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Ian McNabb: the long road to Utopian

Ian McNabb outside Crash rehearsal rooms in Liverpool whilst working with Crazy Horse in 1994
Ian McNabb outside Crash rehearsal rooms in Liverpool whilst working with Crazy Horse in 1994 (Image credit: Kevin Cummins/Getty Images)

Ian McNabb has been revisiting his past of late. Namely the first flush of The Icicle Works, the dashing alt.rock trio he co-founded in Liverpool in 1980. 

“When I listen back, I’m impressed by how musical and how technical it sounds,” he marvels. “There weren’t too many bands from that era who were as proficient; they couldn’t play Won’t Get Fooled Again from beginning to end, but we could. We’d often play the whole of The Who’s Live At Leeds note-perfect. I always thought we were more prog than new wave.” 

Just as The Icicle Works never quite slotted into any comfortable genre, the same applies to McNabb the solo artist. Since winding up the band in 1990, the maverick adventurer has released more than a dozen studio albums that encompass pop, prog, psychedelia, folk and clamorous guitar rock, linked by a gift for a great melody. 

It’s an eclecticism mirrored in the associations he’d made over the decades, be it recording with members of the Lightning Seeds or Neil Young’s backing band Crazy Horse, collaborating with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck or Professor Brian Cox, or touring as part of The Waterboys or Ringo Starr’s band. 

At 60 years of age, both strands of McNabb’s creative life have now come together. Utopian is the last in a trilogy of solo projects that began with 2017’s Star Smile Strong and continued into the following year’s Our Future In Space

“It sounds pretentious, doesn’t it?” says McNabb. “And it is pretentious. But as a movie buff I do love a good trilogy. The questioning introduction was Star Smile Strong, then Our Future In Space was the weird bit in the middle, that ends with a question mark ready to be answered. That’s what Utopian is.” 

The three albums aren’t linked thematically, but all came from a prolonged and intensely productive writing streak. Utopian is a two-disc set (“I’ve always wanted to do one of those long, sprawling double albums, a bit self-indulgent”), and feels like a summation of everything he does well: grandstanding guitar anthems give way to introspective balladry; character studies jostle with cocky self-mythology; cautionary rock’n’roll tales blend into dispatches on mental health, ageing, sex, music and the intangibles of living.

By contrast, McNabb’s other new release harks back to his formative days. Ascending revisits a bunch of Icicle Works demos, initially distributed on home-made cassettes in 1981, that were discarded prior to the band’s debut album three years later. McNabb found the tape in storage only recently. 

“Because it’s been forty years, I decided to re-record those songs and see if I could still sing them in the same key,” he says. “And I can. I hadn’t listened to that stuff since we did it, so I was sitting through the lyrics thinking: ‘Oh god, you thought you were so profound!’ But I didn’t want to change any of it, because that misses the point. And through the process of redoing these songs, I realised that I’m still basically the same guy. We supposedly get wiser and more cynical as we get older, but nothing really changes that much.” 

People might not change, but the musical landscape that McNabb first encountered in the 1970s is unrecognisable. Dominated by cabaret bands and generic pop artists, Liverpool was then still struggling to escape the long shadow of The Beatles. The teenage McNabb started in groups with terrible names like Young World and City Lights, playing working men’s clubs around the city.

There were demos, all of which were rejected by record labels, and failed auditions for TV talents shows Opportunity Knocks and New Faces (later, McNabb even auditioned for the role of Barry Grant in UK soap opera Brookside.

But then surrealist art.rockers Deaf School shifted the local horizon, followed gradually by others. 

“We all used to read the NME and Melody Maker, and started to hear about bands with mysterious names like The Teardrop Explodes, Echo & The Bunnymen, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark,” McNabb recalls. “I turned on Granada Reports, and Tony Wilson had the Bunnymen on. They couldn’t play, but looked amazing, with that rock’n’roll thing going on. Everything changed at that point. All of a sudden it didn’t matter about The Beatles. Instead those new bands were taking their influences from The Doors, Scott Walker, the Velvet Underground, Suicide, sixties American garage rock. It was a baptism by fire.”

Formed in 1980 by McNabb with bassist Chris Layhe and virtuoso drummer Chris Sharrock, The Icicle Works embodied the daring new optimism of Liverpool’s post-punk scene. They were a deceptive band, marrying surging pop to unusual textures, proggy time signatures and allusive lyrics. As songwriter McNabb puts it, something “closer to Rush than to The Clash”. 

The Icicle Works hit big almost immediately. They signed to Beggars Banquet, and 1984’s self-titled debut went Top 40 both here and in the US, propelled by hit singles Love Is A Wonderful Colour and Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream). Yet the band were never able to build on that success. McNabb cites their biggest mistake as signing to Arista in the States. 

The Icicle Works’ follow-up, 1985’s The Small Price Of A Bicycle, was rejected by Arista boss Clive Davis. “He went: ‘It sounds like punk rock demos. Go and do it again,’” says McNabb. “But Hollow Horse was the opening track and I really couldn’t get much better than that. If we’d have gone with Backstreet, who’d also offered us a deal and had Tom Petty, I think they would’ve built us up. So the second album didn’t come out in America. And by the time we got another deal, with RCA, for If You Want To Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song [1987], we were on the wane. But we made four good albums with that original line-up and had a lot of fun."

Their late-80s demise was also partly due to strained relations within the band. McNabb admits to his share of blame, but denies that the others became sick of him calling the shots. 

“I’m not a control freak by any stretch,” he asserts. “And I can quantify that because I’ve been in The Waterboys, so I know what a control freak is. You can print that, I don’t give a fuck. I’m the guy who writes the songs and knows what he wants, but I never told anybody what to play. At the same time, I realised pretty early on that I wasn’t a team player. So it was a great relief to get out of that situation.” 

McNabb’s solo career took a while to gain traction. A pivotal moment came in June 1991, supporting The Stranglers at Brixton Academy. Armed with only an electric guitar and feeling “absolutely petrified”, he somehow managed to win over the audience. 

Before long, Andrew Lauder had signed him to his new This Way Up label, for whom he recorded 1993’s striking Truth And Beauty. Its successor, the Mercury-nominated Head Like A Rock, was even better. McNabb’s backing band for the album included Neil Young’s Crazy Horse compadres Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums). The pair also went out with McNabb on tour. 

“That really was a dream come true,” he beams. “To bring those guys to the north of England was hilarious. They were here for a week, rehearsing, and were adamant they’d never been to Liverpool before. But they’d played here in 1973 on [Neil Young’s] Tonight’s The Night tour, when every night was weed, tequila and whatever else. So they must’ve been seriously out of it. 

"They came round one night for dinner. I remember Billy getting up, going over to the fridge, taking out a beer and sitting back down. My mother goes [does sharp Scouse voice]: ‘Excuse me. I don’t know how it works in California, but in Liverpool you ask permission to go into somebody’s fridge!’”

One of Utopian’s best tracks, The Outlaw, alludes to McNabb’s Crazy Horse caper. It serves as a bridge between then and now, paved with numerous and often wonderful albums, most of which were released on his own Fairfield imprint. 

Defiantly self-reliant these days, operating outside of whatever constitutes the mainstream in 2021, McNabb has retained a devoted cult following. He appears more creatively engaged than ever. Aside from Utopian and Ascending, there are tour dates booked for next tear, plus plans to mark the upcoming 35th anniversary of If You Want To Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song by playing the album live in its entirety. 

A second volume of autobiography, Making Silver Sing: Life In The Bus Lane, is in the works (the first is 2008’s droll, pithy Merseybeast). Chris Sharrock, currently drummer for Noel Gallagher, remains a close friend. McNabb says the pair have recently been talking about forming a Be-Bop Deluxe tribute band. And it seems he’s not joking. 

“I’m still absolutely crazy about music, it’s never diminished,” McNabb enthuses. “I’m not religious, so I don’t follow any deity, but the music is always there. It never lets you down, unlike people. But for all the things people say about the music business – and they will steal your shorts if you make money – they still provide you with a chance to make records, tour and live the life. It’s like gambling – you have to roll the dice.”

Utopian is out now via Fairfield Records. Ascending is available for pre-order (opens in new tab).

Rob Hughes
Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.