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Ian McNabb in Bilston 2003
Photo: Gerry Gardner
|Birth name||Robert Ian McNabb|
|Also known as||Boots|
3 November 1960 |
Liverpool, England, U.K.
|Genres||Alternative rock, rock, singer-songwriter|
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass|
|Labels||Fairfield, This Way Up|
|Associated acts||The Icicle Works
The Wild Swans
The Lightning Seeds
Robert Ian McNabb (born 3 November 1960) is an English singer-songwriter and musician from Liverpool, England. He is known both for his work as leader and songwriter-in-chief of The Icicle Works in the 1980s, and his critically acclaimed solo career throughout from the early 1990s to date. He has also played with musicians as diverse as Ringo Starr, Crazy Horse, Mike Scott (of The Waterboys), and Danny Thompson of folk legends Pentangle.
McNabb's first book, an autobiography entitled Merseybeast, was released in October 2008.
The Icicle Works
After playing in Liverpool bands in his teens, McNabb first came to prominence as the lead vocalist and songwiter for The Icicle Works. This rock band was founded in 1980 and had success in the UK with the top 20 single "Love Is A Wonderful Colour" in 1983. They also hit the top 40 in North America with the single "Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)" in 1984.
The Icicle Works continued recording through the 1980s with limited success. In the UK, several of the band's follow-up singles charted, although none reached higher than No. 52. In the US, they briefly made the Modern Rock charts in 1988, but achieved no further mainstream recognition and were regarded in North America as a one-hit wonder.
The original line-up of The Icicle Works broke up in 1988. McNabb put together a new "second generation" Icicle Works line-up in 1989, which released one album in 1990. However, the album was commercially unsuccessful and the band broke up the following year.
In October 2006, after 15 years as a solo artist, McNabb unexpectedly revived the name "The Icicle Works" for a series of UK concerts. However, this new version of McNabb's old band did not feature any original Icicle Works members other than McNabb himself. In essence, McNabb seemed to be re-branding himself, using a somewhat more successful trade name in order to give his work increased exposure. Throughout 2007 and into early 2008, McNabb played dates as both a solo artist and with The Icicle Works. He then retired the name for a few years, before playing a handful of "30th Anniversary" shows as The Icicle Works in 2011.
1991–1997: This Way Up era
Around the time of the split of the Icicle Works in 1990, McNabb spent some time as a de facto member of The Wild Swans, playing guitar and singing background vocals. The Wild Swans dissolved in late 1990, and McNabb then issued two solo singles in 1991 to little notice. He then resurfaced in 1993 with a collection of demos which would form the basis of his first solo album, Truth and Beauty. Recorded on a shoestring, it won him a record deal with Andrew Lauder's new 'This Way Up' Label.
The album's first proper single If Love Was Like Guitars became a minor UK hit in 1993. Following this, the 1991 single Great Dreams of Heaven was re-released, but failed to gain much airplay, possibly due to lyrical references such as "babies being born H.I.V."
The next single pulled from the album, I'm Game, failed to chart, so This Way Up went for a different strategy. (I Go) My Own Way was re-recorded with The Stone Roses producer John Leckie at the helm, but it too failed to significantly impact on the UK charts. Still, This Way Up stuck with McNabb and vice versa.
Post-Truth and Beauty, McNabb was allegedly inspired to a rockier sound by the engineer who mastered that record, telling him "Aye, Ian, your rocking days are behind you." Legend has it that McNabb went back to his home in Liverpool, and recorded a demo of what would become the coruscating opener of Head Like a Rock, "Fire Inside My Soul".
Label boss Andrew Lauder then suggested that McNabb go to record in America, which McNabb was sceptical about. He facetiously suggested to Lauder that his new material sounded like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and if Lauder could get Crazy Horse to play on the record, he would go to America. A few phone calls later, McNabb found himself in a Los Angeles studio with Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot. This cast-iron rhythm section appeared on four of the ten tracks on Head Like a Rock, including the No. 54 UK hit "You Must Be Prepared to Dream". The album's other single, "Go into the Light", did not feature Crazy Horse and peaked at UK No. 66.
Head Like a Rock was subsequently nominated for the 1994 Mercury Music Prize, and although M People would end up taking the award home, the attendant publicity surrounding the award-nominated album propelled Head Like A Rock into the UK album charts, where it peaked at No. 29.
Molina and Talbot toured with McNabb in 1994, featuring on the short live bonus CD which accompanied his next album, Merseybeast. This performance also featured Noel Gallagher of Oasis on uncredited rhythm guitar as the group covered The Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard". Gallagher's refusal to be credited reportedly inspired the later McNabb composition "Don't Patronise Me", although McNabb has always denied this accusation.
The 1996 album Merseybeast saw McNabb with a new backing band called "The Afterlife". But despite high expectations for the new CD, the album's first single, the fierce "Don't Put Your Spell on Me" only hit UK No. 72. The second single, the album's title track (Merseybeast, which saw McNabb exploring his scouse roots and merging them with West Coast Americana) fared even worse, hitting UK No. 74.
Although generally well received by critics and fans, in the end Merseybeast failed to capitalise on the commercial success of its predecessor. This led to a two-year hiatus on McNabb’s part from both touring under his own name, and recording full studio albums.
In 1997, This Way Up parted company with McNabb, and released a 'best-of' collection entitled My Own Way: The Words & Music of Ian McNabb.
1998–present: Fairfield Records era
On returning to performing his own material, McNabb focused on acoustic music, leading to a residency at the Birmingham club of Ronnie Scott. The material arising out of this became the low-key drummerless album A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Emotional Party, released by McNabb on his own Fairfield label in 1998. Aside from McNabb, the only other musicians on the album were Waterboys Mike Scott and Anthony Thistlethwaite, and legendary bassist Danny Thompson. The album also produced one single, Little Princess which failed to chart.
McNabb followed APPBOBOTEP with a live acoustic album, Live at Life (2000), compiled from a pair of Christmas gigs in 1999. The album included one newly-written track, "Why Are the Beautiful So Sad", which continued to chronicle McNabb’s dislike of celebrity culture as noted earlier in "Don’t Patronise Me".
Ian McNabb (album) (2001) marked McNabb’s full-band return, and was issued by Sanctuary Records. The album's opening track, "Livin’ Proof (Miracles Can Happen)", was written for the Go-Go's reunion which had recently taken place, but was declined by that band. McNabb's version was pressed as a promo single.
The album was moderately received critically, with reviewers complaining of a lack of variety in the rock bombast of the record as compared to its two predecessors. 2001 also saw the issuance of a demos and outtakes collection, Waifs and Strays, which included previously unreleased material and alternate versions of familiar McNabb chestnuts.
McNabb returned to his own Fairfield label in 2002, and issued the low-key The Gentleman Adventurer. Best described as a semi-acoustic album, it is similar in spirit to his first solo album, Truth and Beauty, with occasional use of the drum machine to accompany more upbeat numbers such as "Ain’t No Way to Behave". Almost entirely performed by McNabb (with help from his long-time collaborator and bassist in the latter-day Icicle Works Roy Corkill), the album takes in a variety of styles from rock, through ballads, a touch of funk, and acoustic storytelling.
Another "bits and pieces" collection, Boots followed in 2003, the title being both McNabb’s nickname (after his penchant for wearing Beatles-style boots in the mid-80s while with The Icicle Works), and a reference to the ‘official bootleg’ nature of the release. The double disc set includes some very hard to find items, demos, and alternative versions.
2004 saw McNabb issuing a second 'Best Of' album, Potency: The Best of Ian McNabb. This covered his whole solo oeuvre, showcasing his eclectic musical taste and output.
In 2005, McNabb successfully pushed a single, "Let The Young Girl Do What She Wants To" to No. 38 on the UK charts. This was McNabb's highest-ever chart placing as a solo artist, and his biggest hit since The Icicle Works' "Love Is a Wonderful Colour" reached No. 15 in early 1984, a span of over 21 years. This unexpected chart success was assisted considerably by his loyal fanbase buying several different formats of the single in an attempt to gain greater publicity and recognition for his then-current album, Before All of This. But despite support from a number of prominent DJs such as Jeremy Vine and Janice Long on BBC Radio 2, further widespread success continued to elude McNabb.
Later in 2005, McNabb released People Don't Stop Believin, an album of b-sides and outtakes from Before All of This.
In December 2007, McNabb's second live album, How We Live: At the Philharmonic, was issued. The album was culled from two June 2007 shows at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall.
In January and February 2008, McNabb was involved with "The Number Ones Project", a concert and compilation album celebrating Liverpool's fifty-six No. 1 singles on the UK charts. McNabb played at the January concert, and subsequently appeared on the album, released in February, with his studio cover of John Lennon's "Woman".
In late 2008, McNabb participated in a concert reunion of City Lights, an early pre-Icicle Works band of which he had been a member as a teen. At the end of the year, McNabb released his autobiography, entitled Merseybeast.
McNabb's eighth studio album, Great Things, was first made available at gigs in September, 2009. As of November, it was made available for sale on McNabb's website. His ninth album, Little Episodes was available exclusively through his website beginning in February, 2012.
McNabb's tenth studio album, Eclectic Warrior, was created as a pledge music project, and was released on Monday, 18 March 2013.
Collaborations with other artists
Around the time the "second generation" Icicle Works were winding down, McNabb became a de facto member of The Wild Swans, playing guitar and singing back-up vocals on their second and final studio album, 1990's Space Flower.
As well, he worked with Ian Broudie on Broudie's studio project The Lightning Seeds, providing backing vocals on the band's first three albums, released between 1990 and 1994. McNabb also co-wrote a total of two songs with Broudie that wound up on The Lightning Seeds' second and third albums, 1992's Sense and 1994's Jollification.
1998 saw McNabb as part of a touring band for Mike Scott and The Waterboys, playing bass and sometimes keyboards. He also had occasion to serve as a touring bassist for one of his heroes, Ringo Starr, whose son Zak Starkey had had an early music industry break in 1988 when McNabb hired him to be a member of a late-running version of The Icicle Works.
McNabb has also contributed guitar on Amsterdam's album The Journey (2005) and Gary Cooke's debut album Songs for Everyday Use (2006).
- Truth and Beauty
- Head Like a Rock
- A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Emotional Party
- Ian McNabb
- The Gentleman Adventurer
- Before All of This
- Great Things
- Little Episodes
- Eclectic Warrior
- "The Crazy Dreamer", review of Head Like a Rock, from Vox, ???? 1994.
- Allmusic.com entry for Icicle Works
- AllMusic.com entry for Ian McNabb.
- Information posted by Ian McNabb on Yahoo!Groups discussion list
- Biography on official Ian McNabb website
- Liner notes to McNabb albums, particularly Waifs and Strays, Boots
- The Right to Imagination & Madness, by Martin Roach (London: Independent Music Press, 1994) ISBN 1-897783-03-5.
- Guinness Rockopedia, by David Roberts (London: Guinness World Records Ltd., 1998) ISBN 0-85112-072-5.
- The Great Rock Discography, by M.C. Strong (Edinburgh: Mojo Books, 2000) ISBN 1-84195-017-3.
- Official Ian McNabb website
- Unofficial Ian McNabb website, with discussion board
- Ian McNabb and The Icicle Works Detailed Discography
- Ian McNabb on BBC Radio 2's Sold on Song
- Ian McNabb and The Icicle Works Guitar Tab and Chord website
- Video interview with Ian McNabb and Ian McNabb acoustic session from BBC Liverpool08