Everyone has their favourite summer music and the brilliant Once Around The World is an album I always turn to at this time of year.
It’s a feast of resplendent chord changes, audacious song structures, good grooves, blistering lead guitar lines and uplifting, unusual melodies.
As a music-mad 15-year-old, this was the album I was really waiting for. I had recently become slightly obsessed by their debut The Big Lad In The Windmill and couldn’t wait to hear what the talented Cumbrian four-piece would come up with next.
For some reason, I didn’t buy OATW on its first week of release, but my schoolmate Jem Godfrey did. I would badger him for details in the playground:
Me: ‘Are there any instrumentals on it?’ Jem: ‘No.’ Me: ‘What’s it like then?’ Jem: ‘It’s bloody brilliant, just get it!’
In 1988, the world didn’t need a dose of beautifully-recorded, full-on prog lunacy, but they got it anyway and the UK music scene was all the better for it. There were murmurs of a ‘prog revival’ at the time but It Bites (and to a certain extent Marillion) were streets ahead of the pack because they blended superb musicianship with great hooks and catchy songs.
Hats off to Richard Branson and Virgin for throwing some money at this album because it turned out to be classic prog’s last hurrah. Mainly recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire (where rumour has it singer/guitarist Francis Dunnery gained access to Richard Branson’s bountiful wine cellar on the band’s first night of recording with disastrous consequences…), OATW is essentially one side of beautifully-produced pop/rock songs (mainly helmed by Virgin prog survivor Steve Hillage), and another of completely brilliant, barmy prog/pop pieces.
‘Midnight’ and ‘Kiss Like Judas’ are lean, mean, well-crafted pop/rock songs with good hooks and meaty grooves, but both just missed the UK Top 40.
‘Plastic Dreamer’ fits an unbelievable amount of material into its four minutes, including a vocal harmony section that would make Roy Thomas Baker drool, a stunning guitar solo from Dunnery, some spooky Alice In Wonderland atmospherics and preposterous lyrics (very much inspired by Peter Gabriel’s Genesis output).
They repeat the trick on ‘Hunting The Whale’ and make good use of the Manor swimming pool in the process. The 14-minute title track, whilst owing a few licks and lyric ideas to Genesis’s ‘Supper’s Ready’, is nevertheless astoundingly ambitious and brilliantly realised considering it was recorded in the same year as Kylie’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’.
(There are other nods to early Genesis throughout the album: the last few minutes of ‘Old Man And The Angel’ brilliantly revisits the rhythm games of ‘The Battle Of Epping Forest’; the main hook of ‘Hunting The Whale’ is very similar to Steve Hackett’s ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’ central riff; the middle-eight of ‘Midnight’ uses Tony Banks’ opening chords to ‘Watcher Of The Skies’.)
They could play all this stuff live too, and with great elan (they played the whole of OATW at the much-missed London Astoria circa May 1988, and I also caught them a few months before that at Brunel University). Their range and ability was simply stunning.
John Beck’s keyboard textures have possibly dated a bit in comparison with what, say, Trevor Horn and David Sylvian were doing with synths at the time (though his voicings and arrangement ideas are always inventive), but people often forget what an amazing rhythm section (Dick Nolan on bass, Bob Dalton on drums) It Bites had.
There’s a ‘swing’ there that suggests that they were always influenced by much more than just progressive rock, and Dunnery’s guitar playing and vocals have incredible bite. Here’s some great footage of them recording the title track:
Though It Bites were turning into a very popular live draw throughout Europe, the album stalled at #43 in the UK – a big surprise and disappointment to the band. The lads’ music subsequently took a heavier direction, but OATW is the standout in their short but excellent career, showing off a brilliant band at its peak.
Gratifyingly, the album is gaining fans as the years go by. And check out this great interview with Francis Dunnery and John Beck about the making of Once Around The World.