Tag Archives: It Bites

January 2019 – upcoming English rock gigs – Francis Dunnery’s ‘Big Lad In The Windmill’ mini-tour (18th to 20th January)

12 Jan

Next week, gloriously wayward singer-songwriter Francis Dunnery revisits his past with It Bites – in solo format – as he takes music from their 1986 debut album ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ out on an English micro-tour.

Francis Dunnery, 11th and 18th to 20th January 2019

When pompous would-be music tastemakers like myself roll out their list of great pop and rock albums of the 1980s, ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ generally isn’t on there. That’s unsurprising. As a decade, the ‘80s sprawled into outspoken ideological polarisation, during which it sometimes seemed as if everyone in popular music was a purist poseur of some kind or other; whether they were swanning about on yachts sporting terrifying ozone-threatening hairstyles, acting out grimly righteous/reductionist salt-of-the-earth positionings, haute-couture megaphoning about The Future or (rather more constructively) hurtling around America in vans trying to build an alternative economy. Perhaps that’s over-simplifying, but it’s certainly true that it was an age of vivid stances, and that some terrible and reductive snobberies developed as a side-effect of said stances and manifestos. In such a time and in such a milieu, ‘The Big Lad’ was the kind of album that wasn’t supposed to happen… and many people seemed (and still seem) to think it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.

It Bites: 'The Big Lad In The Windmill'

It Bites: ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’

Admittedly on spec it was also a little preposterous. A shotgun marriage of glutinous, glittery ‘80s pop with hard rock snorts and cartwheeling prog stunts, it was recorded by four self-confessed working-class hicks from England’s gorgeous, isolated Lake District, who also happened to be unfashionably virtuosic as musicians. Possessing a keen ear for pastiche and adaptation, they’d had a prehistory back home as a badly-behaved covers band. Plying the tough Cumbrian circuit of nightclubs and working men’s clubs, they’d mastered reams of contemporary pop hits (Level 42, Police, Haircut 100 and so on) while simultanously nursing a profound love for the 70’s complexity and flourishes of Genesis and Yes, UK and Weather Report. All of which showed by the time they came to write their own stuff. By the mid-‘80s (abetted by resident keyboard popinjay and arrangements genius John Beck), Dunnery was putting together original songs which played on both sets of preoccupations.

Some smartarse once tagged It Bites as “bubblegum prog”, which isn’t too bad a label. It encapsulates the band’s mastery of the kind of throwaway immediate pop tunes which prove to have a tenacious, sticky life of their own: it also takes into account their taste for florid illustrative musical passages. In addition, their playing had a layer of fantasy-funk and soul itch (due to admixtures of Steve Arrington and Prince, plus Dick Nolan’s stalking, slippery bass grooves), and some hard rock crunch (staunch, sturdy drummer Bob Dalton was a Led Zeppelin guy at heart). Collectively, It Bites aspired to the well-drilled, muscular “follow-this” ethic of a black showband; which seemed to be judged as less of a virtue when coming from a white British rock band of the times, where restrictive amateurism or beefy stiffness was the order of the day.

Bear in mind that this was years before white-boy eclecticism inveigled its way back into mainstream rock and pop. Ween were still only releasing home-made cassettes; Jellyfish wouldn’t show up for another three years, and while Frank Zappa stubbornly flew the flag for stylistic fluidity, he was an elder statesman turned cult artiste in a niche of his own. Even Queen had calmed down a bit. Had they slipped into a more parodic approach lyrical approach, It Bites might have suddenly woken up to find that their nearest British equivalents were The Barron Knights. Fortunately, they took themselves a little more seriously: there was silliness in their playful approach, but it was matched by an earnest bravado which won them affection from audiences even as it drew critical disdain.


 
Once signed by Virgin and given a shot at making a record, It Bites treated it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to throw everything they had into the effort and stir it up like crazy. Throughout ‘The Big Lad’ they’re coltish and restless, latching onto impeccable mainstream pop-rock stylings only to suddenly career off into wildly played, cunningly constructed breaks. Turn Me Loose and I Got You Eating Out Of My Hand mercilessly run straightforward pop songs through a mill of transformational time and mood changes. Almost anything goes – heavy metal, jazz-fusion arrhythmia, Al di Meola flamenco, even the drum machine and Bontempi drone of a narcotized lounge act – although the band backtrack and flawlessly reconstruct the songs at the end.

Producer Alan Shacklock entered into the spirit of things with a vengeance. He kept a “riot track” free in the mix to capture the band’s raucous in-studio jabbering; he delivered a gleefully glittering plastic sound which revelled in every Japanese-digital synth chime, every start/stop noise-gate interruption and every over-exaggerated bit of sound-panning. He also accidentally sped up the master tape, resulting in the band sounding (according to Francis) “like Pinky and Perky.” The result was – and is – a record which feels like a sudden soda pop binge after months away from the stuff.

‘The Big Lad’ is generally remembered for a surprise Top Ten single. Cantering toytown hit Calling All The Heroes married the band’s musical deftness to old Republic serials, rocking cradles and boyhood cowboy games, fuelled by an earworm chorus and some sneaky false endings. (Presumably the Wild West schtick struck a chord with Shacklock – his own early ‘70s prog band Babe Ruth had recorded The Mexican, an Alamo-themed story with which Calling All The Heroes shares a number of passing musical similarities). For many people, this song is where It Bites have been permanently stuck: pegged to a couple of fanfaring pop hooks remembered by almost every Briton who lived through mid-‘80s chart pop. In the video a bleached’n’styled, cutesied-up Dunnery and co. bob nervously, like a loopier Go West, presaging the marketing problems which would plague them for the rest of their existence. Live, they’d pull out the full prog trickbag.


 
It’s a shame that the album’s glossy, hyperactive surfaces and loop-the-loop stunting make it easy to ignore the substance beneath. Fair enough: something like Wanna Shout mostly exists in order to run demented macho-guitar heroics over stuttering go-go synths, and All In Red does little more than throb like a fourteen-year-old boy’s heat dream of Zeppelin colliding with Level 42. This isn’t the kind of record you put on to remember angry alienation in pre-punk-era Manchester, or to recapture political struggles, or even to remember belonging to anything much (unless it was being part of the crowd which understood the band’s straightforward musical verve and the down-to-earth Cumbrian personalities which bedrocked it).

Yet elsewhere on ‘The Big Lad’, genuine stories about real people emerge from beneath Beck’s thunderous keyboard chimes and Dunnery’s barrel-roll guitar playing. The band’s follow-up single Whole New World is mostly forgotten. It’s actually a fine, agonised pop song, whose horn-assisted contortions marry dashes of dumped-bloke Motown and Memphis under the Christmas-tree synths. On first impressions, Cold Tired And Hungry might be a screamingly uncool rock-snortin’ melodrama, but on a second look its histrionics run parallel to the naked, hurt-boy stances Prince was trying on at the time (although it sounds more like Steve Marriott locked into a sobbing death spiral with Brian May).

Best, though, are a couple of tracks which embrace genuine personal memories rather than generic pop tropes. Under the bravado, Screaming On The Beaches is a flipside take on Calling All The Heroes’ daydream battles. Based on Dunnery’s teasing-out of traumatic wartime memories from his dad (who’d served as a soldier in the Burma Campaign), it’s tech-laden and roaring, screwing its disorientating picture of ordinary men coming apart under fire into a party mixture of twisted pop-metal riffing, jazz-funk cat pounces and Beck’s wailing keytar. Over the next few years, the band would polish it up into a stompingly danceable live highlight, demonstrating that they had almost as much in common with Trouble Funk as they did with Genesis. Conversely, You’ll Never Go To Heaven is one of the 1980s’ great lost lighters-aloft anthems. A heart-wringing Catholic-guilt ballad (capped with Philip Glass pulse-synths and angel choirs), it features a desperate, spiralling outro solo from Dunnery that sounds like Allan Holdsworth giving vent to a primal scream.



 
* * * * * * * *

Francis Dunnery’s come a long way from the nervous, bullish twenty-three-year-old he was when he recorded ‘The Big Lad’. Four years and two albums after its release, his restless nature (plus a much-confessed dip into a serious drink problem) split him away from his more stolid bandmates. While It Bites have gone on to have a belated second life without him, he’s spent the intervening time following a solo career demonstrating that he’s a rough diamond who decided that he prefers to stay a little rough.

At the time, the necessary polish and consistency required to play the pop game wasn’t right for him. It still isn’t, but he’s managed to turn it to his advantage. Now entirely independent, he follows his own particular muse, popping out records as and when it suits him, and building a relationship with his listeners which has the same mixture of generosity, conversationality and occasional cantankerousness as a genuine friendship. At fifty-six, Francis resembles that old lag with delightful hidden depths whom you might meet during stints on a building site: the one who retains his working-class saltiness, cracks wicked jokes and is still handy in a fist-fight, but likes to sit you down during lunchbreaks and talk about Jung, history and esoterica.

His records have run a similar lane-swapping gamut – the kind of tasteful fingerpicked adult pop which gives the genre a good name; acoustic meditations on life and wounds and healing; fanbase-bewildering dips into laptop R&B; reconstructive tributes to the gothic Cumbrian jazz-metal written by his late brother Barry, and so on. Psychology, astronomy, metaphysics, bite-backs and broad jokes litter his songs. Freed from the standard album-tour-album treadmill, a typical Dunnery gig is now a mixture of friendly encounter group and surreal pub talent night. As well as playing songs, he’ll be telling his audience stories, teasing them about prog cliches or dwarf porn, gleefully upending a performance with comedy and spontaneous competitions, or spicing things up with unexpected guest appearances from his capacious address book (could be a musical friend like Robert Plant, Theo Travis or Steve Hackett; could be an actual fucking pantomime horse…)

While they’ve kept much of the musicality, recent Francis reworkings of the ‘Big Lad’ songs (on his ‘Vampires‘ album) are a touch more sedate and patient – breezier, and partially shorn of their pyrotechnic plastic-synth fizz. In truth, while he’s still more than capable of wringing out the dazzling guitar flash and the singing, the years do make something of a difference: mostly because when set against later Dunnery work (with its accounts of mid-life bereavement, parenthood and the battles fought between a person’s ever-resistant roots and the idea of who they’re trying to be) ‘The Big Lad’ is a bit too callow and fizzy. It’ll always be a young man’s album – drunk on possibilities and grappling with the spirit of discovery while working out some of that immediate post-childhood angst; over-aware of its own muscles and energy; distractedly trying to jigsaw together a sense of history, background and its own place within it via song and allusion. Perhaps that’s part of the thinking behind retaining Francis’ onetime protégé Luke Machin (a former teen guitar prodigy-turned-twentysomething jazz/prog/metal ace) in a crack, hand-picked live band also including Tiger Moth Tales’ Peter Jones and Freak Kitchen drummer Björn Fryklund (plus fretless bassist Paul Brown, holding down the ever-underrated Dick Nolan role).

Regardless of this, even if ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ is two parts kiddie sherbet to one part brilliance – and even if you want to clobber it over the head as an example of undeniable ’80s excess – it still stands up. Looking back, it’s still recognisably Dunnery music, a handful of rough adolescent prisms through which his younger, fearful self blinks from underneath the dazzle. Catholic-rooted, disaster-prone but unstoppable; heartfelt and playful; naïve and wise; soft and noisy, driven and impulsive. The man Francis would become – the man he is now – is still waiting in those songs; waiting to be knocked into shape via further adventures, further bumps and arguments along the way. I bet that there are plenty of ’80s pop refugees who wish they’d written juvenilia like this: songs with heart, flash and legs.

Dates:

  • The Slade Rooms, 32-40 Broad Street, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, WV1 1HP, England, Friday 18th January 2019, 7. 00pm – information here, here and here
  • Manchester Academy, University Of Manchester Students’ Union, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PR, England, Saturday 19th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London, W12 7LJ, England, Sunday 20th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here

 

June 1996 – live reviews – Francis Dunnery @ The Borderline, Soho, London, 1st June (“bursting at the seams with music”)

4 Jun

From the moment he first strides gawkily on stage, grinning from ear to ear, Francis Dunnery radiates joyful energy. On last year’s low-profile British acoustic tours he was cautiously sticking his head up over the parapet to find out, to his surprise and delight, that he hadn’t been forgotten. This year it’s different. Perhaps it’s the success he’s finally been garnering in other corners of the world, or perhaps the reasons are closer to the heart, but Frank’s gotten a second wind and new fire. With a vengeance.

There’s less of the jokes this time around. Now, he’s bursting at the seams with music, so much that there’s less time for chat. As before, he’s armed with just an acoustic guitar (plus a cheap fuzzbox for those moments when only a dirty burst of distortion will do) but he makes both of them deliver as much as any full band would as he blasts straight into the positivity avalanche of I Believe I Can Change My World to kick off an evening drawing mostly from the new ‘Tall Blonde Helicopter’ album, his simplest and most joyous work to date.

Although he’s started playing fluent solos again – with a newly haphazard glee – the irrepressible energy with which he once drove It Bites is now harnessed to less cosmic, more essential ends and powered by faith rather than amplifier wattage. So are the songs. The raucous, overdriven joy-and-salvation of The Way Things Are; Grateful and Thankful’s humble confessional folk; the breezy Latin-flavoured pop of Rain or Shine; and the brand new Crazy Little Heart of Mine which has everyone yelping along to the scatting chorus like a pack of blissed-out Muppets.

True, there’s one moment of comparative darkness: Frank’s raw, stormy lament for his father, Feel Like Kissing You Again. As he dives into a wrenching, angry acoustic solo, shredding savagely at his own technique, he parades through trademark Dunnery riffs and those infamous looping fretboard licks, but now with a scalding discontent. It’s as if he’s saying “all of this skill… but still I couldn’t do anything to save him.” For a moment, some of the old pain comes through, and I find myself holding my breath…

For the most part, though, the concert is given over to the positivity spilling from Frank’s mouth in the “universal laws” which he’s declaiming from the stage – part Californian New Age-ery, but several more parts blunt northern-English honesty. Somehow he manages to restore faith in those old positive-thinking clichés; perhaps this is because, in this little subterranean music club, they don’t come across as corny arena-rock “put-cha-hands-tu-getha” sentiment, but as the testament of a man who’s won the war against his own dark side, making the pinwheeling, euphoric In My Dreams and the fragile unconditional devotion of Sunshine ring all the truer.

But it’s not just the smaller venues that are making Dunnery shows more intimate. It’s three-hundred-odd people packing the floor and clogging the stairs, still singing along to the anthemic moments like Everyone’s a Star and Still Too Young to Remember… but as if they were at a front-room party rather than a football stadium. It’s smaller things, like people filling in missing vocal harmonies. Or Frank extending his guitar audience-ward to let a fan strum a final chord; asking our opinion on a new riff; or bringing a child onstage (his nephew Charlie) to help out with singing Little Snake. It’s the wistful generosity of Good Life. It’s the people who, to Frank’s astonishment, already know the brand-new single B-side Just a Man and can sing along with its family-of-man message, joining him in flicking the finger at the bigots.

Most of all, though, it’s the new feeling that Francis Dunnery exudes: the feeling that he and all of us no longer have to be imprisoned in guilt and sin, that we can all be forgiven. Homegrown has somehow lost its sourness and emphasises freedom. He delivers the sly have-your-cake-and-eat-it self-portrait of The Johnny Podell Song with such a disarming mix of laddish swagger and rueful self-awareness that its roguishness is more irresistible, more forgivable then before. Conversely, its savagely witty and acerbic flipside Too Much Saturn is played much more gently than expected.

Perhaps it’s this same sense of redemption which induces Frank to perform a sparkling, beautifully appropriate cover of Peter Gabriel‘s Solsbury Hill – one of the several moments tonight that suggests a rapprochement with his proggie days. More It Bites material is being woven back into his setlist, too. Here’s a snatch of the old Tapboard extravaganza Reprise popping up in American Life in the Summertime; there’s a brief snippet of I’ll Meet You in the Spring sneaking into Still Too Young to Remember. More obvious and touching is a complete version of the acoustic version of Yellow Christian, which surfaced on a couple of dates last year; although the biggest surprise of the evening is Frank’s brief resurrection, out of the blue, of Once Around the World. Even if, in the end, he goes no further than the pastoral intro… to gleeful yells of “chicken!” from an audience that still remembers all the words. He grins. No problem – it’s all his music now, and if it feels right, why not play it?

And it does feel right. Francis Dunnery’s stubborn sticking to his guns, through right and wrong, is finally beginning to pay off both inside and out. He’s practically glowing up there. “Absolutely fuckin’ refuse to go under,” he exhorts from the stage, “and you can do absolutely anything you want to.” Another simple message. And – tonight at least – worth much more than a fifteen-minute suite.

Francis Dunnery online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

January 1995 – live reviews – Francis Dunnery @ Jongleurs, Camden Town, London, 26th January (“a fair dose of confessional, thankfully laced with warm, wry humour”)

28 Jan

“My name is Francis, and I’m an alcoholic.”

The former frontman of It Bites stands before a packed house, nervous and naked. In musical and personal terms, at least – this is a stripped-down gig, just Francis Dunnery and accomplice Ashley Reaks on acoustic guitars in an ‘Unplugged’-style attempt to relaunch Dunnery in the UK after a four-year absence. It’s also an opportunity for Dunnery, without the constraints or comforts of a band, to confront his British audience with utter honesty about who he is.

We get his new songs, but we also get a fair dose of confessional, thankfully laced with warm, wry humour. At times, the atmosphere is like that of a stand-up comedy performance; Dunnery regaling a warm, welcoming and adoring audience with tales of his drunken days, the horrors of becoming one of the “rock arseholes” whom he detests, the pros and cons of sobriety and how it relates to the choosing of curtains, and the ups and downs of romance. (He also claims, implausibly, to have a werewolf’s cock, but probably the less said about that the better…)

So he’s back. It’s an intimate homecoming, really, with none of the posturing one associates with a rock gig. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone opening their show, as Dunnery does, by making a cup of tea? Then again, he never had the self-importance of the average proggie, even when he was twisting out great looping spirals of glossy pin-sharp progressive pop with It Bites in their heyday; and when he seemed to be trying to reconcile his own friendly Cumbrian bluntness and plainspeaking with the musical tightrope act he was pursuing at that time. The present-day Dunnery is a troubadour, a man who’s returned to the basic portable song that can still enchant even when cut down to the most skeletal arrangements.

He’s older, wiser and a touch more cynical (as evidenced on the wry precis of the music industry that is American Life in the Summertime, blessed with a compulsive tune plus satirical lyrics about the Californian stardom dream, and dedicated tonight to the record company girls), but his sense of compassion and honesty sees him through. Much of tonight’s set comes from his recent second solo album ‘Fearless’, in which he moves into smooth (but indisputably off-beat) pop-rock, much of which is quite suited to tonight’s format. The beautifully poignant Good Life, executed solo, is a perfect goodbye song. Painful, celebratory, tantalisingly unresolved, and making the most of Dunnery’s high soul-grained vocal tone, it gets one of the biggest cheers of the night, leaves wistful echoes in the heart, and ranks with the best of any of his past work.

Recent, neglected single What’s He Gonna Say certainly gains added sleepy poignance of its own by being stripped down. It’s spoilt, however, by Dunnery throwing in a twiddly accelerating solo line in an inappropriate bit of technical flash: a rare lapse of taste meaningless to the song and to the evening. Fade Away and Heartache Reborn fare better; sad in a joyous kind of way, filled with rue, warmth and self-realisation, little chronicles of the interweaving of life and love.

A superb electric player, Frank has yet to find his own voice on acoustic guitar. He solos throughout the evening in a bizarre, terse, hybrid style of blues and Spanish classical with a heavy attack. Sometimes the results are striking, occasionally they’re just pointless. But then, he has recently reinvented himself from being a guitar hero who sings to a singer who plays guitar. On this tour, his songs mean infinitely more than his guitar playing.

The mournfully jaunty Homegrown and the resurrected It Bites strutter Underneath Your Pillow both work surprisingly well, surviving the loss of their skilful arrangements on record and given a more intimate tinge by the simple interplay of guitars. Feel Like Kissing You Again, now revealed as a tribute to Dunnery’s late father, is a vertiginous blanket of strumming; unsettling and bleak, Frank delivering a heartfelt, keening vocal and pulling off a harsh, minimal and twangingly abstract solo with impossible note-bends shooting off like snapping heartstrings.

To close, there are a few more lookbacks at It Bites. A quick nugget of the acoustic flourish The Big Lad in the Windmill, and a final acoustic benediction of wonky-lyric’d rock ballad Still Too Young to Remember (roared back at him by a clubful of joyous voices); and then Dunnery’s gone. No encores, despite the roaringly enthusiastic calls that carry on long after the club plays loud funk music at us in an effort to cue us into getting the hell out of there. Still, we can but hope that we won’t have to wait four years until the next gig. And we can marvel at the fact that even when all of the gloriously flashy musical settings of the It Bites era are removed, we’re still left with a fine songwriter.

Welcome back, Mr Dunnery. We missed you, fella.

Francis Dunnery online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

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