I interviewed Francis Dunnery for a big feature in the current issue of Prog magazine, which is now on UK and US newsstands. In the interview, Dunnery talks in-depth about his incredible career over several decades.
I've been a fan of Francis Dunnery for quite some time. In 1987, when I was but a young teen growing up in South Africa, I took a chance on a cassette copy of the album Big Lad in the Windmill by Dunnery's first band, It Bites. The British band scored something of a novelty hit in 1986 with the absurd, yet catchy, song "Calling All the Heroes." I could tell there was something interesting about the band just from that one song and purchased the album in a bargain bin. I loved it. It was poppy but ambitiously so and Dunnery's guitar work stood out. In retrospect, I realize this was probably the first sorta prog album I ever bought, though I wasn't particularly aware of prog-rock as a "genre" at the time even though I loved Pink Floyd.
It Bites created an even better and far more progressive follow-up album in 1987 titled Once Around the World. For all its catchy songs, it never really took off for the band. Nor did the next album - the more rock-oriented (and awfully titled) Eat Me in St. Louis in 1989. Around that time, I moved to Manchester in the UK and got to see It Bites perform on what would become their last tour. (At least, until they reunited several years ago with new guitarist and frontman John Mitchell.)
It wasn't the last time I saw Dunnery, however. I still remember the day that I opened up an issue of Q magazine (an indispensable source of music news in the pre-Internet years) and read that Dunnery was joining the band of my favorite singer: Robert Plant. Dunnery played some great guitar parts on Plant's exceptional 1993 album Fate of Nations. I caught four shows on that tour, too, and it was quite evident that the singer and guitarist enjoyed a great rapport on stage. Indeed, Dunnery later told me,
"I don’t think Robert invited me to the band for my guitar playing. He’s not that keen on my guitar playing! He invited me into his band more for my energy. I’m quite uplifting to be around. I’m always up and I try to keep my energy warm and friendly. I think he appreciated that. And I didn’t want anything from him - and he knew it. I think I was one of the few people who wasn’t trying to get him to put one of his songs on my CD. I was just hanging out. I had plenty of money at the time, I had a record deal, I had a publishing deal, and I had a manager. All those things he had. So, I think it was easy for him to give me the job rather a lot of the guitar players who came to audition who quite frankly played the Led Zeppelin music a lot better than I did."Francis is being rather modest about his guitar playing. His technique would trip up most people's fingers - check out the video below - and he's a virtuoso acoustic player. Dunnery can also play very emotive solos. (Hear, for example, his guitar solos on the It Bites songs "You'll Never Go to Heaven," "Still Too Young to Remember," and "The Ice Melts Into Water." Or solo tracks such as "Jackal in Your Mind," "Immaculate," "Grateful and Thankful," "Blinded By the Memory," and the 2009 version of "Staring at the Whitewash.")
Given his superior axemanship, Dunnery's next move was something of a shock: He eschewed lead guitar heroics on a lushly produced modern R&B-influenced solo album titled Fearless. Dunnery wisely sought to sidestep getting pigeon-holed as a guitar hero. He wanted to showcase formidable his talents as a songwriter, which he further showcased on the next album, 1995's punk-raw album Tall Blonde Helicopter. Dunnery's solo career since then has been just as wildly unpredictable - excitingly so - as he's veered from style to style. A truly progressive artist. I've bought every album. The one constant in his career has been his confessional style of songwriting and his fearlessness is laying his soul bare.
Dunnery's brand new album, Frankenstein Monster (available at francisdunnery.com) is yet another delightful stylistic swerve. It sounds like a long lost treasure from the 1970s. That's because it it kind of is. These songs were all written by Dunnery's older brother, Barry, who was in a short-lived band called Necromandus. They were managed by Tony Iommi and Melody Maker described their sound as "Black Sabbath plays Yes's biggest hits." But their 1973 album wasn't released until 1999 and they never received the fame they deserved. (Here's David Fricke's appreciation for Necromandus in Rolling Stone.) Following Barry Dunnery's death several years ago, Francis has re-recorded these songs anew as a tribute to him.
Frankenstein Monster is notable for being Dunnery's most guitar-heavy album ever. The solos on this record are ridiculously exhilarating. And also beautiful - take a listen to the gorgeous guitar solo around the three minute mark of this track.
In fact, you can stream (and also purchase) the entire Frankenstein Monster album over at Bandcamp. For starters, watch the music video for the title track, below, which is the only original song Dunnery wrote for the album.
A wonderful talent with a discography well worth exploring.