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 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 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 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’. 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 ‘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.

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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 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 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 influences right on their sleeve – Gabriel-era Genesis, Weather Report, Yes, Japan, George Benson – 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 lambasting the ‘trendy’ music press.

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