“DIRE STRAITS” (1978)
Down To The Waterline/Water Of Love/Setting Me Up/Six-Blade Knife/Southbound Again//Sultans Of Swing/In The Gallery/Wild West End/Lions
Most of my reviews on Dire Straits thus far have concentrated on how closely the best-selling British band of the 1980s comes to representing their era (long songs, big hair, extended guitar solos, politically edged songs and a return to the spirit of the 1950s) without actually sounding like any other 1980s band that ever existed (a decade when guitars were out and horrid nosiy synths were in). This discussion of the band’s debut album is going to centre largely round a very 1980s theme: money. Many bands think about money, of course, even the rose-glasses hippie believers going-to-run-a-commune ones, but Dire Straits in particular seem fixated by the idea: ‘Money For Nothing’ ‘Love Over Gold’ , the idea of capitalism comes under scrutiny again and again in Mark Knopfler’s lyrics. Even the band name (meaning ‘skint’) shows more thought has gone into the band’s bank balance than in ideas of freedom and love (although there’s plenty of that in their songs too).
Perhaps the circumstances of this under-rated debut record explain why. The band was called what it was by an unknown friend of Knopfler’s in jest, not as an ironic joke but because that’s what they always seemed to be in: Mark had tried several times to break into music with and without the other three in the first line up of the band and at the (by music standards) ancient age of 29 seemed highly unlikely ever to make it in an industry obsessed by youth and looks. Stints working as a teacher and as a journalist specialising in music at the Yorkshire Evening Post (shockingly I once had an interview there and no one on the panel had any clue what I was talking about when I mentioned he had worked there) got him by for a few years, but a heartbreaking and costly divorce when Mark was just 27 found him at a very low ebb and faced with perhaps the ultimate humility, having to bed down on the settee in his younger brother David’s flat after losing his own home to alimony payments (future bassist John Illsey lived next door and, for a time, fellow Newcastlian and Lindisfarne guitarist Simon Cowe lived upstairs in only slightly richer accommodation).
Not for the first time, this lack of prospects and a nasty future led to Mark re-doubling his efforts in the music industry, desperate for a shot at the big time that had so far eluded him and roping in his two new room-mates for extra support. Now that’s not so unusual: many a debut record is made in these similarly impoverished circumstances, but usually these records (including such AAA examples as The Beatles’ ‘Please Please Me’, ‘Stay With The Hollies’ ‘The Kinks’ and later Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’, chiefly made by an ex-roadie and his unemployed younger brother) are written and recorded in a rush of energy and enthusiasm, with a determined sense of ‘we’ll-show-you’ about them. By contrast Dire Straits’ eponymous first record sounds older and wiser, hardened by a harshness and misery that could only have come from years plugging away at these songs in small seedy pubs and bars, desperately looking for a solution but never quite finding one. Only Noel Gallagher himself (at 27) went through anything remotely similar and yet he took the other tack, with a fiery belief that eventually all would be well and put right – by contrast the characters in these early songs are nearly all suffering and nearly all of them seem to be doomed, including the obvious parallels between the band on big hit single ‘Sultans Of Swing’ and the Straits themselves. This malaise will hang around Knopfler’s subconscious for quite a while, long after he could be considered to have ‘made it’ with the overnight success of this album, before gradually working its way to attacking world politics on albums like ‘Love Over Gold’ and ‘Brothers In Arms’ and eventually fading (I’m as convinced as ever that Dire Straits’ sudden end, at the near-peak of their fame, came because the hunger, drive and fear of failure heard so strongly in this album just isn’t a part of Mark’s life anymore and robs him of much of his inspiration and ‘heavy fuel’, great as his many of his more laidback, sanguine solo albums are).
‘Dire Straits’ stands out a mile amongst other albums released in 1978, the year when punk hit new wave and new romantics head on, partly because it’s just about the only example of a strong-selling guitar-bass-drums album from that year and partly because it takes music oh so seriously. Punks hated anything musical that pretended to have all the ‘answers’ or any ‘guide’ to navigating life, reducing life to two minutes of frustrated adolescent bile, but the new romantics didn’t take music any more seriously than their forebears, making ‘pop’ music again all about melody and costumes, with stars of the day effectively ‘dressing up’ to play pop stars. By contrast ‘Dire Straits’ is a ‘heavy’ record, arguably the most serious and sombre of their whole (if brief) career. I’m amazed in retrospect that there was never a ‘run’ of copycat/similarly influences bands around at the same time (as there was with The Beatles circa 1963, Bowie in 1973 and Madonna in 1983) despite the band’s heavy sales but then this album really did come out of nowhere and was created with a sigh of relief by all the ‘oldies’ who’d been left behind by the punk revolution of 1977 and wanted a return to ‘proper’ music, although in its own way this spare, bare-bones, few overdubs debut album is as punk as any AAA record till – wouldn’t you know it? – Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ in 1994 and as such pleased quite a few youngsters too who wanted a version of their dad’s record collection with at least some of the lessons learnt in the punk era.
If you can, do try and get hold of Dire Straits’ six-song early demo tape (not officially released yet – please release it officially soon! – but available several times over on Youtube), which the band taped right in the middle of this frustrating patch in early 1977 and will show you what I mean. Having been turned down several times over the band had given up sending in their work to record companies, but figured they needed advice and sent it into a disc jockey they really respected named Charlie Gillett (then hosting a programme called ‘Honky Tonk’ on Radio London). Asking for nothing other than a few tips on how to commercialise their sound, they were taken aback when Gillett announced it as his ‘recording of the week’ and played the tape incessantly, particularly ‘Sultans Of Swing’. There’s a handful of differences compared to the demo tape and the record (interestingly the demo tape makes up the first six songs on the record, suggesting the slightly lighter toned ‘In The Gallery’ ‘Wild West End’ and ‘Lions’ were written later). Knopfler sounds far less sure of himself than in any of the ‘final’ recordings and actually a closer fit for the down-and-out characters he sings about, musically staring at his shoes instead of staring out the camera with a steely grin of determination. The band sound much more 1950s too, not quite having developed their sound yet, and the tempos are slightly slower, emphasising the minor keys that most of them are written in (the finished album sounds much more ‘upbeat’, possibly because the drums are louder, emphasising the ‘traditionally happy’ 4/4 rock tempo). ‘Water Of Love’ sounds especially different, more an anguished howl of pain than a feelgood calypso, with a vocal that actually cuts off with a growl on the evocative line ‘been too long lonely and my heart feels pain’, with Knopfler singing in a deeper ‘bluesier’ voice that sounds more like Big Bill Broonzy than the Harry Belafonte of the finished version. ‘Southbound Again’ features the other extreme changes, with a curious stop-start rhythm that sounds like the train caught in a siding mid-step, as if the narrator is debating whether to start a new life or try again with his old one. Again Knopfler sings his vocal husky and deep, more desperate than the often defiant narrator of the finished record. ‘Sultans’ sounds closest to the finished version, clearly a song of escape even back in 1977, but even here the happy ending seems less than certain, ‘sultans of swing’ only in their heads not on stage. Whilst I’d never choose the demo tape over the finished product (it just doesn’t have the same delightful swing and energy rush), it’s nevertheless a fascinating insight into how the band would have sounded in these early days and just how desperate they were sounding before growing with the confidence of a band discovered.
Whilst hardly autobiographical in the John Lennon or Ray Davies sense, the misery of Knopfler’s life in his mid to late 20s sifts through all the songs to some extent. Every figure in these songs are shadows of their former selves. The album starts with the line ‘sweet surrender’ and had the band not wanted to use their own name this would have been a strong title for the album: this record is all about being forced to give in to circumstances and the bittersweet feeling that the hard times you’re going through make you stronger for the future. Note, too, how many of the characters in these songs aren’t just restless but homeless, wandering deserted quaysides and empty funfairs (‘Waterline’), industrial streets filled with skyscrapers (‘Water Of Love’), arty roads bursting with coffee shops (‘Wild West End’), a ‘dirty town’ with a church (‘Lions’) or are simply ‘Southbound Again’, travelling against their will because ‘I got no money, I’ve got no place to go’. Generally speaking future Dire Strait albums are rich and warm, full of texture in the sounds and the layer of overdubs, occasionally to a fault, but here the musical worlds that surround these characters are every bit as bleak as the songs themselves. Seen today in context ‘Dire Straits’ works as well as it does exactly because of this brave attempt to keep things simple in age when needless complexity was back in vogue and even producer Jerry Wrexler was unsure about the album, half-heartedly telling the band ‘we’ll put this one out, but next we’ll make a real record’. Given that this second album was the unloved and arguably weakest of the six Straits records ‘Comunique’ you have to ask yourself whether the band should have stayed with their decision to keep things so film noire.
Then again the one moment of colour here is ‘Sultans Of Swing’, by far the album’s best known song and after being taken to heart by so many fans was clearly the template that the band were going to be asked to build on by any right-minded producer. A thinly veiled autobiographical slab about a band dreaming of a glorious future but surrounded by an all too low-brow present in a seedy club, it’s a song that actually makes even more sense heard here in the context of the album than it did as a single. I’d love to know how far through his songwriting period Knopfler came up with the song, whether it was the first song here or the moment that marked the end of his slight depressional period, because it makes sense of all the other tracks, which nearly all find the narrator’s searching for something to put into words. ‘Sultans Of Swing’ doesn’t really finds the words either, but the sheer pizzazz and sparkle of the playing elevates the band long past their surroundings of a group of fans sheltering from the rain or longing for a different band to play, while an indifferent club owner cuts off a cooking jam session to send everybody home. This song feels like the solution to the question the other songs pose and in this context it makes perfect sense that ‘Sultans’ is at the very heart of the record, track six out of nine, perhaps the sound of Mark Knopfler writing a letter to himself and persuading him that he was right to continue whatever his various bosses, friends and his first wife all thought about him settling down and getting a ‘real’ job.
‘Setting Me Up’ and ‘Six Blade Knife’ are among two of the nastiest AAA songs on record, uncharacteristically angry songs about arguments between two former lovers and while Knopfler does his best to pose them in a more generic light parts of the ‘true’ story seem to pour out of both of them. ‘You better give it up, quit your messing around’ is the chorus of the former song and is actually shouted by the narrator to his partner but together with lines where the narrator proudly declares that he’s ‘bound for glory’ it sounds suspiciously like first wife Kathy telling him to give up music as its given him up first. ‘Six Blade Knife’ is more obtuse, a surprisingly graphic song about the narrator’s wife’s love being like a ‘six blade knife’ that cuts into his soul deeper and deeper each time, ‘something that you just can’t see’. Dire Straits will follow this up a little into ‘Communique’ (especially the eerie album highlight ‘Where Do You Think You’re Going?’) and admittedly Knopfler is never known for his happy love songs, but at least when ‘Romeo and Juliet’ part you get the sense they did have a love for each other and ‘Skateaway’ is at least a happy encounter even if its a passing one, with the girl literally speeding away at the end. The curious album cover – lifted from a painting by artist Chuck Loyola - says it all: a girl seemingly waits for the narrator, her head bowed, bored of waiting in what looks like an empty concrete car park with early morning daylight soaking through the windows; surely the most unglamorous portrait of a romantic meeting ever made, if indeed that what it is (for all we know the girl in the photo could be waiting to serve divorce papers).
For all of its surly, often negative attitude, however, this 1978 album must have sounded like a breath of fresh air right slap bang in the middle of two other similar world-changing rock songs ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ (in 1964) and ‘Live Forever’ (in 1994) must have done. When Knopfler sings lines like ‘no money in our jackets and our jeans are torn’ he’s entering into a pact with the audience that he know where they’re coming from because he’s been there too, dreaming of a bigger, brighter future they can all share in. Oasis are always quick to say that they picked up on this feeling first with their slightly younger generation, but actually if anybody got there first its Bruce Springsteen and his early anthems like ‘Born To Run’ (actually released first by Hollies singer Allan Clarke, who fell in love with Bruce’s demo when no one else would touch him). Springsteen’s pull over audiences is largely unique to America however (almost every song mentions the ‘American Dream’ somewhere) and to some extent the generation that came immediately after the ‘failed’ 60s takeover, which is why you don’t often hear his name mentioned outside a particular age group these days. By contrast Knopfler’s songs about poverty are as universal as they come and seemingly take in every ‘class’ from quayside dockers and seedy bars to art gallery and coffee house types to tiny villages where inhabitants can never escape the sound of the church bells. Even his accent is remarkably ‘neutral’ here, something fellow Geordies Lindisfarne only really nailed with their 1978 ‘comeback’ album ‘Back and Fourth’ (and then never quite so successfully as Dire Straits). All the characters on these songs hurt and they hurt in the same way, whether their fall has come from on high or they were close to poverty anyhow. The sense of injustice that comes to fruition on later, greater songs like ‘Telegraph Road’ and ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ is here too, unspoken for the most part, willing fate to give these characters a redemption of some sorts.
Thus far we’ve been speaking about the band as if they’re a solo group. To some extent that’s true – even on the demos Knopfler’s vocal and guitar are centre-forward and while the band did play cover songs in their early days I’ve heard, Knopfler writes the whole of this album singlehanded (it’s quite impressive that original record label Vertigo took such a chance with an unknown writer instead of, say, getting the band to record a few covers or persuading Mark to write for an established act first). However, the bare, dry texture of the record arguably gives the rest of the band a greater share of the sound than ever before. There’s no keyboardist in the band as yet, but younger brother Dave is arguably the best second foil his brother ever did. Unfortunately like another band with a younger brother called Dave the future between the Knopflers will be rocky and Dave will have his marching orders as early as the third album, but I’ve always rated his rhythm guitar work highly and its slightly jazzy, pleasantly skewed sound is arguably as relevant to the band’s sound in these early days as Mark’s staccato lead frills. John Illsey and Pick Withers, slightly stodgy on Dire Straits’ mid-period recordings, are right on the ball for this bare bones album, playing with a restrained air that gives you the feeling that each note is being rationed, as if the cash-tight, emotionally vulnerable characters in these stories really are desperate to keep their feelings closed. I still miss the keyboards (Alan Clark being about the only 1980s-era synth player who made those horrendous instruments sound an integral part of the band), but you can tell that the ‘other three’ are as committed in their own way as their main writer, vocalist and guitarist.
Overall, then, ‘Dire Straits’ is strong for a debut album by a bunch of unknowns whom even the record company reckoned hadn’t a chance of making the big time, being too old and with music too unfashionable to ever have a chance of success. Not for the last time the band know better, however, and it’s that belief that leads to many of the album’s best moments: the sudden flowering into first gear of ‘Sultans Of Swing’, the superb guitar solo that turns ‘Water Of Love’ from a generic blues-ballad hybrid into a cry from the heart or the poetic, advanced lyrics on album closer ‘Lions’. Not everything on this album works and there’s a fair few cul-de-sacs on the way to a unified sound here (‘Setting Me Up’ and ‘Six Blade Knife’, neither of which sound like anything the band will do again) as well as a nagging sense that the band’s sound is already falling into a pigeon-hole of its own making (a different guitar sound would have been nice). In the pantheon of great ‘Dire Straits’ albums this one clearly hasn’t got the legs of better known and regarded albums like ‘Making Movies’ ‘Brothers In Arms’ or my personal favourite, the note-perfect ‘Love Over Gold’. But given how different everything on this album sounds to anything else before it and how much of the band’s sound is developed on this album, it’s safe to say that ‘Dire Straits’ is arguably the most important album and that it was an overnight runaway success for a good reason. It’s relatively easy to have a success when everyone is supporting what you do and believing in you and you’ve already proved to yourself and others that you’ve got what it takes. It’s quite another thing to invent something completely new and keep honing that something into a fully finished and varnished product when everyone thinks you’re too long in the tooth, too out of fashion and that you haven’t got a hope in a million of competing with people younger and trendier than you. Not for the first time on this website, ‘Dire Straits’ is evidence that good, intelligent, heartfelt music can transcend its time and fashions and that talent will always out, however long it takes to get noticed and however many pitfalls there are along the way.
Most of ‘Dire Straits’ is made up of bursts of primal energy. However, the opening lick of ‘Down To The Waterline’ – the opening track on ‘Dire Straits’ – is the only prog rock moment on the album, a curious mix of low-fi feedback and some languid, laidback plucked lines from Knopfler’s guitar. It’s as if this opening represents the ‘past’, both for music in general and for the characters of these songs who had everything in the past and threw it all away. Most opening tracks on debut LPs deal with the glorious potential future in a burst of glorious enthusiasm (‘I Saw Her Standing There’ ‘Astronomy Domine’ ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’), but Dire Straits are already looking back over their shoulder here, Knopfler’s narrator a ghostly figure watching his former loved one walking round old places that used to mean a lot to them and wondering where it all went wrong. It’s as if Knopfler’s just heard about his first wife taking a walk round their old haunts and is imagining what she might have seen. The title of the song is something of an extended metaphor. The girl in the song is physically walking ‘down to the waterline’, the abandoned quayside that used to mean so much to them both, but metaphorically this is a love affair when the tide has gone out, leaving the couple with nothing in common except some shared memories and ‘down to the waterline’ in their love for each other. The song is urgent and desperate, Knopfler flying his guitar round some amazing runs on a song that sounds straightforward on first hearing but actually never goes where you expect it to, modulating keys like a man in a hurry, desperate to break through the fourth wall of the memory and join his loved one in song. Curiously constructed, ‘Waterline’ is full of exotic lyrical imagery that seems at odds both with the rockabilly feel of the melody and the humdrum landscape surrounding the two lovers, kissing in ‘darkened doorways’ and hiding from policemen along the way. There is no chorus and the title line is heard only twice in the song, but its the hook that stays in your head long after the song has finished playing, with the memory the only thing in the song that sounds like a safe return to ‘home’. A compelling and memorable opening to an album full of such surprises ‘Waterline’ is one of the album highlights and the band performance is exceptional – a long way forward from the demo of the song tapes the year before – although I would have liked a mix that had Knopfler’s vocal up loud and central in the aural storm of the recording.
‘Water Of Love’ is another excellent song, a cod-blues that alternates a catchy chorus with verses that are the closest the band ever came to gutbucket blues. Like the last song water is redemption here, offering hope for rebirth and with the extended metaphor of the friendless, loveless narrator barren like a desert without love in his life. Like The Who’s ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ there’s an image, too, of water being a sign of baptism, a chance to begin again and make up for old mistakes. Both songs could have become highly clichéd but both are clearly delivered from the heart – in Knopfler’s case it’s the unexpected shift of key every third line that gives the song an unsettled, eerie air. Most of the lyrics fail to live up to the strong idea at the heart of this track, but there’s some striking imagery in the last two verses. ‘There’s a bird in a tree sitting up high, waiting for me to die’ seems unusually harsh for Knopfler’s writing, harking back again to the album theme about nobody expecting Dire Straits to have any chance of any future and the memorable closing couplet ‘Once there was a river, now there’s a stone, you know its evil when you’re living alone’, the sudden emphasis on ‘evil’ suggesting how deeply Knopfler was feeling the sentiments in this song. Considering there’s not much melody in the song to be had until the chorus bursts forth like a rainstorm, the band turn in a great performance again. Pick Withers’ drumming is never better than on this track, leaving the song bare and open like a massive desert, clicking his drumsticks together at key moments in the song to give it a dry, barren sound. This is still Knopfler’s masterwork, though, turning in one of his best career vocals, nicely husky and on its last legs and singing what could have been a tongue-in-cheek song admirably straight. The only thing that really lets this song down is the sheer amount of times the chorus is repeated (five by my count), especially the curious ending where the band sing the quite lengthy four lines through two times straight. Still, ‘Water Of Love’ is another excellent song and another composition admirably unlike anything that had ever come before it.
‘Setting Me Up’ isn’t quite up to the first two tracks of the album, talking about the clashes in the Knopfler marriage rather more explicitly than the poetry of ‘Waterline’ and ‘Water Of Love’. A howling rock-blues song, it sounds very close to the sort of thing every band from Humble Pie to The Yardbirds had been doing five years before, even if Knopfler’s distinctive pick work on his guitar is quite unlike any similar band from the past. Mark is clearly living his vocal, too, turning in more venom than we ever hear from him again. Unfortunately the rest of the band performance isn’t quite there and I actually prefer the demo version of this song, one where the band are quietly seething rather than outwardly venomous. Illsey’s bass, exemplary elsewhere on the album, also sounds a little too tongue-in-cheek here, with a direct 1-2-3-4 bass walk copies from every blues record this side of 1975. The lyrics are intriguing though: rather than being a straightforward you-hate-me-and-I-hate-you argument, the opening lines tell us that ‘she’ used to believe in the narrator, think he was ‘bound for glory’, before pulling away. In turn the narrator knows he has to ‘leave her alone now’ – so so far so good, where’s the problem?! The chorus lines about ‘setting me up to put me down’ sound like more of an argument, but even here she’s agreed to stay away so the argument seems to be over. Knopfler even ends the song by sneering that ‘you think I care about your re-action?!’ two verses after she’s agreed to leave, suggesting that the problems lie with him not her – he clearly does care or he wouldn’t still be ‘in conversation’ with her, even if its just to argue! Overall ‘Setting Me Up’ is arguably one of the weakest tracks on the album, far more generic than the other eight songs on offer here, but even this song is rescued by a stabbing guitar riff that sounds like a whole lot of fun to play!
‘Six-Blade Knife’ sounds like a more reflective re-write of ‘Setting Me Up’, this time with a girl who can’t help herself sticking a metaphorical knife into the narrator’s back. So far so average, but the idea of a ‘six-blade knife’ that does differing amounts of damage depending on her mood elevates this song above other similar ideas and there are some strong individual lines on this song (‘Everybody got a knife...a needle or a wife, or something that you just can’t see’ the song ends philosophically). There’s even a hint that the same knife can do a s service for good as well as ill and that the same knife was used to ‘tear away a stone from my soul when I was lame’ – it’s just that the knife-owner never knew when to stop. Despite being another blues-derived number, there’s a certain majesty about the performance that rises above the average, too, a slurred-voiced Knopfler turning in another strong vocal that gets as emotional as we ever hear it on the howled line ‘I want to be free of it now, I don’t want it no more!’ The effect is not far removed from the blues hybrids Stephen Stills was working on in the early 70s, a song that sounds like it might have started out as a novelty and a spoof/homage to old blues songs before the writer found himself tapping into emotions that are all too real. What’s admirable about this song is that it achieves so much despite being so low-key you have to turn the album up loud even to hear it and that even playing cat-and-mouse with our emotions on when the tension is finally going to burst the band don’t make a big thing of it – this isn’t a gaping wound the narrator will die from straight away, it’s a small wound slowly getting bigger with every tear of the knife. Not the most immediately arresting song on the album but there’s much to admire about the slow burning fuse of ‘Six Blade Knife’.
‘Southbound Again’ rounds out the side on a noisier, slowed down version of the riff from ‘Setting Me Up’. Musically this song is boisterous and energetic, in stark contrast to the last track, but the lyrics are hardly happier: this is a narrator finding his life travelling in reverse, forced to go back to the scene of unhappiness against his will. It’s easy to imagine this song being written by Knopfler on a train to his brother’s house back in Newcastle to plead for his spare bed, having lost his job, his childhood sweetheart and his independent living in their own house all in one go. The relentless choppy staccato rhythms of Knopfler’s guitar make a good double for the sounds of travelling, although we never actually find out if the narrator is travelling by car, train or by foot. David’s curious rhythm guitar part sounds like a train whistle too, going ‘woo-woo’ deep in the bottom of the right-hand speaker, which is highly effective. Lyrically the narrator tries to put a brave face on things, as if to join in the snappy finger-clicking music, declaring ‘this boy was bound to roam!’ as if this is a song of wanderlust. However it doesn’t take long for the facade to crack: ‘I’ve got no money, no place to go...that woman’s with her lover boy’ sings Knopfler, the smile fading from his face. There’s an AAA pleasing reference to the ‘rolling river Tyne’ (the only time Dire Straits refer to their home town, in stark contrast to the dozens of times fellow Geordies Lindisfarne sang about it) and the idea that every time he crosses it ‘I get the same old feeling I’m moving down the line’. Unfortunately this time Knopfler is travelling in the wrong direction, going back to his pre-success years metaphorically as well as physically. Simpler than most of the record and arguably less developed or important, there’s still much to love about ‘Southbound Again’s hypnotic riff and another strong band performance.
Side two begins with ‘Sultans Of Swing’, the one moment of happiness on an otherwise quite bleak album. The most famous song on the album by some margin, it’s a wonderful salute to the healing powers of music and its ability to make everything come right, even for a band who – according to these lyrics – are playing to an audience who aren’t listening, for a promoter who doesn’t care, in a town with too many competing venues to draw up a crowd and who can offer nothing more than a brief distraction to the pouring rain outside. Knopfler’s first band, formed at school, were called ‘The Sultans Of Swing’ and this song might be about their progress more than that of ‘Dire Straits’, complete with references to band members who aren’t as committed (‘He’s got a daytime job, he’s doing alright!’ – the scourge of many a fledgling band) and the guitarist whose ‘old guitar is all he can afford’. Given how long and how hard Knopfler in particular fought for recognition and to be taken seriously as a musician and writer, this song is clearly close to his heart, an insight into how ‘right’ music felt for him even when nobody gave him a chance at all. Whilst this song is merely a description of a band playing, with no real resolution or even admiration, it’s clear that this song is a manifesto of sorts, a chance for him to get across his feelings on how great it was to play whatever venue the band were in and however low down the pecking order they were. This is clearly a band going places, whether their audience can tell that or not and its deeply fitting that Dire Straits’ big breakthrough should be a song about a fictional band that so closely fitted their own circumstances. Interestingly the song is told not from the point of view of the band but from an audience member, stumbling on the band ‘South of the river’, with a ‘shiver in the dark’ in a memorable first verse. The rest of the verses aren’t far behind either, each one ending with a memorable rhyme for the title (‘ring’ ‘thing’ ‘anything’), even though like most songs on this album (and unlike about 95% of successful singles) there’s no actual chorus to ‘Sultans’, simply a mere title line. The lyrics talk about the band in terms of ‘jazz’ too, even though this is a song clearly born for rock musicians with its hypnotic riff, its spaces for some majestic guitar picking from Knopfler who excels himself on the brief fade-out and a real swinging tempo. No wonder so many fell for this song in particular – it’s a highly memorable creation and perfectly delivered by the band, with one of music’s greatest ever riffs. Frankly the ignorant audience in the song don’t know what they’re missing! Easily the highlight of the record and one of the more deserving hit records out there, ‘Sultans’ may be one of Knopfler’s earliest songs but its right up there with his very best work topped off by another stunning band performance who nail a pretty complex song with just the right amount of laidback charm.
‘In The Gallery’ isn’t so strong, unfortunately, a curious melody-free rant about the different approaches of different crowds passing through a trendy gallery. One of the last songs written for the album, it might be that this song is Knopfler’s re-action to getting a recording contract and being made to think like an ‘artist’ with something to say, albeit a message that can be understood by partying, fun-loving rock fans too. ‘Harry made a bareback rider proud and free upon a horse’ must surely be a candidate for one of the strangest opening lines to any AAA song and the song doesn’t get any more normal, although that’s a good fit for the oddball Harry and his urge to create art in the out-of-fashion medium of ‘clay’ in an era when paintings are king. It’s tempting to see this song as Knopfler’s response to recording such a retro guitar-bass-drums sound in an era stuffed with exotic noises and a changing of the guard from punkish thrashes to airy fairy new romantic pop, although in that case the pained cry that the artist didn’t find himself ‘hanging in the gallery’ at the end of the second verse seems false. The song gets stranger in verse three when Knopfler takes a side swipe at phony art posing, claiming that there’s no difference between an artist too lazy to paint and one that finds all the answers he needs in ‘an empty canvas wall’, although the pot shot at dealers ‘deciding who gets the breaks’ sounds mightily like a dig at music managers. The song ends on an uncomfortable note, too, with the narrator ‘unable to compromise’ and finding that all the lies he’s ‘subsidised’ down the years don’t mean a thing because he’s not a part of the ‘in’ crowd. The last couplet offers a hope of redemption, however, with critics praising Harry for his brilliant creations after his death and putting him in the gallery after all, clearly a bitter remark from Knopfler after years of banging his head against the doors of the music business. Had this song been given a proper, memorable melody this could really have been something, but sadly it ends up being six and a half minutes of posturing from a surprisingly gravelly Knopfler enlightened only by the occasional stinging guitar solo. One of the weakest songs on the record, even if the lyrics do read well in the lyric sheet.
‘Wild West End’ doesn’t have much of a tune either and is also clearly about the lyrics, but it has a certain lazy charm and a catchy near-alliterative chorus (especially the way the band sing it: ‘walking win-cha Wild West End’) that overcome this defect better. Arguably out of all the nine songs on the album this is the one that best resembles a template for Knopfler’s future writing, a story-song about the narrator’s journey round town where not very much happens. Interestingly this is the only song on the album not to mention a past upset love and looks forward hopefully to the future, the narrator flirting with a waitress while he ‘buys a pickup for my steel guitar’. There’s a cute rhyme in the middle here that sums up much of this song’s quite charm (‘I saw you walking out in Shaftesbury Avenue, excuse me talking I wanna marry you!’) but the narrator makes it plain that he’s not in love with her, just free and single and without responsibility for the first time in years, with his new friend ‘just another angel in the crowd’. The third and fourth verse undo much of this magic, dealing again with the seedier side of life (‘In the backroom it’s a man’s world, all the money goes down’) and ending up cuddling a go-go dancer, becoming more about the place than the person which is a shame (it’s a common problem with Knopfler’s writing too for me – songs like ‘Portobello Belle’ and ‘Les Boys’ try the same trick without quite as much success). However, taken as a whole it’s great to hear Knopfler happy at last and it’s nice to have a break from all the tension and urgency heard across the rest of the album; it’s just slightly unfortunate that the song was so well received at the time that it became a template for so many future, less interesting songs.
The album then closes with ‘Lions’, another of my personal favourites that’s really grown on me since first buying this album a long time ago. The lyrics are some of Knopfler’s best, depicting any sleepy English town or village where not much seems to happen but where tension is so high that anything could happen at any moment. The titular lions are sleeping for the most part or are seen on statues, memories of past heroic deeds, but come to life in the characters of a ‘drunken old soldier’ prowling the town looking for action. There’s a reference to horoscopes, too, that make more sense when you learn that Knopfler is a Leo (‘the lion’) even though it’s never referred to in song, as if romance is sleeping in us all too (the positive feedback the Capricorn female in the song receives means the stars ‘give her just enough light to get home’, an excellent line with the pun on ‘light’ and ‘stars’ giving the character hope to get through another empty day where nothing happens). There are other great lines dotted through this track, too, from the inhabitants so used to hearing the church bells chime in the background that they’ve forgotten what they mean and being replaced by grumpy passengers ‘praying for trains’, industrial capitalism overtaking religion and spirituality. Musically this is another of those album songs that never quite comes to life – I don’t know for certain but I’m willing to bet Knopfler wrote these lyrics first and then got stuck for a tune to sing them to – but ‘Lions’ is a fine song in the vein of Paul Simon’s ‘My Little Town’ about the restrictions that are around all of us everyday and yet can be broken in an instant when the inner ‘lion’ awakes. There’s a fine minute long fadeout too that’s sublime, three overdubbed Knopfler’s calling to each other from the left and right speakers and straight down the middle, playing a dance with each other as if communicating the inner thoughts of the town inhabitants. ‘Sultans’ excluded, this is my favourite song on the album, with Knopfler’s lyric writing never better, even though I ignored it for far too many years hidden amongst songs that shout louder and have catchier choruses.
Overall, then, ‘Dire Straits’ is a memorable creation and one that deserves better than to be overshadowed by million sellers like ‘Making Movies’ and ‘Brothers In Arms’, even if it doesn’t have quite the universal appeal of either of those works. All that said, it’s easy to forget that this album was a huge hit in its own right, reaching number one and staying in the British charts for over a year on and off. Occasionally grumpy, sometimes tuneless and often sombre and melancholy, it’s quite unlike anything else in Mark Knopfler’s canon and is clearly a reflection of the difficult period the band had as unknowns making it. Few band ever came to fame this fully formed, however, with Knopfler’s guitar sound already so distinctive and memorable it’s easy to see why the band were a runaway success from their first release, however many years that was in coming. At least three of these songs are among the best Knopfler ever wrote as well, even if they might come as a surprise to those who know the ‘template’ of other Straits albums better. ‘Love Over Gold’ might have the better songs, ‘Brothers In Arms’ the memorable hits and ‘Making Movies’ the better production, but this debut record is so much more than merely a stepping stone to later, even better selling works; it’s a highly personal and memorable record by a writer who clearly has a lot to say and has already worked out most of the lessons he needs to learn in order to say it. Sultans of Swing? Perhaps not quite yet, but the band are already sitting in the court and already have the attention of their people. A much under-rated record.