The True Calling of Ian Prowse
Singer, songwriter, and Amsterdam frontman Ian Prowse has one of those awkward streaks.
“Thatcher polarised the country,” he explained, “she was a true radical albeit for a heinous philosophy. It was entirely natural for me that would carry on into my music.”
With an influential career that spans back to the 90s, the Englishman’s first band Pele cultivated a devoted fan-base. Tinged with an intrinsic Celtic sound and built around the tonewheeled harmonic frequencies of the Hammond organ, Pele created a very specific collection of socially aware, politically charged songs.
By the 2000s he was fronting his next band Amsterdam and continues to carry that political fire in his belly with their Celtic infused rock/pop. Indeed, the much-missed John Peel was known to have shed a tear when he heard Amsterdam’s “Does This Train Stop On Merseyside.” (Peel’s widow Sheila Ravenscroft has said: “He was not capable of playing it without crying”).
Prowse remembers the train of thought with Pele. “There are two songs which made me realize I needed a real genuine proper Hammond organ in my new band.” He was casting his mind back to those late-80s-early-beginnings of the band. “One was “Washington Bullets” by The Clash and the other was “And A Bang On The Ear” by The Waterboys. Both songs have outros that give themselves up to the gospel of the Hammond. I knew just the guy too, Andrew Roberts of Chester band The Bordellos. I’d seen him play keyboards on one song and just knew he was my man. Turns out I was right, and he remains one of the most intuitive and inventive musicians I’ve ever played with. Mad as a badger too.”
Maybe “Mad as a badger” was requisite in 1989 for a UK band to be formed with such political leanings. Afterall, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wasn’t to resign until 1990. (After coming to power one million years previously in 1979). “I came into all this being remotely schooled by my punk/new wave heroes all of whom appeared to be conviction singers,” Prowse continued. “They were in it to change the world they lived in, to use that damn guitar to accurately document the country as they saw it. Fame, fortune and girls was not the primary motive. Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, The Stranglers, Ian Dury, the list is endless. Do you have something to say or do you just want to show off? The X Factor generation could learn a thing or two.”
Pele split in 1996 and three years later Prowse was fronting new band Amsterdam, sustaining the political and social commentary, and resuming the signature Celtic tinge which were “central to the philosophy from the start of Pele. I was a decent songwriter going nowhere until the twin behemoths of Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love and The Waterboys Fisherman’s Blues album entered my life in the late 1980’s. All of a sudden, my writing came into sharp focus, I found who I was as a writer and what moved me the most. Both albums also led me on a merry journey backwards, into Springsteen’s massive back catalogue and live work and then deep into the ancient journey of the Irish tradition. It’s been a bottomless well of inspiration.”
It’s been hard work, but over the years Amsterdam have developed their own loyal following, not least fellow Englishman Elvis Costello for whom they have opened up on a number of occasions. Indeed, the men are close enough for Costello to have asked Prowse to collect a musical icon award on his behalf a few years ago. It seems to have started after Amsterdam played with Costello on the Jonathon Ross TV show. “He took us all out for a meal afterwards,” Prowse told me. “We over indulged in the after-show celebrations and ended up standing on chairs in the bar of the London Hilton singing ‘Elvis, Elvis show us yer arse’. The morning after and we thought we’d blown it, I got back home and there was a message on my answering machine, ‘Hi Ian, It’s Elvis, great night pal! Why don’t you come and open up for us on our world tour at the Paradiso. Amsterdam in Amsterdam!’”
While he’s living a life that revolves around music, it’s interesting to note the early days of Ian Prowse were not as soaked in the stuff as one may assume. “There were no instruments in our house,” he recalled. “No musicians around either, such exotic things were as strange to us as someone who could speak a foreign language … but the 45s my mum would bring back from her daily trip up the shops were as vital as the food.”
He describes himself as a “happy working-class council house kid … Classic proletarian upbringing surrounded by family, football, pubs and other children. I was dark, curly, quiet and living most of the time in my own imagination. I would disappear into my nan’s back garden to play football on my own for hours on end, providing endless, effervescent commentary to myself.”
“An old Welsh fella at a family wake asked my dad was I good enough to be a pro footballer, he crushingly said no. He was 100% right of course, and I’d bought a guitar within a month. The football obsession gave way to a music one, except x 1000. Living with one of the world’s greatest musical cities [Liverpool] just across the mighty [Mersey] river turned out to be as inspiring as it was being one of the world’s greatest footballing cities – all encompassing, endlessly fascinating. There was no trad. music around us, we were strict Year Zero kids, apart that I bucked the punk trend when I went to visit family in Dallas in 1978 and bought the Red and Blue Beatles albums simply because I knew they were from Liverpool and I felt a very long way from home. The other kids laughed at me when I got back, the Fabs were extremely passé in the late 70’s … The door was opened by the musical revolution of 1977 and then a decade later I found my true calling. Springsteen and Ireland had always been there, I just hadn’t made all the connections, but when I did that was it for me.”
Prowse’ fascination with all things Ireland has proved to be a thread which has run through his work ever since. “When I moved into Liverpool City Centre 12 years ago I had the bright idea of doing a degree in my spare time to keep me out of the local taverns. I loved it so much I did a Masters as well. By pure serendipity I’d become friends with Christy Moore after he covered my song “Does This Train Stop On Merseyside” for his Number 1 album Listen. I decided to do my thesis on locating the origins of Irish traditional music through Christy’s work. A beautiful circle was made when I received the bill to do the MA and it was exactly the same as the first royalty cheque I got for Christy doing my song.”
In 2010 the maiden Irish Sea Sessions took place in Liverpool. A project in which the Liverpool Philharmonic organised a collaboration between song writers and traditional Irish folk players such as Damien Dempsey. “Part super group, part session, part song, 14 musicians of differing backgrounds linked by the special relationship between Liverpool and Ireland came together.” Beyond Liverpool, they also brought the sessions to Belfast and Derry. “We did it three years on the run and I learned so much about that which I love. Damo [Damien Dempsey], Alan Burke and Niamh Parsons represented Dublin with John McSherry, Gino Lupari and Eimear McGowan from up north. There were players from all over Ireland who I’ll never forget, they put music at the very centre of their universe, it’s an honourable way to live!”
Prowse continues to tour, and indeed returns to Ireland in November, playing Belfast’s The American Bar 9th November and Dublin’s Workmans Club on the 10th. For these shows he’s solo, with support from Nasher Nash (Frankie Goes To Hollywood). “It’s all the same thing to me, Amsterdam is Pele is solo is Pele is Amsterdam,” he explained when I asked about how he divided up his time. “Just different names for exactly the same vehicle. Sometimes we do full on live shows with a big band sometimes it’s pared down to just 1 or 2 of us. I love them both equally.”
Meanwhile Amsterdam are working on a new release for next year. “We have the finishing touches to do on a brand-new album, it will soon be available for pre order, we can’t wait for everyone to hear it. Out next March!”
For details on wider touring, including their New Album Tour 2019, visit the Ian Prowse and Amsterdam website.