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Iva Davies: From Orchestra Pit to Pop Stardom

Icehouse frontman reflects on the golden era of Sydney live music, touring with Bowie and how homesickness led to an iconic song about Australia.

A man walks into the Rolling Stone office with $20,000 in his bag. It’s not cash, but an oboe. The man is Iva Davies, the musical mastermind behind Icehouse, who are embarking on a national tour this month to celebrate the 40th anniversary of first walking on stage as a band that was then called Flowers. Despite being something of a classical music teen prodigy, he says, “I had a love-hate relationship with the oboe. It’s a very temperamental instrument and it could drive me insane.” The world of pop turned out to have its own share of insanity, which he’s only too willing to talk about as he looks back on four decades.

For the latest in our Living Legend series, the Icehouse frontman reflects on the golden era of Sydney live music, touring with Bowie and how homesickness led to an iconic song about Australia.

Do you remember that first Flowers show at Warriewood Surf Lifesaving Club in 1977?
Not at all. [Laughs] Keith [Welsh, original bass player and current manager] remembers it. He was the business brains and I was the music director. Back then we were a covers band. We played weird sets – T. Rex and Velvet Underground and Brian Eno and Television and the Sex Pistols. We did three songs by the Loved Ones, including “The Loved One”. At one point the young INXS supported us and I’m sure they heard us play “The Loved One”, and of course they ended up recording it.

Looking back, does that period seem like a golden era in the Sydney live music scene?
Definitely. When we first arrived in London we were so excited and wanted to go and see some bands. We got the NME and started going through it and there were no gigs we wanted to see. Where’s the Cure? Where’s the Clash? I realised that in our heads we’d amplified this place to be a mecca for music, but it was way more active here in the late Seventies and early Eighties with so many great bands playing all across Sydney every night. I remember when we got a residency at the Royal Antler in Narrabeen, alternating with Midnight Oil. We got 200 dollars a night. I never saw Midnight Oil play until very late in their career, because we were always playing another gig when they were on.

Is it true that you used to have a job transcribing songs into sheet music?
It is. I’d listen to the tapes and work out the lyrics, melody, chords and arrangements for everyone from Sherbet and Little River Band to Elvis Costello and the Stranglers. The Cold Chisel songbook was hilarious. I played this tape the record company sent me and I could not believe what the guitarist was able to play in these ridiculous keys. I thought, “How the fuck is he playing that in D flat major?” Anyway I wrote it all out and the thing was published. A few years later I got to meet Don Walker and we got talking and I said, “Actually, I wrote the sheet music for the Cold Chisel songbook.” And he said, “So, you were the bastard who did that? The whole thing’s in the wrong key.” It turns out that they dubbed the tape at the wrong speed at the record company. The entire songbook is up a semi-tone. Sorry to anyone who bought that songbook.

You toured with one of your heroes, David Bowie, in Europe and the UK on the Let’s Dance tour. Did you get to know him at all?
I got the impression that almost nobody got to know the real David Bowie. The Bowie construct became who Bowie was. I never got past that. That was the most massive point of his career. He was huge. We did three shows in Milton Keynes in England with 70,000 people at each show. As soon as Bowie came on stage, one in five people seemed to be passing out, and the ambulance people were ferrying this steady stream of bodies backstage to give them water and make sure they were OK. We went to a small bar with David in Rotterdam. The place was almost empty, but within minutes the word had got out and the place became packed. The only way we could get out was to be passed out over the heads of people. It was madness.

“Great Southern Land” has become an iconic song about Australia. Was that your intention at the time?
I remember going on our first international tour and flying across the country and looking out the window of the plane and seeing spinifex and dry creek beds. Then I fell asleep and woke up two hours later, looked out the window again and it was still spinifex and dry creek beds. I just went “Fuck! This place is huge!” That’s what gave me the impetus for the song. I got very homesick touring the world and when we got back I set up my Prophet 5 [synthesizer] and a brand new LinnDrum machine I’d just bought in Los Angeles. The first song that came out was “Great Southern Land”, which I wrote using the William Burroughs method of cutting up words into clusters and using the phrases that had the most possible meanings. The reason it’s 120 bpm is that’s the default setting on the LinnDrum and I hadn’t worked out how to speed it up or slow it down at that point.

You rocked one of the most impressive poodle mullets of the Eighties. What do you think when you look at old photos?
I had certain looks through the Eighties that I regret, but generally I thought we did our own thing with how we dressed and didn’t buy into the fashion of the time so we wouldn’t get pigeonholed. I can live with my hair back then. In high school days my hair idol was Robert Plant. By the Code Blue period [1990] I finally got there.

Does this tour to celebrate 40 years of playing live feel a bit like a victory lap?
In some ways. We’ve started playing “Get It On” by T. Rex again and we might possibly even do a Sex Pistols cover for old time’s sake. Those songs were such fucking fun to play back then. And they still are.

From issue #783 (February 2017), available now, and part of Rolling Stone Australia’s Living Legend series. Main photograph: Mathew Coyte.