Friday 5 November 2010

Dire Straits "On Every Street" (1993) (Revised Review Published 2014)

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

“Calling Elvis – is anybody home? Calling Elvis - I’m here all alone”  “A three-chord symphony crashes into space, the moon is hanging upside down, I don’t know why I’m still on the case...” “If we can’t get along, we ought to be apart and I’m wondering where yo0u got that cold cold heart”  “You only get one life I know – I want to get my licks in before I go” “Sometimes you’re the windshi’On Every ld, sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes it all comes together baby, sometimes you’re the fool in love” “My life makes perfect sense – lust and food and violence” “The same old fears and the same old crimes – we haven’t changed since ancient times” “Now I’m trying to find my way through the rain and the steam” 

Dire Straits “On Every Street” (1991)
Calling Elvis/On Every Street/When It Comes To You/Fade To Black/The Bug/You And Your Friend//Heavy Fuel/Iron Hand/Ticket To Heaven/My Parties/Planet Of New Orleans/How Long?

"Ullo? Is that Elvis?' 'Uh-huh?' 'Look, mr King, sir, I'm in a rock and roll band and we're quite big at the moment - well just about the biggest thing since you Mr Presley, sir, and I'm scared'. 'Uh-huh?' 'I just wondered, was there a moment in your career when you saw the end coming? Would you have given it all up to have stepped away from that spotlight for just a single moment or even a breather? Did you ever feel as if it all just got too big?!Does it all get easier? Or should I just step away quietly? Look, I just really need some guidance now....Hello, Elvis?..."

'On Every Street' is where Dire Straits reverse the charges. After some of the greatest procrastination the world has ever known (an ad hoc super-group The Notting Hillbillies, a covers album with Chet Atkins and no less than four film soundtracks) Mark Knopfler finally got back to his day job and tried to follow-up the biggest selling album of the decade. But he does so on his own terms: this is an album that consciously, deliberately, overwhelmingly tries to stay low key. There are no power pop singles here, in fact nothing all that deep and meaningful at all (especially the first three singles that were released first from this album that can best be considered 'novelty records'), no guest stars and no big production numbers. Caught halfway between what Mark had become (rock star hero) and what he was about to become (earthy folk crooner), 'On Every Street' finds Knopfler straddling every path and almost wilfully vowing not to go anywhere near his past (even though conversely it's sadly the last album to buy if you're interested in Mark Knopfler records mainly to hear that electric guitar sound, with lots of last farewells here). At the same time Knopfler is keen to use the skills he's learnt - the painstaking atmospheric craftwork of his film scores (which are often lovely but perhaps a little too well crafted and in need of some urgent spontaneity) and the daftness of his rockabilly projects with other people (which are often fun but badly in need of structure to be meaningful) As a result fans have always been rather uneasy about 'On Every Street', which moves from a pastiche of what a preening rockstar should be doing on their follow-up to a hit album (the heavy rocking comedy 'Heavy Fuel'), atmospheric ballads that don't say much and are all about the sound (e.g. the title track), folk laments that will later become the default Knopfler setting (the uneasy farewell track 'How Long?') and the sound of a band just having fun and trying to shrug off the weight of expectation ('The Bug' is the sort of thing a new wannabe band can get away with, but not an established million-selling act). As a result a lot of fans don't quite know how to take 'On Every Street' which manages by turns to stretch the band's signature sound to breaking point and confine them inside a little box marked 'no ambition'. If this was an attempt at a big hit album it would surely have been a cul-de-sac, but a hit album was the last thing the basically shy and down-to-earth Knopfler would have wanted - far from bringing him the success and glory, the high sales for 'Brothers In Arms' only seem to have brought him unhappiness and a sense that people were believing more in him than he believed himself.

Now, following world-wide blockbusters is never easy. The added pressure that your biggest successes gives you can lead to some very odd decisions, as we’ve seen elsewhere already on this site (The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour; Neil Young’s ‘Time Fades Away’; Pink Floyd’s four song album ‘Wish You Were Here’, etc) while it broke artists like Lindisfarne, The Small Faces and Simon and Garfunkel up altogether. Yet only 'Dark Side Of The Moon' comes close to selling as many copies as 'Brothers In Arms' did and arguably that came after a run of hit albums anyway: while albums one, three and four could all be considered big sellers of one sort or another, 'Brothers In Arms' smashed all records from almost the first day of release, promoted by two hit singles before the album was even out in shops. Following it up would have been a problem for any band, never mind one that worked at as slow a pace as this one (would you believe there’s a six year gap between albums by this stage? Neil Young, for instance, had released seven long-players and an EP in the same time period). Despite initially selling far more copies than its predecessor (it hit #1 in the charts far quicker than ‘Arms’ which had to wait for the million-selling single ‘Money For Nothing’ to come out to push it all the way to the top of the charts) , ‘On Every Street’ is nowadays one of the most obscure albums Dire Straits ever released. It is also, to date at least, their last. The two are not un-connected.

There’s lots of reasons why this album was so badly received at the time, not just the long gestation period. We forget nowadays, but back in the 1980s Dire Straits were the biggest band around, second only to Madonna and Michael Jackson for singles and albums sold in that period (and that by releasing basically only a quarter of the same amount of material).  In 1985 they were at their profile peak, appearing on everything from Live Aid to TV-broadcast concerts of their world tours and their promo videos were everywhere. ‘Brothers In Arms’ was an album that suited the climate well, full of confident pop and hard-hitting ear-catching arrangements, with just enough gentle toughness underneath the gloss to give fans who wanted either something they wanted. ‘On Every Street’ is by contrast a very humble album, very unsure of itself both in the way that the arrangements repeat themselves throughout and in the way that the lyrics seem to pose questions rather than give answers. Hardly anything here is tough the way that 'Ride Across The River' and 'The Man's Too Strong' became the 'conscience' of that record ('Iron Hand' comes closest and that's more like a traditional folk song than something powerful and contemporary). Yet hardly anything is as empty effervescent gloriously glossy pop as 'Money For Nothing' or 'So Far Away' either - in truth the only 'uptempo' songs here are all frivolous comedies and even though Vertigo tries hard by releasing four singles (just one less than last time) only 'Calling Elvis' did well and that was mainly through pre-sales before most fans had heard it (the song makes more sense in the climate of the nostalgic rockabilly 1993, but play it back to back with the oh so 1985 final single 'Why Worry?' and the two songs couldn't be more different - one is deep yet with pretty colours on every last note, the other is bare-bones and effectively a one-note (though still funny) joke. However the confusion that greeted 'On Every Street' is in many ways unfounded; though curiously low on rock throughout it's actually 'On Every Street' that sounds most like the albums of the past (the mixture of comedy and adrenalin that is 'Makin' Movies' and the thoughtful, lyrical 'Love Over Gold'); it's the assertive and confident 'Brothers In Arms' that sounds like the odd one out when you play these records in order.  

'On Every Street' has something of a reputation for being boring and worthless. The former is probably true - very little here leaps out at you musically and when this album does assault your ears it's generally for the wrong reasons ('My Parties' is a joke to far, the flimsiest song on the record getting the biggest production job, while Knopfler sings in an annoying accent throughout instead of just one verse). However, it's far from worthless - it's just not that immediate, that's all, and you just have to dig a bit more to realise how great some of these songs are. While for my money Knopfler was never as natural a lyricist as he was a composer, he has a very distinctive homespun philosophy style that sits well with his music and his lyrics on this album are among the best he ever wrote. Fans should by rights be quoting the moody ‘Fade To Black’, atmospheric ‘Iron Hand’ or even the jokey ‘The Bug’ (the best comedy song on this site not written by 10cc or given to Ringo to sing?), but instead they hardly know them – even if they own this album. It's hard to sing anything from this album out loud and I guarantee that the only song from this entire album that will be rolling round my head tonight when inevitably I can't sleep will be the chirpy 'Calling Elvis' (oh no, I feel nine hours of that bleeping synthesiser sound effect going over and over...) However just have a flick through the lyrics to these songs again: 'I bet you already made a pass in a darkened room somewhere' 'I wish I'd never been lassooed or been to hell and back...' 'The same old fear, the same old crimes, we haven't changed since ancient times...' 'One day you're a diamond - then you're a stone...' all of these are highly quotable lyrics that would happily grace any of the earlier LPs. Even if some of the other tracks try a little too hard (the title track and 'Ticket To Heaven' come to mind), this isn't just a ripped off hurried album rattled off to kill off the band's sound - Knopfler has worked at the lyrics and what he has to say. In fact that's arguably this record's biggest weakness: it spends so long trying to work out what to say and make it meaningful, before pulling the rug underneath us with a deliberately daft song that simply points out how stupid taking advice from rock musicians is. 'Brothers In Arms' was an album that could have it both ways because, while simple, none of the pop songs were empty and all sounded heartfelt, while the more serious songs on the album 'joined up the dots' a little, 
preventing it from being 'just' an album of pop singles. 'On Every Street' can't win: the silly songs are really silly, the deep songs are really deep and there's nothing in the grey area between them.

There’s another reason for this album’s humility that few reviewers picked up on in 1991, even though the ‘feel’ of it is present in this album’s songs everywhere but the singles. Mark Knopfler’s 10 year marriage to second wife Lourdes Salomone was grinding to a halt, with the couple divorcing just two years after this album’s release and there’s some speculation that Dire Straits’ gruelling and then-unprecedented two-year long tour was as much to avoid going home as it was to promote this album (like all too many bands out on the road for extended periods, Dire Straits broke up for good just after it had finished). We’ve had other ‘divorce’ albums on this website before of course (Paul Simon’s ‘One-Trick Pony’ takes the gentlemanly route; The Kinks’ ‘State Of Confusion’, about Ray Davies’ split with Pretender Chrissie Hynde, was less so) but ‘On Every Street is pretty much unique in the way it goes about taking revenge for wrongs and slights over the years. The music is alternately slow, bluesy and reflective and then angry and piercing, while the words veer wildly from poetic wrist-slitting to personal confessional angst, often mixing these approaches in the same song. 'Brothers' had some sad reflective moments but was for the most part a glass half full, upbeat album - but this album is half empty (except for 'The Bug' where it sloshes around between overfull and bare all the time). 'On Every Street' 'When It Comes To You' and 'Fade To Black' all imagine what the past Mrs Knopfler will get up to in the future, most of it bad and none of it involving the narrator who feels abandoned, left behind (not for nothing does the band use the image of a homeless trap on the cover, his feet sticking out towards the camera), while the back image repeats this cover but as a 'postcard' - being away from home is another album theme that everyone assumes was to do with the tour: erm actually the tour didn't start until these songs were recorded; my guess is that Knopfler was imagining a new life away from the family home). Funnily enough, we've come full circle. First album 'Dire Straits' was another break-up album, with Knopfler in many ways only becoming a rock star so he could vent his feelings (his first wife didn't approve so the first three records are in many ways an 'I'll show her...' commercial fest until Knopfler's social conscience kicks in on 'Love Over Gold'). It's as tough as a pair of boots (it should have come with the cover for this album), full of themes about going on walks and not knowing home when you get back: even 'Sultans Of Swings' is about the stop-off escapist point offered as a reason for why the 'album narrator' has to get out of the house. 'On Every Street' very much returns to the start, with themes of loss and breakup and name-calling and guilt and walking as far away as possible and yet still not being able to shake off the hurt happening at home...The difference is that instead of a no-frills rock band Dire Straits are now a global icon and Knopfler is all rocked out, preferring a folk sound to tell his stories.

As for the end predictably there wasn't one - not really. Officially Dire Straits have never broken up and are just 'resting', although I'd be surprised if anything new comes out under the band name again (John Illsley, still good friends with Mark, says he keeps ringing him up every year or so to ask when they're going out on tour - at first he meant it seriously, but now it's something of a joke). Having ended with the mother of all farewell tours (collected on live set 'On The Night' and two 'Encores' EPs) where Dire Straits played to as many people as could possibly want to go see them around the world, Knopfler hung up his boots (yep, them again!) and created a whole new parallel world for himself as a folk singer-songwriter, content that enough of the fans who'd fallen in love with him would follow and support him for the rest of his creative life, while those into Dire Straits because they were rich and successful would all go away. Of all the ways of following up a huge album, this is in many ways my favourite: nobody gets hurt, the band got a 'proper' goodbye where they made pots of money, Knopfler continues to write music (far more often, in fact, than in his days with the band) and fans got to see both why Dire Straits couldn't go on being the band they were this last time around ('I tried' you can almost hear Knopfler saying throughout this album, stamped through the lyrics like a watermark', but too much has changed for me to write like that!') and got to experience a 'preview' of where Mark's solo career was going to go. People have called 'On Every Street' a disappointment, which it is if you're expecting another world-beater perfect for its times. But how could it be: the 1980s fitted The Dire Straits to a tee, the 1990s weren't the same background anymore and Knopfler is no longer interested in music from the present anyway but the sounds of the past (any record that references the English Civil War and Elvis - dead for sixteen years by the time of this album's release - clearly doesn't care anymore about what's in the charts and why). Considering what might have happened (no last goodbye at all, a pure folk album like the ones to come or a truly awful 'pop' record like the lesser songs here repeated ad infinitum) this is, honestly, the way to go full of reasons why the band had to change, why they had to say goodbye and why tis album's chief creator knew from the moment he started writing the first song for it that the project was doomed to failure.

‘On Every Street’ is a mixed bag, then, without the sparkle and mainly without the wit of the olden days, without quite matching Mark's later solo albums in terms of wisdom and sensibility. This was always going to be a hybrid project, one that found Knopfler's personal and professional life in flux. You sense that he's only half-joking about coming down the Dire Straits years ('Last time I felt sober - man I felt bad!') but you also know that this new vow of abstinence from all rock star things is heartfelt and for Mark the only option left to him. ‘Street’ has aged an awful lot better than it's predecessor in many ways, with subdued production values that for the most part sound like a forerunner of the more mid-90s back-to-basics fashion and there are less dateable elements like synths, linn drums and production gimmicks (although as 'My Parties' falls into all of these traps we can't let it get off entirely scott free). It also works better than most of the band’s other albums as a mood piece, with each track similar in tone, give or take three of the four singles released from the album, as opposed to the eccentricity that became the Knopfler trademark from ‘Communique’ onwards. Ask the average person today (far too young to know of 'Dire Straits', poor things) which of the two records they consider to be the 'hit' album that summed up its era and which was the 'disappointment', a good half of the time they might surprise you with their choice and pick the quieter, humbler, more thoughtful LP with the three insanely catchy songs on it (not that we conducted any blind testing or anything, so don't hold us to this under pain of death or something). What's more this is in many ways where the band chemistry finally comes together: Alan Clark’s haunting keyboards are all over this record, more so than any other barring 'Love Over Gold' (plus this CD sounds, in parts, quite similar to his and Knopfler’s score for the ‘Local hero’ film where Clark really should have had joint billing, having more to do than on any Dire Straits record) and Guy Fletcher’s rhythmical drumming is well suited to the rockers and nicely subdued on the ballads. Only the ever-present John Illsey is under-served, with less and less to do in the band he co-founded over time. However this is also in many ways the first Mark Knopfler solo record, one which tries and partly discards all sorts of ideas that don't work but finds many convincing new ways to tell old stories. There's a reason Mark's solo albums sound more like this record than 'Brothers In Arms' or indeed any of the Dire Straits releases: quieter, simpler and yet with more detail going on, this is a record that's more Mark's natural speed and style. Sadly it's also far less consistent, which is a pity, but in many ways that's inevitable: this album suddenly has a whole universe to run around in, so why should Mark stick to the same old avenues that sound like a prison?

The Songs:

[46] ‘Calling Elvis’ seemed like a natural place for the band to go and was well received as the lead-off single for this album, helped by a curious promo video which featured the band as thunderbird puppets singing about Elvis’ death (a real mix of childhood memories there!) In the beginning, in the late 70s, Dire Straits were welcomed as a breath of fresh air in an era where huge prog rock albums were the norm and their retro 1950s rockabilly with contemporary flourishes at one stage offered as much of a cause for a movement as the punks did (I know which movement I’d have preferred, although the two aren’t actually that different – the main clash seems to be over song lengths!) ‘Calling Elvis’ is clearly a throwback to those days, built on a simple riff and only some very minor touches to update the sound for the present. What’s curious is that this song sounds far more like Chuck Berry than Elvis, with a swampy bluesy quality not often found on Elvis’ records and a guitar-led kick that bites harder than most Presley recordings that rely on his voice for their biggest impact. By contrast, you can barely hear the words here Knopfler is so subdued and indeed the vocal is the weakest part of this opening track, with the band kicking up a storm of emotion by the end although Mark rarely rises above a whisper. The lyrics are intriguing too. Elvis had been 14 years when this album came out – hardly the right sort of timing for an anniversary – and his stock had never been lower thanks to a run of ‘in memoriam’ compilation albums that dug up more and more pointless outtakes that saw the singer lose stock badly until a revival of sorts in the mid-90s when the public at large suddenly remembered that most of the stars of the 1950s were still gigging (Elvis’ estate should have sat tight and reissued these old albums slowly, as Yoko did when Lennon died). But this song isn’t a straightforward tribute to a favourite singer, despite the many fan-friendly references to Elvis’ songs, but a cry for help. The song starts with the narrator calling up because he’s ‘all alone’ only to find no answer, as if forgetting that the legend had died all those years before and the context is curious – it’s as if Knopfler has woken from his six year inactive slumber to find the music world had moved on without him and that the only music he can ‘connect’ to goes right back to his youth. Thereafter the song gradually loses touch with its original source and becomes more of a tribute to Elvis the Pelvis, but Knopfler’s exemplary guitar playing throughout this track suggests  more of a personal journey than one in memory of someone else. The long ending of this song (on the album version at least) is the closest we come on the whole album to the band interplay that propped up all those earlier Dire Straits albums, with Knopfler bouncing off the keyboard morse code cries for help from Alan Clark and the energetic drumming from Guy Fletcher. Essentially, though, the Dire Straits are over from the next track onwards, which is very much Mark Knopfler out on his own...

The title track on [47] ‘On Every Street' sounds at times uncomfortably close to the title track of ‘Brothers In Arms’. But whereas that track was about overcoming austerity with feelings of brotherhood and shared suffering, this track is all about distances, with Knopfler’s narrator separated from his either imagined or remembered lover (either interpretation fits) and desperately looking for her face everywhere he goes. The recording should suit this subdued slice of melancholy, being every bit as stark as ‘Brothers In Arms’ but alas the band take it too far – Knopfler’s vocal is hard to hear (which is a shame as this track has some of the best lyrics of the whole album) and when the gentle pedal steel guitar part comes in even that subtle touch seems like too much weight for this fragile song. The rockabilly upbeat coda, with Knopfler playing a circular riff while the others join in one by one, also sounds like a desperate attempt to liven the song up for performing on the road rather than anything in keeping with the song. A shame because the lyrics are something rather special, with the third verse (the one starting ‘three chord symphony crashes into space’) one of Knopfler’s best and most poetic, reflecting on the turmoil and uncertainty of his life in the present, when even his victories in the petty arguments with a loved one seem ‘bittersweet’ because he doesn’t want to be having them in the first place. If I’m right – and there’s no certainty that I am as Knopfler is an even more private man than most on this list and rarely talks about his songs in depth – then ‘On Every Street’ is the ‘goodbye’ song to his second marriage and a neat mirror to his ‘hello’ song ‘Private Investigations’, which was release the year before the couple married. Both songs involve a shadowy figure trying to get to the bottom of an even shadier story and both songs have the private eye figuring things out for himself rather than for a third party. The difference is that this time around the mystery person the narrator can’t fathom out is standing next to him the whole time and her presence is just as shadowy at the end of the song as it was before. A fascinating song, badly served by a poor arrangement that puts the emphasis on this song’s weak spots (the melody, which for once isn’t up to scratch) rather than its strengths (the very intriguing lyrics).

[48]  ‘When It Comes To You’ is a much catchier song on the same theme, with Knopfler spelling things out a bit more directly this time around. It’s probably my favourite on the album, with Mark’s vocal upfront for the first time on this album and matching some simple rockabilly phrases with some lyrics that might be equally easy to understand but point to some hidden depths. It’s always hard to put into words a description of an actual sound rather than discussing lyrics and key changes and things, but suffice to say Mark’s conversational guitar is exemplary here, cutting in and adding asides between the vocal and seemingly adding the emotional touches that the reserved and strangely detached sounding narrator can’t bring himself to say. Of all the Knopfler guitar solos on record, the sudden outpouring in the middle of this song is beaten only by ‘Telegraph Road’ for sheer emotional impact and it perfectly sets up this song about a female playing hard to get. This song should have been the single, not ‘Calling Elvis’ ‘On Every Street’ ‘Heavy Fuel’ or even ‘The Bug’, my other favourite on the album, as ‘When It Comes To You’ has so much more power, attack and charisma than the other pieces on this troubled album. The gem of the record.

If that last track could only be done by the Dire Straits however, hiding a complex song behind a straightforward sound, [49] ‘Fade To Black’ is a copycat song too far. This song is a blues, so obvious and unoriginal you can almost sing it yourself if you were given the lyric sheet and asked to make up a melody and see how it goes. The song is made to sound like it’s being played in a club, with Guy Fletcher playing the drums with brushes and Alan Clark reducing his sound to swirly keyboard chords, but Mark Knopfler doesn’t sound like he belongs here, propping up the bar with his troubles. Lyrically this song is a lesser re-write of ‘On Every Street’ without the twist in the tale, as the narrator wonders what his missing partner is getting up to while he’s away, seemingly missing out on the point that she could well be on the other side of the bar drowning her own sorrows.  Alas, it’s all too easy to hear this song ‘fading to black’, as it runs out of steam too long before that.

[50] ‘The Bug’ is a much needed injection of energy and – more than that – enthusiasm on the record, a joyous sign-off to the relationship that’s been getting the narrator down throughout the rest of the record. This time around Knopfler’s taken his own advice in ‘Calling Elvis’ to go back to his past, offering a breathless tribute to his 1950s childhood that’s far more successful here. In fact, why the heck didn’t the other Travelling Wilburys persuade Markl Knopfler to join when Roy Orbison died and he was between bands – he’d pretty much created their sound with Dire Straits and this album is a near-contemporary with their Volume Three! The lyrics, too, might be simple but feature more of that wonderful homespun Knopfler philosophy – sometimes love works out, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes you’re the bug whacking into the windshield of the car you didn’t see coming and sometimes you’re the one causing the pain to another by accident. I’m curious to know whether this song came before, after or during the others on this troubled album as it seems to sit apart from the other tracks somehow and whoever placed it here, after a series of ballads, deserves a medal. The song isn’t as deep as we know Knopfler to be capable of (try ‘Telegraph Road’ for that, all 14 minutes of it!) and its probably not even the catchiest thing he ever wrote (try one of the ‘Brothers In Arms’ spin-off singles), but somehow this simple song stands head and shoulders over practically everything else on the album, winning our sympathy by not trying as hard as Knopfler does elsewhere. Best of all, Dire Straits sound like a band again, not just Knopfler’s backing crew, and this song offers one last time of hearing their distinctive ‘gurgling’ sound, with Guy Fletcher especially at the peak of his powers here. Oh and for those in Europe who are wondering what on earth a ‘Louisville slugger’ can be, this is Londoner Mark Knopfler at his most American, quoting informal baseball phrases!

[51] ‘You And Your Friend’ finds us right back in the foot-off-the-throttle groove, however, another not very inspired slow burning ballad that sounds like an outtake from Neil Young’s generic blues album ‘This Notes For You’ of three years before. The part of this song that does stand out, however, is the very Dire Straits-ish key change into what might be called either the middle eight or the ‘alternate’ verse (it’s the part of the song that starts ‘if you talk to one another...’, although strictly speaking this song has none of the usual verse/chorus/middle eight structure and is ABAB all the way through with a guitar solo at the end). The whole song lifts for this section, especially with Mark Knopfler’s nylon steel guitar playing which makes the song sound more like the band of the early 80s than the early 90s and fits this song’s feeling of separation quite well. This theme is taken a stage further by the long fade out, when after several verses about how the narrator and his partner and her friend are being kept apart the two sections of the song match up and Knopfler’s steel guitar playing and his more usual electric playing clash with each other head on. That’s what’s so odd about this song – the two styles simply don’t go together and clash badly, although in the context of the song it’s really clever, reflecting the lyrics that see the narrator pondering over how two such separate and distinct people could ever have got together in the first place. A hard song to listen to, then, but one that’s quite admirable by the end, even if the llloooonnnggg fade out could have done with a bit of trimming.

[52] ‘Heavy Fuel’ is another comedy that borrows the heavy riffing of ‘The Bug’ and adds in the lyrics from scathing 1982 B-side ‘Badges, Posters, Stickers and T-shirts’. Knopfler has always been one of those rock stars who absolutely hates celebrity, perhaps because he spent so long waiting for success he’s rather put off by the instant gratification of our X Factor age (the Dire Straits didn’t release their first single until Knopfler was a few months shy of 30) and every so often we get one of these spoof songs from him about the miseries of being rich and famous. None of these spoofs are particularly worthy of his talent but ‘Heavy Fuel’ is by far the best, thanks to only the third strong band performance on the record and lyrics that cheekily offer an incentive to getting full of booze and drugs! That’s part of the joke of course -I can’t think of anybody less likely to get tanked up on illegal and legal substances and lose his reserve than Mark Knopfler – and for the most part this song is good fun, with one of Knopfler’s better (and better produced) vocals and some genuinely funny lines (the closing one about ‘writing a suicide note – but on a hundred dollar bill’ sounds more like a barbed Ray Davies comment). The joke is, of course, on the narrator – like all the best comedy songs – because as the opening lines make clear he’s filling himself up with artificial stimulants to cover up how bad the hangover from these same stimulants is, a vicious circle of his own making. The laughter also comes from his displaced sense of priorities – in one breath he’s moaning about how ‘my ugly big car won’t climb this hill’ and in the next he’s completely non-plussed by the doctor’s claim that ‘I ought to be dead’ thanks to all the beer and narcotics. What’s missing in this song is depth or any kind of resolution – like all too many songs about addiction this song is guaranteed to make non-addicteds shake their head in puzzlement and the ones who are hooked to go ‘man, he isn’t talking about me – I’m not doing anything wrong!’) Many reviewers claim that this song doesn’t fit on such a bleak and straightforward album, but actually this song’s theme of denial and going back to the things you know hurt you is very in keeping with ‘On Every Street’s number of doomed romance songs.

[53] ‘Iron Hand’ is unique among these songs in trying to come up with a song about a bygone age that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the impending doom that’s felt across this record – only to undo it in the final verse where the narrator sings about ‘fears that haven’t changed since ancient times’. This song shares its moody atmosphere with the previous album’s ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ (the best track on the whole of ‘Brothers In Arms’ for my money, although it’s probably the most obscure on the whole record!), although it can’t quite match that earlier song’s intensity or purpose. For although Mark Knopfler is an effective storyteller, conjuring up a scene of knights and castles in a few lines and giving them depth, there’s nothing really to care about in this short, simple song. Knopfler’s claims early on that the days then were simpler (‘the sky so blue, the grass so green’) are clearly wrong – the narrator seems to have forgotten about plague, threat of attack and above all the lack of readily available music making the lives of the poor, at least, a misery back then and the writer himself undoes his work with that curious last line. Yet then again, perhaps this song is a warning, with a seemingly peaceful and harmonious town devastated suddenly and without warning – very much on a level with these other songs of impending doom, in other words, however much Knopfler tries to disguise it.

[54] ‘Ticket To Heaven’ sounds on first listen like the surefire winner of the album – Knopfler is loud and proud in the mix at last and, far from looking down at his shoes as so often on this album, he’s singing a confident-sounding song with a catchy riff. The only problem comes a few listening later when the reality hitys you that all this song has going for it is a simple and much –repeated riff and that sounds like it was stolen from something else (it’s two parts ‘three steps to heaven’ and one part a ballad from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Carousel’, a musical that Knopfler had already commandeered for the opening of ‘Tunnel Of Love’ of course). Analyse this song even further and you find that, far from being the simple affirmation of love it sounded, this song has some of the oddest lyrics to ever grace Alan’s Album Archives (not by the Spice Girls anyway). The narrator is seeing visions, a mysterious ‘man with a diamond ring’ who comes down from the afterlife to tell the poor man not to worry about his own ‘dire straits’ because there is a place booked for him in heaven. What’s hinted is that, by the end of the song, the optimistic narrator has died, his body being sent straight to heaven where ‘the good Lord will provide’ – even though, without the vision’s intervention he may still be alive to pay his heating bills and put food on his table. A curious song all round and one where we’re not quite sure where our sympathies lie, even though the narrator is adamant about what the visions mean to him. Dire Straits never did a religious song apart from this one and yet there’s many of them on Knopfler’s solo records, most of them positive – are we looking at another ‘redemptive’ period here in the same way that George Harrison ‘found’ God in the late 60s or Bob Dylan did in the 70s?

Almost as curious is the subdued [55] ‘My Parties’, which sounds like the most boring and pointless party you’ve ever been to (well, actually, I’ve been to a few that sound worse than this. Some of them my own). I hope that this song about a party host showing off his knick knacks is another spoof of the rich lifestyle as heard on ‘Heavy Fuel’ and various other songs, but somehow I’m less sure about it than on these other songs. The narrator is singing straight for the most part (although there is a definite chuckle in Knopfler’s voice on the line ‘we aim to please’) and there is no twist in the tale this time around, even with a narrow minded host who cares nothing for dying species as long as there ‘ain’t nothin’ runnin’ out in my deep freeze’. A closing party stopper sound effect, as the song lurches to an unsure halt, is either woefully misguided or an ironic comment on how nobody at this party had any fun whatsoever. Like Godley and Creme’s own worst song ‘The Party’, making a painfully artificial song about artificial small talk impresses a little but mainly irritates the hell out of you, just like the real thing. Odd.

[56] ‘Planet Of New Orleans’ is slightly better but still shows signs of this album fading on the second half. The lyrics to this song are yet another re-write of ‘On Every Street’, this time with the lost narrator pausing to try and trace a song that’s running through his head and, by relation, the feelings he used to feel back when he and his partner were together. The music is more interesting, though, a Pink Floyd-ish collage of sound with Knopfler breaking with tradition and sounding downright angry at times throughout this track (especially on the guitar). The idea of New Orleans being ‘on the other side of the planet’ suit both the idea of the lost narrator re-tracing his past from what seems like a completely different world and the ‘feel’ of this song which really does sound like a different planet entirely to the usual Knopfler sound. The last great Dire Straits experiment, then, or an absolute mess? Well, in truth, it’s a little of both. Each distinct part of this multi-layered song sound intriguing and ear-catching, especially Mark Knopfler’s guitar links which again feature his best playing, saying so much more than the narrator allows himself to say and channelling the anger and displacement of the song. However, the sum of this song is far less than its parts and the long sections of each are far too long, being boring without offering a reason for holding our attention (the muddy production is again heavily muted, with Knopfler’s vocal hard to hear and not much happening beneath him), but if you can get into this complex song it does reward. The closing image of the narrator trying to find his way home, ‘through the rain and steam’ is also a neat catch-all image for this troubled image, with Knopfler trying to find a way to his happier past every bit as much as a new direction for the band to walk in. Still, as farewells go, it’s good to hear the band to go out on an experiment (that’s a farewell bare the short final track anyway) rather than yet another variation of a tried and tested formula as we’ve heard too often on the rest of the album.

If ' Planet Of New Orleans’ is the big goodbye then truly final track [57] ‘How Long?’ is in effect the big 'hello again', both in the sense that this is the album’s troubled narrator sometime in the future offering a much more humbled and angst-free greeting to the partner he’s been stewing over for much of the album and in that it sounds very much like Knopfler’s forthcoming solo records (starting in 1996 with ‘Golden Heart’, which nearly all sounds like variations on this track). There’s really not much happening in ‘How Long?’ other than the narrator bumping into his old flame by accident, asking her how she is and what’s she’s up to, even though things turn nasty again in the second verse as a new-found love does exactly the same, pushing the narrator away. For the most part, though, this is an upbeat song and one that offers hope in true Dire Straits tradition, with some lovely acoustic playing that sounds very like the opening to early Dire Straits song ‘Romeo and Juliet’, as if to mimick the end of a relationship that started back with those two lovers in the song. The most distinctive part of the track, though, are the country leanings which will become a much greater influence for Mark later in the decade and John Illsey’s lovely harmonies which have been shockingly absent from most of this album. 

‘On Every Street’, then, is a bit of a mixed album. As the follow up to ‘Brothers In Arms’ it fails on so many levels, offering little of the commercialness but above all the variety that made that album a best-seller. As a Dire Straits record in general it fails, because it is so downbeat compared to all the other five studio albums and features so many brooding ballads and few pop songs. As a record released in that curious stepping stone year of 1991 (the hits that year are split more or less evenly between the remnants of the very 80s sound and the very 90s newer sounds) it failed very badly, being out of step with the poppy ballads and actors-spin-off records that were in the charts back then.  As a cohesive album taken on its own terms, however, and away from all the hype it received at the time, ‘On Every Street’ is quite a good little record, with a handful of highlights among the best things Dire Straits ever did and a readily recognisable mood linking each piece. 

Other Dire Straits articles from this site you might be interested in reading:

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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