13 Memorable B-Sides Of The 1980s

princeThere was definitely a ‘thing’ about B-sides in the 1980s. You never quite knew what you would find on the reverse of your favourite 7” or 12″ single – maybe a new direction, bold experiment, glorious failure, engaging curio, self-produced shocker or even the drummer’s long-awaited-by-nobody songwriting debut. Sometimes a single track encapsulated all of the above…

I was certainly never the biggest singles collector in the world, but I had to try and hear everything by Prince, Level 42 and It Bites during their peak years. Some B-sides took on a kind of mythic stature and weren’t easy to access: you’d have to cadge from your mates, record things from the radio or trawl the Record & Tape Exchange.

Here’s a motley parade of ’80s backsides, some long-sought-after, some intriguing, some exciting, some fairly random but all inexplicably etched upon my memory. I gave myself three rules: no remixes, live tracks or album tracks allowed…

13. David Bowie: ‘Crystal Japan’ (1981)

Though originally released as an A-side for the Japanese market, this charming instrumental later turned up as the B-side to the ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ single of March 1981. I’m still waiting for Jeff Beck’s cover version.

12. Peter Gabriel: ‘Curtains’ (1987)

Almost every time this ‘Big Time’ B-side rolls around, it produces a slight chill and sense of wonder. One of PG’s most disquieting pieces, it has to be said, but with a lovely melody and ambience.

11. Danny Wilson: ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’ (1987)

The Dundonians are at their most sublimely Steely-ish on this ‘Mary’s Prayer’ B-side. The track’s lo-fi production and slightly low-budget horn section/backing vocals hinder it not one jot.

10. Prince: ‘Alexa De Paris’ (1986)

Prince had always threatened a full-on guitar instrumental and this ‘Mountains’ B-side delivered it. And boy was it worth the wait. Sheila E plays some fantastically unhinged drums (check out how she reacts to Prince’s guitar throughout) and Clare Fischer weighs in with a widescreen orchestral arrangement. The composition is reimagined as a solo piano piece in the movie ‘Under The Cherry Moon’.

9. It Bites: ‘Vampires’ (1989)

The B-side of ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, this glam-prog classic is notable for its crunching riff, catchiness and Francis Dunnery’s most extreme It Bites guitar solo (muso alert: was it stitched together from multiple takes?). It’s also one of many fine IB B-sides, of which more to come soon. Pet Shop Boys were definitely listening – this is even in the same key.

8. David Sylvian: ‘A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce’ (1989)

The accompanying track to one-off 12” single ‘Pop Song’, you get the feeling this micro-tonal, improvised miniature featuring late great pianist John Taylor was far more up Sylvian’s street than the hits requested by Virgin Records.

7. Donna Summer: ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’ (1982)

This B-side to ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ is a bit of a guilty pleasure. But Summer’s exceptional performance transcends the schmaltz, as does a superb drum performance by…someone (Steve Gadd? Rick Marotta? Ed). Intriguingly, Dusty Springfield covered it in 1985.

6. Level 42: ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’ (1982)

This irresistible B-side from the ‘Are You Hearing What I’m Hear’ 12” shows the lads in full-on Weather-Report-meets-Jeff-Beck mode. Drummer Phil Gould even gives Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham a run for their money.

5. Roxy Music: ‘Always Unknowing’ (1982)

This shimmering, beguiling Avalon outtake from the US single version of ‘More Than This’ was surely in competition with ‘While My Heart Is Still Beating’ and ‘Tara’ for an album spot. Beautiful playing from guitarist Neil Hubbard.

4. Donald Fagen: ‘Shanghai Confidential’ (1988)

This ‘Century’s End’ B-side is an intriguing slice of fuzak with lovely chord changes, some tasty Marcus Miller bass and a fine Steve Khan guitar solo. You can even feel Donald smirking slightly when he plays his synth motif.

3. Scritti Politti: ‘World Come Back To Life’ (1988)

The B-side of the ‘Boom There She Was’ 12-inch showcases all the charms of the Provision sound: intricate arrangements, pristine production, bittersweet lyrics and punchy vocals. For many fans, it’s better than a lot of stuff on the album.

2. China Crisis: ‘Animalistic’ (1985)

The Liverpudlians detour into minimalist jazz/funk with some success on this ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side. Gary Daly’s vocals have never been so wryly Lloyd Cole-esque (before Cole… Ed) and drummer Kevin Wilkinson is really in his element. Gorgeous synth sounds too.

1. Willy Finlayson: ‘After The Fall’ (1984)

We’ll close with something in the ‘fairly random’ category. The A-side, ‘On The Air Tonight’, was recently covered by The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this B-side. Both tracks were written and produced by ex-Camel keyboardist Pete Bardens. Willy is still active on the (sadly ever-dwindling) West London gig scene.

Let me know your killer B’s below.

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Francis Dunnery: Back To It Bites

francis dunneryIn some ways, it may not be much of a surprise to hear that ex-It Bites vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Francis Dunnery has returned to the music of his old band, one of the great British units of the ‘80s.

He met up with the other three members – keyboardist John Beck, bassist Dick Nolan and drummer Bob Dalton – during a London Union Chapel gig in 2003, and for a while a full-scale reunion looked to be on the cards. But it wasn’t to be.

Then Dunnery recorded various ‘reversions’ of It Bites songs on his 2011 album There’s A Whole New World Out There, and he has frequently performed the old material in concert (check out this amazing version of Once Around The World’s title track from a few years ago). So he’s never exactly been averse to revisiting – or updating – past glories.

But Vampires is different. It goes the whole hog: he’s re-recorded not just one album but 100 minutes of It Bites classics, singing all the vocal parts himself (with much-improved body and range, though his vocals weren’t exactly shabby in the old days) and enlisting various musicians including ex-Go West drummer Tony Beard to navigate the musical twists and turns. Two years in the making, the album is also a blast from the past in terms of its audio qualities – it was recorded without EQ or compression, only a small amount of the latter being added at mastering stage.

Francis_Dunnery_Robin

Francis discusses the new album and the It Bites days in this excellent interview for The Mouth magazine. He reveals – for the first time, as far as I’m aware – the full story of how the band got signed to Virgin, Dunnery’s period squatting in South London, his relationship with John Beck, his favourite It Bites songs, the band’s split and loads more. It’s a must-listen for any fans. You can also hear many excerpts from Vampires and make your own mind up about whether his new versions improve on the originals.

And, in other Dunnery-related news, who knew that we would be able to add ‘radio presenter’ to his list of abilities? Yes, his new Progzilla show is by turns hilarious, controversial, infantile, informative, philosophical and troubling. He’s a natural, but the show’s not for everyone… The latest episode (dated 18th April) focuses on his favourite guitarists, from Zappa to Holdsworth.

Don’t Mention The Prog: It Bites’ Eat Me In St Louis

eat-me-in-st-louis-527b870be5b7fVirgin Records, released June 1989

9/10

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, June 1989

It Bites go Metal? Nearly. A brave attempt to break the US? Possibly. Even Kerrang! magazine took notice of this one. Riff-heavy, blues-based rock was making a big comeback on the late-‘80s UK music scene, typified by the success of Thunder, The Quireboys, Gun and Little Angels.

The gifted Cumbrian four-piece came up with a neat twist and produced their heaviest album yet – but they could never completely jettison their penchant for brilliant pop hooks, colourful instrumentation and intricate arrangements.

it bites

Francis Dunnery’s guitar playing was leaner, meaner and more direct than before, with a stronger blues flavour; Hendrix and Clapton were touchstones now rather than Holdsworth and Gambale. The song and performance were paramount. He had also added a lot of grit to his vocals and talked glowingly of David Sylvian and The Blue Nile in interviews. Producer Mack brought the big drum sound and ban on reverb. Dick Nolan expanded the grooves with his new six-string bass. There were three near-hits (‘Still Too Young To Remember’, ‘Underneath Your Pillow’, ‘Sister Sarah’). Roger Dean provided the album cover concept/graphics/masks, possibly a weird move for a band trying to escape the Prog tag. It was red rag to a bull for the NME who ran a sarcastic mini-interview with Dunnery which barely mentioned the band’s music.

First single ‘Still Too Young To Remember’ was Classic Rock of an early-‘70s vintage, sounding more like Family, Cat Stevens or Free than Genesis or Marillion. Virgin flogged it mercilessly with not one but two re-releases but there was still no sign of a hit. I remember excitedly rushing out to the buy the 12” version one beautiful spring day in 1989. Its superb B-side ‘Vampires’ features one of Dunnery’s most outrageous guitar solos. Other fine B-sides of the time include ‘Bullet In The Barrell‘ and ‘Woman Is An Addict‘ which features a killer whole-tone Nolan/Dunnery riff.

As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, It Bites were shaping up to be one of the bigger live draws in British rock – they embarked on three tours in the space of a year, selling out the Hammersmith Odeon and impressing everyone. A glorious night at the old Town And Country Club featured on the ‘Meltdown’ TV show. They played extensively in Japan and toured the States with Jethro Tull. The feeling in the Virgin camp was that the fourth album would deliver the big hit they were striving for. Too heavy for pop but too pop for metal? Too good for the charts? Suddenly, despite the lack of singles action, it didn’t seem to matter too much.

But the cracks were starting to show – Dunnery was a barely-functioning alcoholic whose self-loathing tendencies led to sublimely pissed-off guitar solos but more often than not wound up the rest of the band – especially the equally gifted yet far more docile John Beck (Dunnery recently said in a Classic Prog interview that they had very different ‘energy levels’), often leading to some thrillingly edgy onstage duels but also some resentment.

Decamping to Los Angeles to write songs for the fourth album proved a career move too far – Beck, Dalton and Nolan refused to work with Dunnery who was AWOL periodically throughout the sessions. The band splintered and that was that, despite a brief reunion of the original line-up the early noughties. It’s fascinating to imagine what might have been if they’d been able to hold on a bit longer and harness the creative tension between Beck and Dunnery. The breakup was a sad end to one of the most prodigious groups of musicians in the ‘80s pop pantheon.

Classic Prog’s Last Hurrah: It Bites’ Once Around The World

it bitesVirgin Records, released May 1988

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith 1988

9/10

Everyone has their favourite summer music and Once Around The World is an album I always turn to around 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.

This is the record I was really waiting for as a music-mad 15-year-old. 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 day 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.

The Manor

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 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 fantasy lyrics that would have Syd Barrett turning in his grave. 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 ‘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’. They could play all this stuff live too, and with great elan (they played the whole of OATW at a fantastic gig at the much-missed London Astoria, and I also caught them in early ’88 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 solidity and ‘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 chart. But OATW is gaining fans as the years go by. The lads took a much heavier direction after this, but OATW is the standout in their short but excellent career and shows off a great band at its peak (I took one mark off for ‘Yellow Christian’, the only track I could care less about…).

Stay tuned for the next instalment: Bites into America…

Seven More Great ’80s Album Openers

7. David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ from Scary Monsters (1980)

Weird doesn’t cover it. We hear tape spooling around the reels and the machine being turned on, followed by drummer Dennis Davis whirling around a football rattle and counting us in in his best Cyborg voice. After this, Robert Fripp’s deranged solo and Michi Hirota’s strident Japanese outbursts sound almost normal.

6. De La Soul: ‘Intro’ from 3 Feet High And Rising (1989)

A whole generation of pop kids hadn’t heard anything like this before, and yet somehow it bears repeated listening. It’s just as fresh and original as anything The Small Faces or The Beatles tried 20 years before and arguably started off the whole ‘intro’ concept on hip-hop albums.

5. Genesis: ‘Behind The Lines’ from Duke (1980)

In musical theatre, I believe it’s called an overture. This bombastic piece previews many of the themes that will reverberate through the album. Tony Banks’ keys and Phil’s drums have seldom sounded brighter or tighter.

4. Lil Louis: ‘I Called U’ from From The Mind Of Lil Louis (1989)

This classic piece of bunny-boiler house is funny, weird and arresting (sorry about the sound quality).

3. It Bites: ‘Positively Animal’ from Eat Me In St Louis (1989)

Watch that volume dial. The talented, underrated four-piece jolt you out of complacency with a flashy, these-go-to-11 opener. Audacious and very un-English.

2. The Police: ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ from Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)

Another moody classic. A brooding Oberheim bass-throb, a fudged Andy Summers chord, a hint of click track and then that brilliant, patented half-time groove. This full-length version hints at the darker themes of the lyric.

1. Talking Heads: ‘And She Was’ from Little Creatures (1985)

Hope you enjoy our new direction (though Little Creatures is probably my least favourite Heads album). Leaving behind the art-funk of Speaking In Tongues, this sprightly opener introduces a new stripped-down pop sound in no uncertain terms.

Genesis On Speed: It Bites’ The Big Lad In The Windmill

 

It+Bites+The+Big+Lad+In+The+Windmill+452664Virgin Records, released March 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988?

8/10

In the slipstream of Live Aid, when Stock, Aitken and Waterman ruled the charts, house and techno were warming up and ‘indie’ (Housemartins, Smiths, Cure) was thriving, this gifted pop/prog four-piece from Cumbria crept under the radar and even managed to secure a big hit with their second single ‘Calling All The Heroes’.

It Bites wore their deeply unfashionable (in the mid-‘80s) influences right on their sleeve – Gabriel-era Genesis, Led Zep, Weather Report, Yes, Japan – but somehow mixed them all up to create an excellent debut and minor hit album.

My mate Nige and I loved The Big Lad. The soundtrack to our after-school games of pool would either be Sting’s Bring On The Night or this, and I quickly grew to love its pristine production, challenging song structures, brilliant guitar playing and cool chord sequences. As a teenager, I’d listen to it on my Walkman very loudly while studying the enigmatic cover art or reading Stephen King’s Christine… What larks.

it-bites-the-big-lad-in-the-windmill-1986

Singer/guitarist Francis Dunnery once labelled The Big Lad ‘nutter’s music’, an apt description when you listen to songs like ‘Turn Me Loose’ and ‘I Got You’ which are almost pop but then pull the carpet from under your feet with bizarre, brilliant, extravagant middle sections and Dunnery’s off-mic vocal histrionics.

It Bites’ early career as a souped-up pop covers band has served them well – melody and groove are their priorities, and they were always a superb live act.

Dunnery was (and is) also a very underrated Brit guitar hero whose playing could consistently deliver the sound of surprise with fluid legato, furious speed picking, dissonant intervals and whammy-bar abandon. His solo on ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ is a thrilling marriage of Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin and one of the great bits of over-the-top playing in Brit Rock, and he also delivered marvellously insane breaks on the Michael Jackson-meets-Duran Duran ‘Wanna Shout’ and barmy soft-rock ballad ‘Cold, Tired and Hungry’. Also worth checking out is B-side ‘Strange But True’ which, in its full version, becomes a vehicle for Dunnery’s increasingly demented solos.

‘Calling All The Heroes’ is actually a pretty good distillation of It Bites’ sound with Bob Dalton’s huge gated drums and ingenious ‘reverse’ tom fills, Dunnery’s yelping vocals and excellent melodies, John Beck’s intricate keyboards and Dick Nolan’s super-tight bass playing. It was their only big hit though; other singles ‘All In Red’ and ‘Whole New World’ were catchy pop tunes with interesting instrumental flourishes and inventive vocal harmonies but neither troubled the charts.

itbites

The NME and Melody Maker virtually ignored It Bites at the time, as did Kerrang!, Q and Sounds. If they did get a mention, it was generally to mock their unfashionably-superb musicianship or lack of London street-cred. I remember Dunnery making an emotional pre-song announcement onstage at a London Astoria gig in 1988 which went something like: ‘This is dedicated to all of you critics out there who slagged me off and kicked a young lad when he was down – I was only 23 when our debut came out and you knocked my confidence!’ I paraphrase, of course…

The Big Lad wasn’t a huge hit but did just well enough, peaking at number 35 in the UK album charts. But It Bites were up and running and their best was yet to come. Watch this space for the next exciting chapter…