Like the Bridge Of Death in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, the structure that connects progressive rock with crossover success in the realm of pop music is rickety as fuck. Elite are those not cast into the Gorge Of Eternal Peril, and fewer still make the return journey.
In the summer of 1986, Cumbrian quartet It Bites scored a Top Ten hit with their second ever single, a sprightly, hook-laden but decidedly clean-cut song entitled Calling All The Heroes. Unsurprisingly, their lives were changed forever. Appearing on Top Of The Pops and in the pages of Smash Hits were fun for a while, but for a band of serious musicians – Francis Dunnery in particular was a precocious, gobby talent who could run rings around most other guitar players of the era – the ramifications of those five minutes of popstardom linger on.
“It was like Jeff Beck and Hi Ho bloody Silver Lining,” observes keyboard player John Beck now, “a big hit but unrepresentative of the artist.”
“That was a very exciting time,” reflects Dunnery. “I was very, very unsure of myself back then, so a lot of my reaction to [the success] was stupid and selfish. But there’s nothing like watching your songs go zooming up the charts. It meant even more pot, women and alcohol.”
Completed by bass player Dick Nolan and drummer Bob Dalton, the band had formed at the turn of that decade, and before Beck’s arrival in ’82, cut their teeth playing Level 42 and Haircut One Hundred covers. After a split they reconvened in 1984, relocating to London to be snapped up by Virgin Records.
Produced by Babe Ruth guitarist Alan Shacklock, The Big Lad In The Windmill was a bold, adventurous full-length debut that fused clean, pristine sonics with a set of diverse influences, which of course included Yes and Genesis.
“None of us listened to Yes until the critics started comparing us to them,” points out Beck, “and as far as Genesis were concerned, they weren’t Dick or Bob’s bag at all.”
“I don’t like prog for prog’s sake; if a song doesn’t have a beautiful melody then I want nothing to do with it,” clarifies Dunnery. He lists Necromandus (a Cumbrian hard rock band discovered by Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and who featured Dunnery's older brother Barry, now deceased, on guitar), Focus, UK, Bruford, Soft Machine, Mahavishnu, Allan Holdsworth, Level 42, George Benson, Steve Arrington, Michael Franks and McCartney among the group’s heroes. This was no run-of-the-mill rock band; Donny Osmond, Cameo, The Carpenters and even Racey, the pop stars responsible for the bubblegum hit Some Girls, were all part of their influence pool.
It Bites began working on their second album with producer Nick Froome. One track, Plastic Dreamer, was recorded, which according to Dunnery the group’s label Virgin Records “hated.”
“Nick was part of Trevor Horn’s camp,” he relates, this decision having been made after ex-Buggles man Horn struck gold with Yes’ 90125. “Everyone who had ever walked past Horn was given a record to produce,” he laughs. “I think Trevor’s milkman produced Then Jerico and had a hit!”
“It was a drug festival, but [we created] great music and Mark goes down in history as the guy who held Once Around The World together,” observes Dunnery.
Froome and Davis’ work remained, though the album was largely co-produced by the band, who had bowled up disbelievingly at the Manor Studios in Oxford, determined to maximise the experience. At the time, the facility cost £1,500 a day – another universe for a band that was still squatting together in Peckham.
“We chose our rooms and then drank the wine cellars dry,” Dunnery recalls. “It was like Heaven. All the drink you wanted, all the food you wanted, all the pot you wanted. And an amazing studio just outside the front door where we could record songs that were over 10 minutes long. I was hungover for six weeks.”
Beck paints a slightly different picture: “The entire band and crew took LSD on that first evening, but after the blowout, we quickly knuckled down.”
Seeking a steady hand, Virgin Records brought in another of their artists, Steve Hillage of Gong fame, to coax It Bites on through the home straight. Hillage was already a noted producer, with a CV that included Simple Minds, and John Beck was a huge fan of the guitarist’s own 1976 album, L.
“The sessions at the Manor were deemed to have been out of control,” Dunnery smiles. “Virgin needed a single to sell the album with and they thought Hillage was their man. Steve is a gentle soul and he did an amazing job of keeping four incredibly raw lunatics who were drunk and stoned 24 hours a day serious enough to produce something that could be played on the radio.”
Steve Hillage ended up working on five of the album’s nine tracks. “It took a while for me to understand their curious accents but, having known each other since school, they had this beautiful, organic way of playing together,” he recalls. “Their songs were cerebrally arranged but they had a lot of heart and feeling.”
If their goal had been to make a prog rock record with a modern-sounding production, then It Bites hit the back of the net in emphatic style.
“I think we found our own voice in among all the stealing and copying,” ventures Dunnery. “Nobody ever recognises that actually we were heavily influenced by R&B. I could spout a bunch of bollocks about what we were trying to achieve musically, but the truth is I didn’t have a fucking clue. I was just trying to play faster than John McLaughlin and drink as much as I could before the inevitable happened.
“Look, we weren’t particularly into being successful – we just wanted to play 20-minute long songs and smoke pot, after drinking 30 bottles of wine,” he continues. “It was tremendous. We were frighteningly authentic. It Bites were always the real deal we just didn’t have the savvy to market ourselves because we weren’t trying to be successful. To this day I don’t think Bob, Dick or John gave a shit about success or fame. None of us did.”
The band could rightly feel cocky about the quality of their material, which ranged from the thunderous groove of opener Midnight to the shimmering Old Man And The Angel to the joyous, whimsical escapism of Plastic Dreamer, which would have been perfect for the soundtrack of the movie Toy Story seven years later (“It could’ve made a cracking Christmas single, too,” observes Beck).
The songs had all been written in the group’s squat, Dunnery supplying the lion’s share of the lyrics with the band collaborating on everything else. Their subject matter was every bit as varied and inspiring as the music. Kiss Like Judas, for instance, was It Bites’ take on the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, while Beck reveals that Yellow Christian was inspired by “the apparition of the Bethlehem star”.
When asked whether Old Man And The Angel had religious overtones of its own, Beck splutters with laughter: “All of our songs have bloody religious overtones!” he reveals.
Most crucial of all, though, was an almost 15-minute title track which incorporated various changes of mood, including a very British-sounding musical hall-style section about supping champagne “in the good old summertime”.
“Yeah, that bit’s killer, isn’t it?” smiles Beck. “Perhaps Frank threw a Stan Laurel influence in there; we were all huge fans.”
This writer had always assumed that the song was inspired by the Jules Verne novel Around The World In 80 Days – until realising that it was set in 1872 and not 1924.
“As far as I’m aware lyrically, it’s about a day in the life of no one in particular,” comments Beck.
In April 1988, Once Around The World peaked at Number 43, eight chart places below its predecessor. Of the three singles released, only an edited version of the title track dented the Top 50. In those pre-internet days and before the advent of specialist titles like Prog and Classic Rock, exposure was limited to only one magazine, Kerrang!, who didn’t get It Bites at all.
“No-one did, we were too good for them to understand,” Dunnery volunteers. “The so-called music press were so incredibly unmusical that we went over their heads. They all work at Sainsbury’s now and at weekends they do write-ups on beans.”
Nevertheless, it was an important time for hard rock music – King’s X, Living Colour, Queensrÿche and Dan Reed Network were doing important things away from leather and studs, and Maiden had just released the proggiest album of their career, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.
“Iron Maiden? Don’t make me laugh,” Beck snorts derisively. “We were light years ahead of everyone.”
When they were granted a platform, Dunnery would brag to journalists: “Anyone who knows anything about music will know there’s not one band around to touch It Bites. We don’t get any credit for it, and that’s sad.” Or he would resort to slagging the media off from the stage.
“I was an arrogant cunt when it comes to It Bites – I still am,” he admits. “I threatened those thick wankers many times because I was so hurt. And in hindsight I proved myself correct.”
“No regrets from me,” Beck agrees. “Frank spoke the truth.”
Something had to give, and unfortunately it was It Bites. Despite having worked hard to put …Heroes behind them and reaching the level of Hammersmith Odeon headliners, Dunnery quit during the early stages of recording their fourth
album in California. The guitarist later joined Robert Plant’s band and carved a solo career. It Bites reinvented themselves as Navajo Kiss and then Sister Sarah before succumbing to the inevitable.
There were brief hopes of a reunion when the four original members performed together at a Dunnery gig in 2003, but it took the appointment of mega-fan John Mitchell of Frost*/Arena fame to resuscitate them permanently.
Steve Hillage admits to having been “gutted” by Dunnery’s departure, but is happy that later line-ups – now minus Dick Nolan – still record and play live. “They were always a very combustive mixture, though,” Steve points out, “that’s what made them so special.”
In ’09 the John Mitchell-fronted group toured …World in its entirety. Whether or not the classic-era It Bites will reunite remains to be seen. Beck plays the “never say never” card, but believes that Nolan would never play ball.
“John and I haven’t spoken for ages but I can tell by his photos that he’s gloriously, stark raving mad,” Francis sums up with a loud cackle. “We wrote outrageous shit together. If I didn’t have to wait three hours outside his house in a van every time I wanted to play music with him, then I’d go round there right now and I’d sleep with him.”
This article originally appeared in issue 45 of Prog Magazine.