengthy sojourns in the ranks.  This is not the behaviour of oppressed musicians.  Although Icehouse have often been at the cutting edge of technology at the time (e.g. the CMI Fairlight synthesiser), Iva Davies continued to use flesh-and-blood collaborators when, as ‘Primitive Man’ showed, he could do a very credible job as a multi-instrumentalist without all the other people to accommodate.  The fact that he chose to work with other players is an indication of someone who values human interaction at least as much – and probably more – than ‘scanners and tapes’ (to borrow a line from ‘Sister’).  The nearest explanation to offer for the chopping and changing in the band is that Iva was so intent on chasing his musical vision that everything else, including the other people in the group, was of secondary concern.  Since a great number of positive results were achieved, it’s hard to fault the methods.  It may not be for everyone, but it worked for Icehouse.  The act ‘developed a strongly atmospheric style that went some way towards attaining a form of Australian electronic music.’  ‘Group or not, the sound [of Icehouse] remained the same.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ (Sydney, Australia newspaper) (4 August 2012) on smh.com.au
  2. wikipedia.org as at 11 March 2013, 1 January 2015
  3. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘Icehouse’ by Bruce Elder (Megabooks, 1985) p 67
  4. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 131, 135, 136, 155, 158
  5. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 107
  6. ‘Digging A Hole’ – (6 October 2012) on guestlisted.blogspot.com.au
  7. sonicnet.com (as at 30 August 2001) p. 1
  8. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia newspaper) – ‘DubHouse Live’ review by Cameron Adams (30 January 2014) p. 44

Song lyrics copyright EMI Songs Australia

Last revised 2 January 2015

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