Written on the 25th of May 2014
As I wrote in my last post, enough with The Alan Parsons Project. This time I’ll start talking about one of those bands that are true “classics” for me, one of those bands I remember listening to during long car trips when I was a very young child, before my parents basically confined themselves to classical music and jazz. I do like those two genres now, but when you’re a six year old child, it’s probably easier to like rhythmic, easy-to-the-ear (does that expression even exist? Sorry if I’m making it up) stuff like Sultans of Swing, Walk of Life… yes sir, yes ma’am, I’m talking about Dire Straits. I know they’re known worldwide and this post is probably not going to make you discover anything, but hey, not every post is going to be about virtually anonymous bands that released one album and disappeared from the face of Earth.
The funny thing is that I’ve been listening to Dire Straits my whole life but I know almost nothing about their history, so Aunt Wikipedia and some other websites will have to kindly offer their help when it comes to interesting facts and stuff like that. Everything that isn’t strictly Dire Straits songs, that is.
The band was formed in 1977 by Mark by Mark Knopfler (lead vocals and lead guitar), his younger brother David Knopfler (rhythm guitar and backing vocals), John Illsley (bass guitar and backing vocals), and Pick Withers (drums and percussion), and it was precisely a flatmate of Withers who gave them their name. Only Mark Knopfler (heart and soul of the band) and Illsley would play in all the albums. As I usually do, I won’t really take much time talking about the lineup changes (actually I guess I only do that when writing about Jethro Tull).
They started by recording a five-song demo tape, including Sultans of Swing, which they brought to a guy who had a radio show (Honky Tonk) on BBC Radio London. Although the band just wanted advice, DJ Charlie Gillett, the radio guy, liked Sultans of Swing so much that he played it on his show.
They would sign a recording contract with Phonogram Records two months later, and they’d record their first album (guess its title? Yes, Dire Straits) in February 1978. It had little promotion and wasn’t well received but it came to the attention of someone who worked at Warner Bros Records in New York. I know it’s not the best album in the world and it gets slightly dull at some points, but I certainly don’t understand its bad reception.
I’ve always seen Dire Straits as a band that made pretty straightforward and uncomplicated music. Easy to listen to, easy to like. I’ve read somewhere about their sound being very J.J. Cale-ish at this point, which is probably right. Perhaps they depended too much on Mark Knopfler’s amazing guitar playing, because, after all, there wasn’t anything else especially outstanding and the music was relatively simple. The bass, the drums (I’m no expert at all, I may be wrong!), Knopfler’s voice… not bad at all, but I’ve heard better. They would eventually refine their sound, but there were no keyboards in this album, and the songs are a bit repetitive. Still, it’s a good album and Knopfler’s guitar is excellent as always. It’s definitely worth listening to if you haven’t yet. The best song here, and one of their best known, is, of course, Sultans of Swing. As for the rest, I can’t really choose; all more than decent songs, but none of them especially memorable.
Anyway, back to the Warner Bros thing. Dire Straits got a contract with them, their debut album was re-released worldwide and they received quite a lot of attention in the States, Canada and Australia; eventually, the album went top 10 in every European country, which is saying quite a lot.
Oh, another interesting fact: Bob Dylan saw them live and was so impressed that he invited Knopfler (yes, Mark) and drummer Withers to play on his album Slow Train Coming, which is perhaps my favourite Dylan album. Hell, it’s an amazing album, and it doesn’t get repetitive as most Dylan stuff does when I listen to it (just for the record, I do like Bob Dylan quite a lot, I just usually don’t like to listen to his music for more than half an hour in a row). But this is not the time to write about Dylan, so back to Dire Straits.
Their second album, Communiqué, was released in June 1979. It was the first album ever to enter the German charts at number one in its first week of release. However, I’ve read a couple of not too positive online reviews, which don’t necessarily imply the album is bad, but just a mediocre quality copy of its predecessor.
Well, I disagree. I actually like Communiqué quite a lot more than Dire Straits. The album as a whole seems much less repetitive to me and I find the songs have much more personality individually, if this means something to any of you. The only thing in which Dire Straits is better is in the “battle of the top songs”, meaning that Communiqué’s best song (which is… well, I don’t really know, maybe it’d “officially” be Lady Writer) is not as good as Sultans of Swing. Not even close.
Apart from Follow Me Home, which is, let’s face it, plain boring, all the other songs are good, and you won’t forget them once you start listening to something else (which is what happens with most songs on Dire Straits). News is a beautiful sad song about a guy who basically gambles with his life again and again (I read somewhere that it’s “not particularly entertaining to sit through”. Oh well, I guess it’s a matter of taste).
Communiqué and Angel of Mercy are two easy-going, happy (am I talking about songs as if they were people? There’s something wrong with me), almost pop-ish songs; Portobello Belle is a ballad-like song in which you can, at last, listen to some keyboards here. That’s good. I’m not a big fan of rock bands which confine themselves to the usual kit of electric guitar, drums and bass guitar.
There’s not much more to say… Single Handed Sailor has a cool riff, and Once Upon a Time in the West and Where You Think You’re Going are two good examples of classic less-is-more Dire Straits.
All in all I find Communiqué a very satisfying album, and its neutral reviews don’t make much sense to me. With a guitarist like Mark Knopfler, a big part of the job is done, and it’s pretty hard to screw things up. Their next album would be even better, though. But that’s another story.