I is for… It Bites
Images used with absolutely no permission.
It’s a game of two halves, when it comes to UK-prog-rock-pop luminaries It Bites. There’s the original band from the 80s, fronted by mercurial guitar wizard Francis Dunnery, and there’s the 2000s comeback lineup led by friend of the show and genuine UK prog royalty, His Holiness John Mitchell.
I was a fan of Dunnery-era It Bites, having been introduced to Eat Me In St. Louis and The Big Lad in the Windmill by a friend when I was about 16. I loved Francis’ guitar lines on rockers like “Positively Animal”, “Sister Sarah”, “Screaming on the Beaches” and the classic “All In Red”, though I must say I was less enamoured with the sprawling epics like “Yellow Christian” and “Once Around the World” (though that one did grow on me eventually, and it’s pretty epic to see live) and I really don’t know what was going on with “Plastic Dreamer”…
But the band were undeniably awesome, and their sound was to my mind unique. Part pop, part heavy rock (occasionally even metal, perhaps?), part prog, there was just nothing else around that sounded like them. Perhaps that’s why they weren’t massive—they were just ahead of their time (as with T-Ride a few years later). But in the end, after three studio albums and a great live album (Thank You and Goodnight), Francis went solo and It Bites were done, barring a couple of half-hearted reunion efforts.
In the mid 2000s, It Bites reappeared in the world of music with a new frontman, the aforementioned John Mitchell, and in 2008 popped out a brand new album, The Tall Ships. I immediately took up against this idea for some reason. I was in a very focused hard-rock-only phase at the time, and also had firm nostalgia for the Dunnery era, and thought “How can you replace that guy?”.
Well, it turns out that what you do to convincingly replace Francis Dunnery is… get John Mitchell. When I actually got over myself and listened to The Tall Ships properly, I realised two things: 1) it’s a great record, and 2) HHJM can do everything Dunnery did and more. The band sounded fresh and exciting again, and tracks like “Ghosts” and “Memory of Water” stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of the 80s material, no problemo. I still have a bit of a problem with the 14-minute “This Is England”, but maybe I’ll get over that too one day.
Then in 2012 they released a concept album, Map of the Past, which again, I took up against for no good reason. This time I got over myself more quickly (no 14-minute epics this time helped, possibly) and eventually properly appreciated what is a fantastic record. Standout tracks on this one for me are “Wallflower”, “Cartoon Graveyard” and the title track “Map of the Past”. Great stuff.
Full disclosure: since then I’ve got to know John a little, as he’s a pal of my band Indigo Down, and we even recorded our EP with him at his studio in Reading. If you’re reading this, John, keep it up, fella. You’re doing it right. 👍
Of the Dunnery era, the three studio albums all have much to recommend them. My personal favourite is Eat Me In St. Louis, perhaps because it was the first one I had, but I would maybe recommend The Big Lad in the Windmill in terms of bang for your buck.
Both the Mitchell-era albums are wonderful, but I think Map of the Past edges it.
OK, so you have to have one of each, naturally. Here’s Francis and co. with “Screaming on the Beaches” in 1989:
…and here’s Johnny boy and friends banging out “Ghosts” in an altogether more recent 2010:
Marvellous. Aren’t you?