It Bites: Thankyou And Goodnight 30 Years Old Today

There’s a secret history of bands/artists disowning their own albums before they’ve even been released.

Lee Mavers’ La’s, Prince and Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders come to mind, and the brilliant Cumbrian four-piece It Bites can also be added to that list.

They even sent out a ‘please don’t buy our new album’ letter to their fan club. I still have it. Quote: ‘They feel Thankyou And Goodnight to be a complete rip-off on the part of Virgin Records…’ It didn’t work, of course. I bought it during its first week of release.

By summer 1991, a year after guitarist/lead vocalist Francis Dunnery had done a runner from the band (this interview gives intriguing hints as to his state of mind during spring 1990) while they were recording their never-to-be-released fourth studio album in Los Angeles, remaining members John Beck (keyboards), Dick Nolan (bass) and drummer Bob Dalton (then trying to make a go of it as Navajo Kiss, and later Sister Sarah) were less than thrilled to hear that Virgin intended to release an It Bites live album.

But it was out of their hands. They reluctantly helped with track selection/sequencing, approved the artwork and title and Thankyou And Goodnight summarily became the official au revoir to one of the finest British bands of the 1980s.  

One top 40 single (‘Calling All The Heroes’) was a pretty dire return for one of the most melodic acts of the era. Virgin should get some blame for that (were they generally better cheerleaders for their solo acts, apart from Genesis, Simple Minds and Culture Club?).

But you hear ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, ‘Underneath Your Pillow’, ‘Kiss Like Judas’ and ‘Midnight’ today and it’s inexplicable that they didn’t crack the charts.

In particular, their singular lack of mainstream success throughout 1988 seems to have been a huge shock for the band, especially off the back of an extraordinary sophomore album Once Around The World, sold-out UK tour and well-received Robert Plant support slot.

But back to Thank You And Goodnight. Visually, it’s a pretty shoddy package. The cover looks like it was knocked off by a reluctant Virgin designer after a long liquid lunch. There are no recording dates or technical personnel, save for mixing engineer Nick Davis (XTC, Marillion, Genesis, Phil Collins), whose surname is misspelt.

Then there are some cursory ‘history of the band’ liner notes, with an annoying addendum by a Virgin staffer: ‘We owe you a drink, Ian!’. Yeah, right…

And then there’s the track choice – it’s basically the audio from the televised June 1989 gig at London’s Town & Country Club, plus a few ringers: ‘Yellow Christian’ (recording date/venue unknown) and ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ from London’s Marquee in 1987 (anyone know the date?), previously the B-side of ‘Midnight’.

A better bet for a live album would surely have been the whole T&C show, plus the whole Marquee 1987 show. It’s also surprising that both of their Hammersmith Odeon headliners (in December 1989 and April 1990) were not available for release (but both are allegedly audible on the privately-released Live In London box set, in which I’m yet to invest…watch this space…).

But it’s no surprise to report that most of the music on Thankyou And Goodnight is fantastic. Under Davis’s jurisdiction, Nolan’s bass and Dalton’s drums sound like a million dollars, at least on the T&C tracks. ‘Underneath Your Pillow’ is the standout, emerging as a superb pop song augmented by the extended, proggy ending, with Dunnery quoting from Holst’s Planet Suite (Venus, the Bringer of Peace).

‘The Ice Melts Into The Water’ and ‘Still Too Young To Remember’ (with its clever ‘Old Man & The Angel’ tag) are also superb, fitting reversions.

From memory, I saw It Bites live five times (Brunel University/Astoria 1988, T&C/Hammersmith 1989, Hammersmith 1990) and they were never less than sensational. Thankyou And Goodnight is not a great package but a decent-enough document of their late-career pomp.

What a shame they couldn’t have recorded one more studio album after 1989’s Eat Me In St Louis though and basked in some long-overdue success.

And one further mystery – Dunnery has obviously added some post-production vocals to ‘Ice Melts Into The Water’ – when and where? Maybe he was secretly in on the project after all…

 

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 in Eat Me. 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 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 at the time 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 reportedly 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 bitesEveryone 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 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.

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.

The Manor

‘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

 

It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill

It+Bites+The+Big+Lad+In+The+Windmill+452664

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 blended their influences – Gabriel-era Genesis, Weather Report, Yes, Japan, Level 42, Steve Arrington, George Benson – superbly, creating 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 David O’Connor’s superb, 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.

Producer Alan Shacklock – once the guitarist in Babe Ruth and future helmer of Chesney Hawkes’ ‘The One And Only’ – delivers a vibrant, state-of-the-’80s sound, with huge, gated drums and punchy bass.

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

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.

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 ingenious ‘reverse’ tom fills, Dunnery’s 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 music magazines of the time generally ignored It Bites. 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 lambasting the ‘trendy’ music press.

The Big Lad wasn’t a huge hit but did just well enough, peaking at #35 in the UK. It Bites were up and running and their best was yet to come.