It was the combination of a plane trip over the Australian desert and a cliched advertising campaign that led singer Iva Davies to write one of our country’s most iconic songs. Released 23 years ago as the opening track on Icehouse’s second record,Primitive Man, the song Great Southern Land endures as a sonic encapsulation of Australia’s ancient spirit.
“I can remember fairly clearly the process of writing [Great Southern Land], which is unusual for me,” Davies says. “With the vast majority of my catalogue I have no particular memories attached to the process. [Icehouse was] coming back to Australia from our first international tour and during that time two things happened. One was that I experienced my first plane flight over Australia and there was a light bulb moment where I suddenly recognised how enormous the place was – and how ancient too. The landscape that I was looking at out of the plane window was quite extraordinary. It was screaming at me that it had been there for so long in order to evolve to its physical state.”
When Davies landed in Australia he was confronted with building patriotism as Brisbane’s 1982 Commonwealth Games approached. But he felt the event’s advertising campaign was missing the point.
“I got very homesick on that [overseas] tour and when I came back to Australia there was a strange mood going on here,” Davies recalls. “We were heading towards a Commonwealth Games and there was a lot of advertising on television that was in the form of the postcard version of Australia. There was a lot of cliches and that annoyed me. I guess I was kicked in the guts by it, having been off on my first international experience, to have Australia summarised in all those cliched terms – the koala bears and the beaches and surfing. I felt a need to write a song that captured the soul of a place that had been around for millennia, before human inhabitation.”
When it was time to write a follow-up record to their debut album Icehouse – which was released when the group was called Flowers – Davies decided to write a song about Australia that avoided cliche.
“I remember thinking to myself: ‘Are you really going to do something as dangerous as is this? Because if you get it wrong it will be a huge embarrassment,’” the singer remembers. “So I took it incredibly serious. But, having said that, it was just the first of ten songs that I was obliged to write for the follow-up album [1982’s Primitive Man].”
For those familiar with the stark, haunting beauty of Great Southern Land, it will come as no surprise that the song received an overwhelming response from Icehouse’s label Chrysalis.
“I remember delivering the demos to the managers and the record company – and the reaction to that song was absolutely gobsmacking,” Davies says. “To me, it was just another song in a collection I was due to write, but the way they reacted was: ‘this is something incredibly special.’ I never really understood it and I still don’t – it’s extraordinary.”
Great Southern Land is just one of many enduring Icehouse hits – along with Electric Blue and Touch The Fire – that have ensured a new generation of fans.
Following the release of Icehouse’s 1993 studio album Big Wheel, Davies discontinued the group and worked on an array of musical projects under his own name. Director Peter Weir invited Davies to compose the score for his 2003 high seas epic Master and Commander, which starred Russell Crowe. But the release of a two-disc greatest hits compilation in 2011 called White Heat, which achieved Gold sales in one week, and the 30th anniversary of their debut record, saw the singer reform Icehouse and return to the live circuit.
Davies admits that he didn’t have high expectations of the public’s response.
“I guess it would be fair to say that right from the very beginning [of our career] I’ve been a cynic, to some degree,” he admits. “I remember receiving the first royalty cheque from the Flowers album – which was a huge success but only after three years of very solid work and back-breaking – and saying to our management’s accountant ‘can you invest this for me? Because I know I’ll never see any more money out of this business.’ That was way back in 1980. So I didn’t really have any expectations at all [for our return] and I couldn’t convince myself that there would be any more interest in the band.”
Most surprising for Davies was the appearance of a new generation of fans. Icehouse played to a large – and young – crowd at 2011’s Homebake festival.
“I was anxious about that show,” Davies remembers. “And I was warned prior to Homebake that it was a festival predominantly for 20-year-olds. I thought, ‘Oh god, they’re going to have no idea who these middle-aged guys are. Our bass player, Steve Bull, nudged me in the middle of the show and said ‘check out how many of the 18-year-olds are singing all the lyrics’. It was extraordinary because the people in the audience were the age of my children.”
Icehouse’s triumphant return included an Australian support tour with pop duo Hall and Oates in February of 2012. One half of the duo, John Oates, co-wrote the Icehouse hit Electric Blue, and the songwriter joined the group on stage to perform the song during their tour dates.
“[Oates] had joined us once before and that was when [Icehouse] were on tour in America – about 1988 or ‘89 – and we were playing at [New York’s] Madison Square Garden. He joined us [on stage] for that song and in fact I have a photograph of that particular moment up in my kitchen. It was one of the great ‘light bulb’ moments for me because not only was John Oates on stage with me, but we were playing Madison Square Garden.”
An obvious question, now that Icehouse are back as a live force, is whether fans can expect to hear new material from the group. Around 2001 Davies was working on material for a new Icehouse album called Bi-Polar Poems, but the singer says he has creatively moved on from that collection of work. In various stages of completion, the songs from Bi-Polar Poems may be made available for fans in the future, but will not be a commercial release.
But the good news is that new material might be on the way.
“I’m in the process of having a whole new system installed in my studio – and I haven’t upgraded anything since about 2006,” Davies explains. “So this is quite a big deal for me to have a new Pro Tools system and some new toys to play with. The signature of how I’ve worked in the past is to get some new toys and to see what happens.”
In the meantime, Icehouse fans can indulge in the band’s “DubHOUSE” project which is a reimagining of their classic songs in a reggae style. A conversation in which Davies recalled to a friend how he had watched the legendary Peter Tosh from side of stage at a European festival in the 1980s, led to the idea of reinventing Icehouse into an eight-piece dub reggae group. As DubHOUSE, the band performed a special show in Sydney and Melbourne, which were recorded for a new live album.
“We were able to reinvent a couple of songs that we haven’t played for a while – most notably Street Cafe and No Promises,” Davies explains. “I’d say there’s a strong possibility that those [dub versions] might appear in our classic set. It was great fun and really reinvigorated the band – the process [of converting the tracks] was surprisingly successful.”