The Davies family took their Irish roots seriously. Both parents were musical and Iva’s father was active in Welsh choirs. The young Davies was a musical prodigy, specialising in the oboe and finishing his education at the Conservatorium. Davies was in the orchestra for the first opera to be performed at the Sydney Opera House. He was on track for a lifetime career in a tuxedo. Then he met that girl.
In his late teens, she and other friends led his musical interests astray with a strong dose of David Bowie, T-Rex, Lou Reed and Brian Eno. An early dalliance with folk-rock led to two unspectacular singles, but by 1977 he was hungry for something edgier. He drafted an acquaintance, Keith Welsh, on bass guitar and formed Flowers. They played an eclectic set of glam-rock cover versions and Sex Pistols-style punk with a rare intensity. Each musician was tall, emaciated and aloof. Welsh wrestled his bass guitar like it was an oversexed taipan while Davies projected paranoia. Flowers quickly became one of the hottest bands in Sydney.
Flowers developed an intense fan base. Welsh recalls the time a girl climbed on stage and stuck a bottle of amyl nitrate under his and Davies’ noses. Then there was the girl who sent a note threatening to assassinate Iva on stage at Festival Hall. “Ray Hearn and I discussed whether we should tell Iva before the show and I don’t think we mentioned it,” former Regular Records boss, Martin Fabinyi, remembers. “It was a very suspenseful evening.”
“You wouldn’t exactly describe him, during that period, as ‘chummy’,” says Fabinyi, who signed Flowers to his prestigious record label. “But that’s why it worked – it was actually, absolutely real.”
Flowers found a manager, Ray Hearn, who was looking for an act he could take internationally. Flowers was his second choice. Davies’ early years in an orchestra gave him a discipline quite uncommon in a rock star at the time. The band delivered every night. There was no time for drugs or getting wasted. Already headlining around Sydney, Hearn put them on the road with up to nine gigs a week. Often, they played one night in Noosa and the next in Sydney, or they’d do a Friday night in Melbourne and drive the Hume for a Saturday in Sydney at the Stagedoor Tavern which was, by any measure, a fire trap. Welsh recalls the first time he met the promoter there who complained that if the house was full but the punters weren’t drinking fast enough they’d turn off the airconditioning.
Fabinyi first saw Flowers at the Stagedoor and wanted to sign the band on the spot. “You could see that Iva was a star. He just had that rare quality,” he recalls. “There weren’t many original songs but you could tell that the songs would come.”
The music scene in the late 1970s in Australia was like a town in the wild west after gold had been struck. It was all cash and beer and cowboys. The big bands of the era – Cold Chisel, the Angels, Midnight Oil – were giants playing to tens of thousands of people a week and behind them were acts like INXS, Australian Crawl, Models, Divinyls, Split Enz and the Sports doing similar business. There was a kind of brotherhood of the road. When not on stage or in a car, players found each other in haunts like Macy’s in Melbourne or the Manzil Room in Sydney. Except for Iva Davies.
In order to fulfil the ambition of making a record and winning the girl, Davies had to write it.
“I’d had no intention of writing songs,” Davies says. “I’d had this massive classical training.” Eleven years on the oboe had taught him how to follow a score but originality and improvisation were not encouraged. His education had led to a job transcribing sheet music for contemporary hits. Music publishers had to register the sheet music and lyric for copyright but most pop stars couldn’t score a song. That was outsourced to copyists, like Davies.
“There was a point at which I was writing either the lead lines or all the piano arrangements for almost every Australian song in the charts and a lot of international songs as well,” he recalls. “I wrote the Little River Band song book. I wrote the Cold Chisel songbook and the first Elvis Costello album. I had to pull apart hundreds and hundreds of songs and actually write them down. I begged the publishing companies to send me the lyrics because I couldn’t always understand them. When they didn’t, I literally had to make up stuff to fill in the syllables and so a whole lot of songs got registered like Capricorn Dancer and Boys Light Up which probably have the wrong lyrics with them.”
This intense study of what makes a contemporary song paid off when Davies began to write his own. The first single We Can Be Together was a top 10 hit. Davies’ great inspirations – Bowie, Eno and T-Rex – were all artists who twisted pop music in interesting ways and his one rule to himself was never to repeat himself. He approached the writing as an intellectual exercise.
“I was very familiar with Joni Mitchell’s Blue LP,” he explains. “They were incredibly painful, personal songs and I didn’t want to do anything like that. Now, I’ve had to go back and focus fairly intensely on the first album. It was quite upsetting because, at the end of it, I came out with two conclusions. First of all, I had a couple of breakdowns in that period. At the end of all that I had just simply dissociated from the work. I wasn’t coping. When I look at what I was doing, it was kind of clinical depression. I lived in this beautiful old mansion flat but kept the blinds down all day. I had ridiculous hours and only came out at night.”
Despite his desire to avoid the confessional, the Icehouse album is completely personal. These are songs about alienation, about the desire for connection. It’s a cri de coeur.
Regular Records’ co-founder was, like Davies, an alumnus of the Conservatorium of Music. Cameron Allen’s first production – the Mental As Anything debut LP – was a hit, so he appeared to be the ideal producer for Flowers. Not so. They were at loggerheads for the entire three weeks in the studio in January 1980. The stress was so intense that at the beginning of the final track you can hear the engineer say to Davies, “Are you OK?”
“We knew that Cameron wouldn’t be producing the second album,” says Fabinyi. “But I suppose the tension between them was one of the factors in the album working so well.”
Released in October 1980, the album rose quickly into the top 10 and put them on the road in Europe. But in 1981 Iva dissolved the band in favour of a floating line-up. Before that, however, Davies had to take this album, forged in heartbreak, to his former girlfriend.
“I was still living in the icehouse. She’d gone back to live with her mother. I went over to take a copy of it to her thinking that I’d be welcomed back,” he recalls with a rueful smile. “She was incredibly unimpressed. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was to the effect of, you’ve just sold out. I was like, ‘no I haven’t! I’ve done the impossible. I’ve written all these songs – the first songs that I’ve ever written in my life – and it’s massively successful’.
“But she was pretty hardcore.”
Icehouse will play the Icehouse album in a 40th Anniversary show at St Kilda Festival on February 9.