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A Quietus Interview

Roll Over The Icicle Works: Ian McNabb Interviewed
The Quietus , May 13th, 2010 09:24

Rob Haynes chats to Ian McNabb about the regrets and recriminations of cult favourites The Icicle Works

Picture courtesy of Nancy Price for WhatsNext.com

A decade-long exercise in daring the listener to guess where they were going to go next, Liverpool's magnificently flawed dreamers the Icicle Works first fluttered into mass awareness with 1983's top 20 hit 'Love Is A Wonderful Colour' - an uncommon combination of epic romanticism, chiming guitars, muscular drumming and pastoral imagery that came across like a re-imagining of the Byrds by DH Lawrence.

To the casual musical bystander, that is where they would remain, marooned as a pub trivia question on one-hit wonders. But although the song proved to be a commercial false dawn for the band, they would nevertheless go on to provide a rich and unpredictable body of work.

The trio were an unlikely grouping of personalities. The alarmingly slight schoolboy-like frame of drummer Chris Sharrock cloaked immense talents that would eventually lead him behind the drumkit with Oasis; lengthy bassist Chris Layhe towered over him like Peter Crouch celebrating a goal with Shaun Wright-Phillips, while guitarist, vocalist and lead songwriter Ian McNabb possessed the wild gaze of a dreamer which peered out beneath a mane of hair that extended and grew wilder as the band progressed. The band began to look like an Old Testament prophet and his followers, an analogy which proved telling as the singer's control extended to encompass all the band's songwriting and record production.

The Bunnymen-esque neo-psychedelia of the eponymous debut album remains their most cohesive offering. Second album The Small Price of a Bicycle consolidated and made more dense their sound, but despite containing perhaps their finest moment – the anthemic 'Hollow Horse' – it failed to build any commercial success. Subsequent albums – the Ian Broudie-produced If You Want To Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song and 1988's Blind - were fuelled by a desperate search for another hit single, and to the untrained ear each could have been mistaken for a compilation album.

A scattershot array of songs and styles leaped out in all directions through the prism of McNabb's mercurial imagination – from pure pop gems like 'Who Do You Want For Your Love' and Evangeline to the Neil Young-channeling 'When It All Comes Down', via turbo-charged power pop of 'Understanding Jane' and Prince-style funk work-out 'The Kiss Off'.

With a glum predictability the band split, re-emerging within a year with McNabb joined by a new line-up and a set of more straightforward classic rock songs in 1990's Permanent Damage album. By their own standards it was an unimaginative set, and with their momentum fatally affected the brief revival sputtered to a close soon afterwards.

McNabb is now eight albums into a solo career which mirrors the critical /fan acclaim and corresponding commercial stuttering, but he has never turned his back on the Icicle Works' revered legacy. Solo shows contain many of their songs and there was even an anniversary Icicle Works tour in 2006, performed by McNabb with his solo band. The full story has been entertainingly related by McNabb in his ruthlessly frank memoir Merseybeast, but he cheerfully relives it all again for The Quietus.

It seems that everyone loves The Icicle Works now, despite you never having much commercial success when you were going – is that frustrating?

Ian McNabb: Yeah, of course! (laughs) The Icicle Works seem to be a lot cooler now than when we were going, that's for sure.

Fans and critics always seemed to like you – how did it seem at the time?

IM: We did OK at the time, yeah. We sold out Hammersmith Odeon. We did four albums. The first one did well and the others did OK, but you don't get to do four albums any more, you know? If you're a young band now and your first album doesn't sell half a million then you get dropped. I'm chuffed that people still seem to hold a lot of those songs in high regard. When I do my [solo] gigs people still want to hear them – they're good songs and that's it really.

In your Merseybeast book you are open about the lack of chemistry in the Icicle Works. How much did that affect the band's progress?

IM: Well I was the songwriter and the singer, so everybody didn't get to put in their own thing, I pretty much told them what to do. It wasn't really a band. A band is people contributing, and songs turn into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. I was dictatorial – but sometimes you have to be. Pete Townsend said that a band is not a democracy.

Were the others not interested, or did you not let them contribute?

IM: I tried. We were only a three piece, and I wrote the songs. I'd give Chris Sharrock a drum beat and he'd make it much better. The bass player was always in my shadow. I'd try and let him write songs but they were pale imitations of mine, and I don't think I'm being cruel saying that. He came off badly in the book. I gave him a hard time. But that's the way it was, you know?

What are your memories of making the first album?

IM: Stress! Back in those days they'd give you a load of money and you'd go to Rockfield for two months to record an album. That doesn't happen any more. I just remember not being able to sing. My memories of the first album is having me head over a bowl of mentholated steam. It was very stressful, there was a lot of money riding on it, and it was not enjoyable at all. But that's the record that's done the most for me.

Were you happy with the results at the time?

IM: I hated it when it came out. You know the score – your first album is your live set. We were really fucking great live, but by the time we finished the album I thought it sounded really homogenized, too clean, not dangerous enough and I hated it. I couldn't listen to it for years – but it sounds alright now (laughs). It's like when someone takes a photograph of you and you don't like the way you look, then 10 years later you think, fucking hell I look great there...

It was a distinctive sound for a first album. What were the influences?

IM: We were trying to be like Echo and the Bunnymen, The Doors, The Velvets, and Teardrop Explodes, and of course we didn't sound like them, but we arrived at our own sound. When I listen to that stuff now, I don't think it really sounds like anyone else – but I know all the other things we were trying to sound like. Theatre of Hate, Bow Wow Wow, Adam and the Ants. But it ended up sounding a bit like...us.

After 'Love Is A Wonderful Colour' getting in the charts turned out to be a one-off, how much pressure did you feel to write another hit?

IM: When you've got that much money behind you, the record company want a fucking hit don't they? And how do you do that? Hits come from an accident. I'd write a song, think that this was going to be my big tune, and then there'd be someone saying ‘we need a fast one', so I'd write a throwaway track and that'd be the one that everyone would say, ‘That's the single'. You don't know do you? Chuck Berry's only had one number one and that was 'My Dingaling'. 'Roll Over Beethoven' got to 37 [laughs].

They might not have been hits but you still came out with some great tunes.

IM: Well thanks. If you start thinking about it you're screwed. The songs that people still like today are the ones written when I was just trying to write a song and not a hit. If I say to you we need a hit by Monday, write one, you're going to be fucked aren't you? The best songs are the ones that everyone can identify with. Or the best trick is write a song with a girl's name in it – because the geezer will buy it for his bird. 'Understanding Jane' sold loads because there's loads of girls called Jane.

There aren't many called Evangeline though are there?

IM: [laughs] There are now! You'd be surprised – people coming up and telling me, "Oh I've named me daughter Evangeline! She's 23 now!"

You had a way with strange album titles. What was it like when you told the record company that the new album was called The Small Price of a Bicycle?

IM: [laughs] I just did that to fuck the record company up. They'd like a snappy title and I'd say it's called 'If You Want Defeat Your Enemy Sing Their Song'. They'd say, ‘Can't you just call it Icicle Works 3?'

When did you feel that the original trio was starting to come apart?

IM: Well we weren't that successful basically. I was earning more money than everyone else because I wrote the songs, so there was dissent in the ranks. If you're Pete Townsend in The Who and you get a billion pounds, it's alright because the rest of the band are getting a million each. But when you're in The Icicle Works I'd get a few grand and they'd get a few hundred. People have got families and bills to pay, so it just started coming apart really. If there's no money rolling in, people split.

Was it a mistake to call Permanent Damage an Icicle Works album?

IM: Well the band broke up, and Muff Winwood from Sony came along and offered me a deal. I thought I was getting a solo deal but they wanted to call it the Icicle Works. They gave me a lot of money so I said OK, we'll call it the Icicle Works. A Pink Floyd record will sell a lot more than a Roger Waters one. So I was blinded by money and it was a mistake, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Are you happy to do anniversary gigs?

IM: Well it's the 30th next year. People are very anniversary conscious. So I go out with my band and call it the Icicle Works, and instead of there being 500 people there, there's 2,000. I don't understand it either! And the other thing is to go out and play an album in its entirety. The Bunnymen did Ocean Rain with an orchestra and 5,000 people turn up at the Albert Hall. So it's a no-brainer.

What album would you choose to do?

IM: The only one I like - the first one.

It's the only one you like? Really?

IM: Yeah. That was when it was happening – really good songs. The rest are a bit hit and miss to be honest with you. The Small Price had some good songs – probably about three. The rest of it is rubbish [laughs]. There's good songs on all of them, but the first album, all the songs are good. They were very naïve lyrics. Sixth form poetry. I thought I was incredibly profound writing a song called 'A Factory In The Desert', but I was 20. But at a gig now if I play a new song that I think is great it gets a bit of a golf clap. I follow it with something from the first album and everyone goes nuts. It's not even that good! The only trouble is all the early songs are dead fast and dead high to sing, so it's one night on and two nights off resting my voice.

The mistakes made the band what they were – but in an alternate universe how would do things differently?

IM: Oh...everything. I'd do everything differently. But can't can you? The past is not interactive. If you went back and fixed it, it wouldn't be the same. I know that sounds pretentious. When I listen to what I've done I think oh god, I wish I'd done that better, my vocal's shit on that, I didn't play the guitar properly there, the production's not right, there was too much reverb on the snare drum...and I have to say stop it! You can't do anything about it.

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