Monday, 19 December 2011
71 Icehouse - Icehouse
Purchased : 21st November 1987
Tracks : Icehouse / Can't Help Myself / Sister / Walls / Sons / We Can Get Together / Boulevarde / Fatman / Skin / Not My Kind
At last ! This had been my number one target for the past few years but I could never find it at a reasonable price until a Saturday in November 1987 when I found it in a sale in Manchester ( either HMV or Virgin; something's saying the latter ) presumably because they'd recently cracked the Top 40 once more with the underwhelming "Crazy". I was actually in the city for football . Rochdale had played ( and surprisingly won ) at Cambridge the night before but I hadn't been able to go because I was stuck at Liverpool till 5pm on block release so I decided to pay one of my periodic visits to Maine Road that weekend. The train from Littleborough got into Manchester an hour before kick off so there was time to browse the record shops before walking up to the game. For those interested City ( featuring the ill-fated Paul Lake and future Rochdale manager Paul Simpson ) chalked up an easy 3-0 win over Birmingham in the old Second Division.
The album had been released in the UK in summer 1981 when the band came over for a short tour attracting a storm of xenophobic derision from the music press for their allegedly derivative sound ; one review was headed "Ultrabruce" . The LP didn't fare much better although Smash Hits were a bit more positive. In fact "Icehouse" was essentially a re-tooled version of their highly successful Australian debut under the name Flowers ( changed when they signed to Chrysalis in the UK for fear an obscure Scottish group The Flowers might cause problems ).
The title track opens proceedings but this is not the version which entranced me as a single at the beginning of 1982 ( one of my all-time faves ). For the single the tempo was slowed down slightly and the keyboards brought higher in the mix, not major changes but enough for the original to be disconcerting. The song ( and later band name ) was inspired by the under-heated flat Iva Davies rented in Sydney which also happened to overlook a "Halfway House" for rehabilitation of drug addicts and ex-cons giving him some interesting neighbours to observe. The mystery of the house across the street is juxtaposed with a girl saving herself for something better perhaps after rejecting Davies himself - "she says she's got no time for winter nights". The coldness metaphor is re-emphasised by Anthony Smith's glacial keyboards (possibly influenced by Closer) and Davies's clenched-teeth vocal style. His sour conclusion - "There's no love inside the icehouse" completes the package. A masterpiece.
"Can't Help Myself" was their debut single in Australia. It's about sexual obsession or possibly embarrassing erections -"it's beginning to show" - and illustrates Davies's talent for welding together disparate elements to create a unique sound. Here you have a solid rock rhythm with a skeletal keyboard riff allowing Davies to veer between clipped rhythm guitar and post-punk shapes that a certain Irish band would soon trademark. On top of that you have Davies's pinched vocals , about as asexual as you could get, to complete the song's compelling oddity.
The same applies to some extent to "Sister" , a song addressed to a created woman although whether it's a genuinely futurist song or an extended metaphor isn't clear. The racing keyboards in the verses hint at nightmare - "sometimes little mistakes get by without detection" - but the mood is then spoilt by a cheerleading chorus sounding very like The Cars. The wrongfooting middle eight which sounds like the intro to a completely different song only adds to the magpie feel of the track.
"Walls" was a single in Australia though not elsewhere, a sinister song about incarceration . Keith Welch's foreboding bassline recalls Peter Hook's on Shadowplay and there are hints of late Joy Division in the keyboard sound as well. On the other hand Davies's vocal is a Bowie impersonation. Again. I don't think the powerchord - driven chorus quite delivers on the quiet menace of the verses.
Side One ends with the very Ultravoxian "Sons" with its bleak imagery of loss and decadence , the Billy Currie grand piano fills and Davies employing John Foxx's declamatory style on the chorus. The blousy sax break also feels similar to the one in Hiroshima Mon Amour. It's not a bad song but not strong enough to transcend to overcome the distraction created by the pilfering.
The more obviously synth-based second side opens with another single "We Can Get Together" a predictable choice with its everyman lyric and big chorus ( a rare opportunity for the other members to do backing vocals ) . There's some rhythmic similarity to Fleetwood Mac's Go Your Own Way and again Davies's weedy, slightly petulant vocal undercuts the "come on" proposition of the lyric to strange effect.
The remaining songs give full vent to Davies's sinister side. "Boulevarde" concerns itself with French prostitutes. With Davies delaying his vocal entrance a la Sound and Vision the preceding minute could almost be Focus with its extended organ chords and wheedling guitar. When Davies comes in with a bigger, impassioned vocal it's dramatic and then he wheels out a superb solo, the only one on the LP. It's sympathetic but haunting in its fatalism - "cause they all die young on the boulevarde".
The scathing "Fatman" is aimed at either a pimp or sugar daddy - "girl's best friend is a fatman" - and is buoyed by rock drumming and Davies's clipped rhythm playing allowing Anthony Smith to conjure a sombre atmosphere on the keyboards. Despite the taunting chant at the end you know the big guy's likely to have the last laugh.
I 've never had much clue what the frantic "Skin" is about - an identity crisis perhaps ? - and it's not my favourite track. Smith again impresses with the synth work and Ian Moss is brought in for some Reeves Gabrel-ish guitar abuse but the song is simply too fast and sounds uncomfortable.
The concluding track "Not My Kind" sees Davies wandering the Sydney streets observing the night life . At first he's kidding himself he's a part of the shiny scene - "the dark is a friend to me" - but as the song progresses the mask slips and he's revealed to be a lonely soul perhaps resorting to the prostitutes around . A pumping bassline accompanies him from the start of the song then picks up pace as the self-realisation kicks in with drums and guitar joining in to power the song to its climax as Davies frantically denies what he knows to be true.
I was in truth slightly disappointed when I first played it; perhaps that was inevitable given how long I'd trailed it. The subsequent years have enabled me to better appreciate its quality as a very good debut LP.