Friday 4 July 2008

Dire Straits "Love Over Gold" (1982) ('Core' Review #81, Revised Edition 2014)

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Dire Straits "Love Over Gold" (1982)

Track Listing: Telegraph Road/ Private Investigations// Industrial Disease/ Love Over Gold/ It Never Rains (UK and US tracklisting)

We've given the 1980s a hard times across this site despite it being the times and sounds I grew up with. By and large, it's generally agreed, the 'decade that taste forgot' was a mistake, with an artificial synthesiser-made soundtrack that reflected a strangely desanitised and self-orientated period. Along with big hair, shoulder pads and ugly sounding synthesisers, the Dire Straits are very 1980s - with the best selling act of the decade after Prince and Madonna in many ways even more perfect for the times. Big, expansive landscapes, deep subjects rattled off between boogie woogie rock chords, fancy well-produced packaging and long long loooooong guitar solos; by rights the Dire Straits should be just as much a product of their times as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. But at their best - as on 'Love Over Gold', ironically their most 1980s sounding album - their music is timeless: themes based around universal concerns, catchy rock templates immaculately played and a mix of accessibility and a sound all of their own making for a wholly pleasant listening experience in any era. Most 1980s material now sounds like bad variations on Agadoo (with exceptions of course – check the other 80s albums on this list, naturally, as your starting point of reference) in both their charm-lessness and their pointlessness, but Dire Straits were in truth more like a 60s band wearing contemporary clothing, with a fun mix of the old prog rock sound and the energy of new wave bands, with extended running times because they were a band with plenty to say, not just an excuse to get the linn drum effects going or fill a song with boring synthesisers.

On paper 'Love Over Gold' should be the weakest Dire Straits album: just five songs, with one of them an extended epic lasting twice the length of anything else they made, with the other tracks being made up of three ballads (the shortest of which runs a mind-boggling 6:16) and a novelty rock song about an illness. But from the first time I heard it I fell in love with this quirky album, which manages to unite some very 60s truths ('Love Over Gold' is 'All You Need Is Love' merged with 'Can't Buy Me Love'),some very clever songwriting ('Telegraph Road' is Knopfler at his most philosophical and lasts 14 minutes because it has to: a song that should have been a TV series shot in moody black and white, not released on one side of a colourful 1980s record) and some breath-takingly brilliant musicianship (with so many songs played live, or as near as, this is more of a 'band' album than the other five and Knopfler's guitar never had so much space to roar or growl like this again). Like the best Dire Straits albums but more so, 'Love Over Gold' overcomes it's shabby surroundings by offering up some tight near-telepathic ensemble playing, some inventive arrangements that accurately reproduce everything from a doctor's waiting room to an FBI agent's hut and the dead-end buzz of a closed-in community. Despite this album’s relatively long length of 41 mins in the pre-CD age (a format the band are about to lay down world records with in just one album releases’ time), there are only five tracks on this album – the fewest on any Dire Straits release and incidentally the fewest of any album on this list – a fact that has put off many would-be fans who want value for their hard-earned money. However, each of these songs carries quite a range of styles, tempos and ideas and Love Over Gold packs quite a punch in the way it neatly balances primitive rock and roll bravado with epic soundscapes and complex lyrical ideas. In truth 'Love Over Gold' still sounds a little too 1980s for my taste in places, with a surface sheen that's even more polished and of-it's-time than more famous younger cousin 'Brothers In Arms'. However out of the band's scant studio records it's this one I return to again and again: a charming, poetic, multi-layered discussion of what it meant to be alive in 1983 and with Knopfler growing into his new role as spokesman for a generation before the pressure of living up to that became too much for him.

While other Dire Straits albums all have special moments (yep, even 'Communique'!), 'Love Over Gold' also has consistency on its side: every song here (well, there's only five!) is special and most importantly takes you to places the band have never taken you before. Mark Knopfler's latest songs that make such a virtue out of their slow, unfolding epic ideas that far from getting bored you want the tracks to go on for another 10 minutes each. For example, 14 minute epic 'Telegraph Road' is the most powerful song they ever made, with Knopfler finally getting the space to say everything he needs to say and wrapping it all up with a fabulous guitar solo that doesn't last an iota too long despite going for some five minutes (!) 'Private Investigations' is the bravest of all the band's single releases, replacing look-at-me sound effects for moody atmosphere and wordy syntax. 'Love Over Gold' features one of the greatest Knopfler lyrics of them all, with a whole lyric that's quotable and notable. 'It Never Rain's features a terrific riff and a recording that cleverly segues from laidback shoulder-shrug to desperate life struggle in the blink of an eye. Even novelty 'Industrial Disease', long dismissed as a comedy song that doesn't quite work, has a clever point to make, with a fast-stepping lyric that would have been celebrated as a pin-point accurate reflection of modern society had it been made recorded years later by some big name rapper.

Love Over Gold was released at the exact halfway point between the band’s club-pleasing early albums like Communique and Making Movies and the stadium-pleasing anthems of Brothers In Arms and beyond. Although this record was popular at the time and even today still stands as the band’s third biggest seller, compared to its more famous close-cousins Brothers In Arms and Making Movies this album often gets short shrift from collectors who just want to dip a toe in the river straits rather than immerse themselves completely. But all these years on from its release, this album really does win out over its more successful partners just as – according to the theme running throughout this album – love really does win out over gold. This album might not have had the hit singles (well, it had one, but Private Investigations must be one of the strangest singles to ever make the top three in the charts, classic album track that it is), the easy on the ear rockabilly that makes up the band’s first three albums or the catch-all hummable mini-epics that come near the end of the band’s run, but Love Over Gold has a longevity and shine that other Dire Straits albums are beginning to lose slightly the further we get from the 1980s. Somehow mixing the heavier rock style of the early years and the more prog rock excesses of the later ones, 'Love Over Gold' is like the Goldilocks Porridge of the Dire Straits catalogue: while 'Dire Straits' 'Makin' Movies' and especially 'Communique' were a little lightweight and content to rock out for long passages without much to say, 'Brothers In Arms' and 'On Every Street' are sometimes a little too po-faced, worn down with the weight of things to say. 'Love Over Gold' gets the mix about right (for me at least), with five excellent performances of five excellent songs that feature some great driving band performances (especially the first and last) and some thought-provoking material. There’s also more unity among the tracks on this album than most of Dire Straits’ output as all of these songs at least touch on our modern way of living (well, semi-modern way of living as it is now, but socially and politically our generation are still feeling the ripples from this decade in a way that we don’t from the 70s or even the 90s now that Blair is out of office).  Even though this record is filled with contemporary sounds from the 1980s (synthesisers, guitars with a particular vibrato which sadly you never really hear again after this period and big booming drum effects), Knopfler’s lyrics make it clear that the writer yearns for a more traditional way of life, a million miles away from the Thatcherist/yuppie money-making themes of the time.

There are many late 80s/ early 90s albums that look back at this decade and scratch their heads over why the gap between the ’haves’ and ’have nots’ of the world has got bigger almost overnight, but arguably Knopfler got there first, crying out for a solution from the very epicentre of the epidemic before most people had even noticed there was one. This is a brave move for the band who, as we’ve pointed out already, just were the 1980s for many people, when ‘big’ was the vogue of the day and the huge-sounding epic-loving million-selling Dire Straits fitted that image perfectly. And yet for me Love Over Gold is their best effort because, even though there are more epics on this record than usual, this is the record that more than the others considers the ’ordinary people’ and the problems in their lives and studies details as well as the bigger picture. In many ways Love Over Gold is the band’s most emotional LP, made up of Knopfler’s fieriest songs and fieriest playing and the many characters in the songs on this album are nearly always struggling with life in some way (which is unusual given the generally upbeat tone of most DS records). Love Over Gold is quite an angry album too, with Knopfler starting to take his new role as spokesman for a generation seriously, speaking out against society’s wrongs rather than shrugging things off with a 1950s pastiche or a dry humour ballad as he would do later in his solo work. Witness the depiction of a town devolving into a mess before our very ears in Telegraph Road with its residents powerless to stop it, the bewildered confusion of Private Investigations, the sarcasm of Industrial Disease and the fighting-back-from-rock-bottom It Never Rains.

All of the songs on this record to some extent carry some sort of theme about how modern life has devolved, not evolved. The romantic utopian hopes of our pioneering ancestors who left the countryside for the towns in hope of a better life in Telegraph Road have now been  hemmed in, with modern man stuck physically in traffic jams and spirituality in a bunch of trappings that actually makes his life much more complicated and stress-filled, not easier or more comfortable as intended. Telegraph Road is the most obvious song on this theme, with a lyric about how well order and structure can sometimes restrict us, the men who were once free-but-poor now trapped-and-struggling, now envious of their ancestors who founded the town on a humble dirt track and longing to join 'the birds on the high-wires who can always fly away'. It's notable that this town is named after a 'road', suggesting travel and movement and energy, but somewhere along the way the intention got lost and everyone feels trapped, literally unable to move ('Six lanes of traffic, three lanes moving slow'). However this song is hardly the only one to carry such a theme. Private Investigations might be an atmospheric spy drama, but at its heart it’s a ‘what’s-the-point-of-it-all’ song about modern relationships that yearns for olden days when couples took their relationship at face value (because, socially speaking, there was no real viable alternative) instead of hiring spies to do their listening and reporting for them (to think this song was written a good 15 years before mobile phones and the internet!) Industrial Disease, meanwhile,  cheerily attacks the whole modern work dynamic – cheekily pointing out that relentless modern life and the continual demand for product and consumerism doesn’t mix well with often fragile human beings who live their lives through peaks and troughs, not relentless 9-5 shifts. The great unspoken irony of the song is that the more industrialised we become the less workers we will need (job opportunities were, after all, the whole reason that the town in Telegraph Road grew from its small beginnings in the first place) and the bosses can afford for their employees to get sick because they're so easily replaced. Love Over Gold is a more individual take on one of these individuals, flouting the system of the modern industrial world for her own ends which are never quite explained in a song that has a lovely time dancing with us without ever quite committing to what it really means. There's a sense, though, that the character going their own way is going to come a cropper - that there are too many bad people out there in modern life waiting to take advantage (to go back to our anti-1980s rant, anyone who thought in 1983 that life was about 'love over gold' was a prime victim for a new breed of catchy advertisements, pushy salesmen, arrogant bankers and Margaret Thatcher's society-breaking reforms: this is a universe where money rules, not people or their feelings). It Never Rains then closes the album on a supportive gesture from Knopfler to a friend, one of the unluckier victims of the modern world who remains ‘a shadow in the wheel of fortune’, working out where the promise of modern life went wrong and where he got left out of the opportunities so many other seem to be experiencing. While much of the song is a 'well, what can you do?' sigh that's frustrated rather than desperate, the closing angsty attack from about the 2:30 mark is anything but and Knopfler has never sounded madder or more outraged by the world he sees around him ('We could have been major contenders - but we never got the money, no breaks...we got a list of all their major mistakes'). This is a world where it never rains, it pours and suffering is magnified by people who could do so much to help with what to them is comparatively little.

I'd love to know where this altruistic streak suddenly came from in Knopfler's writing. Mark, of course, trained as a journalist and would have been a good one too: he has an eye for observation and the ability to listen. However until now his two careers (and his third of teaching; some of this album borders on a lecture) have been seperate: I challenge anyone to point out any other Dire Straits lyric that contains a similar, deeply 1960s sense of the community spirit or spent so long sticking up on behalf of the under-dog (it is there, sporadically, on Mark's solo albums but usually in a folky Dylanesque form of protest, not shouted from the roof-tops as here). While Mark had always had a strong eye for detail and people's characters (love story 'Romeo and Juliet', a song tried by so many writers and which sounds clunky in almost everyone's hands, Shakespeare's included, is line-perfect), something seems to have changed the way he views his songwriting in 1983. Was it the cold war? 1983 was another difficult year, with politics infiltrating houses who traditionally never talked about it, along the lines of 'blooming Russian commies - let's nuke them' and '*sigh* didn't we solve this lot of problems already in the 1960s?' Back at home Thatcher had just been re-elected to a second term and now was in a stronger position than ever to wreak the damage that destroyed much of Britain - especially the North and Knopfler's home town of Newcastle (a city founded on mines and dockyards; just a few months after this album's release fellow Geordie Alan Hull of Lindisfarne was writing the inflammatory 'Cruising To Disaster' and 'Stormy Weather', which point to something local). The way that Knopfler sings matter of factly 'Then came the miners, then came the poor, then there were some hard times - then there was a war' also points to his fear that both factors might collide: that his home-town of 1983 (and all Telegraph Roads everywhere) were ticking time-bombs about to go off the minute a fuse was lit. No wonder this album is so full of intrigue, of whispered voices, FBI agents and mysterious ladies who flit in and out of life: the world isn't safe anymore and Knopfler is anxious about what will happen next. The curious thing, then, isn't that Knopfler should start writing here so much as why he didn't do more of this later on: 'Brothers In Arms' has an anti-war protest as its title track (although ironically enough many army troops regard it as a 'special' song) but that's a bit vague and general; never again under the Dire Straits banner does he record so much as a grumble. Reagan and Thatcher both continued wreaking havoc until 1989 and in many ways there was a bigger audience for this sort of album than ever. Was Knopfler scared off? Did he feel ever more isolated after the millionaire success of the record, unable to keep in contact with 'real' people? Or did he just regard this album as a little off-putting for fans (if so he's wrong - this was the best selling record so far and if anything put people off it was only getting five songs on the entire record!)

However Knopfler is not the only member of Dire Straits with a starring role. With so many lengthy, weighty songs, Love Over Gold needs a strong series of performances to tie everything together and Dire Straits are never more of a 'band' than here. Alan Clark (no, not the Hollies singer – or the politician for that matter, although he is the same man that toured with Lindisfarne in the 80sand wrote the theme tune for the 'Most Haunted' TV series!) has plenty to do on keyboards and does it well, almost rivalling Knopfler’s signature guitar sound for the moments you remember from this record. The rest of the band are on good form too, with Pick Withers and John Illsey staking out their claim to being the band’s best and most inventive rhythm section out of Dire Straits’ many musical-chairs line-up changes. 'Private Investigations' for instance, features a highly memorable bass-drum interplay that sounds simple until you try to tap along: Thud... ... Thud... ... ... Thud...BAH-DUNN DUNN DUNN!' This is one of those songs, mumbled and short on action, that needs to be note-perfect when the song finally comes to life and Knopfler is well served by his colleagues here. Short-term guitarist Hal Lindes also proves himself to be an under-rated talent, especially his guitar-weaving with Knopfler on the fade-outs of Telegraph Road and It Never Rains.

So what have you got to take away? No, not a bottle of whiskey, blinds on the winder and a pain behind the eyes: a hard-hitting Dire Straits album that at least has the material and ideas to consistently match the superb musicianship. Certainly it has much to offer the listener, from its fine melodies to its wittily observant lyrics and its note-perfect performances make it sound better every time you hear it. I can see why the follow-up 'Brothers In Arms' charmed more people: there's lots of hummable hit singles, a spooky thought-provoking title track and a production shine and shimmer that's both brighter than this album and less stuck in a time-warp all at the same time. But while that album is both a mainstream and a fan favourite, it's 'Lover Over Gold' that's the greatest from both a songwriting and a musicianship point of view, with the band taking the best of what they've learnt from albums one to three and trying to go somewhere a little deeper and more different on this album. It may well have the weirdest, strangest, most poetic lyrics of any album to ever sell so many millions of copies (Dire Straits, though forgotten now to some extent, really were scarily big and still fit comfortably in a list of the top 20 selling British acts of all time: no mean feat for a band who made just six records) or to have been dressed up in so much 1980s finery. All Dire Straits have something going for them, with several tracks and some classic musical hooks to recommend (well, ok, it might take you a while to find the hidden gems in Communique, but they’re there all the same) and other albums have individual tracks that may in some cases be better than those included here. But Love To Gold might well be the band’s most consistent work of all and arguably is the most important: nowhere else does Knopfler reveal quite so much about himself or his writing and sadly never again does he quite take the world to pieces and re-assemble it again. That means that Dire Straits are for the first and last times able to reflect the world they lived in beyond merely the style trappings of the era and 'Love Over Gold' tells you more about the frustration, resentment and resilience of 1983 than, say, 'On Every Street' reflects the world from a decade later. However, unlike big hair and shoulder pads, 25 years on its fair to say that the Dire Straits really are timeless and 'Love Over Gold' - forthright, political, poetical and bursting with songs, ideas and solos - is one of their bigger aural treats. So great is this album that I could even fall in love with all the 1980s trappings all over again, provided there was another album from this era quite this god or with quite so much to say.

The Songs:

From the opening of the very first song, [28] Telegraph Road, it becomes clear that Love Over Gold will be a bit of an epic, despite what I’ve just written about focussing on the smaller detail. It takes a full 2:15 minutes before Knopfler starts singing and it even takes a full 30 seconds before the song is loud enough to hear anything at all, even at full volume. This is still a great opening though, setting the tone for the long, long, long journey towards civilisation for the Telegraph Road (which despite starting off as a ‘road’ rather confusingly doubles as the name of the town). With one of his better vocals holding the track together, Knopfler grows in stature along with the town, turning up the volume from verse to verse as the Telegraph Road grows from a single hut on a track to a the modern day grid-locked city with its traffic jams, cold weather, unemployment, debt and closed-down shops. Knopfler, casting his eyes over the town’s evolution, starts off as a detached narrator imagining the hopes and efforts of his forefathers before singing in the first-person in the song’s last two verses and revealing that actually he’s a struggling resident of the town too (Amazingly the song has only four verses and no chorus, despite its 14 minute length!) Really, of course, Knopfler is being an early cagey critic of how the UK was being run back in the 1980s, suggesting that modern society is growing totally against the values of the original ‘seed that’s been sown’, a theme common to many late Thatcherite-Britain era records. But back in 1983 the social protest movement was lying long dormant so, rather than attack what was happening in the day and age, Knopfler reaches back for another target, reminding us of our heritage and what we might be throwing away in the modern era. The picture of Telegraph Road is universal enough to stand for any modern town – the long, long build up of the song reminding us of our history and traditions and how these are being calmly thrown away. The history of civilisation still isn’t enough of a theme for Knopfler, however, who adds in the splintering of the narrator’s marriage to the tale for added human drama and hints that it’s decline is in tandem with the loss of promise in the town as a whole, as if we’ve reached the limit of our horizons and have nowhere to go from here except downhill. The song’s key imagery, though, and most memorable line, come from the idea that mankind isn’t really evolving and striding forward at all: homo sapiens, confined both physically by traffic jams and mentally by society rules, is envious of the simple birds who sit on the telegraph wires and “can always fly away from this rain and this cold”, without the baggage of work and family that often tie humans up to the same place year after year. Freedom is a key theme of many Dire Straits songs, from the happy tale of the lovers of Romeo and Juliet who meet against their family’s wishes to the angry controlling narrator of Where Do You Think You’re Going?, but most Dire Straits characters usually find a way out of their fix by the song’s end, usually by disobeying what they’ve learnt or been told by society and following their ‘heart’. By contrast, Telegraph Road ushers in a period of Knopfler’s songwriting where nearly all of his characters meet unhappy, downbeat ends, simply because the society they’re rallying against is so rigid and unmovable (just think of the forthcoming The Man’s Too Strong from Brothers In Arms where the social protestor in the lyrics actually apologies to us in song that he’s not strong or powerful enough to tackle the wrongs he sees in the world around him).

The song builds to a terrific outburst as Telegraph Road approaches the 10-minute mark, with Knopfler letting fly with a catalogue of all the problems he wants to run away and save his missus from. Like Simon and Garfunkel’s My Little Town (see Breakaway, no 68 on the list) the epic nature of the arrangement only serves to underline what a lot of imagination and drama are going on in the mind’s of the inhabitants of this rather bleak, mundane little place and the narrator’s frustration at being trapped in a monochrome-coloured hovel he cannot escape from. Another key line here is ‘the anger that lives on the streets with these names’ – social riots in Britain had (temporally) been curbed by this point in time, but this song still resonates with many of the songs from the early part of the decade, such as the Clash and the Jam’s two minute bursts of weary social unrest. Neither of those groups would have known what to do with a song this long or would ever have dreamed of writing a piece like this which covers the whole history of a town in one go, but compare Knopfler’s stormiest guitar playing and the sudden hurry-up the song gets towards the end with any Jam song and there’s more than a hint of the same energy and protest going on there. Strong as this track is when you read the lyrics alone or enjoy the twinkling melody (one that seems to represent the electric street lighting flickering on and off down the road), Telegraph Road is turned into a much stronger beast than it ever deserves to be thanks to Dire Straits’ consummate performance. The track is held together by Alan Clark’s tinkling and ever-restless piano, plus steady long bursts of organ which give the dual effect of the characters throwing everything at a static, unmoving world and the consistency of what is being passed down from the founding generations of the town to the latest inhabitants. Knopfler turns in some of his greatest guitar-work here too, especially around the four-minute mark, channelling the anger that’s beginning to appear in the song’s last two verses into his most ferocious playing on record, with a guitar phrase that keeps circling higher and higher trying to find a way of escape before cold reality seeps in to bring him sharply down to earth again. The band pull off a tremendous achievement here – possibly the greatest ‘group’ performance of all their many line-ups over the 80s – making a 14 minute track with little variety in terms of theme, key or tempo leave the listener crying out for more. With the band on particularly sterling form towards Telegraph’ Road’s close and Knopfler using his guitar-work to underline the strength of emotion in the song, this track fully deserves its four-minute instrumental playout. The town might be falling down, but Dire Straits have never sounded more like a tower of strength than on this superlative recording.

The best known track on the album is probably [29] Private Investigations: a dense, echoing world where muffled sound effects go on just out of the listener’s reach and it sounds as if there’s something lurking in the shadows to grab you by the ear, this is one of Britain’s most atmospheric bands’ most atmospheric songs. The stifling atmosphere is well suited to its subject matter too, mimicking the mysterious and rather dodgy dealings going on in the world of an undercover spy. Like many a Dire Straits song, though, this song promises musically to be glamorous and James Bond-esque – but lyrically, its narrator is another fish out of water, an uncomfortable spy who silently despairs over the amount of treachery going on in everyday human life simply because people won’t talk to or put faith in one another. More to the point, the spy thinks he should be solving mysteries—and yet the more he uncovers about what people do, the more he starts to question and scratch his head over the conflicting motives of human beings (‘When I find the reason, I still can’t get used to it’). Using his best ‘LA Cop’ voice, Knopfler again turns a good song into a great one courtesy of his fine performance which starts off sounding husky and business-like and soon ends up sounding confused and awestruck. He also turns in some impressive flamenco style acoustic guitar playing – alternating it with his electric attack in the second half - and pulls off an arranging masterstroke after the first verse when the song neatly stops and begins all over again from the beginning, just when the spy is going back over and over his old reports, just willing there to be some clue to life he might have missed. After this calculated start everything goes haywire after the third verse, however, with some carefully controlled tension courtesy of a heartbeat-like bass, the most unnerving xylophone riff in rock and sudden bursts of adrenalin that seem to come out of nowhere at key parts in the song. The lyrics, although again there are comparatively few of them, are fascinating – full of words like ‘compensation’ ‘investigation’ and ‘commences’ that most songwriters wouldn’t dream of using even if they read the dictionary religiously every night (somehow Knopfler’s the kind of songwriter you can picture doing just that!) It’s also unclear what investigation the narrator is working on – although the way he sighs on the word ‘private’ suggests that it is a personal affair, possibly one involving some scandal with his own partner given how much emotional involvement he seems to have in the case. This reading would especially fit the third verse, where the narrator muses about ‘what have you got to take away?’ – wondering if he might be better off putting up with any discretion than uncovering the embarrassing and uncomfortable truth he doesn’t actually want to find, despite his many hours searching for clues. The song’s long running length (almost 7 minutes) and pioneering structure – two verses that are instrumentally the same, a third that’s the same length but otherwise completely different, no choruses at all and a long instrumental coda – makes it one of the strangest singles ever to be released and to the best of my knowledge no one has ever made a single anything remotely like Private Investigations again, even 25 years on. As far as this album goes, this analysis of the human psyche is the backbone of the record, shedding light on much of the songs surrounding it, even while the narrator of the song is still in the dark. The Dire Straits at their pioneering best.

Onto side two already and the sprightly [30] Industrial Disease plunges us back into the world of early rock and roll, albeit with some of the most wordy lyrics ever used in a rock song (think Noel Coward transported into the future and forced to sing rap at gunpoint), plus one of the most complicated riffs ever used for one of Knopfler’s  retro songs. This track sees Knopfler changing voices yet again, this time singing with a sarcastic shoulder-shrug, poking fun at modern society yet again with a tale of boardroom spies, lazy caretakers, strikes, philosophising media and free speech protests that are quickly broken up by gun-wielding lawmen. Throughout, though, you’re unsure as to whose side the song is on – yes the greedy hypocritical bosses get their comeuppance as in all good new wave songs (‘somebody blew the whistle and the walls came down’), but so too do the two-faced protestors (‘I go down to Speaker’s corner and I’m thunderstruck – they’ve got free speech, tourists and police in tucks’) and even the ordinary workers don’t do much better (‘sociologists invent words that mean ‘industrial disease’  - a verse before the worker in the song goes to see the doctor about just such an illness). Despite its worthy and all-too-often accurate references to economic problems and religious wars, however, you’d hardly call Industrial Disease a serious song; its lolloping bouncy gait, playful guitar phrases and joke verse - with Knopfler as a doctor who wouldn’t be out of place in a Carry On film - make it one of Dire Straits’ funniest tracks. But watch out for the sudden mood change in the last verse when instead of cutting back to Alan Clark’s joyful keyboard riff as has happened three times before, Knopfler suddenly kicks the song back in again, now singing straight with one of his angriest vocals, poking his finger at world leaders who start wars only to give their ‘workers’ something else to fight besides their bosses. The curse of ‘industrial disease’ itself – the stress caused by overwork and pressure – is clearly an important subject to former teacher Knopfler, judging by the very real anger underlying this song, but the subject is dealt with in such an off-hand way that Knopfler himself sounds like one of those gossiping workers on the switchboard in the first verse, tying up the phones ‘in knots’ as he speculates about its impact in an offhand shrug.

With all that noise going on it’s a relief to get back to a straightforward ballad on this carefully programmed album. Another of this album’s uncharacteristically piano-based tracks, the title track of [31] Love Over Gold features Knopfler at his huskiest on a track that reads more like a play than a pop song. As low key songs go, Love Over Gold is pretty good despite being so quiet you can hardly hear it and lacking the sort of instantly hummable melody Knopfler usually specialises in. It tells the tale of a daredevil heroine, who keeps on pushing forward and diving headlong into new dangers even though she knows everything she holds most dear is fragile and can “fall or be shattered or run through your fingers like dust”. There’s a sly suggestion that she might be a prostitute (‘you’ve thrown your love to all the strangers’), but we never do find out what off-the-beaten-path activity this un-named character has taken up or even what ‘sin’ she practices. Indeed we don’t actually learn much at all in this song, which is pretty much unique in Knopfler’s Dire Straits canon but slightly more common to his later solo work, with this low key song doing its best to stay in the shadows and hide from illumination throughout. The tune might not be up to much by Knopfler’s highest standards, but the lyrics more than make up for this, being amongst Knopfler’s most poetic and most subtle works, with fragmented almost-perfect iambic pentameter verses (For those who fell asleep during their English lessons, I mean of course a line made up of alternating syllables throughout a line, with one word using a short, snappy kind of syllable words and the other a long drawn-out syllable sound (such as ‘wind’ and ‘loooove’ as in this song).There are also half-rhymes on certain lines such as ‘forbidden’ and ‘sin’, ‘reappear’ and ‘interfere’ and ‘find’ ‘wind’ and ‘mind’. Musically, Knopfler’s electric background whine is joined by more impressive flamenco playing, a great walking bass from long-term Dire Straits cohort John Illsey and some intriguing marimba work from guest musician Mike Mainieri, all adding to Love Over Gold the album’s staggering range of instrumentation.

After a final marimba flurry, which seems like it's never going to end, Knopfler the street poet is back to work on album closer [32] It Never Rains - another wordy protest song whose gentle swagger is balanced by some very bitter lyrics indeed. A fed-up throwing-in-the-towel-song, where all things seem to be going wrong for the narrator, Knopfler appears at first to be offering brotherly advice to a friend or relative before a stinging riff prompts the narrator to reveal he has really been singing about himself (Slight detour before we get back to reviewing the song: While you’d hardly call this song autobiographical, there are one or two interesting hints that back up the idea the narrator really is meant to be speaking in the first-person and is indeed Knopfler himself. The line about an ‘organ grinder’ was probably just written as a cute rhyme for ‘reminder’ – but its presence in the song suggests that the narrator is at least an amateur musician. The reference to a ‘new romeo’ being ‘another gigolo’ also seems out of place and might be a sly nod at the Dire Straits’ hit single Romeo And Juliet and the flop follow-up Tunnel Of Love which is effectively ‘romeo and Juliet part two’ in its update of old courting rituals in a modern setting (plus some Rodgers and Hammerstein music added to the beginning just to make the generational point a bit more obvious – is it just me or is Alan Clark’s very similar organ playing on It Never Rains more than a coincidence here? Or have I just gone monkeynuts again?) This is pure speculation and nothing more, but Tunnel Of Love was indeed the latest Dire Straits single at the time Love Over Gold and there may have been fears somewhere in group or management that the band’s reputation was slipping after the song flopped so badly (by comparison with the song’s predecessors anyway) and was there perhaps a bit of worry in the Dire Straits managerial camp after the group submitted this un-commercial five-track album? (Little did they know – as we do now – that Dire Straits were about to be bigger than ever with a #2 hit and a #1 record and one of the best-selling records of all time in this album’s follow-up Brothers In Arms). Like Industrial Disease, the song quickly builds up into one of Knopfler’s little-men-against-the-faceless-corporation rants, performed with all of the flair and tongue-in-cheek humour you’d expect from Dire Straits. There’s no doubting the pathos behind this composition though: It Never Rains suddenly comes alive on an extended fourth verse (‘Oh you were just a roller-coaster memory…’), where the narrator finds himself sucking up to people higher on the social ladder and seems to act through gritted teeth until a near instantaneous fifth verse finally vents his frustrations properly. Memorably, all that remains for Knopfler’s worker, after decades supporting the same company and doing the ‘same old rounds’, is ‘the use of your side-show tent’ – the same people who’ve been such a big part of his life and his only means of support don’t even know who he is and he’s just an accessory, not a main attrcation. The album then closes on an absolutely heartbreaking guitar solo as Knopfler tries once more to fight his way out of the oppressive repetitive riffs going on around him, sometimes competing against them and sometimes joining in, frantic to find some way out of his difficult situation. Despite the solo’s length – nearly three minutes – and its increasing desperation, Knopfler’s character never quite finds a way out of his problems and is still sighing in a melancholy way when the song abruptly fades.

A fantastic, surprisingly tough way to end what is in fact a fantastic and surprisingly tough LP, Love Over Gold has everything within its five tracks – deeply serious protest, laugh out loud humour and some fantastically good writing and playing (usually all in the same song). Brothers In Arms might have more instantly recognisable songs and Making Movies might be deeper and rockier, with an equal amount of original ideas, but Love Over Gold has a bigger heart than either of these more famous LPs, turning real life into gold and love into a thing of beauty and awe that helps us through an often chaotic and confusing world. Despite this album’s often downbeat tone and its fully fledged protests, love really does win over gold in the end and the mood you take away with you is ultimately a positive one. Casting himself as some modern-day Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler seemed to find new strength in the importance of his work the more he looked to stick up for others, if only in an ambiguous sort of a way, and writing highly individual songs about a faceless society is surely a winner in any decade. In fact, this album alone lifts Dire Straits so far out of the reach of their contemporaries that it might be those ‘I love the 1980s’ programmes weren’t so far wrong in their praise of the ‘me’ decade after all.

A Now Complete List Of Dire Straits Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

‘Dire Straits’ (1978)
'Communiqué' (1979)

'Makin' Movies' (1981)

'Love Over Gold' (1983)

‘Brothers In Arms’ (1985)

'On Every Street' (1993)
Surviving TV Appearances (1978-1991)

Unreleased Recordings (1978-1991)
Non-Album Songs 1977-1991
Live/Solo/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part One (1977-1999)
Live/Solo/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part Two (2000-2014)
Mark Knopfler’s Guest Appearances
Essay: From ‘Dire Straits’ To ‘Mass Consumerism’
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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