Dire Straits - The Studio Albums 1978-1991,Dire Straits, Communiqué,Making Movies, Love Over Gold,Brothers in Arms and On Every Street Music Album Reviews

Dire Straits - The Studio Albums 1978-1991,Dire Straits, Communiqué,Making Movies, Love Over Gold,Brothers in Arms and On Every Street Music Album Reviews
As heard on this 6xLP box set, the UK classic rockers were artier than their reputation suggests, with a subdued sense of adventure that propelled the group throughout its career.

Stats don’t lie, but the tales they tell can be misleading. Take Dire Straits, who were by any measure one of the biggest rock bands of the 1980s. Their 1985 LP Brothers in Arms was a blockbuster on par with Thriller, Born in the USA, and Purple Rain; for nearly a decade, it held the title as the best-selling British album ever, before being dethroned by Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. Yet singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler’s fame quickly eclipsed the rest of the band, including bassist John Illsley, the only member who stood alongside him in every one of the group’s incarnations. Musicians came and went with regularity during the group’s heyday, the cast changing as Knopfler and Ilsley refined their silvery, slithery hybrid of British progressive rock and American country—a curious, improbable fusion that Dire Straits made seem logical, perhaps even inevitable. In doing so, the group acted as the bridge between the ’70s AOR and ’80s MTV, shepherding a transition from faceless arena rockers to flashy video stars.
Brothers in Arms benefited greatly from MTV. The network placed the computer-animated video for “Money for Nothing” into heavy rotation, sending the album into the upper reaches of the charts, a place it would call home for the better part of a year. The video’s success could be called a fluke, but the album appealed to legions of sophisticates who couldn’t be bothered with MTV. Its novel production—a DDD affair, in the parlance of the times, meaning it was recorded, mixed, and mastered digitally—appealed to audiophiles, and its reputation for sumptuous sound helped make it the first million-selling compact disc. But beneath the digital gleam, Dire Straits’ debt to roots rock was evident, particularly in Knopfler’s mellow growl and clean, deft guitar solos.

A tension between polish and grit was evident from the start, as the 2020 box set The Studio Albums 1978-1991 illustrates. Containing nothing but straight reissues of the six studio albums the group released during its lifetime, the set contains nary a frill. (Regrettably, the 1983 EP Extendedance Play, with its giddy new-wave single “Twisting by the Pool,” isn’t here, nor 1984 live 2xLP Alchemy.) But that modesty helps draw connections between records, tracing the band’s growth while underscoring its constant attention to detail. Heard collectively, these albums suggest that Dire Straits were a far artier band than their reputation suggests, with a subdued sense of adventure that propelled the group throughout its career.

Artiness was not a quality associated with Dire Straits back in 1978, when the band released its eponymous debut; the UK was in the thick of punk rock, yet Dire Straits were tagged a pub-rock band. There was some truth to that label. Knopfler and drummer Pick Withers both played in the regrettably named Brewers Droop, who managed to go not much further than their hometown of London during their brief lifetime in the early ’70s. And Charlie Gillett, a renowned London DJ whose Honky Tonk show was one of the pub-rock scene’s epicenters, gave early airtime to Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” demo, an act of generosity that quickly led to a record contract for the band. “Sultans of Swing” certainly had a tinge of country rock; Knopfler skated up and down his fretboard with ease as he growled half-spoken lyrics about a group playing Dixieland jazz and Creole music in South London.

“Sultans of Swing” is their self-titled debut’s snappiest number by some margin—its only rival in hooks is “Setting Me Up,” the record’s tightest cut and also the one song that could be comfortably be called country—but it also contains much of what makes the album beguiling: Knopfler sketches scenes, setting his ambiguous, evocative scenarios to vamps that hint at both melody and groove without quite coalescing into either. Ghosts of an imagined American West float through Dire Straits, but despite the imagery, rhythms, and instrumentation, the album keeps drifting towards an amorphous atmosphere that betrays the group’s British roots. It hints at other styles and sounds without quite committing to either earthiness or mind-expansion. The elusiveness is one of its pleasures: the band’s identity lies within these margins.

Once “Sultans of Swing” turned into an unexpected smash on both sides of the Atlantic, Dire Straits rushed out Communique, tentatively expanding their reach while Knopfler honed his songwriting and co-producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett stripped away some of the slipperiness producer Muff Winwood had brought to the debut. Their rhythmic evolution is immediately apparent as the album bounces into focus with the reggae lilt of “Once Upon a Time in the West.” The band’s dreaminess is less apparent here, but it surfaces on “Portobello Belle,” a lovely, relaxed character sketch that shows Knopfler’s growth as a songwriter, as does “Lady Writer,” a “Sultans” rewrite that’s sharper than it should be.

Knopfler wasn’t the only one so enamored with “Sultans of Swing” that he wanted to recapture its magic. Bob Dylan enlisted the guitarist and Withers for support on his 1979 gospel makeover Slow Train Coming, and Steely Dan hired Knopfler to play on “Time out of Mind,” a highlight of their 1980 magnum opus Gaucho. Dire Straits were now operating in the big leagues, and they chose a correspondingly big-league producer for 1980’s Making Movies: Jimmy Iovine, the producer behind big hits by both Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty.

Working with Knopfler at his side and AOR airwaves in his sights, Iovine gave Making Movies considerable muscle. The album reaches its apex with “Sold Rock,” a macho bit of hard rock that leans into its rock’n’roll puns, but the record’s heart lies within its first side, where the triptych of “Tunnel of Love,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Skateaway” realizes Dire Straits’ most romantic, cinematic tendencies. None of the three are love songs in the traditional sense; they’re songs of longing, songs whose bittersweet nature suggests better times. The sentiment runs throughout Dire Straits’ catalog, and Iovine’s canny production gave it definition and direction. The closing “Les Boys” muddies their rose-tinted glance at the past, however: A jaunty bit of after-hours vaudeville, the song is meant asa sideways salute to post-war Germany’s gay cabarets, yet the lyrics’ stream of stereotypes and Knopfler’s audible sneer undercut any claims of affection for his subject. It’s a sour note on an album that otherwise finds Dire Straits hitting their stride.

Instead of pursuing the AOR direction of Making Movies, Dire Straits took a leftward detour with 1982’s Love Over Gold. Apart from the lively “Industrial Disease,” Love Over Gold abandons any lingering pub-rock vestiges for a full immersion into prog rock. Frontloading the album with the 14-minute “Telegraph Road”—the remaining four songs are all shorter, but usually only by an order of half—the band positions itself way out in space, a journey assisted by the addition of keyboardist Alan Clark and rhythm guitarist Hal Lindes. The additional musicians allow Knopfler and Ilsley to drift, pushing texture into the foreground and underscoring the group’s often unspoken debt to Pink Floyd—an inevitable comparison, thanks to the crawling keyboards and dextrous single-note guitar solos. In places, Dire Straits sound almost like they were working toward a rock-oriented spin on new-age music, one where the sonics overwhelmed the songwriting.

Songs came crashing back into the spotlight on Brothers in Arms. Stripping away the excesses of Love Over Gold, Dire Straits distilled a shimmering, atmospheric sound that could withstand industrial-strength rock’n’roll, cowboy laments, and heartache alike. That delicate balance between songcraft and austere atmosphere is key to the album’s phenomenal success: It could appeal to traditionalists and modernists alike. Some of Knopfler’s sturdiest songs are here, such as the pining “So Far Away” and “Why Worry,” a tune so lovely the Everly Brothers covered it soon after its release. Listening to Brothers in Arms decades later, its moodiness is striking, particularly when Knopfler’s guitar glides atop Clark’s keyboards; this is the sound modern acolytes like the War on Drugs and Jason Isbell have adopted as their own.

Brothers in Arms is also home to “Money for Nothing” and “Walk of Life,” a pair of smash singles that helped sustain Dire Straits’ popularity into the 1990s. Like “Industrial Disease” before it, “Walk of Life” is the rockin’ anomaly on Brothers in Arms, but its cheerful, old-time rock’n’roll became a standard on screen and in sports arenas alike. As popular as it was, “Walk of Life” was overshadowed by “Money for Nothing,” a screed against music videos cannily given a cutting-edge video that made it a staple on MTV. Sung from the gruff perspective of a blue-collar appliance installer who can’t believe musicians draw a paycheck, the song theoretically gives the songwriter license to portray his character’s homophobia in the third person, but the song’s verse about the “little faggot with the earring and the makeup” is jarring and distasteful. Heard in close proximity to “Les Boys,” it’s hard to hear it as simply Knopfler singing in character, the way his idol Randy Newman did on “Rednecks."

Some critics did call out Knopfler about this “Money for Nothing” verse back in 1985—Robert Christgau noted the singer-songwriter somehow got the word on the radio “with no static from the PMRC”—and Canadian radio ultimately banned the song in 2011. The controversy may dog Dire Straits, but it’s never quite tarnished the group, possibly because Brothers in Arms was simply too big: It was certified platinum 14 times in the UK, nine times in the U.S. The record’s success afforded the group the opportunity to take an extended hiatus, allowing Mark Knopfler to pursue his country-rock busman’s holiday the Notting Hillbillies and cut a duet album with his hero Chet Atkins in 1990.

A year later, Dire Straits lurched back into action for On Every Street. The archetype of a ’90s mega-album, On Every Street was bigger than its predecessor in every way: longer, louder, slicker, steelier. Outwardly, it announced itself as a big deal, but its pleasures were modest. Dire Straits seemed to come to life when Vince Gill picked up his guitar on the rollicking novelty “The Bug,” and they took full advantage of George Martin’s arrangements on the knowingly nostalgic slow-dance number “Ticket to Heaven,” but when they attempted to conjure a bit of “Money for Nothing” swagger on “Heavy Fuel,” they sounded listless. This sense of fatigue runs throughout On Every Street, its enervation accentuated by the album’s CD bloat; where earlier Dire Straits albums wrapped things up at an efficient five or seven songs, this rambled through 12, overstaying its welcome.

Somehow, Knopfler sensed Dire Straits had overstayed their welcome, too. He pulled the plug on the group in the mid ’90s, pursuing a decidedly understated solo career and never once getting lured back for a reunion, despite the prospect of larger paychecks. When the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, he never acknowledged the honor publicly. His brother David, who played with the band at the outset, also sat out the festivities, as did Withers: instead, Illsley accepted on behalf of the group, with Clark and Guy Fletcher in tow. Knopfler’s absence carried the message that Dire Straits belonged to the past, a band to be relegated to anthologies like this one. Beyond the box set’s nostalgic charm, what’s interesting about the group’s collected catalog is what it says about their genre and era. Over the course of six studio albums, Dire Straits evolved from eccentric oddities into smooth commodities, neatly encapsulating classic rock’s own journey from the fringes to the center of the establishment.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Dire Straits - The Studio Albums 1978-1991,Dire Straits, Communiqué,Making Movies, Love Over Gold,Brothers in Arms and On Every Street Music Album Reviews Dire Straits - The Studio Albums 1978-1991,Dire Straits, Communiqué,Making Movies, Love Over Gold,Brothers in Arms and On Every Street Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Wednesday, September 30, 2020 Rating:

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