Yes: Big Generator 30 Years On

In the pantheon of rock rhythm sections, bassist Chris Squire would surely have to feature not once but twice – he forged striking partnerships with both Bill Bruford and the underrated Alan White. Big Generator, released 30 years ago this week, is a brilliant distillation of the Squire/White hook-up.

But there are loads of other pleasures too, even though it’s usually mentioned as an inferior, mostly pointless sequel to 90215. But for my money it’s the better album – more cohesive, less top-heavy. Big Generator was apparently far from a walk in the park to make though, with band tensions, endless rewrites and remixes. And of course there was pressure to follow up such a huge hit.

Trevor Horn started work on the album in 1985 but left towards the end of recording, leaving guitarist/vocalist/co-writer Trevor Rabin and producer Paul DeVilliers to finish the job. But you can hear the craft (and money) that went into Big Generator, although it still basically sounds like a band playing live in the studio.

This is barmy rock music, full of surprises, made by musicians with unique styles and a wish to take chances. But no matter how complicated the arrangements get, there’s always a logic to them. Take the title track for example. An excerpt from the ‘Leave It’ 90125 vocal sessions kicks things off. Then Rabin piles into a gargantuan riff (achieved by tuning his low E string down to an A, echoing Squire’s ‘standard’ tuning on his 5-string) joined by Squire. White’s snare is tighter than a gnat’s arse and his phrasing is always novel – he’ll often hit the crash cymbal on a ‘one-and’ or ‘three-and’ rather than the standard ‘one’. Then there’s the ridiculous speeding-up snare roll accompanied by manic Rabin shredding and a chorus that sounds a bit like Def Leppard. It’s all in a day’s work for this amazing unit.

‘Rhythm Of Love’, ‘Almost Like Love’ and ‘Love Will Find A Way’ are serviceable, weirdly-funky slices of AOR. The very ’80s-Floyd-style ‘Shoot High Aim Low’ maintains its doomy mood impeccably and features a brilliant Di Meola-esque acoustic guitar solo from Rabin. The standout for me though is the stunning, ridiculous ‘I’m Running’. Just when you thought they couldn’t crowbar any more into its seven minutes, it chucks in a descanting vocal outro which sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Only a few bits of Jon Anderson whimsy on side two threaten to derail proceedings. But in general Rabin keeps him in check, though presumably to the detriment of their relationship. Big Generator was nominated for a Grammy and sold well over a million worldwide, making the top 20 in both the US and UK. It’s definitely due a critical reappraisal. So here it is.

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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…

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…