It’s always interesting to quantify the career arc of your favorite artists and to this end, I have long thought about the concept of a Rock GPA®. To illustrate the concept, let’s examine the career of a group that I collect and just mentioned two days ago, Icehouse. The Australian band first reached my ears on an episode of Night Flight in 1981, where they were showing a career retrospective on video director Russell Mulcahy. I was quite taken with the clip they showed from the title track to their US debut album, Icehouse. I went right out and bought that LP at the earliest possibility. I remained a fan for the duration of their career, which was not without its ups and downs, as we shall soon see.
The Rock GPA® is a simple concept, based on the four point grade scale we use in the USA.
- 4.0 = A
- 3.0 = B
- 2.0 = C
- 1.0 = D
- <1.0 = F
To get the GPA you add the accumulated totals of each grade value assigned to each album and divide by the number of albums. For the sake of a little granularity, I will be assigning values of a half point where appropriate. You know and I know that there’s a difference between a solid B average album [3.0] and something that’s trying harder, yet not attaining A status [3.5]. The final numbers break down as shown below. Since I’m an old guy, there will be none of that higher than 4.0 nonsense here!
Here’s how Icehouse’s career shapes up. Compilations are not included and the band have no live albums.
It looks pretty good plotted on a line graph, even owing to the mid-career slump that most bands fall prey to. At least Icehouse manages to pull their GPA up with some late-career high points. And the final GPA is: a solid 3.0 B average.
Their 1980 debut album was actually under the name of Flowers, but when they signed to Chrysalis worldwide in 1981, the band changed their name to the [better, more commercial] Icehouse. Their 1980 debut album was pruned of a few tracks and remixed to sound a lot better, released worldwide in 1981 and it brought a 2.5 album up to a solid 3.0.
The second actual Icehouse album, albeit third in this sequence, was 1982’s “Primitive Man.” Most of the band from the debut album was cut loose and leader Iva Davies practically made the album on his own. This was an album I listened to a lot back in the day! It featured the song “Hey Little Girl,” which I mentioned last week, but was filled with top-of-form material. Excellent high-tech rock music.
The followup “Sidewalk” album featured a new band backing him and the usual Roxy Music influenced tracks, while allowing for the paradox of having Simple Minds influenced tracks like the title cut as well! Since Simple Minds are themselves highly influenced by Roxy Music, this surely counts as some sort of mathematical paradox. In all candor, Simple Minds were touring down under with Icehouse during 1981, so at least the influence came honestly.
Next came the album that I usually pick as my favorite Icehouse album, “Measure For Measure.” It’s a zesty blend of elegant, effete numbers rubbing shoulders with unrestrained rockers that map out a new, more aggressive territory for Icehouse. The glammy “Baby You’re So Strange” is a loose-limbed treat for this normally restrained band, and the unfettered exorcism of “Lucky Me” skirts close to an edge of chaos that is unique for this band. My favorite Icehouse single remains the elegant, yet full bodied rocker “Cross The Border.” Leader Iva Davies scored the twin coups of getting fellow Roxy fan Steve Jensen in from Japan on drums as well as Eno himself on backing vocals and treatments. A real high point of an album.
This was followed by their US breakthrough album, “Man Of Colours.” Not a bad record, but it clearly shows the group aiming for the mainstream. That they succeeded with two US top ten records [“Crazy,” “Electric Blue”] that were fine pop singles, if somewhat less than they were capable of, shows they hit their mark fairly well. Still, the album was their weakest up to that point.
Until their next opus hit the racks, that is! “Code Blue” was released in 1990 and featured the group’s artistic nadir. If the last album was aiming for the US charts without giving up too much, this new album was simply wallowing in crass stupidity. Amazingly, US Chrysalis passed on releasing this album domestically in spite of the hits on their last record. If it’s said that you can’t aim too low for the American charts, then this truly shocks me. Because, this is a resoundingly awful record.
Icehouse then lay low for several years. The abject failure of “Code Blue” meant that Davies had to let the band go. He resurfaced four years later with a 2xCD set of remixes, but these actually counted as re-recorded versions made with Bill Laswell and Cameron Allen, who had remixed cuts from “Primitive Man” previously. They’re dance-y and trance-y mixes with some new numbers added to the mix. Interesting for fans but the project remains a sidestep.
The band returned to the stride that they’d lost with their next album, “Big Wheel.” It’s an excellent return to elegant, slightly sweaty rock with a glam chaser. It’s a consistent winner of an album with some fun Brian Eno covers done as B-side material for singles from this LP.
Effectively the last Icehouse album was the soundtrack to “The Berlin Tapes,” a ballet Davies scored for the Sydney Dance Company. The program consists of covers of his favorite songs. You know what that means: Misters Bowie [twice!] and Ferry to the white courtesy phone! Not to mention Simple Minds, XTC, Talking Heads, Killing Joke [!], Lou Reed [twice!], Frank Sinatra [!], Psychedelic Furs and The Cure.
The program is largely, but not exclusively acoustic, with piano and cello given the main stage. The result is flat out the finest cover album I have ever heard. It succeeds brilliantly in recasting the material to fit the feel of an album by both the choices made in arrangements and the quality of the performances. In many cases, I consider these tracks to be the definitive versions of some of the songs. There is no song more covered in my collection than The Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” After hearing the version here no one need bother again. “Loving The Alien” had always stood out as the high point of David Bowie’s disastrous trilogy of solo albums for EMI [that nonetheless made him a mint of ca$h]. After hearing Davies’ magnificent, subtle reading of the track here, you can forget ever enjoying the actually quite ham-fisted version that is on “Tonight” ever again.
After this high water mark, Davies has threatened to release an album called “Bi-Polar Poems” for about a decade before he even let the Icehouse domain lapse. The last thing I knew, he turned up as a judge on an Australian talent show that pitted choirs [?] against one another for top prizes. How the [near] mighty have fallen, but that takes care of the Icehouse album canon on this debut installment of Rock GPA®. Join us next time for… who knows?
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