The remastered reissues of the two John Mitchell-led It Bites albums is a timely reminder of just how good these releases were when they came out in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Not that I needed reminding – they are amongst my most played albums over the last decade or so. The Tall Ships, in particular, holds memories of time and place that are so special to me. As a result, this music remains fresh, vibrant and contemporary to this day.
It was a bold step for It Bites to reform many years after the iconic Francis Dunnery moved on to fresh pastures. Recruiting long-time fan John Mitchell on vocals and guitar was a masterstroke, and whilst some of the original fanbase would only ever accept the return of Francis himself to the fold, most were encouraged by John’s experience with a range of bands (Arena, Frost*, Kino, etc.), his vocal style, virtuoso guitar playing and love of prog with a strong melodic content. With John Beck adding his magic on the keyboards and Bob Dalton providing the driving beat, the combination built on some positive live performances and transferred itself into the studio.
The Tall Ships (2008) is one of the very best examples of that rather vague genre label known as ‘prog-pop’. Yet it sums up the style perfectly; complex instrumentation and compositional structure but married to a popular and commercial style that produced the most ‘catchy’ melodic hooks you can find on any prog rock album. John Mitchell admits to writing largely to a template defined by the original line-up in the ’80s, especially on the classic Once Around the World. However, he was able to add something of himself as well, creating real synergy at the time.
Starting with the amazingly fresh hit of harmonies and powerful guitar noodlings of Oh My God, the album flows seamlessly through each track with not a single mis-fire, making in remarkably consistent throughout. Ghosts storms through powerfully, but with that other-worldly keyboard motif complementing the pace. Playground brings down the tempo and has a typical Mitchell-style poignancy, seen in abundance on his Lonely Robot albums. Memory of Water picks up the tempo and adds grandiose instrumentation to the memorable lyrical lines before the stately elegance and melancholy of the wonderful title track (one of my all-time favourites, it never fails to bring a lump to the throat).
More overtly proggy, The Wind That Shakes the Barley pushes through memorably into the joyous exuberance of Great Disasters and the insanely catchy ’80s pop vocal refrain that rapidly becomes an earworm that is difficult to lose! Fahreheit maintains the quality, but it is the emotional beauty and intimacy of For Safekeeping that lingers longest in the mind, and it is Mitchell’s vocal highlight for me. No time to succumb to its pleasures for too long, though, as Lights crashes in with another melodic Mitchell guitar line augmented with Beck’s layered keyboards. In any parallel universe where popular and musicianship go hand in hand, this would be top of the pop charts for weeks!
The epic This is England may well have been an attempt to mirror the Dunnery-era Once Around the World track, as well as push the long-form prog style to a greater extent. It is a very good track for sure, but never quite fulfils its remit or reaches the complex conclusion it deserves – although repeated plays do reveal its undoubted charms. It is interesting that Mitchell reveals in the liner notes that the titles largely come from books lined in order on a shelf at his residence – so my searching for hidden lyrical meaning over the years have been rather wasted!
The two bonus tracks from the original sessions, These Words and When I Fall are pleasant and bouncy enough, but don’t particularly add to the album’s gravitas – which is why, no doubt, they were original outtakes. However, any ‘new’ It Bites material is always worth a listen and they are both steadily growing on me with repeated plays.
Map of the Past (2012) was released several years later, and whilst retaining the popular and accessible feel of The Tall Ships, it is a more mainstream prog release with both complexity and shifting themes and also a general concept concerning a revisiting of the Mitchell’s family past through photographs and memories and the role that fate and events stamp on our futures. The Edwardian period and the demands of the First World War on the common man are there in the atmosphere the album generates. It is an excellent, focused, album steeped in heavy melancholy and poignancy despite once again having some very catchy melodies, humour and insights throughout. Bass guitarist par excellence Lee Pomeroy joined for this release (Mitchell and Beck handled the bass duties on the previous album) and does a fine job, combining well with Bob Dalton rhythmically throughout the tracks.
The atmospheric Man in the Photograph starts the album and sets the wistful tone perfectly as the radio dialling reveals the sounds of the past, but then Wallflower powers in with a driving guitar riff followed up by keyboard runs to wake us up. Map of the Past is an uplifting and sincere return to the album concept, with another memorable lyrical theme. Clocks and Flag are fine precursors to one of the undoubted highlights of the album, the thunderous The Big Machine, with Dalton’s drums kicking off full ensemble playing – and setting an ominous tone that will be revisited before the end.
Cartoon Graveyard is unbearably catchy, from the gentle vocal introduction, the staccato guitar riffing, flowing keyboards and memorable sing-along chorus. There is even a touch of Supper’s Ready keyboards and percussion towards the end for prog-heads to identify. However, the sombre, ironic tone returns for Send No Flowers with its sardonic lyrical edge, and the contemplative, but also highly melodic, Meadow and the Stream. The gradual sad, pensive sense of loss that has been building up is summed up by the epic, piano-led ballad The Last Escape, as our journey into the past takes in the sinking of the Titanic – with not a dry eye in the house, supported by the brief words of Exit Song, rounding things off. Unlike The Tall Ships, where every song is very much a stand-alone effort, Map of the Past works best when listened to in one full sitting, in my view. As a result, its charms reveal themselves more slowly, but for many, maybe for longer.
Once again, the two bonus outtake tracks, Lighthouse and Come On, are nice additions rather than essential works, but the former flows pleasantly and the latter has some meaty and edgy swirling guitar and keyboards which should be prog-enough for any It Bites fan.
For many out there who still treasure the original releases, the question is whether purchasing the reissues is worth doing. I would say undoubtedly yes. The bonus tracks are fun, but it is the sonic upgrading and fresh sparkle and polish the albums exhibit which is the real bonus. Even with these old ears, I can see the benefits of the remastering process and the whole quality of the CD packaging (and vinyl versions), with new linear notes included, make these two reissues more than worthy of your pennies!
John Mitchell maintained the impetus from the It Bites reboot with the four wonderful Lonely Robot releases, but the rumours that another It Bites album could be released in the foreseeable future is an exciting prospect. His stunning musical interplay with John Beck remains clear to see, and hopefully the logistics (and the stars) align to allow the story to continue!
The Tall Ships 2021 Remaster
01. Oh My God (3:37)
02. Ghosts (4:45)
03. Playground (5:33)
04. Memory of Water (4:50)
05. The Tall Ships (6:17)
06. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (8:12)
07. Great Disasters (8:30)
08. Fahrenheit (5:17)
09. For Safekeeping (5:28)
10. Lights (4:55)
11. This Is England (13:35)
~ Bonus tracks:
12. These Words (5:42)
13. When I Fall (4:39)
Total Time – 80:07
John Mitchell – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass Guitar
John Beck – Keyboards, Backing Vocals, Bass Guitar
Bob Dalton – Drums, Backing Vocals
Map of the Past 2021 Remaster
01. Man in the Photograph (3:43)
02. Wallflower (4:51)
03. Map of the Past (4:37)
04. Clocks (5:43)
05. Flag (4:38)
06. The Big Machine (5:18)
07. Cartoon Graveyard (5:03)
08. Send No Flowers (4:15)
09. Meadow and the Stream (6:42)
10. The Last Escape (6:07)
11. Exit Song (1:43)
~ Bonus tracks:
12. Lighthouse (3:27)
13. Come On (5:10)
Total Time – 62:17
John Mitchell – Guitars, Cello, Violin, Lead Vocals
John Beck – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Bob Dalton – Drums, Backing Vocals
Lee Pomeroy – Bass Guitar
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 7th May 2021