Rock 'N Roll Case Study: The Icicle Works
By Sean Koepenick
"We'll be as we are
when all the fools
who doubt us fade away
Fortune deep and wide
Intimidated, restless in the wait."
When music fans look back with appreciation at the music made in the 1980's certain guitar rock bands immediately come to mind. Big Country, The Psychedelic Furs, even Echo and The Bunnymen pop into your head and the popular hits they had back in the day. "In A Big Country", "Pretty In Pink", "Lips Like Sugar". Butone band is unfairly regulated to the dustbins of history when that era is discussed and analyzed today. That band is The Icicle Works. Plus, they did have a hit too-"Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)" rose to #37 in the US in 1984. But there was so much more to The Icicle Works' music then that one song that still resonates with many people around the globe. In a perfect world this band would be at the top of that list. But by exploring the group's story, we may be able to shed some light on why The Icicle Works deserve a more valued place in rock music's history.
The Icicle Works began around 1980. Lead singer Ian McNabb first started playing music in a band called Young World. This outfit also included Chris Sharrock on drums. When this group quit, McNabb began working with City Lights and Sharrock joined the "mod-influenced" Cherry Boys. They later met up again and decided to start their own band. Adding ex-Eleanor bassist Chris Layhe, they became The Icicle Works and started gigging anywhere they could around Liverpool.
Coming up in the same music scene that spawned bands like Julian Cope's Teardrop Explodes and Echo & The Bunnymen, they were able to get a 6 song demo out via Liverpool's Probe Records. But in October 1982, the "Nirvana" single was released by Troll Kitchen records. It hit #15 in the UK and helped cement a contract with Beggars Banquet Records. The Icicle Works were off and running.
We are, we are, we are but your children
finding our way around indecision
we are, we are, we are ever helpless
take us forever, a whisper to a scream
-"Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)"
In 1984, if you hadn't heard this chorus you were probably living in a dark cave somewhere. The song was on all the time. In the US I think they even threw it into a Budweiser radio commercial (hope you got some free cases boys!). But this was definitely not the only excellent song on the record-in fact The Icicle Works is chock full of them. Assisted with fantastic production techniques from Hugh Jones (Modern English, Dumptruck) this record is truly amazing. The guitars shimmer, the vocals soar, the bass grooves. But the drums explode into the forefront and drive the songs into a frenzy. Chris Sharrock's pounding rhythms and complicated fills push the band's sound into a higher realm that few acts of the day could compete with. Their were other "single-worthy"songs on the band's debut such as "Love Is A Wonderful Color" and "In TheCauldron Of Love" but these tracks mainly caused a stir in the UK. But for an unknown band to have their first record climb into the top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic, this was quite a feat. The Icicle Works' songwriting skills would only improve over time.
These rapids we're rolling on
Seem calm when they're good and gone
Love, as good as the house it warms
A million miles between us
Still we're heading the same way…
1985 saw the release of The Icicle Works second record-The Small Price Of A Bicycle. This record shows the band expanding their signature sound with a few subtle texture flourishes here and there. Production is split three ways between Hugh Jones, Wally Brill and Geoff Muir but the result is still a cohesive whole. Brass and keyboards are a little more prominent in the mix and instead of all songs being credited to the band, Ian McNabb takes most of the lyric output. Chris Layhe does get co-writing credit on "Hollow Horse" and the full tilt rocker-"Perambulator". Again, there are tracks that could have easily ended up the radio-both in the US and the UK. "Rapids", "Hollow Horse" and "All The Daughters (Of Her Father's House)"were all released as singles. Touring and critical acclaim in the US followed, but this record was unjustly overlooked by the record buying public. But it's not too late to pick up one of the unheralded gems of their catalog. Musicians surely took notice-Mike Mills of R.E.M. called The Icicle Works one of his favorite bands in a recent interview. The trio soldiered on-looking forward to the next release.
Before the next proper record hit the racks, the record company put out an infamous "stop-gap" record. Entitled Seven Singles Deep it featured highlights from the first 2 records and 7 B-sides as well. More interesting for the obscure tracks- the goofy metal licks on "I Never Saw My Hometown 'Til I Went Around The World" and covers such as Van Morrison's "Into The Mystic", it failed to burn up the charts, but was a good introduction to those unfamiliar with the band.
The Icicle Works then released a series of EP's which again became more relevant for their hard to find B-sides. The Understanding Jane EP had 3 live songs from The Small Price Of A Bicycle record. Next came the Who Do You Want For Your Love? 12 inch with a live version of Understanding Jane and two covers of songs by The Doors and The Clash. Finally, Up Here In The North Of England completed the 1986 trilogy with some reflective covers by The Band, Spirit and UK cult artist Robert Wyatt. These 3 EP's laid the groundwork for what many fans would name as their most accomplished release-If You Want To Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song.
'Cos I still want her, I still remember summer
way back when, we both felt the same
And I still love her, I can't stop thinking of her
I'm having trouble understanding Jane
Produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds, this release is a more polished version of the band with keyboards and more "professional" sounding guitar solos thrown in for good measure. But the subject matter by McNabb covers a wide variety of subjects. Of course, love lost is detailed on songs like "Who Do You Want For Your Love?" and "When You Were Mine" but politics is also tackled in "Up Here In The North Of England" that has McNabb singing at the end-"look at the state we're in". A sad state of affairs at that period of time for sure.
But the killer songs on this disc are "Evangeline" and "Understanding Jane".The first song kicks off with a cool keyboard part and then McNabb's guitar blasts in and the song is off. Sharrock's drums pound away and Layhe's bass guides the song until the awe-inspiring chorus. "Jane" rackets that performance up a notch-filtering The Ramones through The Kinks for a dazzling effect. Cool tremolo effects and a nice solo from McNabb make this the highlight of the disc. Why these songs did not breakthrough in the US is hard to imagine. They certainly would have had an impact on the radio. If you pick up the recent CD release it adds 4 bonus tracks that weren't on the initial release.
There's a dead girl by the roadside
There's a black man on the ground
Tarred and feathered by the wayside
Words of protest just rebound
The end of the eighties saw the band release Blind, which ended up being a swan song for the original line-up. Stylistically this record tried to cover a lot of areas, from funk to folk. Even though the flow may sometimes be interrupted by this approach, Blind eventually rewards repeated listenings. "Shit Creek" careens and threatens to overflow with its ferocity. But some of the ballads on the record show a refined sensitivity that help balance out the rough edges. "Little Girl Lost"and "Starry Blue Eyed Wonder" showcases the band's ability to reflect different moods that the band's contemporaries could rarely match.
Blind was successful around the world, but US chart movement was still slow. "High Time" did make some inroads on alternative radio, but apparently not enough. After this release both Chris Layhe and Chris Sharrock left the band. McNabb decided to carry on with a new line-up. The new Works briefly included Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son) on drums before settling on Roy Corkhill on bass, Dave Baldwin on keyboards, Mark Revell on guitar and Paul Burgess on drums. The Icicle Works continued on and at the start of the decade released their final album entitled Permanent Damage.
Baby Don't Burn
If you find He can't deliver
Just across a tiny river
Don't forget the way to get back home
-"Baby Don't Burn"
Permanent Damage featuring the new line-up came out in 1990 and was released by major label Epic instead of long time partners Beggars Banquet. McNabb's songwriting was still sharp as a tack and although there were no major musical changes, it still seemed to be missing the fire of previous records. Standout tracks included "Baby Don't Burn" with its Byrds-like chords offering a nice counterpoint on this mid-tempo tracks. Two singles-"Motorcycle Rider" and "Melanie Still Hurts" would get a major push from the label, but the record failed to make a wide impact. Shortly afterwards, McNabb decided to lay The Icicle Works Mark II to rest and start on a solo career. The Icicle Works were finished.
Two more posthumous records came out, both worth seeking out. BBC Live In Concert was a short live set that came out on CD in 1994. Great sounding tunes including a knock down version of "Understanding Jane" but a little too short for hardcore fans. Beggars Banquet also put out a Best Of in 1999 that featured the previously unreleased "Firepower" by the first line-up. Some copies also featured a second disc of rarities.
Where are the band members now? As far as the original (and most popular) line-up goes, most are still active. After leaving the band, drummer Chris Sharrock played with The Lightning Seeds, Dave Stewart, World Party, and The La's. Most recently he has done session work with UK singer Robbie Williams. Bassist Chris Layhe has mostly left the music business, but still does occasional production work. As for singer/guitarist Ian McNabb, he has continued on with an extremely successful solo career.He recently released his own "best of" (Potency) and has plans for a brand new record in 2005.
But what of The Icicle Works recorded legacy? Obviously there are probably numerous live shows that could be put out on CD to improve upon the somewhat lacking BBC Live In Concert set. There was also talk in 1999 of reissuing the long out of print Permanent Damage CD with a bonus disc-as of now that has not come to pass.
Could there even be a reunion of the original members? It's certainly not impossible. If anyone is looking at the recent success of long dormant US bands like The Pixies and Mission Of Burma reforming, touring and even putting out a new record (in Burma's case)-"never say never". If this were to happen, I believe the fan response would be ecstatic for both old fans and newer fans that never got to see the band live on the first go round. But in any event, The Icicle Works leave behind a varied and impressive recorded legacy that should be sought out and enjoyed by those unfamiliar with anything beyond "Birds Fly (A Whisper To A Scream)". Music fans will be rewarded with songs that rival any of their contemporaries' previous or current work. And as McNabb once stated-"Goodwill to all men and women who sail with us. Enjoy!"