Cast your mind back to 1986, if you can, as it was a pretty good year for a young Cumbrian band called It Bites. Although they only had one hit, in the form of the catchy (and rather mental) ‘Calling All the Heroes’, it meant that their name was out there, with many people, including myself, being pleasantly surprised by the fusion of commercial pop and prog on their debut album ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’. The band followed an odd path after this, going full on prog with the superb follow up ‘Once Around The World’ then turning up the guitars for the much more rock orientated ‘Eat Me In St Louis’. Although all three albums were good, the band always seemed to be unsure of exactly where they wanted to go, and in 1990 it all ended when front man Francis Dunnery went off to do his solo thing.
Unless you don’t read the decent rock press (none of the Kerrang or Metal Hammer nonsense), you should be aware that It Bites made a rather triumphant return last year, with the release of ‘The Tall Ships’. The album showcased the arrival of guitarist/vocalist John Mitchell (Arena/Kino/Frost amongst others), who had grown up a fan of the band. The album gained plenty of rave reviews (including mine) and is the Fireworks Magazine critics album of the year. Hearkening back to the ‘Once Around The World’ era, it’s full of stylish, inventive and above all catchy prog. So many things could have gone wrong, but they all went right, and as I introduce myself to Mitchell and keyboard player (and founder member) John Beck I can’t help but gush about the album and enquire about the bands future plans.
“It’s going well, and I hope it can continue,” says John Beck. “The album’s had great reviews everywhere, so hopefully more of the same.”
“I think we ticked all the boxes we set out to tick so far,” chips in co writer Mitchell. “It’s a steep hill to climb, trying to fill the shoes of someone like Frank. You can’t expect everyone to go along with something like that, but a lot of people have been pleasantly surprised. There was a guy yesterday who dragged his mate along that refused to go on the 2006 tour, because ‘It’s not Frank’, but you open your mind a bit you might find out it’s still a very good band.”
“For me it’s like… there’s easier things that could have happened in my life than to do this,” Beck says honestly. “Both John and I put an awful lot of effort into doing this. It’s the easiest thing in the world to shoot somebody down in flames and not give the album the proper attention to detail it requires, but if you’re that narrow minded I don’t want you listening to my music anyway, so FUCK OFF”, he finishes, laughing.
One thing that has bothered some people is the fact that Beck and drummer Bob Dalton are the only original members of It Bites, with bassist Dick Nolan showing poor commitment to the new project. I ask the question that many fans have wanted to ask, namely would they have stuck with the It Bites name if they had realised there was only going to be two original members, rather that the three they thought they had?
“I think it would have depended on how the album came out, and as it came out it’s and It Bites album“ Beck states. “Dick didn’t’t even play on it, even though he was in the band, John and myself did. So I guess the answer’s Yes, we would have called it It Bites.” See - things are so much simpler if you just ask, but then again fan forums would be so much duller!
It’s been widely noted that John Mitchell was a fan of It Bites back in the 80’s, so it must be weird fronting them twenty years later. “I heard the single, and I loved the single,” he says, referring to ’Calling All the Heroes’, “then I kind of forgot about it. A couple of years later I was browsing through a record shop, looking for a band called Intua Nua and I didn’t find it but I found It Bites, so I bought “’Once Around The World‘, and there we go!” I ask what other bands he was into, expecting a straight answer of ‘Marillion’ to be honest. “I liked A-Ha,” comes the real answer. “I saw them recently and I think that his voice is a bit knackered… but so is mine! “
“The chainsaw of Prog!” laughs Beck.
“-I was a more of a Durannie than Spandau,” continues Mitchell, with a dark look at Beck, “‘cause Spandau were a bit crap, really. Duran had a bit more edge to them.”
“Don’t print that!” laughs Beck, and it’s clear these two guys have a good working relationship, forged first through Kino and then onto It Bites.
Another often quoted fact is that Mitchell doesn’t like the bands ‘Eat me In St Louis’ album, comparing them to Bon Jovi in a rather unflattering way. He’s quick to put me straight, saying “I actually like a lot of that album, but from what I understand it was aimed at the American market,” and he has a point. The album was very guitar orientated, and I ask John Beck if he had so much of an input as on the previous albums.
“The writing procedure was the same for every album. We had pressure from the record company and the management to try and break into the States. Frank was all for it, I personally didn’t think the band were suitable for that market. There’s some good tracks on it. Fraknk’s voice changed at the time, becoming more like a raw, gutsy kind of singer which wasn’t, I think, deep down his natural kind of voice. I wasn’t really too fond of the direction, put it that way.”
“You’ve either naturally got a chainsaw or you don’t!”, chips in Mitchell with a laugh, obviously relishing his ‘Chainsaw Of Prog’ title.
I comment that it must have been a nerve wracking experience the first time he stepped out on stage under the It Bites banner. “I could have built a house with the amount of bricks I shit out!“ he laughs “It was quite nerve wracking, but I needn’t’t have worried. It was a lot better than anything we could have realistically hoped for.”
Rock stars, as we know, drink beer and more beer, but Mitchell is well known for his consumption of wine, and I ask if he thinks it appropriate now he’s a big rock legend.
“What should I be drinking?” he asks with another laugh. “I only drink white wine because it’s not fizzy. If I drank lager I’d be burping like a goon all day. I can’t actually physically burp, so white wine is the obvious alcoholic drink. The only thing about white wine is you shouldn’t drink it in the quantities that you’d drink beer, being about three times more alcoholic, and I’ve yet to learn that simple rule…”
After It Bites folded in 1990, the three remaining members attempted to soldier on under the names Navajo Kiss and Sister Sarah, and I ask John Beck what happened with that. “At the time I think we were all sick of what was happening and wanted a total change,” he explains. “I was playing guitar, and a little bit of keyboards, but mainly guitar. It was a change for me, and Bob & Dick were happy doing that, but we found out pretty soon that people weren’t about to go along with such a change in direction.”
The talk turns to song writing, and I mention that all the songs on the three original IB albums were all credited to ‘It Bites’, asking John who actually wrote them. “The first album we kind of co wrote. The second album there’s a few Frank & I did… I think by the third album Frank didn’t want to sing anyone else’s lyrics anymore. We were inclined to go along with that, as long as he was coming up with good material.”
I throw a few song titles at him, finding out that all my favourite lyrics were Dunnerys, which makes it all the more impressive that the new album matches any of the old for lyrical content. The standout track is ‘This Is England’, the 15 minute album closer that has caused much debate over it’s meanings. I give John Mitchell my take on the whole thing, only for him to shoot my theories down in flames. “It’s just about events… I’d rather leave it as an enigma.” he says, unwilling to discuss the personal nature of some of the lyrics. Fair enough. I ask them how they go about writing the new material, as the whole thing is a collaboration between the two of them.
“I go round to Johns, and he goes What shall we do?” says Beck.
“And we go How do we do this again?” laughs Mitchell. “Every single time. The bottom line is that John’s very good at arranging stuff… he always writes the middle eight! The clever arsed bits! “
I ask if Mitchell writes a basic song and Beck turns it into a prog masterpiece. “I wish it was that simple, but something along those lines.” Do they write for themselves, or for their audience, I wonder. “Well if it sounded like Mr Blobby we’d scrap it!” Mitchell answers. “Then again, that style comes so naturally as it was so influential on me growing up. If it’s that cerebral there’s no point in doing it. “
Finally, I ask if they have considered re recording old tracks with Mitchell, as some bands like Journey have done. “That’s a good question,” ponders Beck. “I don’t know if there’s any interest in that. On the live one, ‘When the Lights Go Down’ John’s covered a lot of the old stuff anyway, so I don’t know if there’d be any interest.”
“I’d be on a hiding to nothing, putting myself through all that bollocks again.” laughs Mitchell, and he’s totally right. The old stuff doesn’t need re recording anyway, to be honest.
We bid farewell, and soon after the band play a superb set that leaves me pissed and very happy, with Mitchell even being nice enough to gift me a t-shirt at the end. I have to say that it was a pleasure to get to know them a little better, and it really seems like it’s a partnership that will give us a few more top notch albums as long as people are happy to buy them. It Bites are dead - long live It Bites.
Interview by Alan Holloway