The classic It Bites lineup (Francis Dunnery, John Beck, Richard Nolan, Bob Dalton) produced three excellent studio albums and of course snared one huge UK hit in the shape of ‘Calling All The Heroes’.
Then there was the middling live collection Thankyou And Goodnight, and now a limited-edition 2018 box set called Live In London. I must have missed a memo because I only heard about it a year or so ago.
It was well worth the wait. It collects three unedited London gigs (I was at two of them) over five CDs, including their very last major show in the capital. Whilst these are essentially desk recordings, the sound quality ranges from good to excellent. The box set also features nice, previously unseen photos and some good liner notes including a long interview with Dalton, telling of their London history and details of each gig.
The Marquee concert from 21 July 1986 (at less than 40 minutes, presumably a support?) catches the band in their full-on, zingy, poppy/funky early pomp. Everything sounds a little fast and they haven’t quite settled into their groove yet but it’s still a good listen. There’s a rather shrill early version of ‘Black December’ and a great, rare outing for ‘Whole New World’ with Dunnery playing the horn lines on lead guitar with some aplomb.
Next is the very tangible peak of the band, a Once Around The World tour gig from 13 May 1988 at the much-missed Astoria. The sound is beefy, the tempos locked in, the backing vocals excellent and this really is the dog’s bollocks. There’s so much evidence of craft, with an extra note here and lick there, always slightly modifying the album versions.
‘Plastic Dreamer’ is a revelation, ‘Black December’ is huge, and ‘Old Man & The Angel’ ambitious and exciting. We finally get to hear what Dunnery sings in ‘Hunting The Whale’. The ‘Midnight/Wanna Shout’ medley is a knockout, complete with ‘Purple Haze’ coda, and Once Around The World’s title track is brilliant, complete with excerpt from ‘New York, New York’ which chimes rather cleverly with Dunnery and Beck’s Lamb Lies Down On Broadway fixation.
The third gig is the band’s final London show at the Hammersmith Odeon on 7 April 1990. The intro sounds like something from Prince’s Lovesexy. The new songs sound great, ‘Let Us All Go’ is superb but Dunnery’s voice is pretty shot throughout, and some of the backing vocals are also showing signs of strain. In truth you can hear the schisms in the band developing, though there are many, many great moments.
Barely two months later Dunnery had left the group. Not long after that, this correspondent would see him skulking around the King’s Head pub in Fulham (he was rehearsing upstairs with Robert Plant, I was gigging there), not looking a particularly well or happy man. Thankfully he’s on a far more even keel now.
Live In London is a really exciting release, a must-have collection for anyone who owns any of the studio albums, and arguably a much better package than Thankyou And Goodnight.
Further reading: I’ve written about the second It Bites studio album Once Around The World in the current edition of Classic Pop magazine.
Go into a record shop and likely you’ll be stunned at the price of secondhand vinyl, not to mention new catalogue LPs that can cost up to 25 quid for a posh reissue.
All of which might amuse/surprise music fans of my vintage who kept hold of their record players through the years and spent the noughties digging around the vinyl discount stores, often picking up ‘esteemed’ albums for anything between 10p and a quid (the price of a postage stamp, for readers outside the UK).
So what were those 1980s vinyls that were/are ALWAYS in secondhand shops and, by extension, still ever-present in charity shops? And why were they always there?
Most smack of the impulse buy by people who get one album a year, or the ‘difficult’ follow-ups to a smash. Some are tainted by an almost ineffable naffness. Most were deemed surplus on vinyl once CD became the format of choice, and most are weirdly genre-less.
Stacked high/sold cheap, you’d think they’d be reissue-proof, never to be seen again. But not so fast: ‘deluxe’ editions of these are probably on their way to a shop/streaming service near you, or have already arrived…
The Beautiful South: Welcome To The Beautiful South
U2: Rattle And Hum
Del Amitri: Waking Hours
Hothouse Flowers: People
Michael McDonald: Sweet Freedom (The Best Of Michael McDonald)
T’Pau: Bridge Of Spies
Foreigner: Agent Provocateur
Michael Bolton: Soul Provider
Meat Loaf: Dead Ringer
John Cougar Mellencamp: The Lonesome Jubilee
Five Star: Silk And Steel
Arcadia: So Red The Rose
Sade: Diamond Life
Chris Rea: The Road To Hell
Phil Collins: No Jacket Required
Bryan Ferry: Boys And Girls
Genesis: Invisible Touch
George Michael: Faith
Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman
Fleetwood Mac: Tango In The Night
Wet Wet Wet: Popped In, Souled Out
Fairground Attraction: The First Of A Million Kisses
Even the most ’80s-phobic pop fan would have to concede that it was a great decade for singles.
The first 7″ I asked for was either Nick Lowe’s ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’ or 10CC’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, all from the late ’70s, but the first single I distinctly remember buying was Scritti Politti’s ‘The Word Girl’.
But many others have stayed in the head and heart. Here are a bunch of them in no particular order (apart from the #1), but I’m barely scratching the surface.
The rules: one artist per slot, and a simple ‘quality’ criterion applies: when any of these songs comes on the radio or onto a playlist, they demand to be listened to. They stand alone, retaining a magic ‘buzz’, wow-factor, presence, mood (and, pop pickers, there’s nothing from 1986…). Nothing grates, and nothing – or at least not much – could be improved upon…
85. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’
84: UB40: ‘Food For Thought’ (1980)
83. Special AKA: ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (1984)
82. Kid Creole And The Coconuts: ‘Annie I’m Not Your Daddy’ (1982)
81: The Clash: ‘Rock The Casbah’ (1982)
80. The Commodores: Night Shift (1985)
79. Janet Jackson: What Have You Done For Me Lately? (1986)
78. Lionel Richie: All Night Long (1983)
77. Cliff Richard: Carrie (1980)
76. James Brown: Living In America (1985)
75. Tom Tom Club: Wordy Rappinghood (1981)
74. Rolling Stones: ‘Undercover Of The Night’ (1983)
73. David Bowie: ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (1980)
72. Dire Straits: ‘Private Investigations’ (1982)
71. Afrika Bambaataa & The SoulSonic Force: ‘Planet Rock’ (1982)
70. Belinda Carlisle: ‘I Get Weak’ (1988)
Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ kept it off the US number one spot in early ’88. Almost-perfect pop/rock from the pen of Dianne Warren.
69. The Jam: ‘Town Called Malice’ (1982)
68. Michael Jackson: ‘Billie Jean’ (1982)
Always the loudest song on any playlist.
67. Robert Wyatt: ‘Shipbuilding’ (1982)
66. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1984)
65. Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (1980)
64. Carly Simon: ‘Why’ (1982)
63. Bros: ‘I Owe You Nothing’ (1988)
62. Dollar: ‘Videotheque’ (1982)
61. Yazoo: ‘Don’t Go’ (1982)
Difficult now to disassociate it from Alan Partridge’s early morning show, but still a brilliant slice of Basildon techno-funk.
60. Bronski Beat: ‘Smalltown Boy’ (1984)
Touching meditation on the travails of youth. Even an appallingly-played synth in the intro cannot wither it.
59. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ (1981)
The first showing for that ’80s staple, the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, on a single that legendary Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun adored…
58. Fine Young Cannibals: ‘Johnny Come Home’ (1985)
57. Robert Palmer: ‘Addicted To Love’ (1985)
No apologies for including this US number one. Imagine waking up with this buzzing around your head. Palmer apparently bumped into Chaka Khan on a New York street during the vocal sessions and asked her to harmonize the lead line – a great pairing (but was she removed from some versions? Doesn’t really sound like her… Ed.).
56. Alexander O’Neal ft. Cherelle: ‘Never Knew Love Like This’ (1987)
Producers/songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did a damn good job of creating a Marvin/Tammi or Marvin/Diana for the ’80s. Gorgeous harmonies and vocals.
55. Salt-N-Pepa: ‘Push It’ (1988)
The ‘Smoke On The Water’ of ’80s rap. But, according to the ladies, it’s not about sex – it’s about ‘pushing it’ on the dancefloor.
54. Talking Heads: ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (1981)
53. Don Henley: ‘Boys Of Summer’ (1984)
52. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)
51. Billy Joel: ‘Uptown Girl’ (1983)
Billy’s tribute to The Four Seasons works a treat, with a slammin’ rhythm section and melodic curveballs to make even Macca jealous.
50. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (1982)
The joyful sound of late summer 1982 and the first song by a black artist to be played on MTV.
49. Junior: ‘Mama Used To Say’ (1982)
48. Genesis: ‘Mama’ (1982)
The first ‘event’ single in their career. Epic/menacing.
47. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ (1982)
Quincy assembles his dream team (Ndugu, Swedien, Hey, Temperton, Phillinganes) to produce an underrated cracker.
46. The Police: ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ (1981)
Sting wrote the band’s fourth UK number one in 1976. Apparently Summers and Copeland hated Jean Roussel’s keyboard playing on this – but they were wrong.
45. Japan: ‘I Second That Emotion’ (1981)
Most original cover version of the ’80s?
44. Bananarama: ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ (1983)
Apparently about sexual abuse…
43. The Bangles: ‘Eternal Flame’ (1989)
42. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: ‘The Message’ (1982)
41. Blondie: ‘Atomic’ (1980)
Minor/major splendour. Debbie’s voice always sends a shiver down the spine and there’s that Roland CR-78 again.
40. The Specials: ‘Ghost Town’ (1981)
39. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Two Tribes’ (1984)
No expense was spared for the all-important follow-up to ‘Relax’ – according to arranger Anne Dudley, a 60-piece orchestra featured on the intro.
38. Ultravox: ‘Vienna’ (1981)
Kept off the UK top spot by Joe Dolce’s Music Theatre’s brilliant ‘Shaddap You Face’ (which nearly made this list…).
37. OMD: ‘Souvenir’ (1981)
More like a dream than a pop song.
36. Adam And The Ants: ‘Ant Rap’ (1981)
35. Bucks Fizz: ‘Land Of Make Believe’ (1982)
34. Madonna: ‘Crazy For You’ (1985)
Featuring Rob Mounsey’s sumptuous arrangement and a winning vocal from La Ciccone.
33. The Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’ (1982)
32. Thompson Twins: ‘Hold Me Now’ (1984)
31. Young MC: ‘Know How’ (1989)
By way of tribute to Cooking Vinyl founder Matt Dike who died recently.
30. S’Express: ‘Theme From S’Express’ (1988)
29. Nik Kershaw: Wouldn’t It Be Good (1984)
28. The Passions: ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’ (1981)
A quintessential ’80s one-hit wonder, still beguiling after all these years, with a classic guitar performance from Clive Temperley.
27. Wham!: ‘Freedom’ (1984)
26. ZZ Top: ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ (1983)
25. George Michael: ‘Careless Whisper’ (1984)
24. Art Of Noise: ‘Close (To The Edit)’ (1984)
Allegedly built on an unused Alan White drum track recorded during Yes’s 90125 sessions.
23. Blancmange: ‘Living On The Ceiling’ (1982)
22. Paul Hardcastle: ’19’ (1985)
21. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)
20. Rick Astley: ‘Whenever You Need Somebody’ (1987)
Wacky song construction; try playing along on guitar. So many key changes. Arguably Stock/Aitken/Waterman’s best and vastly superior to ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.
19. Hall And Oates: ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ (1982)
18. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (1981)
17. Kim Carnes: ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (1981)
A classic lyric, and musically rich too.
16. MARRS: ‘Pump Up The Volume’ (1989)
15. Eric B & Rakim: ‘I Know You Got Soul’ (1988)
14. Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (1982)
13. Christopher Cross: ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’ (1981)
Hard to resist the gorgeous Bacharach-penned melody and superb drum performance from Jeff Porcaro.
12. Will Powers: ‘Kissing With Confidence’ (1983)
11. The Jones Girls: ‘Nights Over Egypt’ (1981)
10. Roxy Music: ‘Same Old Scene’ (1980)
9. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)
8. Joe Jackson: ‘Stepping Out’ (1982)
7. Neneh Cherry: ‘Buffalo Stance’ (1989)
You may mock…but slap on this Tim Simenon-produced corker and watch the dancefloor fill up…
6. Prince: ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ (1987)
5. Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’ (1989)
Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn cooked up this epic UK No.1, adapted from the traditional Irish song ‘She Moved Through The Fair’. Here’s an interesting live version I’d never seen before.
4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (1984)
3. Madness: ‘Baggy Trousers’ (1980)
It is London school life in 1980 – simple as.
2. Scritti Politti: ‘Absolute’ (1985) And – drum roll – the single I would save if my flat was on fire…
1. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)
Check out the full list, with some other classics, on Spotify:
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.
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 OfLil Louis (1989)
This classic piece of bunny-boiler house is funny and arresting (sorry about the sound quality).
3. It Bites: ‘Positively Animal’ from Eat Me In St Louis (1989)
Watch that volume dial. The 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 lick, 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.
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.
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.
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.
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.