Purchased : 2 April 1983
Tracks : Uniform/ Street Cafe / Hey Little Girl / Glam / Great Southern Land / Trojan Blue / Love In Motion / Mysterious Thing / One By One / Goodnight Mr Matthews
This was bought from WH Smith's in Bradford on Easter Saturday on my way home from a long solo walk in the Bolton Abbey area. I had picked up a leaflet for West Yorkshire's Day Rover ticket in a local shop a couple of days earlier and realised that I could get to Addingham just a couple of miles away from Bolton Abbey for next to nothing. With the weather forecast good I decided to get up at the crack of dawn and do a walk up to Simon's Seat and back. So I was tired and blistered when I bought this but relieved that I'd found it at a decent price when it had already dropped out of the charts.
I was turned on to Icehouse by their eponymous single released at the end of 1981, a wonderfully dark and melodramatic song with dense keyboards just the sort of thing I loved. David Jensen played it quite a bit but it didn't chart and the band , still smarting from the critical mauling they received from the British rock press when they came to London in the summer , broke up after one more underperforming single "Love in Motion". Singer Iva Davies then put out what was virtually a solo album "Primitive Man" under the Icehouse name. This went unnoticed in Britain but it did have an ace card - the radio-friendly "Hey Little Girl" which was released as a single just as Men At Work were topping the charts. The extra spotlight on Australian acts did the trick and the single was a hit, reaching 17. Davies put a new band together to exploit this success and re-packaged "Primitive Man as "Love in Motion", the new title track replacing a song called "Break These Chains". Unfortunately the band had not had time to put down enough roots and the LP only got to 64 in the charts so I'm reviewing something of an obscurity.
It starts with "Uniform" an anti-militarism song that rises out of a simple synth motif with snarling guitars and clattering Linn drums. Davies's stern but thin vocal sings of wanting to conform and mass control before the chanted chorus. The middle eight as in so many anti-war songs before and since features the barking of orders. There's also a cheeky reference to a fellow Aussie's most famous tune in the line "holding your broken toys". The only thing missing is a decent tune.
"Street Cafe" is next, the follow-up single to "Hey Little Girl" which proved that they hadn't really "cracked" the UK market by failing to reach the Top 40. One thing that hampered them was the constant accusation that they were ripping off Roxy Music amongst others and it has to be admitted that Davies's vocal is very Ferryesque on this one which also features a lovely gliding oboe (an instrument favoured by Roxy's Andy McKay). It's a langorous filmic song with lovelorn verses leading to a surprisingly beefy chorus with echoes of "Public Image" in the guitar work.
Then it's "Hey Little Girl" itself in a slightly longer version with a couple of extra lines in the second verse. The debt to Roxy is obvious on this one too but it's way better than anything on "Avalon" . Davies is singing about a girl in trouble but leaves you guessing whether he's gloating or commiserating - "so why should I care if somebody let you down ?" . I imagined it was about the girl I fancied getting pregnant by her new boyfriend but the lyrics are open to various interpretations. Davies's vocal glides along the top of shimmering synths, subtly insistent percussion and a busy guitar dialogue that recalls early Dire Straits. The best single of 1983 by some way.
"Glam" is a near-instrumental synth tune which recalls Visage ; the only lyric is the ambiguous "Dedicated to glam". Iva's leaving us guessing whether he wants to be associated with the New Romantic scene or not.
Side One closes with "Great Southern Land" which has been misunderstood as an answer song to Men At Work's "Down Under" after Davies evinced a dislike of the latter song in interviews. In fact it has more in common with Midnight Oil's "Beds Are Burning" with its rock beat and pro-Aboriginal sympathies. Davies sounds remarkably like Gerry Rafferty on this one and again gets the balance exactly right between the sparse, questioning synths and insistent guitar work.
"Trojan Blue" is an imaginative song addressed to Helen of Troy as the city crashes to ruins around her, starkly addressing the guilt she may harbour at being the cause of such destruction. It begins with high pitched synth screeches before the beat comes in and Davies coolly sets the scene before the storm - "you know it won't be long now". The accusations come in the chorus , the string synths rising in indignation as Davies asks "how could you dare to look on as they burned for you ?" before a gliding oboe takes us forward as if words can't go any further. It's the sort of dark, unsettling song which is Davies's forte and one wonders if that was part of the problem with the UK press, they just weren't prepared to accept an arty, brooding Aussie in the same way they later turned on a Canadian for daring to reference irony.
The three that follow are not his best work. "Love In Motion" aims to be a sinuous synthetic slow dance with its creeping bass line and stalker-ish lyrics but is undone by the chorus's inescapable melodic resemblance to David Essex's "Rock On". The whistling towards the end is a nice touch but doesn't save the song.
"Mysterious Thing" begins like "Virginia Plain" with its pounding piano but it leads into a fairly straightforward pop song about being given the runaround by a girl but coming back for more. It's not bad, just uninteresting.
"One By One" is atmospheric enough with its dense synth work but there really isn't much of a song to go with it. What lyrics there are seem to have been filched from the verses of Abba's "Knowing Me Knowing You" before the endless repetition of the title. There's also a lot of squally guitar which seems like a display of talent rather than adding anything to the song.
But there is another classic waiting at the end of the LP in "Goodnight Mr Matthews". It starts with an anxious synth riff then a clipped guitar and brooding bass take us into the verse.
It's a tale of unrequited love with the eponymous Mr Matthews possibly the preferred suitor. The verses are feline and controlled but break into a nakedly emotional chorus as Davies pleads his case over a richly melodic synths. There's also a fine guitar solo to savour.
So there we have it , too uneven to be a classic but containing enough great songs to be a good LP. As we shall see this was the pattern for Icehouse LPs and they never made the step up in the UK. Perhaps radio producers were influenced by the copyist accusations in a way that seems incomprehensible post-Oasis. Still, it was their loss.