Icicle Works' Ian McNabb continues stellar solo career with 'Star Smile Strong'
Ian McNabb's "Mystic Age"
Ian McNabb was easily among the most sophisticated and tuneful songwriters to emerge out of the fertile pop music/MTV video scene of the 1980s. But while the Liverpool native has stayed creative ever since—his new album Star Smile Strong is his 11th solo studio album, and he's also released several other collections--he he's best-known in the U.S. for his 1984 Top 40 single and video "Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)," which he wrote and recorded as the frontman for the alternative rock trio Icicle Works.
The one hit appeared on the 1984 self-titled album The Icicle Works.
"Icicle Works peaked in the U.S. with our first album," says McNabb. "It's very disappointing because I'm sure plenty of people would enjoy what I did if they got to hear it."
After the group's second album failed to get a U.S. release, and the third and fourth came out on different labels, "all of the confusion eventually caused problems, and we just broke up out of frustration, really," continues McNabb. "But I sell a lot of my records to the U.S. all of the time through my website, and most of my stuff is also available to stream or download at Bandcamp. There's also quite a few things on Spotify now, if people need to catch up."
And they do need to catch up.
Now 56, McNabb was 12 when he picked up a guitar after seeing Marc Bolan on England's legendary music TV showTop of the Pops. He plied the northern England working men's club and cabaret circuits as a teenager before focusing on songwriting and forming the Icicle Works in 1981 with drummer Chris Sharrock—who appears on Star Smile Strong--and bassist/vocalist Chris Layhe. The group became part of an '80s rock renaissance in Liverpool, also starring Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, OMD, Dead or Alive and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
While they had only one hit in America and broke up in 1988 (McNabb did make a final album under the name Icicle Works, with Zak Starkey on drums), the name continues to stick: "I play both solo and with my band," says McNabb, who still lives in Liverpool and cares full-time for his 83-year-old mother while constantly listening to music and writing—and touring when he can.
"We call ourselves the Icicle Works, and also perform much of my solo material."
This, again, is 11 solo albums later, one of which, his 1993 debut Truth and Beauty, was recorded after he remortgaged his house. Its 1994 followup Head Like a Rock was partly recorded with Neil Young's frequent backing band Crazy Horse in Los Angeles and was acclaimed by Q as one of the best albums released during the magazine's existence.
Self-financing and releasing most of his succeeding recordings, McNabb also performed with the likes of Ringo Starr and The Waterboys, and in 2009 published the autobiography Merseybeast that is now being recorded for audiobook release.
As for Star Smile Strong, "I consider it to be a continuation of what I've always tried to do: good lyrics, good melodies, good playing, bit of humor—and a bloody good beat!"
As a wide-ranging songwriter and recording artist, McNabb tries to "improve as I go on," he adds.
"I like to think each record is different to the last," he says. "Star Smile Strong has just about every style I have in my weaponry. I tend to be all over the place stylistically, which seems to be something artists don't do much anymore. Once the bean-counters took over the music industry everything had to adhere to a genre so it could be marketed effectively: Listen to The Beatles' White Album! Not only would that not get released as a double-album in the 21st century, it would be a 10- or 12-track record, with the songs that sound similar in content plus one or two ballads."
As for McNabb's own album productions, "I usually leave that to someone else," he continues. "I just sit at the back saying 'yes' or 'no'! But [producer] Ciaron Bell has done a wonderful job on this album with a very limited budget."
He notes that while there's no unifying theme to Star Smile Strong, album sequencing "is very important when the strands are as disparate as mine. My message is always, 'Love one another and try not to mess the place up. Be nice.' But it’s not really getting through, sadly."
The inspiration for the album's title will be readily apparent for fans of Woody Allen's 1984 movie Broadway Danny Rose, specifically, informs McNabb, the scene where he instructs the balloon act to always say "the three 'S''s" before going on stage.
And he relates how the involvement of English physicist and science TV show host Brian Cox, who in the '80s was the original keyboardist for rock band Dare and later played in hitmaking '90s pop group D:Ream, came about.
"When we were tracking [lead track] 'Mystic Age' I kept doing talking bits over the instrumental passages, as it reminded me of 'Us and Them' [the single from The Dark Side of the Moon] by Pink Floyd. Because it's about inner and outer space, I thought it would be nice to have Brian talking over it. We sampled a few nice bits and sent it to him for approval, and he came back straightaway and was very complimentary—and he's a huge star himself!"
The song "Mystic Age," says McNabb, "is about moving forward into the universe as one, in peace, together." But it shouldn't be confused thematically with another album track, "Hotter Than the Sun," which is "a bunch of fun lyrics, very cliched, about sexy women! I wrote it over a track by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, who are credited in the liner notes."
Another standout track is "Can't Get What I Want," and while the title is autobiographical, McNabb concedes, the rest concerns someone he knew many years ago who shall remain nameless. But he's happy to talk about another collaborator, Ralph Molina, drummer for Neil Young's frequent backing band Crazy Horse.
"I've known Ralph since 1993, when Crazy Horse worked on my second solo record," says McNabb. "We've kept in touch, and he asked me to write some melodies for some lyrics he's working on. I was so pleased with 'This Love I Feel for You' that I asked him if I could have it for my album and he kindly said yes."
McNabb and Molina co-wrote another song, "Dance on the Wind," that Molina is using on his own solo project. "This Love I Feel for You," meanwhile, is the 11th of 12 Star Smile Strong tracks, and is followed by the near-13-minute closer "Clarabella (Come to the Window)."
"I've promised myself I'm never going to explain the meaning of 'Clarabella,'" says McNabb. "It's much better when people interpret an epic like that one for themselves."
But he does hope that people will listen to Star Smile Strong in its entirety, while stressing the perhaps forgotten significance of the album format.
"Listening to the album as a whole is how it's meant to be enjoyed," says McNabb. "I despair that people cherry-pick and shuffle albums these days instead of listening to them from beginning to end. The record album is one of the most important mediums of modern times. It's a shame the younger people don't seem to appreciate that."
Icicle Works' "Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)"