Vastly underrated singer-songwriter Ian McNabb is about to release his twentieth studio album.
In 1983 I was a 22-year-old part-time drummer, dreaming of going pro and hitting the big time. A few years earlier punk had hit our culture like a sledgehammer, shaking up the charts, the audience and the industry. For a few years, anything was possible.
I first saw The Icicle Works on Top of The Pops. In 83 TOTP or The Old Grey Whistle Test were the only sources of new music on the TV (plus the essential John Peel show on Radio 1). Love is a Wonderful Colour was a top twenty hit and it was in that 4.11 minutes of spine-tingling pop perfection that I fell in love with the band.
In the post-punk era, I was listening to Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, The Cure but this was something different. A soaring, triumphant melody sung in an almost operatic (to my ears then) baritone, reminiscent of Scott Walker. The singer/songwriter guitarist was Ian McNabb, on drums was a very young Chris Sharrock with Chris Layhe on bass. For a three-piece, they made an incredibly big sound and immediately became the band I wanted to be in (although I could only have dreamed of playing as well as Chris Sharrock). The bands five albums are full of epic powerful, passionate music. With a fair wind, the Icicle Works would still be filling stadiums today.
Fast forward 38 years and I’m chatting on Zoom with Ian McNabb, who, now 60, is about to release his latest album and the third of a trilogy. The new album; Utopian (preceded by Star, Smile Strong and Our Future in Space), is a twenty-track collection of songs tilting to it being McNabb’s twentieth album release.
By rights, Ian McNabb should be in the “national treasure” category by now. His output has been phenomenal, not just in quantity but in the sheer quality of his songwriting. The five Icicle Works albums and his subsequent fifteen solo efforts are littered with absolute gems. There are lessons here for any aspiring songwriter; melody, structure, lyrics = sublime. Ian is probably the closest thing we Brits have to Bruce Springsteen. Unfortunately, the UK industry is fickle and McNabb’s output, post-Icicle Works has gone largely unnoticed despite its undoubted quality. Still, he has a significantly motivated fanbase, sufficient to eek a living from product sales and touring either solo or occasionally rolling out a version of the band.
I spoke to Ian on a mid-February afternoon as the news was breaking about the potential end to the third and most tiresome Covid 19 lockdown and the possibility of returning to some semblance of normality by the summer. Ian is fond of conspiracy theory and he likes to tease his social media followers. He’s no shrinking violet. His Facebook feed is a stream of, sometimes controversial, views, resulting in regular trips to Facebook jail, interspersed with anecdotes, stories and hilarious observations from mum Pat, for whom he’s a full-time carer. Pat’s TV commentary is the stuff of legend. She really should have her own TV show.
Ian is Liverpool through and through. The place runs through him like words in a stick of rock. He grew up through the sixties and seventies, an era when Liverpool ruled the music industry and The Beatles were ubiquitous (not forgetting Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Merseybeats, The Searchers et al). It must have been impossible to escape their influence and indeed the McNabb and Starkey families are friends and remain close to this day (Zak Starkey has played the drums in the Icicle Works and Ian has also played with Ringo (Starr) in his own band). The early eighties saw the second wave of successful Liverpool bands including Echo and the Bunnymen, Julian Cope’s The Teardrop Explodes, The Lightening Seeds, The La’s, The Mighty Wah and the Icicle Works themselves. the list goes on. Ian remains pals with many of the musicians of that era. Back in the day the three Ian’s; McNabb, McCulloch (Echo) and Broudie (Lightning Seeds) were often pictured together out and about on the Liverpool scene. If Manchester had the nineties, Liverpool certainly had the eighties.
Alongside the Icicle Works and his solo career McNabb has played with some pretty significant artists, including the aforementioned Ringo Starr and Zak Starkey, Crazy Horse (the backing band of Neil Young) a stint on bass for The Waterboys and a recent collaboration with Peter Buck of REM. I asked Ian how these came about?
In the mean-time, the twenty track Utopian will be released in early April with a plan to tour as soon as realistically possible. I will be talking to Ian again on our podcast once Utopian is out, so watch this space.
Essential Ian McNabb for you to listen to? We asked Ian to suggest a playlist. Scroll down for the Shufflewire Spotify Essential Ian McNabb playlist.
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