“I didn’t want the job with Robert Plant, I wasn’t after it and there were 5,000 guys that were - but they called me. When things come into your life, embrace them; when they leave, let them go”: Francis Dunnery’s lessons in life

Francis Dunnery
(Image credit: Francis Dunnery)

Best known for co-founding and fronting It Bites during their 80s heyday, his career has since taken in collaborations with Robert Plant, Carlos Santana and members of Yes, and he even auditioned for Genesis. Now back on the road with It Bites FD, the multimedia artist looks back over his life so far and tells Prog about his plans for the future.

In 1993, as sidekick to former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, Francis Dunnery had what he now calls “the biggest guitar job in the world.” He knew it wouldn’t last forever, but three decades later the kid from Egremont in Cumbria still gets a kick from remembering that he played the solo to Whole Lotta Love in stadiums across the world.

During the previous decade, Dunnery’s band It Bites had been loved by fans and hated by the press over the course of three resolutely fascinating albums that to this day still stand up as masterpieces. Formed in 1982, It Bites enjoyed chart success in ’86 with Calling All The Heroes – but just a few years later, the guitarist and singer dismayed and puzzled his bandmates by opting to walk away for a solo career.

Defined by his unpredictability, the self-confessed “live wire” has been an independent artist and record label owner for many years, and he prefers it that way. Back in 2021 he released a 42-song, triple-disc solo album entitled The Big Purple Castle; and his most recent release, the Blu-ray/CD set Live From The Black Country, sees him performing some of It Bites’ best-loved material in Wolverhampton.

As well as fronting his own incarnation of It Bites, he has a pure blues side-band called Tombstone Dunnery. Away from music, he’s a student of astrology and Jungian psychology.

Your father was a musician and your brother Baz played guitar for the noted Cumbrian rock band Necromandus, so when did you first become aware of progressive music?

There was a lot of jazz fusion around: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Isotope, Soft Machine, mixed in with the blues of Muddy Waters. In our house it was just as normal to listen to the Mahavishnu Orchestra as David Cassidy. My brother was heavily into Yes, so that would have been the first real progressive rock I knew.

You came from a household of binge-drinkers. Did your volatile home life influence the way your personality developed?

That situation taught me two sides of life: one being paradise – when sober, my parents were the most amazing, kind and gregarious people – and the other being when the drink kicked in, and they just disappeared. They went from making apple pies to vanishing completely. That was depressing. I later spent 35 years studying Jungian psychology, which taught me that whenever anything is going well, it always comes to an end.

It Bites were such an interesting band because the four of you genuinely were schoolmates.

Bob Dalton [drums] was the very first person I met in junior school at five years old. I love all of those guys; I spent some of the best times of my life with them. All of them are decent human beings. We went from starving in London, stealing milk from people’s steps, all the way to playing huge venues.

How did the band end up signed to Virgin Records?

We were living in a squat in Peckham [south-east London], sending cassette tapes of us playing live to the labels, and Paul Morley [the former NME writer who became a part of ZTT Records] was the only one that replied, saying that we needed to make proper demo tapes.

So we decided to go and see the labels but at Warner Bros the security wouldn’t let us in. There was a bit of a kerfuffle going on and this guy called Martyn Mayhead from Modern Media happened to see it all, gave me his card, and said to give him a ring. So we called him at three o’clock the following morning [laughs] and he loved the tape. Martyn started to fund us, and that led to Virgin signing us.

Did the Top 10 success of the 1986 single Calling All The Heroes scupper hope of It Bites being viewed as a credible rock band?

Not really. If it wasn’t for that song nobody would have heard of us. We were doing progressive rock, which was the most unhip thing you could think of. But we weren’t a band trying to manipulate the public – we knew nothing about things like hit records.

We just wanted to be like Yes, Genesis, Mahavishnu, UK and Focus. We had zero interest in being in the charts. I still think that if the person I am now could talk to It Bites back then, we could have had four hits from each of our albums.

With a few notable exceptions, the music critics of the era didn’t get It Bites; and, frustrated by those perceptions, you often lambasted them from the stage.

I felt insulted by those idiots. If someone punches me in the face, I’ll punch them back. I’m an old northern boy, still the same today – though having said that, I’m a very nice man. I’ll do anything for you, I just won’t be anybody’s bitch. I’m an alpha male. Come at me – I’ll knock you out. I don’t care, I’ll be dead in 30 years.

During the making of the second It Bites album, Once Around The World, Virgin brought in Steve Hillage as a producer. Was it in a bid to steady the ship of what you once described to Prog as “four incredibly raw lunatics who were drunk and stoned 24 hours a day”?

That’s how we were back then. Although we thought we could, we didn’t have the capacity to produce ourselves. Steve made us realise that we needed to write some three-minute singles because one of the songs [the title track] was almost 16 minutes long. Steve was a gentle soul. He did a great job on our stuff. I really, really loved working with him.

Was Hillage’s calming influence what the situation required?

Yeah. Midnight, Black December, Kiss Like Judas, Yellow Christian. Steve helped with the mechanics of those songs.

The most profound thing was realising that it didn’t matter the kind of music we were making… that was the saddest thing

It Bites seemed to be turning things around by the late 1980s, but despite having headlined London’s Hammersmith Odeon, the band combusted in Los Angeles during the preparation of a fourth album. What happened?

There are a million different answers I could give you. We were under a lot of pressure to come up with huge success when nobody really knew what we should be doing. All we were being told was: “No, that’s not right,” or, “No, you can’t do that.” 

Towards the end of It Bites there was a lot of trying to make the sun shine when it was raining. It became obvious that we just didn’t fit into what was going on within the industry. Nobody wanted us. It was like being English in a Welsh bar.

How did it affect you?

The most profound thing was realising that it didn’t matter the kind of music we were making. The music side of things was the least important. That was the saddest thing.

Walking away from all of that felt very liberating. I’ve got a brash personality and that didn’t help. I was still drinking and I didn’t have very good social skills. I was too much of a live wire and in that sense I contributed to my own downfall.

What was it like to sing backing vocals on the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album in 1989?

That happened because It Bites were being managed by Brian Lane, who managed Yes. Some may disagree but I always thought of Brian as another great guy. I already knew Jon Anderson and the band, and later on I was in The Syn with Chris Squire. What a fantastic experience that was. Dude, I was 25 years old and on a Yes album!

How did you end up joining Robert Plant’s band?

It Bites had toured with Robert, and I have a good relationship with him because I think I’m as spunky and aggressive as he’d like to be. In the book about Robert [Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees], Chris Hughes [producer of Fate Of Nations] said, “There’s nobody that excites Robert Plant more as a guitarist than Francis Dunnery.” He likes the way I go at [the instrument], so we always get on well.

In those two or three years we spent together I got to do things I could never have done otherwise. Staying in big hotels, playing massive stadiums and flying first class, I went to the top of the hill. At that time it was the biggest guitar job in the world and for a while it was mine. It made me feel complete.

What did touring with Plant teach you?

It gave me an education in the blues: Robert knows everything about the blues. That’s where my blues band, Tombstone Dunnery, comes from. I love the name Tombstone Dunnery – it’s the best blues name in the world.

What else did you learn from that time in your life?

I didn’t apply for that job, which made me realise that I’m not very effective at strategies. I see others making plans and going from A to B and it makes me think, “Wow!” In my life I tend to get blown around in the wind, I end up in the most fantastic places that nobody could even imagine.

I didn’t want the job with Robert, I wasn’t after it and there were 5,000 guys that were, but they called me up and that was it. When things come into your life, embrace them, and when they leave, let them go – simple.

Mike Rutherford said something about Watcher Of The Skies having an awkward riff and a stupid lyric. Dude, that’s why we like it

You once told me the story: “I went out on the razz with Motörhead and awoke on Hollywood Boulevard wearing a black wedding dress. I think it was an album launch of theirs, but I was so wasted from booze and blow that I can’t be certain. And it wasn’t just the wedding dress, someone had a gun at my head. That was it. I had to get sober.”

[Roars with laughter.] Every word is true. I realised at that point that I was out of my league. I come from a place where you punch people in the face. With a gun in your face you think, “Aaah. That’s enough partying.”

So you cleaned up in 1991?

Oh, it’s 33 or 34 years ago.

In 1996 you reportedly declined the chance to audition as lead singer for the role in Genesis that eventually went to Ray Wilson...

That’s not true. I did audition for them, though I knew I wouldn’t get the job. I can sing Peter Gabriel better than Peter Gabriel, but I just can’t do Phil Collins... all that screaming on Mama, no way. Singing Genesis is all about the phrasing; you don’t add blues because it’s like classical music. So I knew I wouldn’t get it, but I wasn’t about to turn down the chance to go to Genesis’ studio, sit there and sing The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

And you know what? I believe I was the best man for the job because I’m creative enough to make Tony Banks angry. Tony is an Aries; with nobody to fight with he’s no good. I wouldn’t back down to any of those guys because I’m incredibly creative, probably more than they are.

It’s a shame that didn’t happen.

Mike Rutherford said something about Watcher Of The Skies having an awkward riff and a stupid lyric. Dude, that’s why we like it, because it isn’t a three-minute pop song. Mike wants to be like Mike + The Mechanics: nice, soft music, when Genesis should be The Battle Of Epping Forest. I would never fit into that.

When there’s somebody that doesn’t want to go along with that vision, a breakdown always follows

How did you come to appear on the track Do You Like The Way? from Santana’s 1999 all-star record, Supernatural?

I’ve been on a few big albums in my time. That happened after I played on The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill [the ’98 solo album from the rapper-singer of the same name]. She was working to a deadline and I had a reputation as the guitarist of the moment in New York City. Lauren set me up for the Santana album – but I didn’t meet Carlos, sadly.

For two years you retired from music, only to change your mind. Why was that?

I just became disillusioned with the things you need to do to survive in this industry, and it gets progressively worse. It Bites was four guys fully committed to music; we weren’t interested in money or success. I’d wanted to take the album Man [released by Dunnery’s own label, Aquarian Nation, in 2001] to Danny Goldberg [the former manager of Nirvana] but he wouldn’t have a meeting with me – he insisted I send in a cassette.

I didn’t want that, so I set up a meeting with Michael Cooper from Artemis Records, who I knew from my time on Atlantic, and when Danny found out I was seeing Michael, he made Michael cancel the meeting – while I was in the room. The power plays are brutal. One day I will see Danny again. But that incident made me set up my own record label.

You were among the first artists to appreciate the importance of the internet, weren’t you?

I had an email address in 1992.

Artistically speaking, that independence now allows you to do whatever you want.

One’s ability to be realistic about where one is is all that keeps me sane now. I’m 60 years old [Dunnery turned 61 on December 25] with a bald head and a pair of tits. I’m no longer prepared to go along with the game. I’m very confident in my own self, but I’m realistic and I accept what is.

Talking of It Bites, back in 2003 a short-lived reunion was initiated when John Beck, Bob Dalton and Dick Nolan joined you onstage during a solo gig at London’s Union Chapel. Did you get as far as writing together?

At the start I didn’t really treat things with the respect they deserved. Those early tours were an excuse to visit my family

Yeah, we did. The difficulty is in the hierarchy of things. It would help everybody to understand... Look, take a band like Japan, who I’ve followed for a long time. Listen to what David Sylvian did afterwards and there’s a thread that continues. In every band there’s somebody who carries the vision forward.

It’s not that the other guys aren’t important because they do contribute, but there’s a guy like George Michael [in Wham!] and Freddie Mercury [in Queen]. It’s not that Brian May isn’t important, but the vision came from Freddie. When there’s somebody that doesn’t want to go along with that vision, a breakdown always follows.

So we did try to get It Bites back together a couple of times but the guys wouldn’t accept my vision. I’m driven; I’ll do more in a day than others do in a month. I’m the one getting everyone else out of bed.

It Bites reconvened without you in 2006, using John Mitchell to fill the gap for the first of two albums. How did you feel at the time?

I don’t think I really cared. It was like someone banging my ex-wife – why would I want to listen to that? I’ve moved on. But I won’t have anything bad said about John Mitchell because I love the guy.

For the past few years you’ve embraced your history in It Bites. What is it about the songs featured on your new CD/Blu-ray, Live In The Black Country, that draws you back?

Most artists are very concerned with what their audience thinks about them, but I’ve got 35 years of psychology under my belt… I won’t go around with a begging bowl

Steve Hackett was to blame for that. When I worked with him on Genesis Revisited II [in 2012] I asked why he was going backwards and he replied that he was a part of something that people had a lot of love for. He wanted to keep it alive. The more I thought about that, the more sense it made.

At the start I didn’t really treat things with the respect they deserved. Those early tours were an excuse to visit my family, but the last few years it’s got better and better.

Could there be a studio record from your version of It Bites?

We started recording it at Rockfield Studios in December. It Bites FD – the FD is important.

And what about the original band?

Well, if someone offered five million dollars to make an album, why not?

You’ve worked with Big Big Train and Steve Hackett. Where do you stand on the legitimacy of prog rock in 2024?

To be honest, most of it’s a caricature – but there are always artists with perspective. The Battle Of Epping Forest, Harold The Barrel, Supper’s Ready and Roundabout are all completely pointless – prog rock is pointless, but we love it because it’s escapism. Don’t take that as a negative.

You once said: “I got booed offstage a few times, but that’s been my career. I really don’t mind getting booed, because I’m not frightened of what an audience thinks of me.” It’s a brave statement.

Most artists are very concerned with what their audience thinks about them, but I’ve got 35 years of psychology under my belt. I’m doing my thing; you’re very welcome to come and watch it, but I won’t go around with a begging bowl.

I’m completely unfazed by what others think about me making a new It Bites album. I don’t want to get to 90 years old and think, “I wish I’d done that.”

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.