Monday, 18 May 2020

Dire Straits

"A lot of press reports were saying we were the biggest band in the world. There's not an accent then on the music, there's an accent on popularity" - Mark Knopfler

Dire Straits (1978)

Down To The Waterline/Water Of Love/Setting Me Up/Six Blade Knife/Southbound Again/Sultans Of Swing/In The Gallery/Wild West End/Lions

Dire Straits' impressive debut album, dating from late 1978, right in the middle of punk and new wave, was a mini masterpiece of difficult to categorise bluesy “pub rock” dominated by the hitherto unknown Mark Knopfler’s unique guitar sound.

What also often slips under the radar is what a Newcastle album it is. Some songs refer to the North-Eastern UK city - Down To The Waterline and its mention of the “dog leap stairs”, a steep flight of old stone steps in the city centre, and the evocative Southbound Again, about catching the train down to London. There is also Wild West End, an atmospheric song about Knopfler’s experiences once getting to London. It features great lyrics about the conductress on the number 19 bus Knopfler is travelling on and references to Shaftesbury Avenue, Chinatown and coffee at Angelucci's. 

Other highlights are the mysterious, slow-burning Six Blade KnifeIn The Gallery and, of course, the massive chart hit and darling of subsequent Radio Two playlists, Sultans Of Swing. The story of an honest, working blues rock band, it has a timeless appeal that keeps it on those oldies playlists. Then there are Knopfler’s killer guitar parts in it.

Water Of Love has a fabulous, bottleneck-ish bluesy guitar and a captivating, shuffling rhythmic to it. There is a rawness to this that helps to make this a really credible, appealing album. It has a great throbbing bass line too. 

Setting Me Up continues in that country blues vein, but with a faster pace and catchier beat. It is equally as infectious, though. 

Lions ends the album on a laid-back but still bluesy note. All these songs are packed full of smoky atmosphere, you could pick any of them. Check out that wailing guitar on this one. however. Great stuff. You can almost smell the beer and hear the traffic go past in the rain, the whole album has that sort of atmosphere. 

Overall it is a great, wholehearted, honest laid back rock album that could have been played by the band in Sultans Of Swing. It was respected at the time, even by the punks and new wavers and deserves the same today.


Communiqué (1979)

Once Upon A Time In The West/News/Where Do You Think You're Going/Communique/Lady Writer/Angel Of Mercy/Portobello Belle/Single Handed Sailor/Follow Me Home      
The follow up to the outstanding debut album was basically more of the same - intricate guitar work backing a laid back folk rock style vocal. It doesn’t stray far from the formula and is certainly not a bad album but for some reason I do not play it as much as either the debut or the next one, Tunnel Of Love. It is a competent, well-played collection of songs but with not quite the ambience of the debut, and certainly nothing as individually notable as Sultans Of Swing. The closest it gets is the soundalike, Lady Writer, which was an unsuccessful single. 

Portobello Belle is another catchy one too, with Mark Knopfler paying homage to parts of London again, and an Irish girl who he encountered there, following his “emigration” there from the North East. This track has all the atmosphere of the previous album, to be fair.

The extended rock workout of the opener, Once Upon A Time In The West, is probably the other true standout, while News has an appeal particularly in its alternate speaker drum fadeout and its tricky guitar sound.


Where Do You Think You're Going probably reflects the influence of Bob Dylan, Knopfler having worked with him on Slow Train Coming in that same year. 

Communiqué is an upbeat piece of bar-room blues drive by some suitably lively piano initially until it settles comfortably into a archetypal Dire Straits laid-back groove.

Angel Of Mercy is an appealing, typically early Dire Straits number, with trademark easy and slow guitar picking and one of those laconic, bluesy Knopfler vocals. An excellent solo bit of guitar can be found in the middle. It has a bit of a singalong chorus too. 

Single Handed Sailor has a great atmosphere to it a bit like the previous album's Down To The Waterline. Knopfler once more contributes a deadpan but enticing vocal and, ofcourse, a great guitar picking solo. The song finishes with more of the same.

Follow Me Home has some tropical insects and lapping waves against the shore sound effects before an unusually African-sounding conga sound introduces the song which is a supremely chilled-out one. Knopfler's vocal is positively sleepy as he sings about wanting a woman to follow him home. It is a bit of a hidden gem - a delicious slow blues groove in the style that Chris Rea would specialise in during the mid-eighties. 

Recorded in The Bahamas, Mark Knopfler had said the location relaxed him too much and took some of the edge from his playing. Granted, he is right about it not having quite the earthy appeal of the debut, but the chilled out feeling is maybe one of the album’s strengths. 

It is a bit unfair to criticise this album just because it sounds like the first one. Of course it does. It’s Dire Straits. What else should it sound like?

Making Movies (1980)

Tunnel Of Love/Romeo And Juliet/Skateaway/Expresso Love/Hand In Hand/Solid Rock/Les Boys 
Released in 1980, this was the album that saw Dire Straits take their first steps from being a cultish 'pub rock'-ish, somewhat introspective band into a multi million selling outfit beloved of those whose only other albums were by Phil Collins and Michael Jackson.

This wasn’t quite Brothers In Arms though and is still a highly credible album. First of all, it contains the magnificent opener, Tunnel Of Love, a seven minute gloriously atmospheric tale of the fairgrounds in Whitley Bay, in the UK’s gritty North EastMark Knopfler’s guitar from half way through is just heavenly, joined by Roy (E St Band) Bittan on piano as it fades out, taking the listener truly through the pearly gates. 

Then there is the laid-back but strangely singalong hit single, Romeo And Juliet, with its killer romantic but ultimately cynical lyrics. The engagingly rhythmic and understated Skateaway concludes the old 'side one' with another atmospheric extended song and another knockout chorus. Great percussion and guitar feature, of course.

The old 'side two' contains shorter, more punchy, rock orientated material. Espresso Love is probably the best track, followed by the chunky, riffy Solid Rock

Hand In Hand is a bit more ordinary, comparatively, and then there is the bizarre and utterly incongruous Les Boys - a completely odd, tongue-in-cheek song about cross dressers in Germany. It sits totally at odds with the rest of the album, to be honest, and indeed to the rest of Dire Straits' output overall. I am not quite sure what the point of it was. There has been the occasional outbreaks of hoo-hah concerning its supposed homophobia but I think it is all a bit of a storm in a teacup. Nobody minded The Kinks' Lola, did they? That was a better song though - the truth about Les Boys is simply that it's bloody awful.

Unlike some, I have no real problem with Bob Ludwig’s remaster of this album, either. It features clear, full, nice stereo separation and probably as good as this 1980 recording could get. However, that is just my opinion. Others may differ, of course. Maybe the bass could be highlighted a bit more, but that is small beer, it is certainly not tinny. Listen to the point where Espresso Love kicks in. Big and full. I do agree, though, the the three subsequent Dire Straits albums have a richer sound to them. Maybe they always did. In fact I am sure they did. 

Love Over Gold (1982)

Telegraph Road/Private Investigations/Industrial Disease/Love Over Gold/It Never Rains   

Dire Straits were not quite the world-dominating mega-band at this point, that came with Brothers In Arms two years later, they were on the cusp of huge popularity though, but that did not stop them putting out this decidedly uncommercial five track album of extended, atmospheric rock tracks. For me, while I prefer the debut album and 1980's "Making Movies", I always had time for this album, although I have to admit to not revisiting it too often.
The opener, Telegraph Road, is fourteen minutes in length, but it never gets tiresome, largely due to its changes in pace and tempo and Mark Knopfler's various guitar skills that are on show throughout. There are rock patches, laid-back passages, a stunning solo at one point and evocative lyrics about the forming of America. It is a great song, no question. Forget its length.

Private Investigations is a whispered vocal, incredibly quiet song that never gets above walking pace but it absolutely crammed full of mystery and cinematic atmosphere. The bit where the music stops, a single bass note sounds and then Knopfler's guitar come slashing in sends shivers down the spine. Again, it is notable and unique track.

Industrial Disease raises the tempo somewhat in a typically Dire Straits rock and blues number, featuring some wryly humorous lyrics and then Love Over Gold brings it down again with a moody, brooding but melodically appealing number with a great Knopfler vocal and an overall captivating feeling to it. Once again the instrumentation is superb, with crystal clear, audio demonstration-style sound. The album closes with the catchy laid-back rock of It Never Rains, which has Knopfler's quiet semi-spoken vocal delivery at its best. He is the master of this sort of vocal and he never loses his ear for the melody. Overall this was an understated, innovative album that has remained under the radar quite a bit. I certainly much prefer it to Brothers In Arms.

Alchemy (1984)

Once Upon A Time In The West/Expresso Love/Romeo And Juliet/Love Over Gold/Private Investigations/Sultans Of Swing/Two Young Lovers/Tunnel Of Love/Telegraph Road/Solid Rock/Going Home

Released in 1984, by which time Dire Straits had become a “big” band and were playing places like the Hammersmith Odeon, where this was recorded and a sold out, enthusiastic crowd whoops and hollers along, despite much of the material being introspective, laid back and moodily atmospheric. Classic examples of this are the extended bluesy rocker Once Upon A Time In The West, the eerie Private Investigations, with its killer guitars interjections near the end, and the beautiful but solemn Love Over Gold .

The sound, despite being remastered, contains a considerable amount of live “buzz” noises, but it doesn’t detract from the quality too much. Overall, it is a good live album of a band just about to become massive. The crowd noises are stirring, particularly on Tunnel Of Love, as the guitar parts kick in.


Highlights are extended, inspirational versions of Romeo And JulietSultans Of Swing and, of course, the band’s masterpiece, Tunnel Of Love, given an extra, wonderful saxophone and guitar ending here. Bloody marvellous stuff. Actually, I was forgetting Telegraph Road, another fourteen-fifteen minutes of Straits’ magnificence. It ends with the anthemic Going Home, which builds up to its rousing climax quite exhilaratingly. I have to say, however, that watching the video of the gig, I am struck by the sheer eighties awfulness of both the band members' clothes and their embarrassing 'jumping around' guitar poses. These two blokes either side of Knopfler are nameless to me, always were and I guess always will be. It is insulting to them, I know, but I have no motivation to actually find out what their names were. Oh go on then - John Illsley and Hal Lindes. It admit I knew Illsley, but you know what I mean. Illsley looks particularly awkward - a big man in white 'Miami Vice' gear leaping around self-consciously. Just stand there and play, man.

Brothers In Arms (1985)

So Far Away/Money For Nothing/Walk Of Life/Your Latest Trick/Why Worry?/Ride Across The River/The Man's Too Strong/One World/Brothers In Arms      
Up until the release of this record-breaking, multi-million selling album, Dire Straits were a low-profile, well respected honest rock band who eschewed all fashionable trends. With this release, the beginning of the end was in sight fir them, despite it being by far their most successful albums, and indeed one of the best-selling albums of all time.

The problem was that its laid-back, immaculately recorded hi-fi sounds attracted “non-music fans” and alienated the music media cognoscenti. All of a sudden it seemed to be open season on the “stadium rock” of Dire Straits. The homely pub-rock of their appealing 1978 debut album was forgotten and, despite the huge sales, it became deeply “uncool” to admit to liking Dire Straits. They were now the property of estate agents and conventional married couples.

There are some good tracks on there, mind, but the overall ambience is so laid back as to be almost horizontal. It is also dominated by its more popular numbers, to the detriment of its other tracks.

I must say that I have enjoyed re-visiting it again, after all these years. Despite it being such a familiar album, its quality cannot be ignored.

So Far Away is a pleasant, country-ish single and then there are the big hits, the poppy, fairground fun of Walk Of Life and the somewhat irritating, but immensely popular chunky riffage of Money For Nothing

Your Latest Trick is delicious, with a killer brass line, captivating rhythm and the obligatory sleepy vocals and seductive guitar. It is a track that has far more about it than the album’s more popular numbers. 

Why Worry is a gentle Knopfler, guitar and percussion ballad that is also notable for its extended, slow guitar, keyboard and solitary drum ending. This lengthy instrumental finish is something that was begun with Private Investigations on the previous album. The sound on this is classic hi-fi shop demonstration fare - top quality. 

It is the three lesser-known tracks that now appear in a row that are the ones that hold the most appeal to me, however.

Ride Across The River is deep, dense and mysterious, combining sumptuous, understated brass and solid bass with similarly infectious African-sounding percussion, all complementing Mark Knopfler’s semi-comatose vocal. The mid-song guitar solo is sublime.

The Man’s Too Strong has strong hints of Mark Knopfler’s later solo material in its folky verses, although these are interjected with some seriously crashing guitar and bottleneck blues guitar too. 

One World is a slightly more upbeat and muscular bluesy chugger, featuring, guess what - some more excellent guitar and also some appealing keyboards. In amongst a fair few better-known tracks, it is, like the previous two, a bit of an overlooked but extremely worthy track. 

Give me these three tracks over Money For Nothing or Walk Of Life anyday.

The album closes with the slow and sensitive strains of Brothers In Arms, a track that became a moving show closer.

Dire Straits, despite the huge success of this album, had only one more album left in them.They didn't officially call it a day for another ten years, however.

On Every Street (1991)

Calling Elvis/On Every Street/When It Comes To You/Fade To Black/The Bug/You And Your Friend/Heavy Fuel/Iron Hand/Ticket To Heaven/My Parties/Planet Of New Orleans/How Long

This was Dire Straits' often overlooked farewell album, released in 1991, six years after the multi-million selling Brothers In Arms. Personally, I much prefer it to to the latter. It is rockier, bluesier and folkier - just more rootsy and credible, for me, anyway, obviously not for millions of others. It still sold well, but didn't get much critical acclaim and has been all but forgotten. It now re-appears for me as a bit of a hidden gem.

Calling Elvis is a catchy, slightly rockabilly-ish opener name-checking several Elvis hits over a typically Dire Straits guitar backing, full drum sound and gritty soloing. 

On Every Street starts slowly and finishes with a powerful guitar, bass and drums extended ending. A bit like a mini Tunnel Of Love, Private Investigations or Telegraph Road

When It Comes To You is standard Dire Straits bluesy, solid mid-pace rock. Nice guitar, sleepy Knopfler vocals, you get the idea, I'm sure. Much slower and late-night in feel is the smoky blues of Fade To Black, full of atmosphere and Knopfler's wry, witty vocals. Very Chris Rea.

The Bug is a toe-tapping serving of country rock that was successfully covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter. You And Your Friend is classic later-era laconic Dire Straits with Mark almost comatose as he growls over that blues guitar. It finishes with a great solo. The tempo increases a bit of the muscular rock of Heavy Fuel, which uses the old Money For Nothing-style riff.

The gentle, acoustic Iron Hand provides a real signpost to Mark Knopfler's solo material - folky, melodic, bluesy and socially/historically aware. 

Ticket To Heaven is a melodic, Latin-tinged acoustic ballad. My Parties utilises that old Knopfler cynical wit again over a gently saxophone-driven groove. It ends in livelier fashion as a bit of a brassy rave-up.

Planet Of New Orleans continues the tradition of torpid but beautifully evocative numbers. I guess Dire Straits were running out of inspiration a bit by now, but if you like the vibe, you like it, and I do - understated and always beguiling. It ends with the obligatory great bit of guitar, some fine saxophone too. The country instincts that would serve Knopfler well as he began his solo career after this are clear here on How Long - the last ever Dire Straits song. It sounds like a Knopfler solo song as opposed to a Dire Straits one, and that was probably how it should have been.

On The Night (1993)

Calling Elvis/Walk Of Life/Heavy Fuel/Romeo And Juliet/Private Investigations/Your Latest Trick/On Every Street/You And Your Friend/Money For Nothing/Brothers In Arms

This was Dire Straits' swansong release - a live album that came out two years after their final studio album. It is an interesting album in that it sensibly contains only two tracks that appeared on the previous live offering, 1984's Alchemy - Romeo And Juliet and Private Investigations - and includes four tracks from 1991's On Every Street album - Calling Elvis, Heavy Fuel, On Every Street and You And Your Friend

The sound quality is excellent throughout and the songs are, as was Dire Straits' wont, improvised and extended from their studio versions, including lengthy instrumental parts with considerable saxophone embellishments in places. The ambience is mostly low-key and sleepy, such was the nature of much of the group's material, but the crowd lap it up, cheering and whooping for a slow, walking pace blues like You And Your Friend. They also receive On Every Street very enthusiastically for a relatively new song. It shows just how seriously big Dire Straits still were at this point. A year or so later they were no more. 


Check out Mark Knopfler's large body of solo work too :-

No comments:

Post a comment