FRANCIS Dunnery is a celebrity whose roots are buried firmly in West Cumbria. Now he is back here raising money for his children’s charity.
I have loved his music since the first time I heard it and have been familiar with it for years. What was new to me was his massive physical presence when I met him: he towered over me – I’m 6ft 3ins – and his vice-like grip nearly broke my knuckles as he shook my hand. But just as large and powerful was his personality. He is the kind of man who fills a room.
I quickly realised that while he might have fans in more countries then Britney Spears knows exist, he doesn’t buy into the celebrity world.
“Don’t get me wrong: I love adulation and acclaim as much as anyone in the world,” he says. “Any performer has a need to hear the applause of a crowd or someone to tell you ‘I love that record you made.’ But in terms of being famous, what is that anyway?
“What you have to realise is that this whole rock-and- roll lifestyle that they lead comes at a massive price, financially and in terms of their lives. These people you see in People magazine have teams working for them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, just to keep them famous. They spend millions upon millions of dollars paying them, just to keep them famous. I don’t want that.
“There are probably 100,000 people across the world who will buy my records, but I don’t do any self-promotion, other than my website. This is the first interview I’ve done in years – I don’t do any press at all.
“But I consider myself to be extremely lucky. To sell that many CDs without doing the promotion work is fantastic, and I tour all over the world. I have a very loyal fan base and I think that is fantastic.
“Commercially it isn’t as successful as Kylie Minogue or Britney Spears, and I’m not knocking what they do – they’ll sell maybe four million records – but by the way I measure success I think I am more successful. My music is true to who I am.”
And it always has been. A self-taught musician, Francis is a true version of the old ‘local boy makes good’ tale.
“My elder brother, Baz, was always in bands and there were constantly instruments around me when I was growing up,” he says. “He was the first musician I ever saw – I think I would have been around seven, there were 12 years between us so I was the pest, always trying to sneak a go on his gear.
“I remember once he got a Marshall amp, and I was always sneaking into his room and having a go on it, which he hated because he thought I would break it, which I probably would have done. One day he left it on maximum volume, and I crept in and started strumming the guitar. It made the loudest noise I’d ever heard and scared the life out of me.”
At 11 Francis was accomplished enough on the drums to play in a duo with an older lad, Peter Lockhart. “We played at the Tarnside when it had just opened up: we were the cute little duo that would open up for the main act. The drums were my first serious instrument. I taught myself and I would just bash along as Peter sang Elvis songs and played the organ.”
I asked how he progressed from there. “Progressed? I think you mean regressed! They were the best days, really good times,” he said. “From there I played in a few local bands and with lots of different musicians, especially a group called Waving at Trains I was in with Don McKay, who is a fantastic musician. He wrote some really good songs, too.
“I always loved being in bands. There is just something about a joint effort that really pleases me. And more than that it is the laughs you have and the jokes, the camaraderie.
“I’d been playing in a band as residents up at the Haven Club at Hensingham and then I hooked up with two of my old friends from St Bridget’s School, Bob Dalton and Dick Newtown, and John Beck who was from Mirehouse.
“We were really good as a group and we all got on pretty well, so It Bites was born and we started doing the local club circuit.
“We were very popular, but I wanted something more. I left and moved to London, where I lived on my own in a squat for a few months. I do things like that all the time: I try everything and the number of times I fail is unreal, but I never ever let it beat me and I try something else. People might look at me and say that I am successful, but that is just because I try so many different things.
“Someone once said to me that Americans are not Americans because they are born there, being an American is a state of mind. It is the need to expand and grow, to explore, basically a pioneering spirit… I think I have that, the American mindset.”
Francis invited his former bandmates to join him in London six months later. “They joined me in the squat in Peckham, so the four of us were all there, on the dole, just writing music all day. Some of the stuff we came up with was great, but getting it out there was the next hurdle. We sent tapes off but then one day I took a chance and ran past the security guard at Warner Brothers, to get in to meet an A&R man. Martin Mayhead was there that day and he liked us. He became our manager and we never looked back.
“Before we knew what was happening we had a record deal, and then a publishing deal and a hit record and a tour. It was like a whirlwind.”
The band’s most famous release, Calling All The Heroes, got to number six and they appeared on Top of the Pops and had a couple of successful albums. But things petered out, and the “American” in Francis took over again.
“I wanted to move to the States and the band had come to the end. It was a natural process. We fell out over a few things, there wasn’t one big issue or problem, it was daft little things. We had just drifted apart. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but we split, and I went to Los Angeles.”
In LA Francis really cut loose. “That is the point in my life where everything got a bit rough. I lived the rock and roll lifestyle. I was probably about 27 at the time and I partied really hard. It was crazy, to be honest.
“When I look back now it seems ridiculous, but I did it to the point that after about three years I was depressed and so disillusioned with life. One day I looked in the mirror and just decided: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. So I stopped drinking and taking drugs, I started to write more and I released a solo album. It was a hit all over the world, with the only exceptions being America and England – the two places where I was trying to have a hit.
“I had some success. I was huge in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Sweden, South Africa, all over really, and things were great, but then I went through a phase where I wanted to study.
“I don’t like to call it a mid-life crisis, I call it the middle phase, but basically how I would describe it is like this: your personality is made up of ten actors, and for the first 35 years of your life six of them are on the stage, reading their parts. Meantime the others are waiting – they are always there, a part of you, but they wait their time.
“Eventually they come to the front. They are pretty hacked off at having to wait so long, and they take over a bit. The other six are still there, but the ones who have been waiting have their time.
“For me it was my academic self, the part of me that had waited while I behaved like an ****hole at Wyndham School, but which suddenly wanted to learn.
“I went back to school and I studied for six years, until I got a degree in psychology. I’d always wanted a degree, but I’d never done it.
“I had lost the buzz for music and I let it go. I focused on my studies and astrology. I was doing something totally different to what I had done before.”
Francis then studied horse training with John Lyons, the horse whisperer. “The guy taught me how to look after and train horses, and I had a horse farm in Vermont for three years.”
But with music still running through his veins, it wasn’t long before Francis was inspired to pick up his plectrum again. “I was watching a show on TV that I had seen in the 70s: it had a guitarist called John McLoughlin and a lot of Indians, and the music they played just blew my mind, it was fantastic. It was then I realised there was still a musician in me, and that I had to be as true to that side of my character as I was being to the other sides. Even though I’d found other things, I still had to honour the musician in me.”
Tours and albums followed, and Dunnery now finally seems to be able to strike the balance between father, astrologer, husband and musician.
He is a deep man: I knew that from hearing his music. But I got the sense that he truly has found an inner peace and is happy with who he has become. That may seem a far cry from his days as a rock-and-roll hellraiser but Francis says not. “I am not knocking what I did before. One of the things I am doing now is touring my old albums. I have always done music for the right reasons, but those reasons have changed. What I am doing now is what I am about now.
“You aren’t supposed to have all the answers when you’re 15 – that’s not what life is like. Life, to me, is about growth, it’s about where we begin and who we become, and to that end I think my music is very true to me, and to the mood that I am in when I am writing it.
“I’m not the most popular artist in the world, but I sing about real things, about issues that people, quite understandably, don’t want to deal with.
“People want to sing We are the Champions or I’m the Leader of the Gang I am – I certainly did when I was younger. But I think that is why I keep my fans without doing lots of publicity and promotion, because I sing about things that, if you get it, make a connection. People draw meaning from what I sing about, and that is powerful. It is a reflection of my soul, which I know isn’t to everyone’s taste but those that like it really like it.”
Francis’s quest to try new things means he has his own record label, Aquarian Nation, and has recently given house concerts across the world. “I put together a two-hour monologue, which includes some music, and is basically a show about what happens to you between the ages of 35 and 42. I posted on my website that I was going to do these house concerts, for not more than 50 at a time as we don’t use any amplification, and I thought I could do maybe a dozen shows, but within a week I’d had 2,000 requests. I’ve taken the show all over the world and it has been really popular.
“I’m also touring my old albums, starting off with Welcome To The Wild Country, because I think it is important to look back at what you’ve done and still be proud of it.”
That tour brings him back to Cumbria this weekend for a gig in Egremont Market Hall. It’s a concert that sold out quickly, and one for which fans will travel from all over the globe. But there is another motive behind his visit home: he’ll be raising money for the Charlie and Kathleen Dunnery Children’s Fund, a charity he started in 2002 to honour his parents with the aim of raising funds for children’s health and educational needs in and around his hometown. They have two big weekend events each year.
“One of my old mates from school, Mark Andrews, does some amazing fundraising work and so far the fund has done great,” he says. “My mother was a wonderful woman, and our house was like a café – it was always full of band members. So this is my way of honouring her and my dad. A line in one of my songs is that the only thing you get to keep is what you give away – I like that idea. I think that by the time you are 40 if you aren’t doing something to help others then you probably should be. People take all the time and I think it is nice to put something back.
“The charity events also give me a great chance to come home. I love my Egremontness, and I still sing in Cumbrian – it is fantastic.
“I find myself coming back and driving around. I went to Haile wood the other day, I’d go back to a specific tree that I used to play on. I find myself surrounded by my own spirits, my own memories, and I love it. I sing about it in my songs – someone emailed me from Brazil the other week wanting to know what Scafell Pike was. It’s fantastic.
“But if rap stars can go on about the drug dealer on 73rd Street in Compton then why can’t I sing about Gulley Flatts or Thornhill? That is my history, I am as valid as they are. I love Cumbria, that is where my roots are. I sing about Wasdale and Murphy’s pies, because that is part of my history.”
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 18, 2007
By Karl Connor
Published in The Whitehaven News