Thursday, 25 September 2008

Crosby Stills Nash and Young "Deja Vu" DVD (2008) (News and Views 6A)

Available to buy in ebook format 'Change Partners - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To CSNY' by clicking here!  

In-depth review: CSNY’s new DVD film ’Déjà vu’,

 released ahead of schedule on September 30th 2008, in which Neil Young’s ‘shakey’ film about the super-group’s outspoken and troubled American ‘freedom of speech’ tour of 2006 reveals just how similar our times are to the late 60s: politically we’re in some of the most troubled times we’ve ever seen, but musically things are almost as good as they used to be.

Following this DVD review straight after the CSN compilation review in the previous issue has made me wonder . Even the biggest fans of the trio/ super-group probably don’t know that the band has been releasing albums—together and apart—with more regularity this decade than at any time since the early 70s and that—far from becoming the ‘oldies’ group that every other 60s band seems to be becoming, they are still as brave and ;political as they ever were—just not as often these days. Unlike most ‘political’ groups, CSNY never hung up their peace banners when the Woodstock movement died a death at the hands of glam rock and punk rock in the 1970s. Even Neil, who has been telling us in interviews for years that his impassioned 1970 Kent State Massacre protest ‘Ohio’ was a ‘one-off’, has been heading back into analysing the American psyche on his later solo albums. Yet on previous four-way long-players like ‘American Dream’ (1988) and ‘Looking Forward’ (2000) our favourite out-spoken trio have sounded distinctly uncomfortable when they’ve got together, afraid of the weight on their shoulders when they get back together and sneaking in the odd rabble-rousing anthem in-between their more conservative and catchy songs.

Even the most optimistic fan CSNY could never have dreamed that the band would get back to their political provocative best—but for better or worse, that’s what we’ve got here. Then again, its not that weird that CSNY are doing this tour now, its weirder that no one else is doing it, that no other group has really united the anti-Iraq protestors and peace promoters the way that CSNY and their contemporaries did back in the bad old days of Vietnam and Watergate. A documentary that is as much of a political hot potato as this one would have been unthinkable even for CSNY just a half-decade or so ago—and then along the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration’s re-elections and latest scandals, the lack of headway in the Iraq War and most recently the growing credit crunch and suddenly politics in music is accepted again, with the actions of George W impacting people around the globe and affecting everybody once more, not just the committed few. We’ve been here before of course— and I humbly take back what I said about the title song ‘déjà vu’ not fitting the context of this anti-war project in my review of the soundtrack CD because I see it all now; the song weaves continually throughout this documentary, juxtaposing marching Vietnam veterans with marching Iraqi veterans and telling us over and over that ‘we have all been here before’ - and asking us all why we’ve failed to learn from our mistakes. In this context, Crosby’s classic song isn’t about learning from your past lives anymore—its about the lives of most of the people who came to the concerts who never ever thought they would see the same volume of Governmental distrust and the same level of anti-American hatred that they used to see in the 60s so firmly planted in the modern psyche. Band like CSNY have never been away—but we haven’t needed them as badly as this for a long time and suddenly their songs are far more relevant to our times as they were even a few years back.

The good news is that CSNY are brave and courageous once again, more so than they’ve been since the days of the mid-70s, and are fully in tune with the growing feeling of the world at large that our sudden long list of ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘liberty’ acts that were passed overnight after 9/11 are actually systematically robbing us of our chances to speak out against the policies made in our name, of our need to ‘stand and be counted’. It’s just like Nixon and Thatcher all over again—we all want nothing better than to trust our leaders and have them do what is best for all of us, but when our leaders represent their views over ours and deprive us of our chance to tell us how we feel, then we need music and artists like CSNY to fight back. Having CSNY giving people the chance to have a small tiny voice night after night—even if it’s a voice that half the audience can’t understand or reject out of hand— is entirely the ‘growing old disgracefully’ image we always longed for our favourite, most out-spoken, most committed, most audience-serving band to have (even if do still charge a fortune for tickets, as some wag points out on the documentary). I’ve loved CSNY since I first loved music, but I’ve never been as proud of them as this in my whole music-collecting monkeynuts life-time.

But the bad news is that those expecting to learn about CSNY’s feelings during this controversial tour or even see their talents fully-blossoming again don’t get much of an opportunity to do so here and—perhaps worst of all—we don’t even see the band on a particularly good night; in Neil’s own words the band are ‘all over the place’ during the first few nights and guess which concerts make up the bulk of this documentary?!? What we get instead of CSNY magic, though, is still highly moving—we speak to the soldiers who came back from the war despising what they saw there and found the CSNY tour the best way of letting off years of burning steam and choking anger; we speak to the proud families of those still serving in the army kicking and screaming about the band ‘stuffing their political opinions in our faces’ after paying hard-earned money for a night’s entertainment and escapism, horrified that their off-spring’s defence of their country is being ‘dishonoured’ or even ‘exploited’ by the band; we see Stephen Stills rallying voters at mid-term elections, half of which seem only to be there to get him to sign his autograph for them—and half of whom clearly don’t know who on earth he is; we see journalists re-counting their own horror stories and trying to give their own unbiased opinions of the tour, although on the negative side the fact the chosen reporter is travelling on their tour-bus is surely not conducive to unbiased filming; most of all we see America divided, confused and seemingly split down the middle with citizens confused as how to best serve their country— whether to give Bush the benefit of the doubt and rally behind him or join in with the protests, each side blaming the other for the whole sorry mess.

Thankfully the documentary isn’t all serious —two of the best scenes are the footage of Neil trying to dupe a conservative American chat-show host into allowing him to sing his new song ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ live on air and a clueless American interviewer asking Neil what exactly that same song is all about (the clue’s in the title, surely?!); both of these people clearly haven’t got a clue who these aging hippies are or why the people tuning into their shows should care about what a bunch of mid-60s musicians should think—in contrast, footage like this shows just how little some people know when it comes to what really is going on in American foreign policy these days and make CSNY’s desperation at putting their message across in corporate America all the more clear. But most of this documentary sticks in the throat—even at its bittiest, jumpiest and shallowest, there will be some quote that really brings home the stories of the audience and just why they love/ hate this show and this band so much and it’s been years since I saw a decent documentary do just that. 

A group once labelled, unfairly I think, as the most egocentric bunch of songwriters who ever walked the planet, have suddenly become truly selfless with this release, passing their film over to the people who attended it and those who helped make it happen. Sure their songs are telling people what to do as one irate concert-goer points out in the documentary—but it would be worse for a band like CSNY renowned for their honesty to bury their heads in the sand and ignore what is happening to them and their audience. For CSNY fans, the annoying down-side of handing the camera to others to give their two penn’orth is that every time a song seems to build into full throttle and soar, the camera cuts away, to tell us the story of someone else, often completely un-related to the group instead of showing us the power of the songs. Old timers already know how great these songs are—but new-comers probably won’t hear enough of them to be converted into raving passionate monkeynut collectors like me. The up-side of this is that this concert tour was never just about the music and the use of real war footage and audiences half-filled with people sobbing their hearts out and half-filled with people booing and throwing things make the band’s songs seem ever more poignant the few times we ever do hear any of their songs for any length of time. As anti-Bush documentaries go, this isn’t even in the same league as Michael Moore’s ‘Farenheit 9/11’ film (which uses a Neil Young song—’Rockin’ In The Free World’ - on the end credits by the way; why on earth wasn’t that song in CSNY’s war set-list?) and on a purely musical basis, this is shoddy stuff for purely music collectors considering it’s the only film of the quartet out on DVD ( I still recommend CSN’s ’Daylight Again’ DVD of 1983 though). But as a documentary about the importance of music and its power to move people and get them thinking, this is the most important musical documentary we’ve had since Woodstock.

There are a tonne of extras on the DVD , from an interview with a rather bored Neil to a full 40 minute re-tread of Neil’s ’Living With War’ album, complete with mocked-up CNN footage to illustrate such lyrics as ’here in the days of shock and awe’ and ’after the garden has gone’. Just as with the soundtrack CD reviewed earlier on this site, this solo album sounds surprisingly flimsy without those CSNY vocals in tow and even the presence of a 100-strong choir can’t cover up the loss of the three-some—but if you don’t already own the album, this is a fantastic value-for-money way of getting the main songs played on the ’freedom of speech’ tour and Neil’s own put-together footage (taken from his website) is moving most of the time. Best of all, though, is the montage of faces for the song ‘find the cost of freedom’, showing us every single American soldier who had died in Iraq up to the making of the film. Even though this trick has been borrowed from the ’director’s cut’ of Woodstock (where CSNY’s performance of the same song illustrates a list of names of performers and organisers who had died between taking part in that 1969 festival and the late 1990s DVD release), this 38-year-old Stephen Stills song—rejected from the film ’Easy Rider’ and only ever released originally as a CSNY B-side— is so spot-on for this footage and so moving that watching this straight after the film you can’t help but cry for the loss of life on both sides of the war, whether you think Neil and co have got things right or are barking up the wrong tree.  (...continued next page...)

The end verdict? As I said earlier in my review of Neil’s solo ‘Living With War’ album (which makes up the bulk of songs used on this tour), this documentary will become old very quickly once Bush leaves his office next year and the Iraq war comes to a close (if it ever ends in our life-times of course, depending on who the next American president is and how badly America still needs oil). But just as CSNY’s old songs still fit the bill for this modern anti-war tour, so too will these songs resonate with some of us in some way, long after the garden has gone. My only real reservation is that if CSNY were going to try and be brave and shock everybody with this release, they should have gone even further, giving us more, obscurer songs from after the ’classic years’ (Crosby’s ’Stand And Be Counted’ (‘Lookin’ Forward’, 2000), Stills’ ‘Treetop Flyer’ (‘Just Roll Tape’, 2006), Nash’s ‘Soldiers of Peace’ (@American Dream’, 1988) and Neil’s ‘Comin’ Apart At Every Nail’ (‘Hawks And Doves, 1980) would have been even more fitting than the ones they sing here). But that’s a minor quibble and perhaps its selfish of me to want to see more CSNY on a documentary that, really, is about our times and not about CSNY at all. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young have always been, in my opinion and in that of many others, the bravest and most relevant band of their day, willing to speak out and stand up for things when others were afraid to, feared their voices would be silenced or their careers ruined by their political stance. Right now CSNY are the bravest and most relevant band of our day too, something which doesn’t say much for the bands of today but says plenty about CSNY and how much their songs still mean to us, even all these years later.  

A Now Complete List Of CSN/Y and Solo Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Crosby, Stills and Nash' (1969)

'Deja Vu' (CSNY) (1970)

‘Stephen Stills’ (1970)

'If Only I Could Remember My Name' (Crosby) (1971)

'Songs For Beginners' (Nash) (1971)

'Stephen Stills II' (1971)
‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (1972)

'Stephen Stills-Manassas'  (1972)

'Wild Tales' (Nash) (1973)
'Down The Road' (Stephen Stills/Manassas) (1973)

'Stills' (1975)

'Wind On The Water' (Crosby-Nash) (1975)
'Illegal Stills' (Stills) (1976)
'Whistling Down The Wire' (Crosby-Nash) (1976)

'Long May You Run' (Stills-Young) (1976)

'CSN' (1977)
'Thoroughfare Gap' (Stills) (1978)
'Earth and Sky' (Nash) (1980)

'Daylight Again' (CSN) (1982)
'Right By You' (Stills) (1984)
'Innocent Eyes' (Nash) (1986)
'American Dream' (CSNY) (1988)

'Oh Yes I Can!' (Crosby) (1989)

'Live It Up!' (CSN)  (1989)

'Stephen Stills Alone' (1991)

'CPR' (Crosby Band) (1998)

‘So Like Gravity (CPR, 2001)

‘Songs For Survivors’ (2002)

'Deja Vu Live' (CD) (2008)

'Deja Vu Live' (DVD) (2008)

'Reflections' (Graham Nash Box Set) (2009)

'Demos' (CSN) (2009)

'Manassas: Pieces' (2010)

‘Carry On’ (Stephen Stills Box Set) (2013)

'Croz' (Crosby) (2014)
'CSNY 74' (Recorded 1974 Released 2014)

'This Path Tonight' (Nash) (2016)

‘Here If You Listen’ (Crosby)

The Best Unreleased CSNY Recordings
Surviving TV Appearances (1969-2009)
Non-Album Recordings (1962-2009)
Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One (1964-1980)
Live/Compilations/Rarities Albums Part Two (1982-2012)
Essay: The Superest Of Super Groups?
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

Monday, 22 September 2008

News, Views and Music Issue 5 (Intro)

September 22:

What a dull week in the world of AAA groups. Absolutely nothing has happened to any group discussed on this site, well as far as I know anyway...they’ve probably all been leading really interesting lives this week and doing all sorts of exciting activities, but there haven’t been any that I’ve heard about. I can’t even comment on Macca’s ‘Jools Holland’ appearance this week, because he pulled out of it at the last minute, unannounced, something that meant I had to sit through 10 minutes of blooming Metallica just to see if Macca was really not on or they were hiding him in a cupboard for the big finale or something. (His absence wasn’t explained, but is very probably something to do with all the flak Macca’s been getting for announcing his Israel show the Israel show; to be fair, Jools’ programme is broadcast live and Macca probably agreed to do the show before the Israeli thing erupted last week — or at least, Jools’ programme is live on Tuesdays anyway. For some odd reason there’s an ‘extended’ repeat show on Fridays—how on earth can you have an extended version of something that’s live?!?) Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour will be appearing on this week’s show on Tuesday/ Friday— more on that next week.

Anniversaries this week: Craig Chacquico (Jefferson Starship 1974-86) turns 54 on the 26th and Linda McCartney (24th) would have been 67. Events of the week: the chart debut of the Beatles’ farewell LP Abbey Road in 1969, the chart debut of 10cc in 1972 when first single ‘Donna’ came out of nowhere to chart at #2 and the first week at number #1 for the Hollies’ re-issue ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ 20 years ago this week, a staggering 19 years after the single reached #3 the first time round.  

News, Views and Music (Top Five): National Wombat Week

And this week’s top five: how could I miss commemorating ‘National wombat week’ a fortnight or so ago? Had I known I would have used this subject on this list sooner (curious fact for you too—’wombat week’ is the same as ‘fibromyalgia week’ which is why I missed celebrating it earlier- are the two weeks related?!) So, in honour of the Australian mammal that simply doesn’t get enough publicity, mainly because he’s usually asleep when other animals are getting busy for the cameras,  here is our list of the top five wombat ditties (sort of):

5) I Am Wombat (hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore)… (Helen Reddy/ I Am Wombat... Err, sorry, I Am Woman, 1972). We all thought this was a feminist anthem when it came out, but could it be that Helen Reddy actually meant to sing about wombats in this song and couldn’t pronounce the word? No? Ah well, she should have done!

4) Wombat (Lindisfarne/ Back And Fourth, 1978) “Wombat so mild, wombat so meek, wombat so devastatingly unique, wombat be good to me…” OK, so Geordie favourites Lindisfarne had probably never even heard of wombats when they wrote this song, but given how itchy and scratchy my old battered vinyl copy of this song is, that might just as well have been singing ‘wombat’ in the chorus…

3) Bald Headed Wombat (The Kinks/ The Kinks (1st album), 1964) “I’ve been driving with a bald headed wombat, gonna make me mean, yes lord, make me mean”. This old traditional blues number, allegedly ‘re-arranged’ by Kinks producer Shel Talmy in order to get the song-writing royalties (it sounds like every other version ever made of the song to me) never did make any sense anyway, so this interpretation can’t possibly be any more daft than the real story behind the song, whatever that might be. Curiously enough, I own a wombat who likes watching formula one, so this song fits rather too well…

2) Wombat (John Lennon/ Double Fantasy, 1980) “Wombat, I can hardly express my emotions and my thankfulness” Lennon’s more or less final release in his lifetime showed just how much the ex-Beatle had changed his outlook on life since his heady days as one of the fab four. ’You Can’t Do That’ and ’Run For Your Life’ are often trotted out as two of the most sexist songs the 60s ever produced, but to be fair on Lennon he went overboard trying to re-dress the balance once he met Yoko (His 1972 song ’Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’ remains one of the most controversial songs of Lennon’s solo career and is routinely absent from Lennon best-ofs, despite the fact that it was actually one of his bigger solo hits). The (almost) last song of Lennon’s  lifetime finds him toning down his political slant for something  that caused rather less controversy when it came out, despite being just as flag-waving in its own quiet way. For the purposes of our site, however, Lennon is surely celebrating loving wombats (honest he is).

1) Remember You’re A Wombat (Wombats, err sorry Wombles/any of the Womble best-ofs on the market which-are-nearly-all-filled-solely-with-tracks-taken-from-the-first-album-anyway-because-that’s-the-only-one-that-sold-before-the-novelty-passed, 1974) Novelty hit about green-fingered beings who live on Wimbledon common or a deep meaningful composition about snooze-loving Australian mammals who spend most of their time sleeping while upside down, which interpretation out ofd these two makes more sense to you?! Incidentally, music has long been associated with wombats...well, since about 2005 actually, when a promising new group called The Wombats released their first record. So proving that we at the Alan’s Album Archives are not the only monkeynuts people in the world. That’s all for this week, see you next time (if you haven’t run away screaming!)

Dire Straits "Making Movies" (1980) (News, Views and Music 5, Revised Edition 2014)

You can buy 'Solid Rock - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Dire Straits' by clicking here!

An Old Favourite I’m Currently Grooving To: “Like a surburban toreador...” 

Dire Straits "Makin' Movies" (1981)

Tunnel Of Love/ Romeo and Juliet/Skateaway/Expresso Love//Hand In Hand/Solid Rock/Les Boys

Camera! Lights! Action! 'Makin' Movies' is - 'Sultans Of Swing' aside - where the Dire Straits sound really begins. The first, eponymous album (written around Mark Knopfler's painful split from his first wife and so rather bleaker and angrier than most Dire Straits to come) would have been a Western where the hero gets shot by a women whose wronged him just as things were looking like a happy ending. The second album 'Communique' (hampered by a band in disarray and running short of material - Mark never was good at writing to order in a hurry) would have been one of those arty films where the main protagonists learn something after a long and dark journey. 'Makin' Movies' is by contrast the unexpected smash summer blockbuster, the moment at which what the creator does and what the audience want to hear are fully in-tune, passed on by word of mouth from those privileged enough to have found out how good it is. How else can you explain the fact that this album continued to sell for a ridiculously long time, staying on the UK top 40 charts for a mammoth 252 weeks (that's virtually five years!) 'Makin' Movies' isn't the best Dire Straits album, it's not the deepest or the most famous and taken individually some of the songs are a little hit and miss. But 'Makin' Movies' is the most joyful Dire Straits album, with a verve and optimism that Dire Straits will never have again and a unity of sound that's impressive (Mark's earlier songs for the band were all about breaking up; his later ones wary of his 'responsibility' now people are starting to listen to him).
After a difficult first album and an even more difficult second album this is the sound of a writer-singer-guitarist who has suddenly been released from the shackles of a difficult ten years and has finally realised how many great things he has going for him. Apart from younger Knopfler brother David, most of the band were a bit long in the tooth for what passed as a rock star in 1981 and Mark for one had dreamed of stardom for a long long time, through long stints in journalism and teaching that had stymied his creativity and seemed for a long time to have put an end to his dreams of making a living through music. 'Makin' Movies' sounds like a man whose just woken up from a bad dream, suddenly realising that he no longer has a reason to feel miserable: yes his marriage and his 'first life' are over but look what's replaced them: a world where - for the most part - everyone seems to love him, after years of being told to give up the guitar for some dead-end job. 'Communique' suffered because Mark tried to stick too closely to the template of the unhappier first album, written during a turbulent time in his life - but Mark isn't a 'naturally' unhappy writer; his natural style is much closer to the joi de vivre heard in this album. 'Communique' is an often difficult listen; 'Makin' Movies' is a joy.

That's odd because by rights it should be this album that's the hard one, full of gloomy songs and doomy circumstances. Mark had just experienced the difficult task of firing his own brother (nice in the short-term, full of major major repercussions in the long-term; just ask The Beach Boys, The Kinks and Oasis who all did the same temporarily but always brought their sibling back into the fold eventually; Mark is unique in having never worked with his brother again in public) and rather than replace him Mark chose to keep Dire Straits on as a trio. John Illsley, one of rock and roll's most faithful sons, was fully supportive, as was drummer Pick Withers, although both must have felt anxious about their chances. Just have a look at the promo videos shot for the three singles from this album: four members of the band appear on the video for 'Solid Rock', while three members of the band appear on 'Tunnel Of Love' and three again but only in silhouette on 'Skateaway'; 'Romeo and Juliet', meanwhile, doesn't feature the band at all!

Another reason that's odd is because so few of these songs are actually that happy when you analyse them. There's a 'Romeo and Juliet' re-make without the romance or the sad ending (the pair never get it together again once she becomes a star and he leaves in a huff, which surely makes it one of the most unusual adaptations of that theme ever written), a rollerskating beauty nearly getting run over by a car (at least judging by the video - goodness only knows what's going on in the song) and a turbulent ‘tunnel of love’ that's full of memories of which only half are actually pretty painful (it's a 'tunnel of betrayal' as well as a 'tunnel of love'). Other songs return to the first album's theme of trying to debate what 'love' actually is and Mark comes up with some very different ideas: it's an 'expresso', a moment of infatuation that goes cold sooner than the coffee; it's a series of 'hand in hand' rituals that Mark gets upset he and his loved one don't do, taking it as a sign that she doesn't love him any more; it's something one hell of a lot more complicated than the infant Mark Knopfler ever imagined it could be when he played in 'tunnel of loves'. The only people actually happy across the entire LP are 'Les Boys' in the closing track, 'glad to be gay' as Knopfler looks on first supportively and then perhaps a little enviously, his homosexual friends actually having an easier time than he is in his own troubled love life that everyone assumes is so wonderful. 'Makin' Movies' sounds like it ought to be full of happy endings, but like all the best cinematography it actually depicts a life where happy endings are if not impossible then at least unusual, reflecting the world as we fear it is rather than the world we want it to be.

So why do I always come away from this album feeling so revived? I seem to be far from the only one too - many critics called this an 'up' album without ever quite working out why and many fans follow suit. Perhaps it's the sheer amount of rock songs at the heart of this album: four out of the seven, with Knopfler sensibly putting these in four out of the six opening tracks, so that you never really have time to reflect on the song's deeper meanings until you finally wind up, breathless, in the sorrowful 'Hand In Hand' and then 'Les Boys'. Perhaps it's the sheer amount of songs based around heavy rocking riffs (the ones for both 'Solid Rock' and 'Skateaway' are excellent) - and a riff can get you out of all sorts of trouble if you're not sure where you're going in a song (there aren't many on 'Communique' for example). Perhaps it's the sheer attack of the performances: Mark was an expressive vocalist from the first but he's at his best as a singer across this album, with many of his vocals sound as if they're being played live along with the backing (check out Skateaway: 'He's got the whole world in the city...yay!' sings Mark while breaking out into giggles; Dire Straits have never been 'funny' before and the odd unfunny attempt on a B-side apart never will). His guitar also flies with abandon across this record, delighting in the ability of playing live (and perhaps not having to worry about merging in with what his brother's playing across the album) and above all having fun (nearly all the songs on this album end with long long instrumental fade-outs, a good sign of a band having fun playing together). Perhaps it's simply the fact that so much of this album is built on basic boogie woogie beats and it's a God-given fact that you can't tap your feet and cry all at the same time. Perhaps it's simply that with so much going on in this record that the listener doesn't have time to focus on the 'down' aspect of the album.
Which is also odd, because by Dire Straits standards there isn't very much going on in this album. The first album looked at love and betrayal; the very next album will turn political, debating the progress or otherwise of civilisation and industry. This album looks at skates, expresso coffees and, erm, 'solid rock'. Usually I'm not that keen on albums like this: yes there's a place for emptier, sillier pop songs but they tend to be the records I'll enjoy while they're on and not get round to playing again for a few years; 'Makin' Movies' is a record that keeps ending up back on my stereo though. Like the 'expresso' on 'Expresso Love' there's just enough coffee to go with the froth, although unusually for Mark the nastier side of life is more hidden than before and after. 'Romeo and Juliet' is such a pretty single that many people miss the sad ending; 'Tunnel Of Love' sounds like fun, although it's actually quite a scary adult ride; 'Hand In Hand' has enough sadness for most albums single-handedly anyway. Even 'Solid Rock' 'Skateaway' and 'Expresso Love' sound like the sort of escapism (both musically and thematically) that comes after troubled times.
There's another half-theme here too: that of modern city living. People forget, what with all the re-interpretations and re-casting of Shakespeare's dodgy original play but the whole point of the 'forbidden love' theme was that the pair of lovers came from different backgrounds: not race, as per many modern versions, or even rival street gangs a la 'West Side Story'. The main crux of their differences is of course class (she's a noble, he's a peasant), but more than that the two are portrayed as having no obvious thing in common in their backgrounds: he's from a city (or as close to a city as the Medieval Ages ever had); she's a country girl (albeit a country girl who lives in a remote castle). Like so many writers before him Mark re-casts the theme so that it's a 'modern day' love setting with lots of modern slang ('Oh yeah Romeo, you know I used to have a scene with him!' and most memorably 'Hey la, my boyfriend's back!'), while Romeo is a 'wheeler-dealer' type whose actually quite sweet under all that bluster. This city setting is actually one of the more faithful adaptations to Shakespeare's original, although to be truly authentic she ought to be an established rock star who moved up through the ranks thanks to her family contacts and he ought to have been from the back streets until he joined a boy band and became on the same 'level' as her. 'Skateaway' is another modern day city romance and even features the line ' an urban toreador', a bull fight re-enacted not with dancing lovers but a girl on skates. 'Tunnel Of Love' is clearly taking place in a city fairground (the countryside doesn't have them as a rule - there aren't enough people). 'Espressos' are clearly a town 'thing' too. It might be stretching a point, but what is a town usually built on? 'Solid Rock'! The brilliance of 'Makin' Movies' is that, despite being seven apparently very different songs they clearly come from a similar setting, the 'background' to a 'movie' that most people would be able to recognise (unless you do live in the country, in which the opening of the forthcoming 'Telegraph Road' will be for you). This is the point where Knopfler finally nails who he's meant to be: he's a modern writer singing modern songs but about timeless themes and it will stay that way for the rest of his time with the band. Notably when he does knock Dire Straits on the head for getting 'too big' what does he do? He forms a band named 'The Notting Hillbillies' who sing songs about the country and then goes back to his folk and country roots (both genres traditionally 'countryside', even if most folk concerts take place in communal pubs).
In a way each of these seven songs are 'movies' set in different urban settings, all of which have their own stories to tell but which could conceivably be happening to supporting characters in some 'film'. The tunnel of love, the busy road in 'Skateaway', the 'Expresso Love' cafe, the gay bar in 'Les Boys', the modern romance of 'Romeo and Juliet' - all of these could be happening in the same street for all we know. Named after a throwaway phrase in the lyric of 'Skateaway' ('She's makin' movies, on location...she don't know what it means!'), which also mimics a similar one in 'Romeo and Juliet' (referencing Bernstein and Sondheim's re-make of the story in 'West Side Story' with the line 'There's a place for us...but not like the movie song!'), it's actually a rather good summation of an album that more than any other Knopfler work to date focuses on characters, or at least narrated by someone other than the narrator ('Tunnel Of Love' and 'Hand In Hand' being the first-person exceptions). This is a modern movie, shot in a modern city setting, on location - and no I don't really know what it means either.
Except... there is a very strong theme which ties in with everything discussed so far. What 'Makin' Movies' is really doing is commenting on the changing art of love across the centuries, 'shot' using the most modern axiom that Knopfler can come up with: the movie camera. On the one hand 'love' hasn't changed that much at all: 'Romeo and Juliet' may speak in modern slang but their story is almost exactly the same one first written four hundred years earlier: boy and girl love each other, it doesn't work out, they both regret it - the only difference is neither of them die (well, in the lyric, conceivably Romeo could 'walk away walk away' to his death but he doesn't sound mad with passion, just frustrated and upset). Elsewhere love has changed a great deal: 'Tunnel Of Love' finds an adult Mark returning to somewhere he used to play and while he hasn't changed that much his ideas of love have. 'Skateaway' has boy and girl brushing past each other - meeting accidentally not during a coach ride or after an invite to a party or even an organised triste with a second cousin (the way most Victorians got married) but because a girl on skates bumps into the narrator on a busy road (' she comes!') 'Espresso Love' is about a lesser modernscape built around convenience rather than love, a world built for casual flings and to dispel loneliness rather than out of a desire to be together forever and ever and ever (the way love used to seem in 'Tunnel Of Love') Knopfler is annoyed: he was taught to 'learn' how to play love gradually 'like a saxophone', only enjoying the fruits after several years of learning how to play 'scales' - but most modern relationships have crashed and burnt several times within that space of time as people succumb to their 'fever'. 'Les Boys', clearly, is a revolution: a gay club where men can be openly be gay and actually proud of their status (this would have been inconceivable even five years earlier than this album's release - this change in acceptance and open-ness is clearly huge and may well be the second half of the 20th century's biggest claim to fame when judged in the centuries to come (along with similar changes in gender equality, a few bits and pieces of technology, a faked moon landing and some great great records). Even 'Hand In Hand' suddenly makes more sense in context: Knopfler's narrator is the one at 'fault', still reading the signals of love the old-fashioned way where a couple walks 'hand in hand as lovers are supposed to' - he clearly hates the modern world with all its mixed signals and speedy short-lived romances. It's this theme running throughout  the work (for once it's so strong we won't even call it a 'half-theme') that makes 'Makin' Movies' such a memorable musical moment.
One thing that really doesn't work about this album, though, is the cover. To date the band have just about gotten away with some puzzling ideas: the blurred car park-setting of 'Dire Straits' (which does at least sum up the album's blurry moving-too-fast feel) and the postcard of 'Communique' (because it's an album about 'communications' ho ho ho!) The title 'Makin' Movies' is ripe for all sorts of ideas, even granting the fact that Dire Straits never do the obvious full-blown expensive covers: The back of a camera? A tripod? Even a hint at the modern setting 'on location' might have done. Instead we get a big block of red colour which leads into a short burst of light blue colour on the right-hand side, separated by a 'kink' that looks like the 'gap' where you're meant to get the record out (but isn't - or at least it isn't on my copy; this idea really doesn't work on cassette or CD by the way). What does it all mean? And why didn't the band get 'told off' for being 'pretentious'? (We're only one colour away from the 'cardboard sleeve' Lindisfarne intended for third album 'Dingly Dell' ten years before, which so got up the nose of certain music critics it all but killed off the band).
Overall, then 'Makin' Movies' is a fun record with a serious message, full of some excellent musicianship and Mark on particularly fine form both vocally and on guitar. Not quite everything works - 'Les Boys' isn't half as radical or clever as it thinks it is and if you really wanted to be cruel then having so many similar paced rockers packed so closely together does make them start to sound a little bit the same. But all that pales into significance against a writer fully in tune with his art, trying to reflect the modern world he sees around him in words his audience will understand and slowly coming to terms with the fact that his being unlucky in love and his ability to express his frustration about that fact so eloquently made him a very special writer to so many people in similar circumstances. There are better Dire Straits albums than 'Makin' Movies', deeper ones, catchier ones, more inventive ones. But few records combine the sheer joy of playing with the sheer misery of modern-day living on as 'Makin' Movies', perhaps Dire Straits' most 'complete' record, endlessly fascinating, eminently listenable.

The Songs:

Opening with a burst of Rodgers and Hammerstein's opening theme to 'Carousel', [21] 'Tunnel Of Love' is clearly intended to invoke memories of old childhood memories of 'waltzers' and 'ghosts trains'. The organ melody soon gives way to a typically charged Knopfler guitar riff that's as turbulent and restless as any from the band's first two records but not quite as unhappy. A teenage Knopfler is 'high on the world' with the girl of his dreams, but it soon becomes clear that this a flashback. His choice is the 'waltzers', the slower more romantic vision of love, but wherever he looks love seems to be against him, the 'big wheel' taking him down as well and up, 'riding at your own risk' of what comes next. Mark says 'baby, let's keep it like this' but things soon get out of hand, with 'arrows' fired at him from all areas (leaving Mark to complain that's he's left to 'sing about the six-blade, sing about the switchblade' - referring perhaps to [4] 'Six-Blade Knife', the title of one of one of his most bitter compositions as featured on the first album). Even in the tunnel of love 'where palaces are made' he's still haunted by the very real looking ghost of his first love, a reminder of all the things that should have been but weren't (the first of two mysterious references on this album to a 'Spanish city', perhaps a Knopfler honeymoon resort?) What should be a rather dull song, simply recycling a list of items at the fairground, is enlivened by a fiery performance (with two Marks playing in tandem, one guitar soaring above everything, the other growling as if tied to the ground) and a sense that somewhere in this song lurks 'the truth'. For 'Tunnel Of Love' is as oddly shaped a song as you can hope to find: there's no chorus, just lots and lots of verses, a shorter quieter middle eight that's about a quarter as long and a lengthy guitar solo just where we aren't expecting one. Like a lot of the first album, 'Tunnel Of Love' seems to be wrenched from the heart of its writer, almost against his will, the sad end to his first marriage perhaps still haunting him even three years and however many hit songs after he first came to fame singing about that loss. Knopfler has always worn his heart on his sleeve and this song is darker and barer than most, even if it's also an attempt to return to the 'innocent' past setting of a fairground that always seemed more fun in memory than they ever were at the time (Mark may have been influenced by the David Essex/Ringo film 'That'll Be The Day' released in 1973 which has a similar setting - and an equally eerie ending where Ringo gets stabbed, disrupting the 'aah I remember that' vibe of the first half of the film). All in all this is a key song for Knopfler as a songwriter and it's busy stomp doesn't outlast it's welcome even across eight tension-packed minutes.

 [22] 'Romeo and Juliet' keeps up the 'ill fated lovers' theme, the band's biggest single since [2] 'Sultans Of Swing' after a string of flop singles. The song is still highly regarded today, long after so many of the bigger sellers that crop up later on this list have been forgotten for one simple reason: Mark Knopfler is an excellent storyteller. You instantly 'know' the vibe of both Romeo and Juliet from their brief remarks: she's a fluffy bunny whose never known true love; he's a conman on the make who slowly falls for his beloved; it's inevitably going to end in tears. Before it does, though, the pair have just enough time to pretend they don't really like each other though secretly they do, Mark cleverly re-casting the love tale for a modern-day setting so that Romeo's serenade under her balcony is delightfully ironic and Juliet is less than pleased ('You nearly give me a heartache!') Romeo's re-action is furious: a passionate middle eight finds him contrasting her older self ('when we made love you used to cry') with her current self (gossiping, 'oh yeah Romeo - I used to have a scene with him!') A gorgeous lament for lost love, everything about this song is cleverly structured, so that each outpouring of emotion gets bigger and bigger until pealing off in a worried 'Juliet?...' Mark's vocal is nicely a quiver without going over the top and the song ends the way so many modern romances do - not with a suicide or an impassioned plea but one last shrug of the shoulders, a drunken night at the bar and Romeo on the re-bound (ending where we begun with the line 'You and me about it?') Knopfler's comment on how romance is conducted in the modern Western world may be blunter and less dramatic than the original story, but it's no less moving: two lovers going their separate ways and neither one of them quite understanding why. Despite another lengthy running time (six seconds shy of six minutes), this is another song that doesn't last a second too long and must be one of the very few singles over five minutes to make the UK top ten.

Dire Straits unusually put all three singles from this album together at the start, which means that next up is [23] 'Skateaway', my favourite song on the record, for sheer bravery if nothing else (seriously, how many other six minute hit singles do you know that do little else except list the attributes of a passing girl on roller skates?!) On paper this song makes no sense: it veers between a traffic setting (with a big lorry 'greasing her hip'!) and a discotheque ('...with the music playing loud...a DJ plays the music all night long!') - presumably the DJ is the rock and roll music playing in her headphones but that's never made fully clear. 'Life's a rollerball' is also one of Mark's dafter metaphors for life (or at least, if life is a rollerball then I'm still back in the cloakroom trying to get the dratted shoes on and falling over every time I stand up - actually this metaphor works!...) None of that matters: all that matters is that slinky, unforgettable hook that reels you in and won't let go, pushing you up and over six minutes of obstacles with only a couple of glorious sing-a-long choruses to get you through. A terrific drum part cements the song into position, leaving everyone else free to mix around it, which the band do in style: Knopfler's guitar playing has rarely been so free or exciting. The lyrics make the most of their strange story, poetic despite the modern language ('The cars do their usual dances!' 'She had wheels on her feet!') and there's a clever idea about the un-named 'Skateaway' girl being 'free' in more ways than just her skates: she used to be stuck at home, now she's the centre of attention in any traffic jam, 'makin' movies' in her head as the places pass by her in a blur. The result is one of Dire Straits' biggest success stories, a song which no other band would ever have attempted - or done half so well. If you haven't heard this song yet then our recommendation is get your skates on!

[24] 'Expresso Love' is an interesting start to side two, a gruff no-frills rocker that builds layer by layer to a froth of indignation. Mark is furious at the way modern teenagers seem to conduct themselves: the relationships he sees all around him are so casual but his is deep and ever-lasting, so why is his the one to fail? A sudden switch of keys remind us that 'she was made in Heaven...that Heaven's in the world', but a moment of doubt creeps in: is this a relationship made to last through all courses of human life, or here simply for the coffees. Another curiously structured song balances between the two thoughts without ever quite coming down on the side of either, although the melody makes food play of this leaving the narrator breathless and bouncing from one section to another so quickly that Mark struggles to keep up. Like the other rockers on this album this song isn't that deep but it features a good riff, a great raw band performance and just enough genuine feeling to get by. In retrospect though 'Espresso Love' is most notable for being the first time ever a piano plays a major role on a Dire Straits recording, although it's not played by Alan Clark and lasts all of the opening minute before being overwhelmed by Knopfler's guitar at full flight.

[25] 'Hand In Hand' is the song on this album least sure of itself. Mark's never said, but I suspect this song is a leftover from the first album: so many of the key metaphors from the first album are there: the dejection, the bitterness, the worry over whether the narrator did anything wrong, the idea of 'water' cleansing a 'dirty town'. This time Mark's narrator tries to 'come back for more, like a wave on the shore' and 'returns strong' but his claims to 'do my best to be somebody you'd get close to' seem to fall on deaf ears, as he secretly realised they would. At the same time Mark seems to be commenting not on this specific relationship but once again love in general: nobody courts each other the way they used to ('You kept your distance and it was tearing me apart') and the way she seems to have got over the split quicker than him, going a bit quicker than the 'hand in hand' stage by the sound of things. Mark's mournful plea 'Do you think of me....sometimes?' is heart-wrenching, but the near-enough last song about his earlier unhappy days ends symbolically, the rain that's been hovering in the sky for so long finally coming down in torrents and wiping off the 'writing on the wall' that's been there for some time. The narrator is now free to go and move on with his life, a symbolic moment that's amongst the most poignant in Knopfler's canon, even if the song itself lacks the strong melody and the witty words of the other songs on this album.

[26] 'Solid Rock' returns to the rawer rocking style of most of the rest of the album, a stomping 4/4 simple rocker that features another great riff and a backing track full but not over-busy with criss-crossing guitars and a sumptuous Knopfler record that's among his liveliest and most demented. The lyrics sound like something written to sing along with the riff rather than heartfelt prose but even this occasionally throwaway set of words comes with several clever lines that - oops forget what we said above - once again reflects on a past love that Knopfler put a lot of time and effort into. Using the pun of 'solid rock' being a firm foundation for love (as long as both 'hearts' are solid) and 'solid rock' being what Mark turns to in order to work through his 'grief', this simple song finds him at simultaneously his most bitter and his most playful. Some exquisite solo-ing over the end of the song suggests that the shortest song on the album by far (barely three minutes) could have gone on a lot longer. 'Solid Rock' indeed - this isn't as ethereal as some of the other songs on the album, being earthier and less angst-ridden, quite different to the more passive-aggressive songs around it ('I'm Sick of potential, sick of vanity now, sticking to essential reality now!')

[27] 'Les Boys' can't quite up the good work of the rest of the album. I can hear what Knopfler was trying to do and I applaud it - both the fact that he's embracing a subject matter so alien to what he's used to writing about (but fitting for an album about changes to love down the centuries) and the unusual, understated music. But there's no melody here, no memorable hooks or riffs and no space for soaring Knopfler guitar and clattering drums. The lyrics too are as basic as they can get away with and at times bordering on being patronising ('High heel shoes and a black beret'), Knopfler sounding deeply uncomfortable singing them to be honest. In a way Knopfler had to attempt a song like this, just to prove that there was more armoury in his repertory than 'solid rock', love-lorn ballads, love songs to rock and roll and songs about rainy grey towns. But Mark's so clearly in a place he knows nothing about: his sly, subtle vocal isn't even pitched where you would expect it to be, everything is mixed so quietly that your ears are still ringing from 'Solid Rock' long after the song ends however loudly you turn it up and everything in this song reeks of an outsider trying to look in rather than an insider passing knowledge about their life out.  As a result what's most shocking about this tales of hookers, whores and gay bars is how depressingly ordinary everything is, the music not taking anything like the same risks as the lyric.

What a shame, then, that the album's one duff moment had to be included at the end of an otherwise consistently hummable and dependable album. A useful stepping stone to later, more crafted LPs (including the stunning 'Love Over Gold' which is the band's masterpiece), but also the one that makes best use of the band's earlier, harder, brittler sound, 'Makin' Movies' has much to recommend it. Sad and broken at heart, but uplifting thanks to the surging melodies and fiery performances 'Makin' Movies' might well be the ultimate 'break-up' album - a shoulder to cry on that understand your troubles before putting the world to rights. If this is what making movies is all about then Mark Knopfler should make a few movies like this one, a record that's as sad and as humbled as anything else in the great man's canon but one that's established firmly on 'solid rock' as well. 

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