Friday, October 7, 2011

Come Back, Dire Straits

Dire Straits--"Down To The Waterline" (mp3)

Was there ever a safer, more pedestrian rock band than Dire Straits? Bunch of not great-looking guys who didn't break through until they were a bit older, who never had any particular intrigue associated with the band (except that Mark Knopfler's brother quit after their second record, but, heck, what brothers don't fight in rock bands?), whose sound was about as palatable as any two-guitars-bass-and-drums outfit that has ever come along, whose radio and MTV hits from "The Sultans Of Swing" to "Money For Nothing" were both wildly overplayed and always welcome when they came on. Band with a signature sound, based on Knopfler's unique guitar sound (though he and Richard Thompson got into a tiff, arguing over who came up with the sound first--my money is on Knopfler, who certainly uses it to greater effect) and gravelly but endearing vocals. Who blew in out of nowhere, like Van Halen and at about the same time, with a unique sound and a song, "The Sultans Of Swing," that became as ubiquitous as just about anything to every hit the radio, and with good reason, since it had a fresh, minor-key melody and that guitar that no one had ever heard before. Who barnstormed through the concert halls and stadiums of the world for many years as a premiere act who had fans shouting out the words and drinking the Dire Straits Kool-Aid, which went down easy. What wasn't to like? Who cranked out something like 6 albums over ten years or so and then hung it up, or, more likely, Knopfler hung it up. You had to think he was getting tired of it, since he a) branched off into the more bland Notting Hillbillies for a CD and b) brought the pedal steel player from that band into Dire Straits to serve as a foil for his own lead guitar, which he seemed to be getting tired of. The last CD, On Every Street, was kind of a tired effort all the way around from the way-too-long-without-enough-Knopfler-guitar opener to "The Bug," which was clever for a listening or two and then became kind of obvious. But for the title track, most of the songs sounded like weaker retreads of other Dire Straits songs. And then they were gone.

And yet, I'm not sure that there's a band that I miss more, a band that I regret not seeing more, a band whose comeback would rouse me from my smug I-don't-do-reunions stance more. The Dire Straits catalog contains some of my favorite songs, most of them "off-hits" in the sense that they might be concert favorites but they weren't necessarily radio hits--"Down To The Waterline," "Once Upon A Time In The West," "Lady Writer," "Communique," "Tunnel Of Love," "Telegraph Road," "It Never Rains," "Brothers In Arms," "On Every Street."

There is something so endearing about Dire Straits, particularly about Mark Knopfler as songwriter, singer, guitarist. I'm not sure that I can quantify it. Sure, he meets my criteria for a great guitarist--any time that I hear him play, I immediately know that it's him (listen to how Steely Dan uses Knopfler's sound to great effect on "Time Out Of Mind"). Sure, he plays in such a casual way that it always seems like he has another gear that he could shift into if it became necessary, but it never does because he favors melodic playing over speed.

I think, more than anything, it's his Romantic vision. That manifests itself first and foremost in his penchant for Scotch and Irish melodies, reflecting civilizations that have perservered, at least philosophically, against great oppression, meeting their fates with both resignation and a refusal to give up. And songs like "Brothers In Arms" or "Telegraph Road" or "Tunnel Of Love" reflect that perspective in situations involving war, love, even the formation of entire societies.

There is no doubt that Knopfler gained, as a songwriter, from his time spent with Dylan, working in on Dylan's "Christian" records. His outlook became more political, more interested in social commentary, and songs like "Industrial Disease" and "One World" and such really started to push him into new directions. That and the ways that his guitar provided atmospheres as much as it provided solos. His solo records seem safer than that. But you don't get Romanticism from Dylan; he's far too eccentric and self-entrenched for that. No, along with Springsteen, Petty, and perhaps a few others, Knopfler is one of the few Romantics in rock, a relatively-rare species that I happen to cherish.

And so, it's the possibility of that next gear that keeps calling to me. Not as a guitarist--I think Knopfler's range and limitations have both been explored thoroughly in his solo career. We know what he can do; we just don't know how he might use it differently. The whole Dire Straits concept has to have something to do with it, because none of Knopfler's expansive solo work has hooked me in the same way that Dire Straits songs have. Sometimes, I think, it's just a couple of specific guys you play with and the expectations that go with that particular band that push you more than you can ever push yourself when you have complete control.

Come back, Dire Straits. You are like comfort food, and I need some comforting.


troutking said...

Like this post, Bob. Not just because you admit you'd like to see an old group either. I still remember the first time I heard Money for Nothing. My high school used to play music during passing periods and turn it off with 1 minute to go before class. So it came on during a passing period, so I didn't get to hear the whole thing but I went out and bought the cassette that afternoon. And the rest of their catalog soon after. I think Making Movies is my favorite. Trivia note: I believe Brothers in Arms was the first digitally recorded CD. Trivia note #2: The Professor Roy Bittan played on Making Movies so there's your Springsteen connection.

enterprise said...

I like Mark Knopfelr's guitar playing because he does not use a plectrum. I my own case I just couldn't, but I wouldn't have been able to play his style anyway!

Anonymous said...

You don’t do reunions?

What constitutes a reunion?

Is it essentially a band getting back together to play old songs?

Is it a reunion if they make up new music?

For bands like Velvet Underground, GBV, Pixies, Archers of Loaf, Polvo, Pavement, Jesus Lizard, Camper Van Beethoven, and even Guadalcanal Diary, I kind of see reforming as a “Victory Lap.” Making some of the dough they should have in the first place…….as long as they are playing well.

Most are more popular now than when they were trying to make it in the business.

It’s not like seeing a reformed Genesis slogging out stale top 40 hits. There’s no “Victory Lap” in that.

By the way, The classic lineup of GBV has a new record coming out in January.

Daisy said...

I must have listened to "so far away from me" nine thousand times in the summer of '92 as I pined for my long distance boyfriend. That is the last album I remember listening to on vinyl.

Billy said...

Because this post needs a contrarian, I will offer up myself. Every Dire Straits song I've ever heard inspires a single word in me: MEH.

Mid-tempo meh. Mumbly vocals meh. Sultans of meh.

Those capable of playing a guitar might hear in Knopfler's playing something unique. I hear... yes, MEH.

cinderkeys said...

I don't love every song Dire Straits has ever done, but "Romeo and Juliet" justifies their entire career.

Daisy said...

@ cinder keys...I love that song as sung by the Indigo Girls! I did not know they covered it from Dire Straits.

cinderkeys said...

Funny, I heard it from the Indigo Girls first too. Usually I like their covers better than the originals. In this case, I didn't think much of the song until I heard the Dire Straits version, which blew me away.

Curt Shannon said...

Great post. It's funny how Dire Straits gets so little respect these days. They had a lot of throwaway stuff, but their best was really really good.

@troutking: According to the Interweb, "Bop Til You Drop" by Ry Cooder was the first digitally recorded pop/rock record in 1979. I remember reading about it when it first came out as kind of a novelty.

Bob said...

Thanks for all of the comments. I've been enjoying listening to all of the Straits stuff over the past couple of weeks. Actually, I kind of intentionally downplayed Knopfler's solo work for the purposes of this post. He actually has put out a wealth of great CDs with memorable songs that extend his range.

Stephen B. said...

Thumbs up on this post. Love Dire Straits. Love Down By the Waterline, though Wild West End may be my favorite DS song.