Great Southern Land (I Davies) – Icehouse 1982
It would have been inspiring, if this anthemic pop gem had been conceived by Iva Davies, in the dream-like shadows of Australia’s greatest monolith, a shimmering sunset radiating off Uluru creating a palette of colours and a sense of interior isolation unique to this country. Alas, the reality is that the songwriter had never been to Uluru at the time, he was holed up in a rented property in the inner Sydney suburb of Leichardt, surrounded by traffic noises outside and the drone of planes overhead following the flight path to Sydney’s International Airport.
Despite the urban grit and grind of Davies location, he had created a home studio, complete with new generation polyphonic synthesizers and Linn drum machine and was focused on musically capturing the radiating heat from the red heart of the nation’s interior, and evoking the indigenous spirit of Uluru, as an anchor of our great land mass.
Icehouse had started life as Flowers in Sydney in the late 70’s and played the beer barn circuit during the punk era, adopting a style that reflected the influences of Roxy Music and David Bowie. They signed with Regular Records in 1980 and changed their name to Icehouse, to avoid confusion with a Scottish band also named Flowers.
After a tour of the US the band broke up so Davies approached the next album, which would be entitled Primitive Man, as a solo project.
Davies recalls flying out of Australia on his initial overseas tour and for the first time sensing the vastness of the country, so he chose to frame the song’s lyrics as a collection of fragments of phrases, that the listener might identify with “Standing at the limit of an endless ocean/ stranded like a runaway lost at sea … hear the sound of the strangers voices/ I see their hungry eyes … you walk alone like a primitive man/ and they make it work with sticks and stones.”
This synthesizer-inflected composition which incorporated Aboriginal clapsticks, has become an anthem, not in a jingoistic way, but more about a vast country still coming to terms with its identity and its historical antecedents. It resonates with Australians in a way that inspires hope for the future in a country where the grandeur and sovereignty of the land itself evokes pride and wonder in equal measure.
Davies has said that he was inspired to write a song that did not include the ocker clichés of Men at Work’s Downunder, a recent huge international hit the year before. His record company were however particularly concerned to project an international image for Icehouse and did not want an Australian anthem as the lead single off the album, Davies wrote Hey Little Girl to satisfy the insistent demands of Arista Records, and it did become their biggest hit song.
Davies brilliantly underscored our historical and mythical heritage in this song, the introductory section, before the sparse Linn Drum machine kicks in, is brooding and beguiling, and the slow merging of each instrument adds to the mystique and majesty of the musical ambience.
Davies vocals are confident but subdued, very understated, he channeled Bryan Ferry in this way, a perfect vocal interpretation given the epic nature of the lyrics and melody.
Davies had envisaged the Icehouse magnum opus, the album Primitive Man, as essentially a solo project but he worked closely with co-producer Keith Forsey (Billy Idol, Simple Minds, Billy Joel) in studios in Sydney and Los Angeles to realise his ambition, staggeringly Davies supplied vocals, lead guitar, synthesized keyboards, bass guitar, and programmed percussion to the mix, and Forsey provided additional percussion.The promo video was shot in a sandstone quarry in the Kuringal National Park near Sydney, not in the red heart of Australia, although a second version of the video was developed in a more appropriate outback location.
Davies only re-assembled Icehouse when the album was completed, and they had to take it on tour to promote. His touring group were Andy Qunta (keyboards/vocals), Guy Pratt (bass guitar/vocals), Michael Hoste (keyboards), Bob Kretschmer (guitar/vocals) and John Lloyd (drums). This song was the first song lifted off the Primitive Man album and charted #5 nationally, while the album spawned a bon fide international hit with Hey Little Girl (#7) and Street Café (#57) also charted for Icehouse, in 1982 -83.
Surprisingly APRA did not include Great Southern Land as one of the best 30 songs of the modern era to 2001, but it was added to the National Film and Sound Archives, “Sounds of Australian Registry”, as a song that was a culturally and aesthetically significant recording. Icehouse were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2006 along with Midnight Oil, Divinyls, Rose Tattoo, Helen Reddy, Daddy Cool and Lobby Lloyd.