I really like Dire Straits. You could say they are my guilty pleasure. I don’t think they are as respected or as widely known these days as they probably should be. Most of the people who do know them are left with that eighties caricature image of Mark Knopfler in the Money for Nothing video, wearing a jacket with shoulder pads and the sleeves rolled up, and a fucking neon headband. That’s more a representation of the eighties as a whole than the band.
The first DS record I ever bought was Brothers in Arms, which I sought out largely as a consequence of the copious amounts of TV advertising that went into promoting it. I mean, when it was £5.99 in Woolworths (which would probably amount to around £15 in ‘today’s money.’) you fucking knew about it. I only found out years later that most of the songs had been horribly edited down to fit on the vinyl.
Released over 35 years ago, Brothers in Arms, their fourth and most successful studio album, was a bit of a double-edged sword for Dire Straits. It was their Born in the USA. Actually, a lot of parallels can be drawn between Dire Straits (essentially singer/songwriter/lead guitarist Mark Knopfler with some other blokes) and The Boss, not least that both have working class roots and traded off the same kind of ‘everyman’ image. Of the two, Knopfler is without the doubt the better guitarist. He has a distinctive style, as do many of the greats from Jimmy Page to Brian May, in this case developed through ‘picking’ at the strings with his fingertips rather than using a plectrum. You wouldn’t even have to know the song to know who was playing guitar on it. On the flipside, The Boss is by far the better showman and probably the more consistent (and prolific) songwriter.
Another common denominator is that in effect, the Born in the USA and Brothers in Arms juggernauts alienated huge swathes of the respective artists’ existing audiences and attracted the ‘pop crowd.’ In the eighties, much like today, the Pop Crowd brought money, but no loyalty. They weren’t going to stick around. You’d be lucky to keep them interested for two albums, after that they’ll be into Fergal Sharkey or the Blow Monkeys for six months. The vast majority of bands don’t even get that two albums worth of grace.
It’s not enough to have talent and great songs. To attract the Pop Crowd and plug into the mainstream you need something else, some X Factor. In the case of Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms arrived within the eye of a perfect storm. It was released just as ground-breaking new tech was emerging in the form of CDs and CGI graphics, and MTV was just taking off. It soon became one of the bestselling albums of the era.
Dire Straits ended up paying a price for that success. By the time grunge hit a few years later they were typecast as a bunch of try-hard dad rockers and became a virtual laughing stock. Grunge, well, mostly Nirvana who spearheaded the whole thing, had a seismic effect on rock and metal. It almost killed off hair metal on its own, like a nuclear blast. Overnight, bands like Poison, Ratt, Cinderella, Motley Crue, Warrant, and approximately seven million others, all became irrelevant and then turned into shocked-looking parodies of themselves as they were reduced to playing 250-capacity rock clubs again instead of 20,000-capacity arenas they’d been used to. Def Leppard tried to fit in by recording Slang, for fuck’s sake. It was ugly.
Most of the artists who were left retreated into themselves. To use Springsteen as a yardstick again, he fired the E Street Band and released the limp one-two punch of Human Touch and the only-marginally better Lucky Town on the same day, just to try to stay relevant, and in 1991 Dire Straits put out On Every Street, their last studio offering. It’s not a bad album, just a bit tired-sounding in places. At best it was comfy and warm, at worst vapid and unrewarding. It was the sound of Dire Straits desperately trying to tread that middle ground between being true to themselves and pleasing their new legion of fans. The result was a big long sigh. Afterwards, the band fell into live archive releases and odd compilation territory and Mark Knopfler went solo.
Bloated and overlong, On Every Street was made for the CD market and it may be no accident that my top two Dire Straits studio albums, 1980’s Making Movies and 1982’s Love Over Gold would both fit on a single CD with room to spare. Although for the most part typically restrained (only Industrial Disease, Expresso Love and Solid Rock attempt to lift the mood a bit), those albums are focused and precise, a lot of the music dark and brooding yet filled with restrained passion. The musicianship is exemplary. I must have played those albums thousands of times. Earlier albums 1978’s self-titled and the following year’s Communique both had their moments, there were just fewer of them. Probably my favourite DS track of all time is Telegraph Road. At over 14-minutes long, it’s a stroke of genius. It takes a lot to keep me interested in anything for that long. I’ve had shorter relationships. I prefer the version found on Alchemy Live. I love the narrative, and how the song builds from little more than an understated whimper to a furious scream. Those power chords.
Alchemy, recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1983 on the Love Over Gold tour, is pretty much the perfect live album if you can overlook the weak opening. Once Upon a time in the West to open a show when you have ready-made firecrackers like Tunnel of Love in your repertoire? Really?
Dire Straits are the consummate live band. But more the kind of band you’d like to see in a smoky club, or at a push, a theatre. They were a bit lost in those stadiums. the bigger the venue, the bigger the entourage and when you have a touring band numbering in double figures, it all gets a bit dramatic. If you’re interested, and you should be, there are also a few excellent bootleg recordings floating around. Koln ’79 is recommended (notable because they play Sultans of Swing twice having fucked the first one up), as is On Location – Live in Wiesbaden 1981 and Live in Sydney 1985. Recorded on the Brothers in Arms tour, that one is worth seeking out if only to hear the band wowing audiences at their commercial peak. For a while there, nowhere was safe from the Knopfler shoulder pads and sweatband.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy my recent tribute to London Calling or one of my several Springsteen posts. I’ve also written about my personal musical odyssey and various other related shit.