Dire Straits

TrackAlbum
Tunnel Of LoveMaking Movies
Sultans Of SwingDire Straits
Fade To BlackOn Every Street
Brothers In ArmsBrothers In Arms
Money For NothingBrothers In Arms
Love Over GoldLove Over Gold
Telegraph RoadLove Over Gold
Once Upon A Time In The WestCommuniqué
SkateawayMaking Movies
Romeo And JulietMaking Movies

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Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

Some bands you love because, as well as the music, they are inextricably linked to events in your life. Some bands you just love simply for the music.

For me this band falls firmly into the former category. Roger Woods wrote an excellent appreciation of Mark Knopfler’s solo career (Toppermost #162) but for a period between 1977 and 1988 Knopfler was songwriter and leader of one of the biggest bands on the planet – Dire Straits. Following a four year reformation and a final studio album in 1991, the band split for good.

Dire Straits took their name from the near destitution of the band’s members before their breakthrough courtesy of BBC London radio presenter Charlie Gillett to whom the band had submitted a tape of songs. He was so impressed that he started playing Sultans Of Swing on his show. This exposure led to a record deal, and the rest we know.

In late summer 1978 I was getting ready to go off to university in the West Midlands and met up with my brother (already at university in London) for a few beers. He mentioned Dire Straits and had I heard Sultans Of Swing. At that point I hadn’t heard the song but by the time I got to the student house I was to share with eight others, I had, and it was firmly in my consciousness. We had a battered old black and white television in the house and when Dire Straits came on Top Of The Pops, my house-mates seemed to be more impressed with The Police, who had Roxanne in the charts at the same time. At Christmas, I borrowed my brother’s copy of the eponymous first album and loved every track. Mark Knopfler seemed to use a ‘claw-hammer’ guitar technique on his Fender Stratocaster more usually associated with acoustic players.

The follow-up, Communiqué, really did suffer from ‘second album syndrome’. It felt like the first album but nowhere near as good. Having said that, Once Upon A Time In The West is a good song in its own right, hence it remained in my ten at the expense of other tracks I had on my shortlist. I was collecting folk music during this period and dismissed Dire Straits as a band with a very good first album and a naff follow-up and did not keep up with their development.

Roll on to Spring 1981. I was back in London and volunteering at a local hospital radio station. One of my fellow volunteers asked me about Dire Straits and I gave my dismissive response. “Have you heard Making Movies?” I was asked. “No,” said I. “I’m going to play a track from it if you want to engineer for me you’ll hear it”. And while Romeo And Juliet was playing, I was looking at this young lady through the glass and thinking as well as being a very nice person this girl is gorgeous. Thus started a six-year relationship that ended, as such things do, in all sorts of tears and heartbreak. But it was that six minutes of music that caused me to reappraise and rediscover Dire Straits and listen to the whole of that album. My ten could have been five from Making Movies and all five from the follow-up Love Over Gold but it became three and two respectively. Skateaway gets included because it’s fun and also it mentions taxis, the aforementioned lady’s father was a London cabbie. Tunnel Of Love continues the mood and the intro of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel Waltz makes the perfect opening for the ten. Roy Bittan of The E Street Band plays keyboards on the album and listen again to his contribution on this track and the trademark piano through the fadeout.

Interestingly, Mark Knopfler uses the fairground as a metaphor for the potential beginning of a short-lived but inevitably doomed relationship; Richard Thompson uses it as a metaphor for the end of a marriage in Wall Of Death (see Toppermost #158 Richard & Linda Thompson). It seemed somewhat appropriate to include it on a few levels really.

David Knopfler (Mark’s brother) left the band during the recording of Making Movies and is uncredited on the album. Rolling Stone magazine said of the album “Making Movies is the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler. The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances and the band’s cutting-edge rock & roll soundtrack is breathtaking – everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t.

Having rediscovered Dire Straits, I bought Love Over Gold when it was released and here are five fine pieces of rock music as I said above; I would have put all five in my post had I not exercised an element of self-control. This is the Dire Straits album I play the most. The opening track, Telegraph Road, is a 14 minute history of the building of modern America interlaced with the unfulfilled dreams of one man. Alan Clark had been recruited to the band on keyboards which, with Hal Lindes on second guitar, gave an extra dimension to the music.

The album shows Knopfler further develop the musical direction he commenced with Making Movies. Love Over Gold has echoes of Private Dancer which was written for the album and which Knopfler gave to Tina Turner for her comeback album, when he decided it would be better sung by a female voice. The ‘Dylan meets Bogart’ worn down cynicism of Private Investigations gave the band a hit single. Industrial Disease is a comment about the times in which it was written and the album closes with another Dylan inspired song, It Never Rains.

When compiling the list, I considered whether to include live versions of the songs from Alchemy: Dire Straits Live which was recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in July 1983 but elected to retain the studio originals; something is lost in the vocals in the live environment, perhaps due to the acoustics of the former cinema.

1985 saw the release of one of the most successful rock albums of all time. Brothers In Arms was released in two forms; tracks were edited for the vinyl release to make it eight minutes shorter than the CD and cassette versions. Here are another nine tracks all of which could have had a place in the list. I know I’ve played safe and predictable in this post and even more so here. Money For Nothing was one of the biggest singles of 1985 assisted by the computer-animated video and Sting’s vocal for which he received a co-writing credit. Brothers In Arms itself reminds me of On Top Of Old Smokey and deals with two conflicting elements of war; comradeship and futility.

Following the Brothers in Arms tour, Mark Knopfler dissolved the band and with the exception of headlining the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert in June 1988, that seemed to be it. Knopfler wanted to concentrate on solo projects and film soundtracks. But there was to be one last hurrah.

In early 1991, Knopfler and Dire Straits’ bass player John Illsley resurrected the band. The album On Every Street was inevitably compared with Brothers In Arms, probably unfairly given the passage of time and the music Knopfler had made in the intervening period. It did not stand up to such critical scrutiny. Personally, I really like the album and as a ‘stand-alone’ Dire Straits album it passes muster. I’ve chosen Fade To Black because of my love of blues and this is a classic down and dirty blues. There is an element of Tom Waits to the song.

The band embarked on a two-year World tour on a massive scale at the end of which Knopfler was exhausted and expressed the wish never to tour like that again. The band split for good in 1995 and Knopfler embarked on the solo career summarised by Roger Woods on this site. A last album Live At The BBC was released. The bulk of the material had been recorded at the BBC Studios in July 1978 for their In Concert series, the exception being Tunnel Of Love which had been recorded for The Old Grey Whistle Test in January 1981. Knopfler admitted to the album being released to fulfil Dire Straits’ contract with the record company. Again, I considered these live alternatives to my selections but went back to the studio originals.

So there you have it, a ten that breaks some of the unwritten rules that seemed to apply at the very beginning of Toppermost. Opening tracks from albums were often deliberately excluded, and we have three. Title tracks rarely featured, and we have two of those. We also have hit singles. We have music that reminds me of preparing for university and music that evokes the memory of a significant lady in my life. Most of all we have some of the best music produced by any British band during that period.

 

The Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler Guide

Mark Knopfler official site

John Illsley official website

David Knopfler official site

Dire Straits biography (iTunes)

The solo work of Mark Knopfler is reviewd by Roger Woods on Toppermost #162. No toppermosts yet for David Knopfler solo, or John Illsley…

TopperPost #311

15 Comments

  1. Calvin Rydbom
    Jun 29, 2014

    Very good Ian, and it brought back some memories of my own. My father recently, 18 days now, had a fairly severe stroke and I’ve moved home (only 45 minutes) to help with his care. As some lifetime friends where helping unload some things into what will be the couple rooms I’ll be using for a while, one of them remarked “All we need now is some Dire Straits to put on”. Because there I was with these two guys standing in the room that 35 years before we listened to the first album over and over again as High School Sophomores and Juniors. A couple years later we skipped our morning college classes to be the first people to get their hands on Love Over Gold. Amusingly we got a bit bent out of shape when Money for Nothing dominated the charts as all these johnny-come-latelys were jumping on the bandwagon of our Shared Band. (Fundamentally speaking I was a Kinks fan and the Oles Brothers were Who fans) But for Dire Straits we came together. Excellent article and an excellent example of what makes Toppermost unique – it isn’t so much about the music but our relationships with the music.

  2. Peter Viney
    Jun 29, 2014

    Very nice piece, Ian. I’d happily take this ten. But my “What? No …” is Walk of Life from Brothers in Arms, their other #2 hit. I also like Twisting By The Pool from the EP Extendance Play. I disagree about avoiding opening tracks and title tracks anyway, because most bands think long and hard about opening tracks and title tracks, so they are very often the best songs.

  3. Rob Morgan
    Jun 29, 2014

    As a little aside… The “Guitar George” who knows “all the chords” as mentioned in “Sultans of Swing” is George Borowski, a regular guitar player on the London scene during the mid to late 70s. He still maintains a music career but also works as a guitar tech for touring artists like Radiohead, Teenage Fanclub and many more. I’ve seen him sorting guitars for the Fannies a few times at gigs and he always smiles and waves when the hardcore fans shout “Guitar George!” to him while sorting out the band’s gear. A true gentleman who works behind the scenes. George’s website is here.

  4. David Lewis
    Jun 29, 2014

    Dire Straits’ ubiquity killed them over here for a while, at least for me – they held (and I think still hold) the record for most number of shows at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, with 12 or 14 shows; the Ent Cent holds about 12,000 people. Nonetheless, when you strip it back, they are a great band. Seemingly strangely ‘New Wave’, in terms of marketing, but to be fair, most of their references were before Sgt Pepper’s. I think the bass and drums are really underrated. Sure, without Mark’s songs, they’re nothing, but I suspect Mark’s songs are strengthened by the great playing (as well as his own great playing). I don’t have a ‘what no?’, and I’d point out that Knopfler doesn’t seem to be a fan of ‘Twistin’ (but it’s still a great song…)

  5. David Lewis
    Jun 30, 2014

    Actually, I’m trying to find space for ‘your latest trick’ but I don’t know what to remove…

  6. Peter Viney
    Jun 30, 2014

    The ubiquity of Dire Straits put them unfairly on the “Rock Snob” anti list. Philips and Sony jointly launched the CD format, and Dire Straits, on Philips’ Vertigo label (or their Mercury label elsewhere) were their best shot with newer artists who had the obvious recording quality to showcase the format. The first three albums were reissued very early in the life of CD, but “Love Over Gold” became their flagbearer for CD, and as the format started to take off, “Brothers in Arms” cemented it and was hugely promoted as an example of CD quality (Let’s set aside the argument that CD was not a better format!) As Ian points out, the vinyl was the edited version … the CD was the “proper” version and the original recording was made conscious of the available length.

  7. Roger Woods
    Jun 30, 2014

    Great article Ian. I think Brothers in Arms may have been the first album I bought in CD format and I wore it out. I never got to see them, partly because I was living in Asia from ’79 to ’82 when tours were smaller and they weren’t yet at the supergroup stage and I may have been more easily able to get tickets. I’d go with all your choices except Money For Nothing which I’ve never been able to like. It would be easy to find a substitute!

  8. Ilkka Jauramo
    Jun 30, 2014

    I have already posted this comment under ‘Mark Knopfler’ but OK, one more for the road: “It is a pity that Mark Knopfler did not reform Dire Straits. John Illsley’s dramatic concert in 2006 at Cathedrale d’Image in Les Baux de Provence France showed how much he still had to give to this band.”

  9. Keith Shackleton
    Jul 1, 2014

    It’s no criticism of anything said here, tastes are different, but Dire Straits do not move me in the slightest. Brothers in Arms was the CD my friends bought to signify they were early adopters of that sainted medium, along with Genesis’ Duke and a bit of Vivaldi. Music to justify your hifi purchase. And I bristled against that. There are some artists I don’t ‘get’ and some artists I actively don’t like but these guys I don’t care about, and that’s a terrible thing to say about music and it annoys me. What is this strange thing that can’t raise any emotion?

  10. Peter Viney
    Jul 1, 2014

    Actually, the first Dire Straits album reissued on CD in 1982 was “early adopters” of the CD medium. By “Brothers In Arms” it was already joining the mainstream crowd on CD. I can’t think anyone can fail to appreciate “Sultans of Swing”. A truly great song. My “Rock Snobs Dictionary” was re-discovered last week after being missing (in a pile of Uncut & Record Collector for a year). A distaste for Dire Straits is classic rock snobbery (I say this as a rock snob of sorts myself). We should consider my quote on the Cliff Richard page: Last word to Tony Parsons in The Independent: If you don’t like at least some Cliff Richard, you don’t like pop music.
    I think the same is true of Dire Straits.

  11. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Jul 2, 2014

    I was living in Miami, Fla doing postgraduate research when I heard Sultans of Swing on the radio. I remember the moment. It was as if someone said ‘This is how a band should sound”. The cohesion was breathtaking. I immediately went out to Peaches and got the LP and listened to it until the grooves were not recognizable. I thought Bob Dylan had been reborn in some other form following on BOTT and Desire (before he was actually reborn). When Dylan and Knopfler collaborated, I was not surprised. I never saw/heard Dire Straits live but have had the pleasure of ‘solo’ (with band) Knopflerian music live. If that band reforms, ever, I will be there if I am able.

  12. Keith Shackleton
    Jul 3, 2014

    This is the once hip young gunslinger Tony Parsons who recently said he’d vote UKIP and Joe Strummer turned in his grave? If Dire Straits had half the influence Cliff has had on pop music I might agree with you. If Dire Straits were pop, I might agree with you. CD releases.. Brothers in Arms was the big one for a lot of people on CD because the medium was becoming affordable. The eyewatering prices had fallen away by 1985. An article which I am in agreement with is Marcello Carlin’s review of BiA on Then Play Long.

  13. Neil Waite
    Jul 6, 2014

    A great piece Ian. I particularly enjoy reading pieces where reviewers talk about the personal connections that songs have to moments, people and relationships in their lives. For me various Dire Straits albums also evoke particular memories. The first album was great and, like you, I found the second a disappointment in comparison. I remember going to see Pink Floyd’s The Wall at the cinema and the ‘B movie’ was a string of Making Movies promos. It was the first time I saw the lovely Lesley Ash on film (pre Men Behaving Badly fame) and I thought it was brilliant. I can’t argue with your great topper ten choice although I would have tried to squeeze in Lady Writer. But thanks for this great review. It inspired me to dip back into a catalogue I haven’t listened to in many years.

  14. Calvin Rydbom
    Jul 8, 2014

    Thinking about it I’m quite sure my first CD was Making Movies, it had been out for years by that point. But when I finally got a CD Player that was the first I bought. Well, I bought 3-4 that day-but Making Movies is the one I remember.

  15. Rob Millis
    Jul 30, 2014

    Sorry Peter, while ubiquity may have had a rock snob backlash, DS can also claim for many years to have had the great and peerless Terry Williams behind the kit. That advantage trumps any other considerations! Simple.

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