Dire Straits was a band that, it’s safe to say, forged their own way right from the start. I’ve seen numerous people attempt to define their style, with little agreement, and I’m not even going to try; they adopted whatever style suited their song and goals, at times introducing something inherently recognizable, while at others they borrowed and combined freely. Yet, they never created discord in their compositions.
I have a pet loathing of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” which tried to combine several different styles and only succeeded in creating confusing slop, a godawful mess of a song (and I suspect it is only through The Beatles overhyped reputation that it became as successful as it did – anyone else would have bombed out with that train wreck.) But in contrast, the song I’m featuring here routinely changes tempo, mood, and style, fluently and expressively, a river that crashes through the rocks and drifts through placid pools, only to tumble down a cascade again. It tells a tale of urban development, from wilderness to industrial giant to near ghost town; it is, in fact, about Detroit, but could represent just about any once-proud city left behind by a shifting economy (I personally thought it was about England’s fading industrial centers, a la The Full Monty – close enough.)
Mark Knopfler, the lead singer and guitarist, does not have a special voice – it’s throaty and coarse, yet he knows just how to use it. But his real strength is as a composer, and most especially his ability to rip off the most elaborate guitar riffs. The music industry is filled with people who play guitar with their spine, thrashing their heads up and down in an attempt to make Pete Townshend look low-key (I remember seeing a live band where the lead guitarist was in perpetual danger of slamming the head of his instrument against the stage – without really producing anything special from the effort.) Knopfler, in contrast, is the most minimalist guitarist I’ve ever seen, hands barely moving as his fingertips drill out complicated melodies worthy of a symphony, virtually free of the electronic effects so prevalent from electric guitar bands. One of the traits I most admired from the eighties was the ability for some bands to blend together numerous instruments, complimenting each other, without feeling the need to bury the sound in feedback and sustain; the result is a blend of subtleties, no sound taking dominance, but all of them contributing to the feel like a complicated recipe.
This particular song, however, gets most of its feel from the keyboardist, Alan Clark; Knopfler doesn’t really kick it off until late in the set. This version is live at Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1983, the same recording (with a slight tweak in mix) later issued on the Money For Nothing compilation album, and Clark brings us back in for the encore set with a slightly haunting, flutelike melody just barely heard over the audience, enormously effective in getting their attention. Throughout the song, the keyboards maintain the mood and carry us through the transitions, often delicately, always richly and with just the right amount of detail, not lost under the crash of other sounds – at least until the latter instrumental.
Credit where it’s due: much of the effect comes from quality work on the sound mixing boards, where the relative strengths of any particular instrument are carefully balanced and blended. Note how both Knopfler’s guitar and Clark’s electric piano taper off together at times, fading into the distance, but later in the song the guitar takes precedent and the keyboards only make the barest appearance – by that time, the song has evolved into a dramatic concert closer. Quite simply, this is how you do it:
Another major selling point for Dire Straits, as far as I’m concerned, is their emphasis on lyrics with more bite to them – sometimes satirical, sometimes insightful, almost always with more heft than the majority of pop songs… with the possible exception of “The Bug,” which is pretty lackluster lyrically, but carried extraordinarily well by the music. Okay, “Calling Elvis” is phoned in as well, but check out “My Parties” and “Ticket to Heaven” for their commentary on consumerism and televangelists, and “The Man’s Too Strong” for perhaps the best use of Knopfler’s voice.