I don’t pretend to be the greatest aficionado on the life and times of Ian McNabb, the esteemed Liverpudlian singer-songwriter and leader of The Icicle Works. But I know a fair bit about the Merseybeast’s story, not least his considerable contribution to the story of his home city’s fine musical heritage.
His time as head honcho of the Icicle Works in the 1980s ‘put him on nodding terms with pop stardom’, as Paul Du Noyer put it in Liverpool – Wondrous Place, and ever since he’s proved his worth as a solo artist, with several albums of note.
Returning to Du Noyer’s observations, he adds: ‘He makes a warmly emotional noise, full of oily, clanging guitar chords. But he is always melodic and the effect is like receiving a drunken hug’. Neatly put.
One thing I sussed straight away during my chat with this Mercury Prize nominee was that there was no obvious side to this amiable 54-year-old – just plenty of down-to-earth honesty.
That even showed in his introduction over the phone. There I was, all set with my questions, and he just assumed I knew nothing and launched into a career summary, this scribe trying to find the right moment to butt in and at least prove I knew something about his impressive back-catalogue. Yet he was more self-deprecating than patronising.
It’s not as if he had a string of hits, I suppose, The Icicle Works’ Love is a Wonderful Colour the only top-20 hit, complete with its tell-tale brassy intro and Ian’s Byrds-esque Rickenbacker 12-string sound, evocative of so much great music from that period, much of it coming from that very part of the North-West.
But the fact that was the sole chart success surprises me, not least considering the strength of what followed, including singles Birds Fly (A Whisper To A Scream), Hollow Horse, Evangeline … right through to Motorcycle Rider. And that’s without even getting on to the solo years.
Ian, based in Liverpool’s Newsham Park, started with something of a resume of his formative days with The Icicle Works and subsequent solo career.
“We broke up in 1988, then I did another album in 1990 with Roy Corkhill, who was in Black, plus Paul Burgess, who was in 10cc, and a couple of people you may not have heard of, Mark Revell on guitar and Mike Baldwin on keyboards. I’m not quite sure where they are now.”
I might have made a Coronation Street reference regarding the latter, but decided to keep shtum. He was on a roll, after all. Besides, soon enough he corrected himself and told me it was in fact Dave Baldwin (‘F*!*ing hell – isn’t that shocking!’)
“Anyway, we left it alone for a long time, and I became Ian McNabb, putting my first solo album out in 1991. But in 2006 we marked the 25th anniversary of The Icicle Works getting together.
“Chris Sharrock, the drummer, has been a very busy man and very successful, playing with so many people since the band broke up, including The La’s, Oasis, World Party, Beady Eye, and Robbie Williams, becoming one of the top drummers in the country.
“And Chris Layhe has effectively – although he’d probably baulk at me saying it – retired from music to do other things most of the time.
“But I wanted to mark an Icicle Works anniversary, and if I couldn’t have the people originally involved I was going to use others. So I got Roy Corkhill again, and I’ve been friends with Mathew Priest (of Dodgy fame, a previous writewyattuk interviewee, with a link here) since the early ‘90s, so asked him if he fancied playing drums, and he said yes, fortunately. We also have Richard Naiff on keyboards, who I met while playing bass and keyboards with The Waterboys on a couple of tours.
“We did that in 2006, which was very successful, then again in 2011. And we’re all very anniversary-conscious these days, so every few years I’ll take The Icicle Works out and play two-hour shows based on those five albums – with none of my solo material.”
Going back, it’s fair to say The Icicle Works were initially seen as part of an early 1980s neo-psychedelia wave, hot on the heels of The Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen (and Pete Wylie’s various Wah! incarnations too, I’d say). And now – 31 years after their self-titled debut album – they’re back. What’s more, I’ve seen some rave reviews from this latest tour. It’s going down well, isn’t it?
“It’s going down really well. I’m really pleased about that, and I find more people come to see me under that Icicle Works banner. We did pretty well, and they remember the name, whereas they’re not so sure about what Ian McNabb is, although I do a good smattering of those songs too. And I’m not afraid of my past, like some are.”
The band are just reaching the end of their current quota of gigs, with three more to come before the next ones in the spring – on Saturday, October 17th at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow; on Sunday, October 18th at the Cluny 2 in Newcastle; and on Saturday, October 24th at Preston’s Blitz. There are a few solo gigs too, in November, December and March however.
While The Icicle Works are hardly playing the big arenas these days, for me that suggests an altogether-better live experience. In fact, not so long ago, Ian was playing solo not far off my patch in the Ribble Valley, enticed by promoter Carl Barrow, who loves his work so much he named his events company Hollow Horse.
“Yes, I know Carl well, he’s put a few shows on, and hopefully we’ll do a few more.”
It’s something I was talking about with Midge Ure last week, another big name artist not averse to playing the rural and village hall circuit.
“Well, it’s a job for me! I love doing it, and have no compunctions about where I play, as long as people turn up and I get paid! The music industry has changed dramatically since we started – and I put myself in the same era as Midge, although he’s a little older.
“Things aren’t the same anymore. You don’t get the big record company or publishing advances. You don’t get a lot of money to tour. Originally, the plan would be that you went out on the road to promote your records, whereas now – while records are still incredibly important to some of us – because of the internet, downloads and streaming, as a revenue source it’s decreased scarily.
“So when perhaps we used to go out for maybe two or three tours a year, I think a lot of us now will just keep playing all the time, because we have to.”
You’ve seen the best of both worlds in that respect – with plenty of independent spirit on one hand, and the big company backing on the other.
“Yeah, I’ve done it every which way. We got signed in the early ‘80s, an incredibly booming time for the industry, largely due to CDs and MTV in America. That was really what got us going, and it pretty much lasted until the mid- to late-‘90s.
“You can almost see just where the internet made an impact and everyone started getting computers, not just the select few in the know. As it progressed towards i-Phones, laptops and what have you, it changed a hell of a lot, but I’m really glad I caught that last wave.
“Now it’s the new game, and this is how we do it. The internet is a double-edged sword, and somewhat devalues things as they are so accessible. In terms of live shows, back in the day when The Icicle Works were doing their thing, we were up against four channels on the TV. Nowadays people can just sit at home, and they’ve got a world of entertainment at their fingerprints.”
Somehow I missed out on Ian McNabb’s Merseybeast autobiography when it first came out in late 2008, and seeing as it looks like a copy may set me back at least £30 now, maybe I’m not likely to see one for a while. Was that a cathartic experience for you?
“It was a completely cathartic and very therapeutic experience. I’d recommend everyone to do the same – you don’t have to be famous or anything to just go through your life and try and write it down in an interesting and readable way, and you get to explain various things to yourself as well as other people.”
Has it inspired a few more songs, getting into that mindset again?
“Yeah, because every day you’re forced to sit down and remember the person you were and situations you were in, and things you thought were incredibly important at the time – as you’re writing about them 20 or 30 years later – you realise they weren’t. And a lot of things you didn’t think were important at the time are. And it saves a lot of money on therapy!”
It’s not so long ago that I got around to reading Head On by fellow writewyattuk interviewee Julian Cope (with a link here), and of course you have a lot of experiences in common, one of which was recording early on at Rockfield Studios in South Wales.
“I’ve met Julian, and he’s absolutely charming and in that tradition of Great British eccentrics – people like Kevin Coyne, Robert Wyatt, and all of those cats. I’m a bit different to Julian, in that my interest primarily is music. He absolutely adores music, but he’s into megalithic structures and all that kind of stuff. He’s more diverse than me, shall we say.”
On the Rockfield front, I believe you insisted on Ian Broudie producing you. Did you know him quite well at the time?
“We sort of knew of each other, and he was still living in Liverpool at the time. We were on nodding terms, but then became mates, and still are mates. I’ve co-written songs with him and sung on quite a few of his records. I’d call him The Pop Detective, because he’d always find something commercial and appealing in the primitive scrawlings of whatever.”
Things moved on though, and you said the very last Icicle Works album in 1990 was more like a wake really.
“That was Permanent Damage, the album I made without the other guys, and it was a kind of funny time, with a lot of stuff going on, people pretty drunk a lot of the time and a lot of the music reflecting that. Having said that, going out and playing these songs now, we play three songs off that album in the show every night, and the audience loves them.
“I think time is the judge more than anything. It was very disappointing when that album came out and it didn’t do anything. We ended up doing just one album for Sony, who I was signed to. It left a bitter taste.
“We did two tours and they were really well attended but the album wasn’t well received, and also the times were changing, with that whole Manchester scene taking off. It was the beginning of something new, and despite the fact I was only 30, I might as well have been 50.”
A short spell with The Wild Swans followed, before Ian truly set out on the road to solo status. Does he think as a mindset, he was already a solo artist in everything but the name?
“I wanted to be a solo artist, even at the time of the Blind album (1988) with the original line-up, ready to put it all behind me. I’d just had enough of it and we’d sort of peaked. We tried really hard but couldn’t really get another hit and things were changing.
“As soon as people start getting married and having kids, they’re not quite as freewheeling about it. In the early days it was just us, and we didn’t really care how much money we earned, because we were always son the road and having a laugh. But then you get hitched up and it all changes.
“I felt our time had passed and felt like a solo artist. The reason Permanent Damage was an Icicle Works album was because Muff Winwood, who signed me to Epic, wanted a brand name that he knew was dependable, and wasn’t very keen on me just becoming Ian McNabb. But it was effectively a solo album.”
You mention families getting in the way. Are you a family man these days?
“No, not at all – no family.”
Married to the guitar?
“Yeah, I was born to rock, y’know! I live alone … well, my 81-year-old mother lives with me. I’m an only child and she lives in my house. So everything is devoted to the music, and to be honest, if I did have kids, I’d probably have to be doing something else as well.
“I couldn’t survive just doing music. I’d probably have to teach or something, like everybody else does. Every musician from my era that wasn’t a really big act does something else. Mathew, my drummer, teaches, Roy, my bass player, does a lot of tour managing, Richard plays keyboards quite infrequently and is very happy working in Waterstone’s and going back to his family. A lot of people don’t want to be away from home.”
I think that’s quite refreshing, and suggests you’re all doing this for the right reasons.
“Well, I’m doing it because I love it, I’m obsessed with it, and I’m very pleased I still am, because a lot of people seem to go off the boil. I was really annoyed with my audience when they got to 30 and got hitched and had a couple of kids so tended not to go to gigs. But then they get to 50 when the kids have grown up and they’ve worked for most of their adult lives and have a bit of disposable income, starting to think about maybe going out to gigs again and getting back into it.”
Hence that nostalgia market. But in terms of getting the band back together I’m sure it proved a great experience for you in moving forward too.
“I suppose it is nostalgia, but it doesn’t feel particularly nostalgic to me standing on stage two and a half hours every night singing songs I wrote when I was in my early 20s, very high and very energetic.
“It’s a real challenge as a performer and a musician playing this stuff than anything else I’ve written since. Everything’s in a slightly lower key and not as frantic now. So I see it as a real affirmation that I’m still able to do it, because there’s a lot of people who can’t do that anymore and can’t hit the notes anymore.”
That left me barely enough time for asking Ian much else, time and the occasion stopping me going into too much detail about his solo career highlights this time around, except to say maybe – if you’ve missed out – it’s time for you to catch up and seek out all those albums yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
But I did ask Ian if he recommended recording on a barge, as he did in Twickenham in 2001, just outside Pete Townsend’s Eel Pie studios?
“The Batman album? That was tremendous fun! It was in a beautiful part of the world, and something a bit different. Ian Broudie rented the barge off Pete Townshend, and it was great except that the river will rise … and it did! I wasn’t too bothered, because I was getting a lift there, but our drummer (and co-producer) Geoff Dugmore’s Range Rover winded up down the street. It was quite funny doing vocals and seeing ducks looking at you through this porthole!”
There have been some big names you’ve featured with along the way, from Ringo Starr – whose son Zak Starkey had an early break in the industry playing in a late-’80s line-up of The Icicle Works – to The Waterboys’ Mike Scott, double bass legend Danny Thompson, and so on. And there was Neil Young’s band Crazyhorse …
“That was in 1993 for the second solo album (the Mercury Prize-nominated Head Like A Rock). We went to record it in the San Fernando Valley, California, and were able to get Neil’s band, doing half an album with them. They then came over to the UK and we did a bunch of shows, the last of which at Glastonbury. That was mind-blowing!”
Moments like that must make you wonder how it’s happened to you, this mere lad from Merseyside.
“Absolutely! I used to go around saying, ‘Jim fixed it for me’, but I can’t really do that anymore, can I.”
Finally, I wonder how things might have changed if you’d been successful in that audition for Brookside and landed the part that went to Paul Usher, portraying Bobby and Sheila’s eldest son, Barry Grant.
“Even if I’d got that, I don’t know what would have happened. It’s one of those crossroads things. I know I could have been a good actor because I still do that – in daily life. But music was always the real passion. And I’m pretty glad I ended up doing the music.”
Rico La Rocca, aka event organiser Tuff Life Boogie, writes: “Martin Bramah formed the Blue Orchids in 1979 after departing The Fall, and they were viewed as one of a handful of post-punk outfits that delivered quality material with great songs and a mesmerising live act.
“Bramah’s shamanic stage presence is not to be missed, as he delivers his songs with the fevered intensity of a travelling preacher man, with equal measures of passion and venom and none of this is lost in his occasional solo appearances.
“Meanwhile, The Long Lost Band do spacey, wistful melodic pop and have been impressing people all over the North West since 2010. Their third album, One More Mile, a collaboration with Tim Buckley lyricist Larry Beckett, has just been released.
Advance tickets are £13, available in person from Action Records in Preston and from Blitz on Church Row in the city centre.