“I was looking for a new cliff to dive off to stimulate my creativity…That’s what I’ve done my entire life”: Why Francis Dunnery quit It Bites three times, and where it's taken him

Francis Dunnery
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When Francis Dunnery announced a new incarnation of It Bites in December 2023, it wasn’t anything close to the first time he’d returned to the band that started his career. In 2013 he looked back with Prog on the wide variety of music he’d delivered to the world, arguing it was all done in the name of progressing.

To create the album Frankenstein Monster, Francis Dunnery holed up in the shadows of his basement home studio. It was a mad musical experiment, as he forged it out of parts discarded by long-dead 1970s band Necromandus. The goal: stitch it all together and bring the group’s progressive rock back to life.

The result is one of the most exciting albums of an adventurous career. Frankenstein Monster switches moods like a chameleon changes colour and go through more time changes than a flight across the international date line. It’s a return to what inspired Dunnery to become a musician.

“It’s out-and-out progressive rock with pretty cool guitars on it,” enthuses the ex-It Bites frontman. “We’re doing a modern-day interpretation of Necromandus. It’s 95 per cent true to the structure of the songs and the chords, but a few of the tempos have been slowed down. We’ve put harmonies on a lot of the music.”

Not heard of Necromandus? You’re not alone. The proto-prog-metal band was founded by Francis’ older brother, Barry. The West Cumbrian outfit started promisingly, described by Melody Maker as Black Sabbath meets Yes. Indeed, Tony Iommi was the quartet’s manager.

But when guitarist Barry Dunnery quit, Vertigo Records decided not to release their sole album, Orexis Of Death. That 1973 LP was released more than 25 years later, but by then it was too late for Barry, who’d quit the music business and died of cancer in 2008, aged 56.

“When my brother died, my mother asked me if I would get him on a CD at some point,” says the 50-year-old Francis. “We’re destroying demons and fulfilling an old woman’s last wishes.”

Prior to Frankenstein Monster, Francis shot a web film titled My Big Brother in which he retraced Barry’s career. It wasn’t easy. Because of the decade’s age difference between the two, portions of Barry’s life remain a mystery. Francis can’t explain why his sibling passed up playing guitar on Ozzy Osborne’s solo debut, Blizzard Of Ozz.

“My brother played with Ozzy for three or four years and then he left. That’s what he did everywhere. Just right before they’d hit, he’d leave,” rues Dunnery.

That mercurial streak may be genetic. In an uncompromising career, Francis Dunnery has always heeded his artistic impulses first and foremost.

They were great players and they were dedicated. All of us were drinking and smoking pot and dropping acid and stuff like that… I think we did quite well!

When he quit It Bites in 1990, it wasn’t the first time he’d split the band. Between 1982 and 1984, the Cumberland pop-proggers regularly gigged up north – early live material included covers of songs by Level 42 and Haircut 100 – and even became infamous for mooning an audience in Carlisle. But such japes belied Dunnery’s career ambition. He left the band and moved to London. John Beck (keyboards), Dick Nolan (bass) and Bob Dalton (drums) joined him six months later.

“They were great players and they were dedicated,” says Dunnery. “All of us were drinking and smoking pot and dropping acid and stuff like that, so given the fact that we were fucking out of our minds, I think we did quite well!”

But after three records, including landmark 1980s prog LP Once Around The World, the band that named itself after a roadie’s nippy dog was again ditched by its frontman. “I got tired of waiting around,” explains Dunnery. “John Beck is great, a really talented guy – we made some great music together and I love him – but his work ethic is a lot slower and less dynamic than what my own is.”

Newly relocated to LA, Dunnery recorded a solo debut, Welcome To The Wild Country, including songs first intended for It Bites. But when the album was only released in Japan, Dunnery put his career on pause. His next step: join Robert Plant on his 1993 Fate Of Nations album and world tour.

Fate Of Nations was a really good record,” recalls Dunnery. “For two or three years, I had some of the best times of my life. I owe that to Robert. I had the chance to see things I would never get to see in a million years.”

Including the time Plant and Dunnery entered a dressing room in the Midwest, to discover two naked women putting on a sexual display on the couch. “I’ve no idea how they got in there,” says Dunnery. “And we’re just standing there watching and thinking, ‘What the fuck’s going on?’” Prog suggests women must have thrown themselves at the ex-Led Zeppelin singer. “No, they were throwing themselves at me!” laughs Dunnery.

I was out of ideas… pop was exhausted. The rock thing was boring. So the best thing was to do an R&B pop record. It was a very risky release

By the time he started Fearless, a glossy solo album with soul inflections and hip-hop grooves, his hedonistic lifestyle had gotten out of hand. Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols convinced him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous.

“If you listen to songs like What’s He Going To Say, I mention being sober on there, because I was two months sober when I wrote that,” says Dunnery. “I was out of ideas. The Welcome To The Wild Country pop was exhausted. The rock thing was boring. So the best thing was to do an R&B pop record. It was a very risky release.”

Dunnery recalls being treated like a golden boy at Atlantic Records. He was showered with gifts such as a guitar autographed by Les Paul, and invited to dinners with Mick Jagger and his hero Muhammad Ali. “I remember going to a Halloween party at Paul McCartney’s home,” says Dunnery. “He comes up and hands me a veggie burger. And you think, ‘This is the weirdest thing in the world. Should I ask him to fucking sign it or something?’”

Dunnery’s third album, the introspective Tall Blonde Helicopter, reflects a comedown from the glitz and glamour, stripping his sound down to acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums. Its many punk moments made contemporaries such as Pearl Jam sound like Vangelis. He also reminded listeners he could peel off sublimely melodic guitar solos.

The following two albums, Let’s Go Do What Happens (1998) and Man (2001), explored New Age philosophy and midlife crisis. Both found a middle ground between the lush production of Fearless and unadorned sound of Tall Blonde Helicopter. In contrast, the percussion-free Gulley Flats Boys (2005) consisted of acoustic guitar and keyboards by David Sancious (Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel).

“I was looking for a new cliff to dive off to stimulate my creativity,” says the songwriter. “That’s what I’ve done my entire life.” For that reason, he jumped at the opportunity to play guitar on Ian Brown’s Music Of The Spheres and Carlos Santana’s Supernatural. The pasty northerner also recalls guesting on classic hip-hop album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

“At night, all the homeboys would come into the studio. It was pretty intense, because they’d put their guns down on the table. I’m sitting there playing guitar and they’re looking over at me and saying all this stuff like, ‘Yo, motherfucker.’ After 10 minutes, I walked over towards them and I said, ‘Just one thing, lads: what the fuck are you talking about?’ They all started laughing. They loved my accent.”

By the early part of the century, few fans would expect Dunnery’s musical exploration to return to prog rock.

The third time Francis Dunnery left It Bites was in 2006. He’d reunited the group for two songs at the encore of his 2003 London show. Soon after, Dunnery announced the band was back together. But it was difficult to schedule writing sessions around his transatlantic solo projects and burgeoning career as an astrologer. In the end, it was the others who were once bitten, twice shy. They recruited John Mitchell to front the band instead.

“I’m probably very difficult for them guys to deal with,” says Dunnery, who’s found happiness with his long-term partner and their young daughter. “I just don’t think they like me that much and I respect that. I like John Mitchell a lot. I love all of them.”

Does he still listen to It Bites? “No. It’s like watching someone shag your ex-wife,” says Dunnery. “It’s not really It Bites any more. I mean, it’s It Bites music and they do a great job. But there’s more to it than that. When you see Jimmy Page play guitar, I can’t do Jimmy Page. I can play the riff in Whole Lotta Love, but there’s Jimmy Page’s life and essence behind that thing.

I think John Mitchell can play my guitar parts better than I can. But the truth is he hasn’t got my energy and that’s a big part of my guitar playing

“I think John Mitchell can play my guitar parts better than I can. But the truth is he hasn’t got my energy and that’s a big part of my guitar playing. When I try to play It Bites myself with band members who are great players, it’s never the same without John Beck and Bob Dalton.”

Oddly enough, Dunnery and Mitchell have a rapport. Dunnery even invited the It Bites frontman to play on his 2009 album, There’s A Whole New World Out There. It was billed as Francis Dunnery & The New Progressives – guests included saxophonist Theo Travis and Maschine guitarist Luke Machin – and featured reinterpretations of It Bites songs plus covers of Genesis, Japan and Joy Division. The sublime sounds ranged from Steely Dan-like jazz rock to chill-out trance. Those expecting trad prog rock were likely disappointed.

“When people say ‘progressive’, what they mean is, ‘Do you sound like early 70s music?’ But that’s not really what progressive means. Progressive is pushing yourself forward. Going into uncharted territory.” Case in point: Dunnery’s 2011 Made In Space consisted entirely of keyboards and Auto-Tuned vocals. It was him at his least compromising. 

Credit Sound Of Contact’s Dave Kerzner for nudging Dunnery back to prog. The keyboardist invited him to sing a cover of Genesis’s In The Cage. It went so well that they recorded an upcoming version of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway album.

“You have to understand, I am the world’s number one Genesis fan,” says Dunnery. “I think what I’ve done more than anything else with Peter Gabriel’s vocals is I’ve put them more in a pocket. Peter always sang ahead of the beat.”

Dunnery was also invited to guest on Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited II and joined the guitarist onstage in Chicago. “That was one of my bucket list items,” marvels Dunnery, who once auditioned to replace Phil Collins in the 1990s. “Steve’s one of the nicest people in the music industry.”

In revisiting the music of his childhood, Dunnery returned to Necromandus. Barry Dunnery’s guitarwork – subtly tricky and more blues-influenced than his own – inspired Francis to approach the guitar in a fresh way. With the exception of the title track (the only Francis Dunnery composition), there’s no keyboard on Frankenstein Monster. “The guitar playing on this album will send guitar players into fits,” says Dunnery. “It’s insanely musical.”

I think what I’ve done more than anything else with Peter Gabriel’s vocals is I’ve put them more in a pocket. Peter always sang ahead of the beat

It’s also insanely technical. On songs Christianity and Don’t Look Down Frank, his fingers sprint laps around the fretboard. Dunnery’s playing is also soulful. The fluttering solo on Ho Ho Your Sandwiches has an astral quality reminiscent of Andy Latimer’s guitarwork with Camel.

Dunnery hopes to play this music live for a while. Then he may swerve in a different direction altogether. It’s the very definition of progress.

“Every single motherfucking thing I’ve done is progressive,” Dunnery concludes. “Whether it’s doing a style of music I don’t know about, whether it’s playing an instrument I don’t know, whether it’s doing an album without guitar, I’ve always pushed myself to the fucking limits progressively.”