Monday, 18 May 2015

Dire Straits: Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1973-2000




Brewer's Droop (Featuring Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers) "Booze Brothers"
(Red Lightnin',  Recorded 1973, Released 1989)
Where Are You Tonight?*/Rollercoaster/You Make Me Feel So Good/My Old Lady/Sugar Baby/Rock Steady Woman/Louise/What's The Time?/Midnight Special*/Dreaming
* = Mark Knopfler Appearance/Pick Withers appears throughout
"Nobody's got to be a number one, nobody's got the gun"
As we were saying earlier, Mark Knopfler came to music late. For most of his twenties it was a nice hobby while he got on with the real job of trying to earn a living, gigging at night while he scraped a living working as first a journalist and then a teacher and the big breakthrough didn't come until the age of twenty-nine when Knopfler broke up with his childhood sweetheart Kathy and found he could turn his sorrow into songs. The Brewers Droop recordings do not feature that Mark Knopfler we all come to know and love - the songwriter with the groove and the headband and the long list of things to say. Instead this is a happier less committed Knopfler content to play with any band who wants him and isn't yet adding his own songs to the set. By chance a rare one-off recording of Mark with one of many ad hoc groups survives: a pub concert by Brewer's Droop, a group named after a nickname for alcohol-based erectile dysfunction (which Knopfler will knowingly quote in his long list of ailments on 1983's 'Industrial Disease'). At this stage the band are on something of a downhill slide after making a poor-selling debut record 'Opening Time' (now eagerly sought by collectors even though Mark isn't on it) and haemorrhaging members left right and centre: this live album is today most interesting not for the performances (which are pop-rock tinged with Cajun music) but for the fact that you can hear Mark and the other new boy, a drummer named Pick Withers, playing together for the first time, neither of them suspecting that they will be far more successful in their own band in another five years' time (actually Pick's solid and memorable drum sound is far closer to any 'Dire Straits' sound than what Mark plays).
For while Brewer's Droop were quite a big local name (and lead singer Ron Watts will go on to rival Knopfler for fame in the 1980s, though as a pioneering club owner in the punk scene rather than for making music) they're clearly on their downers, struggling to keep their fans interested as they noodle through some old favourites. Mark, at this stage a mere strapling of 24, isn't even the band's primary guitarist - that was a chap named John McKay, apart from occasional days when special guest Dave Edmunds, then on the verge of getting a record contract, would sit in with them. In fact musical historians reckon Mark plays on just two songs on this mini low-fi recording: 'Midnight Special'  and the album highlight 'Where Are You Tonight?' Neither are exactly essential and the rest of the album is exactly what you'd expect from a pub rock band: largely solid but unspectacular covers. The band were still getting interest from high places though: this album was 'produced' - although that seems too grand a term -  by Dave Edmunds and intended for a low-key release although in the end it was only when the tapes were 'rediscovered' in someone's collection in 1989 that it was ever released - this period must have seemed a very long time ago for that era Knopfler, then in the middle of some interesting delaying tactics as he struggled to follow-up the best selling album of the 1980s (Edmunds also plays on a few tracks by the way if you're a fan, but sadly neither of the Knopfler tracks - it would have been fun to hear two legendary guitarist going head to head before they were famous).

 Mark Knopfler "Local Hero (Soundtrack Album)"
(Vertigo,  March 1983)
The Rocks And The Water/Wild Theme/Freeway Flyer/Boomtown/The Wait Always Starts/The Rocks And The Thunder/The Ceilidh and the Northern Lights/The Mist Covered Mountains/The Ceilidh-Louis' Favourite-Billy's Tune/Whistle Theme/Smooching/Stargazer/The Rocks And The Thunder/Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)
"If you can live in this town - and stick around - you can live anywhere"
Looking for something different to do away from the band, Mark Knopfler asked his manager to keep an eye out for any films that might need an original score. The idea was a natural one, allowing Knopfler to keep his hand in and keep busy without necessarily promoting his name (Dire Straits were already becoming a little too big for his taste) while allowing to work more with melodies and atmosphere, the parts of songwriting that came most easily to him. It was 'Local Hero' producer David Puttnam who coerced Mark into finding his inner Scotsman (he was born in Glasgow though raised in Newcastle) and writing the soundtrack score for the comedy 'Local Hero'. At the time Knopfler probably felt like he was doing the film a 'favour': the film's biggest star name was Burt Lancaster and he was a good twenty years past his career peak, while the subject matter (an oil rig company executive falling in love with the town he's meant to be ransacking) doesn't immediately scream 'hit'. However 'Local Hero' surprised many by becoming one of the surprise hits of the year, with many critics praising not only the film's clever script and strong acting but Knopfler's atmospheric music. What's especially clever, given that Knopfler had no experience in this line of work, is how he treats his main 'theme' in a variety of ways across the score, keeping the 'singalong' upbeat version back until the closing credits and sending audiences out on a 'high'.
Certainly Mark has seemed fond of the score, with the 'theme' titled 'Going Home' a regular on Dire Straits and solo setlists (often at the end of the encores, when fans are about to 'go home') and a regular B-side whenever he's stuck for something to use (often live performances) - not to mention becoming 'adopted' by his local football team of Newcastle United. The recording also cemented his growing friendship Alan Clark, who comes off the back of 'Love Over Gold' (the best Dire Straits showcase for his many talents) with the two almost telepathic at times across this recording (with Clark's name in the credits as often as Knopfler's and more keyboard across the score than guitar, he arguably deserves a co-credit for his work here). The score is significant for Mark in many ways: not least the start of a whole new 'secondary' career that has seen him write eight film scores and counting, but also the use of 'traditional' songs across this album. Figuring sensibly that in order to get the 'feel' of Scotland he needed to look at traditional Scottish songs, Knopfler cleverly incorporates them into his own style and most fascinatingly of all 'borrows' a traditional tune known as 'Mist Covered Mountains' which will be the launching point for 'Brothers In Arms' the following year. However the only song on this instrumental score with lyrics, 'The Way It Always Starts', that's one of his most overlooked songs, performed with a nice folkie rhythm by Gerry Rafferty and such a comfortable fit that many fans who didn't like reading small print assumed it was his - actually it's Knopfler trying on a new style for size and with much greater success than his blues and country experiments in the years to come. It's interesting too that Knopfler should write a lyric for a song about 'worry' -not a real theme of the film, which largely veers between comedy and tragedy throughout, with only a brief spell on sleepless nights. Is this Knopfler writing more about himself (and then giving the song over to someone else to 'hide' the fact?) Just  hear those words, the narrator telling himself a long list of reasons why things are working out for him and he should be happy - and then asking 'why can't I sleep at night?' Above all, though, this film enables Knopfler to work out how to use his 'Love Over Gold' social consciousness fully without his worry about being a big millionaire rockstar 'preaching' - this film teaches him how to use character and context and this will be a big winner across the next few years as in turn he becomes 'an aging drumming boy' in 'The Man's Too Strong', an army veteran in 'Brothers In Arms' and a whole host of similarly poverty stricken eccentrics in his solo work.
In the end 'Local Hero' is, like many film soundtrack albums, something of a bitty listen - the sort of thing you play when you're not really listening and/or have just seen the film again. Most of these pieces are instrumentals rather than 'songs', high on colour but not made for repeated listening. However the score works blooming well in the film and well in patches on album - usually when Knopfler's guitar cuts in or Alan Clark is trying to make his keyboard sound like the sea. 'Local Hero' is deservedly considered Knopfler's best film soundtrack and not just for it's successful central theme - there's a beauty and empathy in its creation that all too audibly places it within a special period in Mark's life when everything he touched turned to 'gold', as it were and in many ways it's Mark's prettiest album. Just don't expect to hear a substitute for the detail and depth of 'Love Over Gold' or the commerciality of 'Brothers In Arms'.

David Knopfler "Release"
(Peach River Records, '1983')
Soul Kissing/Come To Me/Madonna's Daughter/The Girl And The Paperboy/Roman Times/Sideshow/Little Brother/Hey Henry/Night Train/The Great Divide
"Through the line of vision watching over us  an arc of creation spikes the dark"
While Mark was busy writing his first film score  his younger brother was picking himself up and starting again on a smaller record label. Though understandably ignored and somewhat overshadowed by 'Love Over Gold' and 'Local Hero', it's actually closer in style to what many fans associate with the 'proper' Dire Straits sound: meshing guitars, a thumping rhythm track and some nicely poetic lyrics make this a satisfying debut and the rest of the band (even brother Mark on the album's most Dire Straits-ish song 'Madonna's Daughter'!) all guest appear. David isn't the guitar player or singer his brother is (though he sounds quite like the deeper Knopfler of modern times) and yet he's convincing enough as a front man and his songs are more or less up to his brother's standard too - actually better than the 'Communique' vintage Knopfler. However what's interesting in hindsight is how quickly David has gathered round him the cast of characters that will be playing with him for many years to come, including Harry Bogdanovs on keyboards (who is to David Knopfler what Alan Clark will be to Mark). There's an even an orchestra on several tracks on the album - something Mark has only done henceforth on his film soundtrack scores.
Understandably, many of the songs deal with the split and the sudden sea-change in fortunes. 'Come To Me' finds David 'in caged submission calling for redemption'  and 'with no one to turn to and all faith broken'. David also perhaps jealously recalls in 'Madonna's Daughter' a 'dancer in the crowd, stealing the limelight' as he looks sadly on 'while the music's playing loud' (the refrain from 'Skateaway' , one of the last Dire Straits song he worked on). 'Little Brother' too is a clever song for anyone whose ever tried to live up to a 'golden sibling', sung as if it's from Mark's point of view ('I just can't play with you any more, I'm sorry...I'm very sorry') and that from here on in the pair will be living in very 'separate' worlds. Then again, 'Roman Times' takes a step back to say that friction has always been a part of human nature, using the refrain 'war to end all wars' ironically and declaring that when the time comes and there really is a saviour 'no one will believe him'. This theme is picked up in 'The Great Divide', which many fans assumed as about the brothers but is more about human frailty and ego in general, the distances between everybody rather than specifics. The result is a nice record, both feistier and more produced than many fans were expecting and while not up to the depth of 'Love Over Gold' or the sheer musicality of 'Local Hero' there's a lot going for it and the best songs from this project (such as 'Madonna's Daughter' 'Little Brother' and the closing 'Great Divide') would have been excellent additions to any Dire Straits LP. Alas this and every other David Knopfler release is somewhat hard to come by through the usual channels (he isn't re-issued enough to appear much on Amazon or through beaten up second hand copies o n Ebay) but his work can be bought at his website www.knopfler.com (Mark must be seething his brother beat him to that domain name!)

                                                                           

 "Alchemy: Dire Straits Live"
(Vertigo, March 1984)
Once Upon A Time In The West/Romeo And Juliet//Expresso Love/Private Investigations/Sultans Of Swing//Two Young Lovers/Tunnel Of Love//Telegraph Road/Solid Rock/Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)
The CD Release adds Love Over Gold (originally released as a single)
"In a screaming ring of faces...the big wheel keeps on turning"
Back in the Middle Ages, when the idea of being able to convert ordinary metals into gold when first discussed, scholars went through an awful lot of mistakes trying to find the 'secret', discovering that it was easier to turn gold into worthless material than the other way around. Of course nowadays we know what the secret to alchemy is and it's so simple you wonder why nobody saw it back in the day: if you want to get gold in a hurry then all you have to do is send out a load of scrolls naming yourself 'ye olde cash for golde' and parcel back to everybody a portion of what the gold is actually worth ('No obligation no fee: please note your goats may be at risk if you do not keep up payments). Dire Straits, of course, prefer love over gold anyway and there's a fair bit of both sprinkled through this Hammersmith Odeon July 1983 set like fairydust - or maybe gold dust. However that warning that gold-making can go both ways also applies: 'Alchemy' is a curious live set that has some truly astonishingly sublime moments - and then some rather boring quarter hours where everybody noodles away without any idea where they're going.
The re-action to 'Alchemy' tends to be this: if you're a committed head-band wearing Dire Straits fanatic, who thinks Mark Knopfler is the greatest guitarist who ever lived and only sounded 'right' being backed by a full band and lived through the original when everyone was making live albums like this then you will love this album. Knopfler is on inspired form on most of the solos throughout this set and there's a looseness and fluidity that isn't always there on the records: the elongated finale to the already pretty darn perfect 'Telegraph Road' is a great example, with a poignant 'Romeo and Juliet', a dramatic 'Private Investigations', a rocking 'Tunnel Of Love' (which knocks spots off the 'Makin' Movies' version, until the song goes weird somewhere in the middle) and a driving blissful finale of 'Going Home' are all first-class and had they been released together as a mini-album I'd be acclaiming this as the un-missable live album of the era. But somewhere along the line the band seem to have got the idea that their formula only 'works' if they extend everything past the point of its natural origin: so we get to the astonishing point where 'Tunnel Of Love' has doubled from an already lengthy seven minutes to fourteen with a pointless opening four minutes where the band just keep playing, where 'Once Upon A Time In The West' (which runs a little too long on the album to be honest) goes from five minutes to thirteen and where one of the three shortest songs on the original LP is flipping 5:49 (and given that this is bare-bones 'instant coffee' rocker 'Expresso Love' something has gone badly wrong here). Bizarrely the period live version of 'Love Over Gold' - originally a standalone single with 'Going Home' on the back and added to the CD - chops the song down to three minutes, which doesn't work either. Modern fans don't 'get' this album at all I find, they enjoy the occasional solos and the 'bits' of the songs they know and love (which tend to be hidden away in the middle between grand entrances and exits) and as for non-fans they look on aghast when I tell them whose playing ('But I thought I liked them!' is a common reply). Admittedly I'm not really one to talk given the size of these books and reviews compared to most out there on the net and there's probably more than a bit of waffle in these paragraphs too. But 'Alchemy' takes this to new extremes: honestly, it's as if I'd started talking randomly about the Middle Ages at the start of this paragraph, ho ho ho.
As for me, I kind of like it - with reservations. 'Alchemy' loses out by the odd setlist certainly (Vertigo have clearly asked for a live album to fill up the time while the band work on their next LP and nobody is bothering very much and unluckily for this album it can't benefit from the huge success of 'Brothers In Arms' (because it hasn't been written yet I mean, not because it doesn't want to). Nobody out there was wondering what a fourteen minute 'Tunnel Of Love' might sound like and there's sadly only two songs from classic recent album 'Love Over Gold' on the original - the album that would have sounded the most 'different' and therefore the most worth buying a live album for (a kick-ass 'Industrial Disease' and an extended finale on 'It Never Rains' and I'd have happily been a convert to this record for life instead of a half-one). This album is clearly a product of its time - we've talked a lot on this site about how Dire Straits were the perfect band for the 1980s with everything they stood for sounding so huge and so polished and yet it's 'Alchemy' that's arguably the most 1980s Dire Straits album, with love songs, spy songs and the soundtrack to a comedy about an industrial dispute all made bigger and bolder than ever (the opening and closing to 'Tunnel Of Love' being the musical equivalent of shoulder pads). An eleven minute 'Sultans Of Swing' that's horribly rushed and turns one of the most joyous sounds of the era into a car crash is unforgivable, however jaw-droppingthe Clarence White-era-Byrds-meets-Chuck Berry guitar solo is. The classy live version of 'Portobello Belle' - as taped at this gig but not released till the 'Money For Nothing' compilation - should have been here too.
However I also rather like it: Knopfler struggles with his singing but his guitarwork is astonishing even by his studio standards - right on the money for the emotion of each song and a nice halfway house between the polish of the tightly drilled band and the improvisational spontaneity that only the best of their records possess (ie records one, three and four). The wide open spaces also give the rest of the band more to do, with Alan Clark cementing his place as Knopfler's greatest musical foil and pulling him back to Earth whenever he threatens to fly away (we also get the chance to hear keyboards on all those songs taken from the first three albums that - 'Tunnel Of Love' aside - didn't feature them). Bassist John Illsley gets a nice lot to do, his bass purring away song after song. New drummer Terry Williams is far better suited to live performance than the records, adding a lot of the 'epoic scale' to this set. There's the chance to hear a far better drilled band performing 'Two Young Lovers' than on the (deep breath) 'Extendedanceplay' EP(thank heave4ns for small mercies it wasn't 'Twisting By The Pool') and 'Going Home' becomes an 'official' Dire Straits song from this moment in time onwards everybody loves - as opposed to a Mark Knopfler soundtrack curio. There are many things to love about this album, a valuable souvenir of a time when Dire Straits were one of the bigger bands around, rather than the biggest and it all got so serious. However there's no getting away from the fact that's it's hard to stomach in one go and would have been an even better and better loved album had it been cut back to a single album
Also - what the hell is with that album cover, which is what Salvador Dali would have made of a Dire Straits gig (what with the similarly droopy guitar neck on the famous National Guitar on the 'Brewer's Droop' CD does Mark Knopfler has a problem he needs to see a doctor about? Is that why these songs are all so long as compensation?!) One of Mark's hobbies is collecting paintings - he 'own's the artwork pictured on the sleeve of his 'Kill To get Crimson' sleeve in 2006 - so it's no surprise that he chose a 'real' painting by an established painter for one of the Dire Straits covers at one stage. However Brett Whiteley's 1974 work 'Alchemy' (with the guitar and lips added by the band a decade later) might work in a gallery, along with a biographical note alongside (it's a 'self portrait' painting returned to over many years), but it's not a good choice for an album sleeve. For a start it's small, bitty and ugly, there's a woman's leg sticking out from a continent that's deeply odd and while the idea of 'sound becoming fulfilment' is in there (as demonstrated by a massive great ear that must belong to either Evan Davis or Christopher Eccleston; we'll wait now while you google them), it's not exactly top of the list. This fascinating live album - a landscape filled with lots of peculiar noises, unexpected jams and moments of brilliant shinyness and thudding averageness -deserved better.

Mark Knopfler "Comfort And Joy (Soundtrack EP)"
(Vertigo,  July 1984)
Comfort (Theme From Comfort and Joy)/Joy//A Fistful Of Ice Cream
Note: Though not released on the soundtrack album the film itself features the Dire Straits studio recordings 'Telegraph Road' and 'Private Investigations'
"Mark Knopfler film soundtracks! Get-a your Marka Kno-pfa-ler film soundtracks here! Which one-ado-you-want? We gotta da Scottish one, da Irish one, da witches and goblins one or Comfort and Joy - that's-a the one with the nuts in!'
Of all the Mark Knopfler soundtrack albums, this is the film that seems to most obviously suit him and seems the most natural for his talents. A tale of a radio DJ who has an epiphany the day his girlfriend leaves him and redeems himself in her eyes by - err - solving a problem between two warring ice-cream seller and their families (bet you didn't see that coming!), this film is a more natural plot to 'feature' the music. Indeed you can tell that the creators were huge Dire Straits fans - the characters even start talking in their song lyrics at one point ('I hear the seven deadly sins and the terrible twins came to call on you' says a friend after he ;learns about the DJs bad day, a line from 'It Never Rains'). You sense that writer/director Bill Forsyth might even have written the script partly as a 'thankyou' for Mark's 'Local Hero' score and there are lots of already released Dire Straits songs in the score too, mainly from their latest LP 'Lover Over Gold'. However Mark was too busy to give the score his full attention - he'd already been commissioned to write the score for 'Cal' (released a mere month after this mini-soundtrack EP) and in the end wrote only three instrumental passages for the score. None of the three are particularly distinctive and all three are notably far more 80s and 'contemporary' in style than anything else Knopfler ever wrote; they certainly don't share the distinctive flair of the Scottish score for 'Local Hero' or the Irish one for 'Cal' (instead Knopfler writes the sort of thing an 80s DJ might play for a living and that's not as interesting). However the score is not without worth: for a start, unlike 'Cal', Knopfler actually plays guitar through it all and in retrospect you can hear all sorts of ideas he'll return to later (including the very beginnings of the saxophone riff from 'Your Latest Trick' on 'Joy'). 'A Fistful Of Ice Cream' doesn't even pretend to hide the influence but is instead a longer version of the instrumental opening to 'Private Investigations'! Note: I keep coming across an album that lists 'extra' tracks for this score and uses the same front cover sleeve (a man in a mac on a sea-front) - this appears to be a bootleg, bulked out with other solo Mark Knopfler rarities and while rather interesting - and fleshed out with all the Dire Straits non-album recordings as well as some obscure solo stuff - it's not an official release so hasn't been reviewed here.

Mark Knopfler "Cal (Soundtrack Album)"
(Vertigo,  August 1984)
Irish Boy/The Road/Waiting For Her/Irish Love/A Secret Place-Where Will You Go?/Father And Son/Meeting Under The Trees/Potato Picking/In A Secret Place/Fear And Hatred/Love And Guilt/The Long Road
"He felt like he had a brand stamped in blood in the middle of his forehead which would take him the rest of his life to purge"
The success of the 'Local Hero' soundtrack inevitably ended up with Knopfler being asked to write a sequel by that film's producer David Puttnam, in as close in style as he could get without repeating himself (as a quirky aside, note that you can't spell 'Local Hero' with the word 'Cal' anyway). A much darker film than it's predecessor, this Pat O'Connor film based on the Bernard MacLavarty book of the same name is set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and is one of several good-but-bleak films made about the subject by Hollywood that year (in case you're wondering, Americans are notoriously pro-Irish after their own 'occupation' by the English and this film is terribly one-sided, although at least it's accurate unlike 'Braveheart' the Scottish anti-English film which features the Battle of Bannock Bridge without a bridge and a bizarre Irish soundtrack apparently copied from this film). The biggest change for Mark is writing in an Irish style, which doesn't suit him as well as 'Local Hero's Scottish vibe and it has to be said this soundtrack has nothing as memorable as 'Going Home' or even the Gerry Rafferty-sung 'It's The Way It Always Starts'. Indeed, there are no 'songs' this time around and the loss of Alan Clark on keyboards (he's replaced by Guy Fletcher) robs this album of a similar sense of depth, mystery and power. However fans of Knopfler as a guitarist rather than singer-songwriter will find much to love, with several typically gorgeous solos (particularly the stinging 'Fear And Hatred', which sounds like a slow-mo replay of the opening of 'Money For Nothing'), uninterrupted by singers and generally accompanied by very sparse empty backing played here by John Illsley and Terry Williams (thus giving this soundtrack album arguably more of a 'Dire Straits sound'). It has to be said, too, that Knopfler's soundtrack is very effective when seen in tandem with the film, where it nudges your emotional response without hitting you over the head with it like s many lesser film writers ('Meeting Under The Trees' is especially moving, the mixture of Irish tin whistles, Fletcher's flowing synthesiser and Knopfler's stately guitar making for a highly evocative romantic moment in stark contrast to what most writers would do - i.e. go overboard with strings and emotion; instead it's a welcomed subtle moment in a nicely subtle film). Like all soundtrack albums, it's not something you'd want to play too many times, but for what it is it's rather good and is arguably Knopfler's second-best film score. 

John Illsley "Never Told A Soul"
(Vertigo, '1984')
Boy With Chinese Eyes/The Night Cafe/Never Told A Soul/Jimmy On The Central Line//Northern Land/Another Alibi/Let The River Flow
"What am I doing here? This place is not my home, I should be out there with a life of my own"
John Illsley is exactly the sort of person you want in your band if you want to be successful: unassuming enough to keep out the way and not force his (actually rather good) songs on the band, but loyal enough to stand by you no matter what. It speaks volumes that, with all the merry-go-rounds of personal Dire Straits went through, it was Illsley who stuck there to the end. I have a sneaking feeling too that he may have had a bigger input into the arrangements of Mark's songs than is generally assumed: the few Knopfler demos to have come to light don't sound at all like the records the way that some writers do and while many of Mark's solo songs are equally beautiful and cleverly crafted, they miss out the grand cavernous sound that Mark always had when John was by his side. 'Never Told A Soul' is a neat glimpse at what a more democratic version of Dire Straits might have sounded like: although, like David, John is not a natural singer (better suited to harmony vocals than leads) he has a strong ear for a tune and a natural affinity with epic productions, of which album has seven lengthy examples. Mark actually guests on two songs - the album highlights - adding his crystal clear sounds to the lovely philosophical shrug of the shoulders  'Let The River Flow' (where he plays like 'Once Upon A Time In The West') and the sweet ballad title track (where his acoustic finger-picking sounds just like 'Romeo and Juliet'). However even the rest of the album 'sounds' like Dire Straits in a way that Mark's side projects - including his film scores and Notting Hillbillies work - doesn't, all filled with the same long expansive atmospheric soundscapes and the same dense textures. That might also be because this album features new Dire Straits drummer Terry Williams who joined in 1983 just in time for the daftly named  'Extendedanceeplay'  release and 'Alchemy' live set, although he seems to have been replaced in time for 'Brothers In Arms' despite getting a credit on the sleeve. However the most 'Dire Straits' thing about this record might well be the sleeve, which depicts a busker playing down a dirty subway, his nose almost pressed against the wall as he tries not to look at the people passing by - and if that seems familiar to you then it's because the band 'nick' the image wholesale for their fourth 'Brothers In Arms' single 'Walk Of Life'. Yet again, John Illsley got there first - and kept quiet about it, instead of telling the papers how his guitarist was getting all the fame and nicking his ideas as per most bands. As for the record, it's rather like John's image: content to sit in the shadows, more as background music than what Dire Straits usually manage - but the more you listen to it the more you realise how crafted and carefully made this album is. John should have told more souls about this rather fine solo record, which I actually prefer to Mark's first 'proper' solo LP 'Golden Heart'.

 David Knopfler "Behind The Lines"
(Paris Original Label, '1985')
Heart To Heart/Shockwave/Double Dealing/The Missing Book/I'll Be There//Prophecies/The Stone Wall Garden/Sanchez/One Time
"Don't think you're losing when you're winning"
I take it back - this is the most 1980s Dire Straits-related album: a poppy synthesiser based album that's a lot, well, emptier than its predecessor. Recorded in Germany for some reason (financial? Then again, David signed to a French music label), it's as if the 'Communique' album had been produced by Stick Aitken and Waterman and sadly about as far from the commercial yet substantial parent release of 'Brothers In Arms' (out that same year) as it's possible to get. However if you can look past the noisy backing, the screaming soulful backing singers and David Knopfler's less than commercial voice then there's still an awful lot to like about this album. David might not have the musical gifts of his brother but at his best he's easily a match lyrically, with a spiritual bent that reads better on the page than it does when heard as music (made like this, anyway). Here's David's description of the uncertainties of the 1980s as seen by a mystic centuries before from the album highlight 'Prophecies', which would have fitted nicely onto 'Love Over Gold' (or any Marillion albums):  'The stuttering of puppets, the fluttering of wings, the final curtain closes with the cutting of her strings'. You can tell from this that David's first big break was winning a school poetry competition - something even his brother never managed! In fact the more lyrical second side is the best all round, with another semi-classic in the form of 'Stone Wall Garden' (which sounds like it's situated somewhere between Narnia and a nuclear bunker) and the sweet ballad 'One Time' which sounds remarkably like Mark's folkier solo albums. All three are excellent songs and it's probably no coincidence that these are the three least affected by the 1980s din going on behind all the others - if ever an album was in need of remixing it's this one. While unlike David's first album no other member of Dire Straits appears on this album, the younger Knopfler clearly hasn't forgotten them: 'I'll Be There' is another Dave Davies/Beady Eye still attack that rants and raves about ill treatment (and quotes from 'the first album with the mention of a 'Six Blade Scar' so that we get the idea) - and then promises that the problems are all one side - that he's there for his brother when he needs him whatever hurt he's been caused (ahhh). The end result? Another highly respectable solo LP from an overlooked talent (especially in the lyric stakes) almost but not quite sabotaged by a hideous production and too many similar songs. 

                                                        
David Knopfler "Cut The Wire"
(**, '1987')
Freakshow/The Fisherman/The Hurricane/When We Kiss/When Grandpa Sailed//The Hurting/The Sentenced Man/Dedication/Charlie and Suzie
"Between wakefulness and sleeping light"
Finally, on album number three, David Knopfler finds his own sound and the dabblings of the first two LPs - the dissonance between the very slick commercial computerised music, those earthy vocals and the floaty lyrics all make some kind of sense. 'Prophecies' was rightly acclaimed as the best of the younger Knopfler's work so far and sensibly this third album bases itself largely round that: a series of nine elaborate songs about the gruffness and gristle of life, full of lyrics about being 'bruised' and coming out fighting but treated win a typically David Knopfler poetic way. For once this is an album that sounds just the way it looks too, with a distinctive cover of a butterfly breaking free of a barbed wire fence (how long did it take to get that shot?!) 'The Sentenced Man' is the beating heat of the album, a poignant reflection on how mankind is restricted to repeating itself, while 'The Hurting' is the best Kate Bush song Kate Bush never wrote and the 'Makin' Movies' style 'Charlie and Susie' is David's most Dire Straitsy song yet (apart from the short length at least), about a pair of characters that re-enact Romeo and Juliet's lover's dance together and apart. David even gets in a song about a 'fisherman' some seventeen years before his brother's better known 'Trawlermen's Song' and it's better too. Not everything works - 'Freakshow' (basically a noisy song based around the line 'all men are created equal' spoken in a heavy Geordie accent) is the worst thing in the younger Knopfler's canon, all noise and brashness without his usual adept subtle touch, while 'Dedication' is a spoken word embarrassment, the sort of thing stoned hippies got laughed at for making in 1967 never mind 1987. However the rest of the album is a huge step forward, David coming in to his own as he accepts that the mainstream pop charts will most likely never be his and looking to make his own stamp on the music, without the restrictions of what people expect from him. For once too the OTT production actually helps these songs, being used for colour and atmosphere rather than pure poppy noise (with David making good use of the 'less is more' lesson he'd have learnt during his film score work). In short 'Cut The Wire' is his own equivalent of 'Love Over Gold', a sensitive album full of lengthy elaborate multi-layered songs about the human condition in the modern world - less musical than his brother's work, perhaps, but with an even more epic touch lyrically. 'Cut The Wire', even more than the first two records, desperately deserved an audience and had this album been promoted right, on the back of the 'Brothers In Arms' fever for all things Knopfler, it should have fared well, mixing the best of that band with period heroes Marillion. Rather hard to track down at present, let's hope it gets a re-issue soon.
                                                                                            
Mark Knopfler "The Princess Bride (Soundtrack Album)"
(Vertigo,  November 1987)
Once Upon A Time...(Storybook Love)/I Will Never Love Again/Florin Dance/Morning Ride/The Friends Song/The Cliffs Of Insanity/The Swordfight/Guide My Sword/The Fireswamp And The Rodents Of Unusual Size/Revenge/A Happy Ending/Storybook Love
"My love is like a storybook story, but it's as real as the feelings I feel"
'The Princess Bride' is the epitome of a cult classic. The script was written in 1973, abandoned by several interested directors for being 'unworkable' (A Hard Day's Night's Dick Lester among them) before Rob Reiner finally got the film made - by force of personality as much as anything. Audiences were slow to catch on, with a cast of largely unknowns and a cheeky sarcastic fairytale script that was back then quite a bold and daring idea (though it seems natural nowadays with Disney especially recycling bits from the script every couple of years with their anti-heroes and damsels in distress who are more pro-active than their would be rescuers). The film has grown in reputation bit by bit down the years until - review by review, screening by screening and daft comedy poll after daft comedy movie poll - it seems as if it was always a 'hit', outclassing even 'Local Hero' as Mark Knopfler's highest profile score.
Once again Mark was headhunted for the film by Reiner, who was a big fan of his work (Mark, a fan of the 'This Is Spinal Tap' film - not that far removed from his quirky anti-fame B-sides like 'Badges Stickers Posters T-Shirts and Millionaire Blues', agreed on the condition that the baseball cap he wore in that film was placed somewhere in the film's scenes, where it appears in the grandson's bedroom!) Though popular and - at first - the best received thing about the film (many wondered why someone with as big a name as Knopfler - then huge after the success of 'Brothers In Arms' - got involved with such a 'minor project') Knopfler's work never quite matched the inspiration of his earlier film scores, lacking the invention of being immersed in a whole new world (the film hops from reality to fairytale as a book is being read; at times Mark seems to have only seen the 'real world' bits). Despite Reiner's high praise, that Knopfler was the 'only 'writer to get the right blend of quirky tongue-in-cheek spirit and the seriousness of the underlying message that love can save anybody, Knopfler seems less sure-footed with a film score that sounds like a film score for the first time, instead of an extension of watching the film.
That said, it's nice to hear Knopfler playing about with a wider palette this time, using sweeping storybook strings and more Alan Clark synthesisers to get his intended effects (somehow he manages to make his usual guitar playing more ethereal here too, showing what an eclectic player he is). A few of the pieces (notably the darker, scarier ones he can get his teeth into) do in fact work rather well: 'The Fireswamp And The Rodents Of Unusual Size' - a heavy sell for any writer - sounds exactly the description, all weight and oppression, while the soundtrack's one bona fide 'song' (the folky 'Storybook Love', co-written with Willy Deville who gets to sing it) is memorable enough (though would have better still with Knopfler singing). In the film too Knopfler's soundtrack does just what it needs to do, never getting in the way and usually pointing the audience in the right emotional direction, though rarely doing more than that. It's just that, unlike 'Local Hero' and 'Cal' there's no sense of a 'journey' from one track to another which can be enjoyed even away from the film - instead it's just background music when heard as an album, an accompaniment to a set of visuals that doesn't work without them there. Compared to, say, 'Time Bandits' (a very similar film with, in part, a George Harrison soundtrack) this score just doesn't come alive somehow - and if you can't make a score about a farm boy becoming a knight, a gentle giant, a prince called Humperdinck and a six-fingered bad guy who won't die then something has gone a bit wrong. Then again, Knopfler's always been better with heavy realism than quirky fantasy - perhaps this project just wasn't for him.
                                                                          
"Money For Nothing"
(Vertigo/Warner Brothers, October 1988)
Sultans Of Swing/Down To The Waterline/Portobello Belle (Live)/Twisting By The Pool/Tunnel Of Love/Romeo And Juliet/Where Do You Think You're Going?/Walk Of Life/Private Investigations/Telegraph Road (Live)/Money For Nothing/Brothers In Arms
"What's that? Hawaiian Noises? Bangin' on the bongos like a chimpanzee - That ain't workin'..."
You can just picture it now: the name on the desk, the big cuban cigar, the beads of sweat at the other end of the line: 'We need a big seller for Christmas this year. That chappy with the headband and his group - we haven't had a best-of from them for a long time now have we? Bring me the dumbest picture you can find, assemble a bunch of songs the audience might vaguely know - doesn't matter if there are some weird ones in there - oh and name the compilation after the band's best known song, I don't care what it is, that'll make it sell!' 'Umm yes boos, only the thing is - Mark Knopfler's never been very keen on looking back over his career. We've already looked into it and the average Dire Straits songs are so long this compilation will have to be massive just to fit everything on to it.' 'Nonsense dear boy - arrange it all the same! Oh and have you found that title I was after yet?' 'Yes boss *gulp* 'That best-selling song is 'Money For Nothing!' 'Ah perfect, I like the sound of it - print it up straight away!' 'But boss, won't the public think we're laughing at them - I mean 'money for nothing' isn't exactly the image we're trying to promote here!' 'Nonsense Carruthers, it'll sell like hot cakes. Just make sure you get a close-up of that headband. Oh and even better - make it glow green!...'
'Money For Nothing' is an oddball compilation. Not quite a greatest hits set (it came out before 'On Every Street's three top 40 hits and missing top 40 singles 'Ladywriter' 'Skateaway' 'Tunnel Of Love' and - curiously - 'Your Latest Trick') and not really a rarities set (though it does include the first 'album' release for 'Twisting By The Pool' and a live out-take from 'Alchemy' in the form of 'Portobello Belle'), it seems the result of one too many committee meetings. There isn't enough for older fans to enjoy (unless someone somewhere seriously thought 'Twisting By The Pool' was a long lost classic, although admittedly the live 'Portobello Belle' is nice and one of the better Alchemy-era live recordings) but this is an awfully mixed bag for newcomers too, who perhaps only know the band through 'Money For Nothing' or 'Sultans Of swing' and yet still won't have any idea who on earth this band are or what they stand for from this ragbag random collection of tracks. This certainly doesn't tally with my idea of the band's best moments in an album tracks sense either (where's 'Water Of Love' 'Solid Rock' 'Love Over Gold' and 'The Man's Too Strong'?!) Full marks for including an extract of 'Telegraph Road' though (even if it is the live version) and the subtle remix on 'Where Do You Think You're Going?' is better than the original one on the 'Communique'.

David Knopfler "Lips Against The Steel"
(**, '1988')
Heat Come Down/What Then Must We Do?/To Feel That Way Again/Someone To Believe In//Sculptress/Angie and Johnnie/Whispers Of Gethsemane/Broken Wing
"Treasure never lost that all may find when the bright light shines"
Alas David's fourth solo seems to have forgotten all the strong lessons of his third. While I've read reviews from a few of David's small but vocal fans who adore this record more than the others, I've never had the same emotional connection to this record I have to some of the others. Once again this is a terribly then-modern synthesised pop album, full of dated production numbers and a sense that every nook and cranny needs to be filled with noise when a writer like either Knopfler brother needs space to let all the nuances of their work show. This time round, though, the songs themselves don't appear to be as deep or as thoughtful as before either, with almost nothing here that could work equally well as poetry as per 'Cut The Wire' - instead this album's themes and subject matters are largely forgettable. That said things do get a little better on side two where the songs get longer and the production calms down just long enough to let the songs breathe a little. Once again it's the 'character' driven songs that work best, with 'Angie and Johnnie' another pretty song that would have fitted in well on 'Makin' Movies' and the poignant 'Whispers Of Gethesemene', a track which sounds very out of time and ought to be played mid-flower power on a mellotron (that's a compliment, by the way, as you'll know if you've read any of my reviews from that period!) However even these songs aren't quite as deep as before. Admittedly, like the first two records, this is a 'catchy' album with some good tunes on it and on those merits alone can hold it's own with most releases made in 1988. But this is a work by a Knopfler, for goodness sake, so that ought to go without saying and as it comes after the promise of one of the best Dire Straits-related spin-off solo albums of them all the curiously titled 'Lips Against The Steel' sounds rather hollow and unremarkable. Better is round the corner for the younger brother.
John Illsley "Glass"
(Warner Brothers, '1988')
High Stakes/I Want To See The Moon/Papermen/All I Want Is You//The World Is Made Of Glass/Red Turns To Blue/Let's Dance/She Wants Everything/Star For Now
"I'm on air, there is no time , no sound outside to hold, can this be where two sides touch before the dream grows cold? "
With Dire Straits on another extended hiatus, John Illsley spent time working on his second album - a tougher, grittier album than before but with more of its own sound away from the group's dynamics. Mark Knopfler guests once again on album highlight 'All I Want Is You', with both Alan Clark and new boy Guy Fletcher handling the keyboard work, but even this song is a new direction - soulful pop with quirky synthesisers. Another highlight, without Mark this time, is the sweepy slowie 'The World Is Made Of Glass' - a 'Brothers In Arms' in all but name, touched with a bit of Pink Floyd pretentiousness. The best thing on the album, though, is the opening burst of moody instrumental 'red Turns To Blue' where guest guitarist Jerry Donahue sounds like Knopfler than he does (even if the rest of the song is pretty ordinary). As a result this album sounds not unlike David Knopfler's recent album 'Cut The Wire', although there's more of a band swing behind this album and less in the way of mystical lyrics writing. If the first album 'Never Told A Soul' was something of a novelty record, released to Dire Straits fans to give them something extra with a soundalike and just enough of the 'real' band behind it to make it worth hearing, 'Glass' is more of a career platform and it's sad that nobody took Illsley up on the offer - indeed he'll all but retire from music for the next twenty years after one last Dire Straits album. As before John's voice isn't built for a natural career in lead singing and his voice is always best when heard in harmony (although the female choir heard across this album aren't always the harmony I meant), but this is another nice album that deserved better and is long overdue for a decent re-issue.
                                                                              
Mark Knopfler "Last Exit To Brooklyn (Soundtrack Album)"
(Vertigo,  October 1989)
Last Exit To Brooklyn/Victims/Think Fast/A Love Idea/Tralala/Riot/The Reckoning/As Low As It Gets/Finale - Last Exit To Brooklyn
"She tilted her head towards the radio and listened to the hard sounds piling up on each other..."
Spare a thought for all those kiddywinkles who had never heard of Dire Straits but loved the Princess Bride film so much they bought the soundtrack and eagerly awaited the next Mark Knopfler soundtracked score to be released. 'Last Exit To Brooklyn' is something of a shock, adapted from a legendary 1960s novel which concentrates on subjects still considered taboo in some fields today (drugs, gang rape, domestic violence, transvestitism), a world away from Knopfler's previous scores (the violence in 'Cal' notwithstanding). Imagine Simon and Garfunkel being asked to write a soundtrack, not for 'The Graduate' but 'A Clockwork Orange' - it's that 'wrong'. Actually, though, that's doing Knopfler a disservice: his music is nicely tough and gritty and he gets the claustrophobic what's-the-point? feel of the movie really well. What's more Knopfler is probably the writer most experienced at trying to turn a 'place' into a 'character' in its own right that influences how the people in it behave (the theme of both book and film) after all those years of writing songs about home and travel (although even poverty-riddled Newcastle never felt quite as alienated and harsh as this).  While the film itself is rather dodgy (this is one of those books that should never have been turned into a film - the whole point of it is that it's related as if you're over-hearing it at a bar, complete with swear words and mis-use of grammar, before you're so swept up in the story you just don't care about the narrator's illiteracy), Knopfler's  soundtrack was rightly hailed as one of the most successful aspects of it and certainly helped rather than hindered Mark's growing reputation in the film world.
However of all the soundtracks Knopfler has scored to date, this one sounds the most dated and is arguably the heaviest going without the film visuals to accompany it. While the melodies are rather good on the whole (especially the moody 'Think Fast') most of the recording is played to by Knopfler himself but fellow Dire Straiter Guy Fletcher on synthesiser. Unfortunately for history it's one of those curiously late-80s affairs that sounds synthetic and artificial and rather detracts from the emotional response the listener should be having. After all, this isn't just part of the sound of this album - it's almost all the sound, a few oddities (such as the all-orchestral 'A Love Idea' and jazz band 'Tra La La' aside).  In contrast Mark doesn't play on this soundtrack once and by rights Guy should get top billing on this record the way Alan Clark should have done on 'Local Hero'. This time around there are no actual 'songs' to keep fans going either, with even the movie 'theme' played over the credits the sound of a lonely and rather scratchy violinist sounding like 'Fiddler On The Roof' on a bad day. Though another welcome example of just what Knopfler was capable of - and far more respectable when seen as part of a film - 'Last Exit To Brooklyn' is ultimately unsatisfying, following 'The Princess Bride' as a soundtrack that's a little too stiff and unmemorable to work as an album in its own right.
                                                                           
The Notting Hillbillies Featuring Mark Knopfler: Missing...Presumed Having A Good Time! (1990)..............
The Notting Hillbillies (Featuring Mark Knopfler) "Missing...Presumed Having A Good Time"
(Vertigo,  March 1990)
Railroad Worksong/Bewildered/Your Own Sweet Way*/Run Me Down/One Way Gal/Blues Stay Away From Me/Will You Miss Me?/Please Baby/Weapon Of Prayer/That's Where I Belong/Feel Like Going Home
* = Mark Knopfler composition
"Years don't mean a thing to me, time goes by and I still can't be free"
I'm willing to bet Mark Knopfler is one of the greatest procrastinators in the world. He finally followed up 'Brothers In Arms' with not one but two non-film soundtrack works in 1990 and yet neither of them are what you might call 'major' works. From its title on down, the one and only Notting Hillbillies record is a folly made for fun, to give Mark a chance to make music without the world looking at him all the time, Released a couple of years after the similar Traveling Wilburys record, it's a similarly democratic made-in-secret throwback-to-the-50s(and features basically the same front sleeve too) but with the obvious exception that most people don't know who anyone in the band except Mark is. Guy Fletcher had been in Dire Straits since 1986, so his face on the cover was no surprise (although the absence of Clark and Illsley seems strange), while Brendan Croker and Steve Phillips (whose dad, a sculptor, is reportedly the inspiration for 'In The Gallery') were both in the band 'Brewer's Droop' with Knopfler, a musician always keen to pay his dues and keep in touchy with old friends. This isn't , though, a blues band as 'Brewer's Droop' once were but a folk-country hybrid, closer in feel to what Knopfler will go on to make on his solo albums.
In actual fact Knopfler is barely here, content to play a little guitar and contribute just one song and vocal ('Your Own Sweet Way', interesting only for hinting at the bluesier style of the final Dire Straits record 'On Every Street' to come).  In the meantime it's Croker and Philips who do most of the work, with the former writing the most overtly country song 'That's Where I Belong' and the latter contributing album highlight 'Will You Miss Me?' (which features some lovely Knopfler guitar playing). Elsewhere the pair swapping vocals on a series of standards across the album (everything from 'The Railroad Song' to the traditional country lament 'Please Baby') with Knopfler twiddling away in the background. Only one of these cover songs really hits the spot, the Charlie Rich finale 'Feel Like Going Home'  - a long-term favourite of Knopfler's that sounds like one of his songs, right down to the 'travelling' and 'home' themes. However even this version is hideously eighties, outclassed by a memorable stripped back performance Knopfler gave soon after as a tribute to DJ Roger Scott (who loved the song too and had been eagerly waiting to hear it when he died). Alas Croker sings it on the record and good as he is he's no Mark Knopfler.
The end result, then, is a ridiculously insubstantial album that confused the hell out of everyone when they heard it - the closest thing we'd had to a follow-up to 'Brothers In Arms'. However it's not meant to be a big statement, just a favour to some old friends that had Knopfler's face added to the cover as a means of making the album sell - you doubt whether Mark can even remember much about this album today, never mind count it as some sort of grand statement. You can't even say that this album is a 'lot of fun' in the way the Wilbury records are either and this collection of largely maudlin country standards isn't my idea of 'heaving a good time'. Though not without talent, neither Croker nor Philips have the talent to match their 'junior partner' and their country sound isn't a natural fit for his, while poor Guy Fletcher gets even less to do than with Dire Straits despite his co-bhilling. Even when counted as a minor release this record doesn't really count for much, although it's important for both the last moving song and for the closeness this album shares with what Mark will go on to record by himself in the 1990s and 00s; a first ear-opening to the thought that rock and roll isn't everything. While it's nice to hear Mark being good to his old friends, this is a bit of a dead-end and a sadly forgettable record.


Mark Knopfler  and Chet Atkins "Neck And Neck"
(Columbia, October 1990)
Poor Boy Blues/Sweet Dreams/There'll Be Some Changes Made/Just One Time/So Soft Your Goodbye/Yakety Axe/Tears/Tahitan Skies/I'll See You In My Dreams/The Next Time I'm In Town*
* = Mark Knopfler Composition
"I thank you for that special thrill, it will keep me going until the next time I'm in town"
The second unfocussed extra-curricular project out that year at least made more sense. People had long compared Mark's finger-licking style to 50s great Chet Atkins and, while he denied deliberately copying the style (Mark found picking at the strings the only thing he could do to the cheap guitar he had during the mid-70s) he was more than happy to team up with an old hero and give his flagging career a boost. As per the 'Notting Hillbillies' record, though, good intentions don't always make for good records and while Atkins rightly got greeted with praise for his best 'solo' record in years, Mark's contributions again don't add up to an awful lot. Less an album of duets and more of an Atkins solo record with a guest guitarist who sings lead on one song, it's of most interest to those who love Atkins anyway: he's in great voice and even revives his 1965 hit cover of 'Yakety Yak' (here re-cut as 'Yakety Axe'). Knopfler gets a few guitar solos throughout the record (notably 'Sweet Dreams') and his jangly 'Walk Of Life' style strut wakes up sleepy rockers like 'Poor Boy Blues' no end, but you get the sense that Knopfler's heart isn't really in this record. He's learning the discipline of how to be a session man, how to take directions just as he did with his film soundtrack work, but his sound is too powerful and too distinctive to work as merely part of a colour of sound. Thank goodness, then, for the album's lone Knopfler original, the bouncy 'The Next Time I'm Town' which is the first 'proper' start of his love affair with country/folk music that'll be explored more later and which features the usual Knopfler themes about leaving and returning and coming home. It's a pretty song, not that inventive or original but good enough to have made the 'On Every Street' album rather than get left behind on an 'extra' project like this. In truth, though, there isn't enough of Knopfler here to justify that co-credit ('Chet with Mark' might have made for better billing) and far from being 'neck and neck' this is Knopfler content to stand in the background and shine the spotlight on someone else again.
David Knopfler "Lifelines"
(Mercury, '1991')
Rise Again/Guiding Star/Yeah...But What Do Men Want?/Falling/Like Lovers Do/Lonely Is The Night/The Blood Line/A Dream So Strong/I Will Always Be
"I just smile and pretend, tell myself it's alright, but lonely is the night"
Solo album number five and already David's solo career is equal in terms of studio LPs with his old band. 'Lifelines' is an album that, like most recent Straits record 'Brothers In Arms', somehow manages to combine the quirky commerciality of old with the deeper sounds of more recent records, with the album split roughly fifty-fifty between more noisy mindless pop and four tracks that dig a little deeper. The best of the material, like the reflective 'Falling' and the pretty 'I Will Always Be', are up to the high points of before, while once again the more ear-catching aggressive songs like 'Rise Again' and the curiously titled 'Yeah...But What Do Men Want?' are annoyingly empty. The album's greatest moment is surely 'Guiding Star', a song that sounds like it belongs in the Dire Straits pantheon with its message of journeys and navigation, a (single-handed?) sailor casting his nets out to catch not fish but the dreams he once had. The fisherman even endures the horrors of the Western tourists ogling him and calling his people 'barbarians' when they seem ever more adrift than he does. Sung halfway between a good-time sea shanty and a prog rock epic, this is another of the younger Knopfler's greatest achievements that deserves to be more widely heard. Even if the rest of the album doesn't quite come up to that standard and sounds horrendously dated today with all its artificial drums and booming synths, 'Lifelines' is another credible release from a neglected talent who seems to have found his own 'voice' in this period.

"On The Night"
(Vertigo, Recorded May 1992, Released May 1993)
Calling Elvis/Walk Of Life/Heavy Fuel/Romeo And Juliet/Private Investigations/Your Latest Trick/On Every Street/You And Your Friend/Money For Nothing/Brothers In Arms
"Here comes Johnny Illsley and friends singing oldies, goldies, be bop a lulal baby what I say?"
Not sure when - if ever - he'd resurrect the Dire Straits name again, Mark Knopfler decided to tour the 'On Every Street' album with a massively long multi-year tour that played just about everywhere. While fans were thrilled just to have the band back again in any form after six years away and to see Mark reunited with John Illsley and Alan Clark (the new drummer Chris Whitten has just been poached from Paul McCartney's 'Flowers In The Dirt' era band), this seemed a very different band to the one who'd toured the 'Brothers In Arms' album. Knopfler seemed reluctant to embrace the sheer scale of the event, the band seemed sluggish and under-rehearsed and while the largely un-toured 'Brothers In Arms' material went down well, there was a feeling that the alternately parodic and understated 'On Every Street' material didn't suit the stadiums the band were booked to play. This live album is a compilation of two separate gigs recorded in May 1992 in Les Arenas, Nimes, France and Feijernood Stadium in Rotterdan, Holland. Alas both concerts came somewhere towards the end of tour when the band were getting tired, lazy and bored and so doesn't capture even the better moments of that tour. On paper this is very much 'Alchemy' part two, though sensibly cut down to the length that could be accommodated onto a single CD: all the songs are long and often rambling, with extended solos at the beginning and end. Impressively only two songs are featured that appeared on 'Alchemy' ('Romeo and Juliet' and 'Private Investigations') which leaves lots of room for songs from both 'Brothers In Arms' and 'On Every Street'. Alas this brings up its own problems: trying to re-create the two slickest Dire Straits albums on stage means that the occasional improvisations that made 'Alchemy' such a joy aren't here. Knopfler's vocals are clearly showing the strain of singing so many dates, Whitten's drumming is a bit too heavy-handed compared to Pick's or Terry's and having two keyboardists (Clark is joined by Guy Fletcher) often swamps the songs with too much 'surface' noise.
Worst of all there's simply no risk-taking: the moody opening to 'Private Investigations' is the only thing here that couldn't be played by any competent band and even that pales in comparison to 'Alchemy' and Knopfler's vocal is awful, muttered and spoken in a hurry as if he's reading an audiobook. Even the famous 'Sting' and thundering drumming opening to 'Money For Nothing' has been cut, a perfunctory performance instead picking up from the opening guitar riff, while Knopfler wobbles off the notes alarmingly on 'Brothers In Arms' and 'Walk Of Life' sound silly and rushed. Only the 'On Every Street' material really engages - the fiery attack on the first half of 'Calling Elvis' before the song begins to ramble, the understated sigh of the title track, the bluesy swing of 'You And Your Friend' and the silly strutting of 'Heavy Fuel' - but as songs all three sound overshadowed and hopelessly one-level compared to the other songs on offer here. Strangely enough the 'extra' songs released as the EP 'Encores' and taped the same night are better - perhaps because they're rarer and thus have less reason to sound like the original record; it's a shame the earlier gigs weren't taped instead because they provided a much more interesting track listing featuring 'Tunnel Of Love' 'Two Young Lovers' and 'Sultans Of Swing' (an odd absentee from this album) which tend to be less rigid and less stymied. Though far from the worst live album out there, 'On Every Night' is a disappointment, lacking the reasons live albums usually exist (it's not different enough to the records, or entertaining enough in its own right) and judging by bootlegs simply captures the wrong shows (it should have been called 'On Every Off Night'!) There's a tale that John Illsley spent every new year's eve after this record phoning up Mark and asking when the band were going to go back on the road in the new year - it started off a serious question and then became a joke between the two. From hereafter though you get the sense that Dire Straits' days are done - that the world and the creators have moved on from the huge epic scale of slick polished stadium shows like this (Oasis form the month after these gigs were played, interestingly, with other Britpop bands forming either of them, all with a more aggressive, rockier, more improvised sound - not unlike that of Dire Straits in 1978). More than anything 'On The Night' seems to answer the question of why Dire Straits folded when they did - and suggests that maybe, just maybe, they were right to end when they did.

"Encores (EP)"
(Vertigo, Recorded May 1992, Released May 1993)
Your Latest Trick/The Bug/Solid Rock/Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)
"I don't know how it happened, it all took place so quick, but all I can do is hand it to you - and your latest trick"
A curious twenty-minute EP, released a mere ten days after 'parent' album 'On The Night', this release either marks some uncharacteristically mean marketing (naking everyone rush to buy something new) or is actually quite generous, Knopfler sparing his fans the expense of buying a double-CD set (whilst still offering true fans a way to get something extra at a lower price). Recorded on the same nights in Holland and Rotterdam in May 1992 and featuring a pink-tinged version of the same cover, this is effectively that record's mini-me (all albums should have one: who wouldn't love to hear Roger Waters trying to condense 'The Wall' down to ten minutes or The Who trying to cram an extra segment of 'Live At Leeds' into twenty minutes?) To be honest the recordings are just as dull as the parent album and unforgivably features two songs that had already been recorded live with far more joy and expertise on 1984's 'Alchemy', although a slightly more intense 'Your Latest Trick' (played at a slightly faster tempo) and a feisty 'The Bug' (with a Chuck Berry style guitar opening and an extended near-a capella ending) come close to matching the originals. To date this set has never been re-issued (surely a two-0disc edition with 'On The Night'; and perhaps the odd leftover would make commercial sense?) and despite selling well at the time is now semi-rare. Weirdly, this set charted at number one in the French singles chart even though the main album didn't sell at all too well in that country! A sad way for Dire Straits' official discography to die out.

Mark Knopfler "Screenplaying"
(Vertigo, November 1993)
Irish Boy/Irish Love/Father And Son/Potato Picking/The Long Road/A Love Idea/Victims/Finale - Last Exit To Brooklyn/Once Upon A Time...(Storybook Love)/Morning Ride/The Friends Song/Guide My Sword/A Happy Ending/Wild Theme/Boomtown/The Mist Covered Mountains/Smooching/Going Home - Theme From Local Hero
"Full of music and mirth, in the sweet sounding language of home"
Does the world really need a 'best of Mark Knopfler's film scores' release - especially as it this point in his career Mark had only written four of them?  That said, if this compilation had to exist then this is the best way to about it: pretty much all the best moments from 'Local Hero' 'Cal' 'Princess Bride' and 'Last Exit To Brooklyn' are here (sequenced together more like four 'suites', though not in the right order, presumably so the set can end with its most well known moment 'Going Home'). Heard as a whole it shows off what a wide range of styles Mark has used: there's Irish, Scottish, American and Fairytale influences dotted around this set, while it also offers a good means of buying all the actual 'songs' from the four soundtracks without having to buy four separate discs (although note that the Gerry Rafferty sung 'The Way It Always Is' from 'Local Hero' isn't here). A running time of 71 minutes means that roughly half of each of the four scores is here too, which is about right I'd say. The packaging is pretty neat too - a spoof of the 'Beatles At The Movies' compilation made on similar lines, with an audience queuing outside a brightly lit cinema. Curious, though, that 'Comfort and Joy' isn't here, short as that score is. Admittedly Mark's switch of record labels would make this a little difficult, but an updated version (featuring the best from 'Wag The Dog' 'Metroland' and 'A Shot Of Glory') would make for an excellent retrospective now that Knopfler's film days seem to have come to an end.

David Knopfler "The Giver"
(Ariola, '1993')
Mercy With The Wine/Hey Jesus/Domino/Every Line/How Many Times?/Love Knows//Lover's Fever/Carry On/The Giver and the Gifts/Southside Tenements/A Father And A Son/Always
"If they make poets out of devils I'll make an angel out of mine"
At last - give the guitarist a cigar! Solo album six and David Knopfler has finally learnt that his songs are beautiful and timeless enough to stand on their own two feet without the need to adds lots of distracting noisy extras. He writes in his sleevenotes for this album that he wanted to make 'an emotionally honest record, not to plumb new depths in hi-fi technology' and that's exactly what he's done, with a delightful acoustic record that manages to be both vibrant and low-key. With all those synthesisers placed in the rubbish bin you can really hear what a fine singer the younger Knopfler can be, deeper and gruffer than his brother but no less of a singer, whilst his acoustic playing (and his colleague Harry Bogdanov's) is excellent throughout. 'The Giver' is a nice little concept album too, with the idea that the more you give out to people the more comes back to you, exploring the idea through love songs (including one of the two album highlights, the piano weepie closer 'Always'), political protest songs and even a few Religious themed songs (including other album highlight 'Hey Jesus', about a 'millionaire steeped in sin but with money to burn').
While less moving, fans might also be interested in a moving piece about the brother's dad Erwin on 'A Father and Son' which with its 'mountain' setting reflecting 'Brothers In Arms' and 'Dominoes', a song that sounds like a coda to the great 'Prophecies', in which David admits that he was singing about himself, 'the dreamer...possessed by prophecies, weaving helplessly through the night again'. Admittedly there's a couple of songs that again don't work all that well: 'Lover's Fever' is a nicely bluesy song that features some questionable innuendo about 'going down' on a partner and letting her down at the same time, whilst 'Southside Tenement' shows that Mark isn't the only member of the Knopfler to succumb to a full on country ballad filled with cliché. Still, the majority of this record works as well all too well and is perhaps David's strongest studio album to date, full of wit and wisdom, pizzazz and jazz. If only it had sold better and a wider audience could have heard this work, but as the songs say sometimes it really is better to give than to receive.

                                                               
"Live At The BBC"
(Vertigo/Windsong/Mercury, Recorded July 1978, Released June 1995)
Down To The Waterline/Six Blade Knife/Water Of Love/Wild West End/Sultans Of Swing/Lions/What's The Matter Baby?/Tunnel Of Love
"What happened to the lions?"
While other bands are on their seventh or eight archive-mining release by now (eve The Kinks are on their second box set in two years, each with a different set of rarities - and that's after two separate re-issues of the albums on CD in recent years) Dire Straits have never really mined their back catalogue. Mark Knopfler simply hasn't wanted to, having moved on from his old with an impressive finality and a desire to leave things as they are. The one exception is this short but highly welcome BBC sessions set, which was apparently released simply to end the band's record contract with Mercury, without which Mark wouldn't have been able to start his solo career. In common with other AAA BBC releases it's something of a mixed bag, mostly the sound of a studio band straining to re-create their hard-made records in one take but occasionally catching fire quite gloriously. This set is particularly good for those who like their Dire Straits bright and early - with very few exceptions the band didn't do any publicity at all once they got third album 'Makin Movies' into the charts and only appeared on the BBC in 1978 (with the exception of  a funky 'Tunnel Of Love', taped for the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1981 -cut down for TV, it runs to some twelve minutes here!) Mark, as ever, plays a mean guitar solo and sounds ever more on the money live, propelled along by a band who are clearly relishing the new sound they've just created (especially David, whose jabbing rhythm guitar is a key part of the band's sound at this stage). Loose and rough as it is compared to the two more polished 'official' live Dire Straits sets I actually prefer it: apart from 'Tunnel' there's no excessive solo-ing or confusing three minute keyboard intros this time around - instead everything is about as streamlined as Dire Straits ever get. Of course this does sadly mean that a lot of this album sounds just like the first album did anyway, with no great changes to any of the arrangements. There is however one brand new song, never released by the band, 'What's The Matter Baby?' An interesting mixture of Mark's and David's styles during their only known collaboration together it sounds like the 'bridge' between the noisier early Dire Straits and their more lyrical middle period (we've reviewed this song in full elsewhere in this book).  Highlights include a slower, moodier 'Down To The Waterline' with an especially powerful slow-motion opening, a sultry slinky 'Six Blade-Knife' with Mark trying some outrageous picking on his guitar that only half-comes off and a powerful echo-drenched reading of 'Lions', introduced by Mark as 'another strange song'. This isn't the best BBC set out there, running to a mere 46 minutes with lots of space leftover for the other Old Grey Whistle Test songs, presumably left off because they replicate three of the songs here ('Sultans Of Swing' 'Wild West End' and 'Lions'), although most longer BBC sets do that with no questions asked and the performances are all audibly different (especially 'Sultans' which is the weakest of the versions here). However it's still a good set and a powerful reminder of what a great and loose band Dire Straits were before the slick professionalism set in and just why so many people fell in love with them for being a breath of fresh air back in 1978.

David Knopfler "Small Mercies"
(Ariola, '1995')
Deptford Days/The Heart Of It/I Remember It All/A Woman/All My Life/The Slow' Mo King/A Little Sun (Has Got To Shine)//Weeping In The Wings/Rocking Horse Love/Papa Don't You Worry/I Wasn't There At All/Love Will Find Us/Forty Days and Nights/Going Fishing
"I'm still living with my conscience, still celebrating art"
Keeping the same feel and many of the tunes from 'The Gift Of Giving', this is another philosophical acoustic album about being thankful for what you have. There is, once again, a great deal of small mercies to be thankful for with this album containing a nice them of nostalgia and memory that's highly pat for these settings. For example, 'I Remember It All' is a pretty ballad, nostalgia more about David's love life than his musical career as he sings about 'some strange kind of madnesses I can't leave alone'; 'All My Life' a low-key folk song about waiting for good times to come after being 'patient, denied, libelled and framed'; 'I Wasn't There At All' a regretful song about not being around when a loved one lost a child and needed him. At fourteen fairly lengthy songs you can't say this album isn't generous - and yet it doesn't feel as substantial as 'Giving' somehow. David has also fallen into the 'country trap' a full year before the similar mess his brother makes of 'Golden Heart', mining a sound that doesn't suit his voice or his writing style (either Knopfler growl = blues, rock, pop and most forms of folk but overbalances country), although his sins aren't quite as bad as Mark's. Even the more 'ordinary' acoustic songs just sound that however: ordinary. Admittedly the three songs earmarked above are beautiful and nothing here is bad, without the faux pas of the distracting synthesisers that did their best to ruin the first two albums. But suddenly, now that the magic spell of the last album has passed, you begin to realise perhaps why the synthesisers were there in the first place - to break up a sound that's a little monotonous. Even so, David Knopfler is one of those writers who still surprises you just when you're ready to count him out and this record, even more than the others, has grown on me - give it another twenty years and I may have another perspective entirely.
                                                                                  

Mark Knopfler "Golden Heart"
(Vertigo,  March 1996)
Darling Pretty/Imelda/Golden Heart/No Can Do/Vic and Ray/Don't You Get It? A Night In Summer Long Ago/Cannibals/I'm The Fool/Je Suis Desole/Rudiger/Nobody's Got The Gun/Done With Bonaparte/Are We In Trouble Now
"Nobody's got to be a number one, nobody's got the gun"
I must confess that it's taken me a long time to finally 'get' this record, Mark's debut as a solo artist. In fact it's taken losing my original copy and buying a cheap replacement in a sale to fully buy into this album: so much so that I've had to check back several times to make sure that, yes, this is exactly the same album I had all those years ago when Dire Straits first broke up. Back in 1996 I was rather horrified: there isn't one thing linking this album to the band that made Knopfler's name. While there's plenty of guitar parts they tend to be dashes of colour rather than long driving solos. While the songwriting is as sharp as ever, it's more laidback - content simply to recount what's there and let the listener do all the work. The electric is also kept back in its case for most of the album in favour of a folky blend (opening song 'Darling Pretty' seems deliberately designed to keep Dire Straits fans like me at arms length, with the album opening with four-and-a-half minutes of pure celtic folk that would make Clannad think twice about being too over-the-top for their audience. Everything that once seemed big (even as part of 'On Every Street', the band's humblest, quietest album) now sounds small, as if Mark has pared his songwriting back to its barest bones. 'Nobody's Got The Gun', for instance, is Mark's one reference to his new sound (characteristically hidden away near the end of the album): it's  a relief to him to realise that the world doesn't end when he 'fails' to reach number one - and he's happier still not to have someone looking over his shoulder and pointing at the clock all the time. At the time it came out 'Golden Heart' sounded a mess, with the break from one sound to another too thorough and complete for most of Mark's fans to keep up with him: returning to it after six similarly folky acoustic albums (meaning that Mark has now released more studio albums solo  in 20 years than he did in 15 years with Dire Straits) makes a lot more sense.
However, while 'Golden Heart' is undoubtedly important - as the first real indication of where the second half and counting of Mark's career would go - it still seems awfully lightweight at times. 'On Every Street' was the sound of a man ducking his past and responsibilities, out to have fun with his legacy rather than extend it (the better songs from that album are nearly all 'jokes'). 'Golden Heart' is a man whose shorn the jokes but still doesn't quite know what he wants to write about yet - and most decidedly doesn't want to return to the 'peak' years of 'Brothers In Arms'. You sense at times that Knopfler is a deliberately pushing the envelope at times, desperate to see how much of this he can get away with; anything to reduce his fan-base down to a more 'manageable' level. Mark is too much of a gentleman to give us 'Two Virgins', though, so the closest we can get is a slow, moody album where not a lot happens. Of the 14 lyrics here only the album highlight 'I'm The Fool' sounds anywhere close to the 'real' Mark - the rest is just clever pastiche, not just of folk but of Knopfler's old style sometimes too ('Imelda' and 'Cannibals' are pub-rock Dire Straits, that band's vast sound reduced to a guitar and keyboard riff that's a mere fraction away from 'Walk Of Life'). Only 'Fool' and the moody 'Vic and Ray' really sound like a step forward in Knopfler's songwriting, as you might have expected from a man looking to find something to say apart from a genre that's grown stale. In truth Mark's hit a writing rut that's lasted since the mid-1980s (this is only his second album in ten years after all) that will only lift when he learns to find peace with his legacy and realise that his preferred folkier setting and his more lived in huskier voice can open up a whole new world of possibilities (by Mark's standards the albums come thick and fast throughout the 21st century). Frankly, it's Mark's least interesting record, with less interesting songs on it than even 'On Every Street' and - to go back even further - 'Communique'. To be fair, however, repeated playings reveal a quiet peace and tranquillity1 to this record that makes a nice response to the Dire Straits years and the second half of the album in particular makes for a strong mood piece that hangs together well. The problem comes with some of the lamer first half (which too often sounds like bad parody and badly misses Knopfler's usual emotional intelligence) and the fact that most fans probably weren't patient enough to give this record house-room long enough for 'Golden Heart' to weave it's magic: most Dire Straits records are immediate, this one is a grower. Frankly 20 years on it's still growing on me and might well end up my favourite Knopfler record if only I live long enough: by this rate I'm going to need to be 106 by then though!
Opening song 'Darling Pretty' is one of three heavy folk songs with accordions, tin whistles and fiddles. Those of you who've read my reviews of the likes of Pentangle and Lindisfarne will know that I have a sneaking regard for the genre, but here it's dressed up to the nines and just sounds plain wrong against that familiar guitar sound. Even when the track proper joins in as a slow rock song this track - the first single** - never quite takes off, being too folk then too rock, rather than 'folk-rock'. The lyrics are rather lazy too and not actually that 'pretty'.
'Imelda' sounds like an 'On Every Street' outtake: there's the same wild snaky guitar and harder-edged roughness but this track is a collection of good ideas rather than a great song. The harmonies are nicely spooky though and add a nice layer of mystery to what's quite a simple tale of shopping for shoes while other people starve (presumably the 'Imelda' is 'Marcos', the head of state who bullied the Beatles out of the ** Phillippines in 1966**). It's nice to hear Knopfler going back to his role as a protest singer, but his pleas come about 30 years too late to do any good.
Title track 'Golden Heart'  is a slow and smoky ballad, better written than the ones on 'On Every Street' but not up to past classics. The song is about the locket on the cover, symbolic of his lover's tribute to him, which pans out much as you'd expect. There are some good lines though such as 'Shot by the cannonball of history'.
The funky 'No Can Do' is the most Dire Straits-ish song here, although it's all a bit too mid-90s for many now with a slight hip hop feel and hints of 'sampling'. This song about a ne'er do well is a little too wordy, though, to fully grasp his character and sounds more like a man trying to understand another lifestyle outside his own than one he's living.
The slow and sultry 'Vic and Ray' is one of the album highlights, with the single best melody on the album and lots of that famous Knopfler guitar-work. I have no idea who 'Vic and Ray' are - the lyric doesn't give us many clues - but they seem to be having fun 'laughing at each other's pain'. The hint is that they're brothers, each trying to outclass the other with their fancy motorbikes (they both live in the same house, anyway, and spend Christmasses together 'each dreaming on a star'). Is this Mark's memories of the Knopfler brothers when they were teenagers? This song certainly sounds more 'real' than most of the others, as if this pair are 'real' rather than imaginary.
'Don't You Get It?' is Mark trying on a new style and seeing if it fits. This slow-burning shuffle is more something the Notting Hillbillies would have made and is a slow-burning blues where Mark yearns to be a 'free man' without people trying to 'sell' him things. A kind of lazy re-write of 'Money For Nothing', this song has a nice beat but rather average lyrics.
'A Night In Summer Long Ago' is the second overtly folky number and sounds just like the first one to my ears. Sadly Mark seems to think folk-singing means bad-singing and delivers perhaps his single most off-tune vocal of all, on a traditional-sounding number about sudden love that deserves better.
'Cannibals' sounds like a pastiche of every Dire Straits song rolled into a ball and given a folky hoe-down style vibe. The result is just plain wrong - a cross between 'Walk Of Life' and 'Agadoo', with Knopfler singing to the son he never had** and debating whether 'daddy is a goody or a baddy'. Well, we always thought 'goody' but after hearing this dross we're not so sure...
'I'm The Fool' almost single handedly rescues the album, however. A Gorgeous song perfectly in keeping with this muted, understated album it features Mark regretting a sudden burst of anger ('Never thought I'd be a raging bull...I'm usually more of a smoking gun' he concludes). He lovingly retracts everything he said out of guilt and admits to being a 'a bigger fool than I ever thought I was'. The melody is sumptuous, Knopfler's older, deeper vocal perfectly suited to this song about middle-aged realisations and the slight backing perfectly placed enough to make the song work. It goes without saying that a rare album guitar solo from Mark is sublime too.
'Je Suis Desole' is an attempt at an acoustic blues that's more interesting than most of the album but not up to close cousin 'This Man's Too Strong'. Knopfler's narrator is leaving his lover - presumably in France - but doesn't really want to go and is already pining for his home. The track doesn't include anything you haven't heard a million times before, but Mark's acoustic duet is quite thrilling and the backing nicely atmospheric.
'Rudiger' features a lovely laidback melody and lots of wide open space - something Mark always felt he had to fill with his band but thankfully not here. Rudiger is an interesting character too, a collector of the 'strange and respectable' - the first of many to come in Knopfler's solo work, with this song closer to the albums to come than anything else from this album. Alas there's no real resolution to this song and the chorus is a rather bland repeat of Rudiger's name some five times over.
Nobody's Got The Gun' is one of those 'parallel' songs that seems to be talking about the lack of political activism on the one hand - and Mark's own defection from his role as 'spokesperson as a generation'. Knopfler sounds as if he wants to hand the baton on, but no one is there to collect it - which is interesting for one verse but then becomes confusing when Mark tries to write a love story into the lyrics.
'Done With Bonaparte' is folk song number three, sounding much like the others only ever so slightly quicker. One of Knopfler's early historicals, this is set back in the French Revolution  where 'death would be a sweet relief' and lots of descriptive lyrics. However like the other folk songs this sounds like a fan trying to write like a folkie rather than a writer with lots to say on the subject.
'Golden Heart' ends with the nearly six minute country-style closer 'Are We In Trouble Now'. The title is sung more as a deadpan exclamation than as a question, the narrator 'falling for you - and how' , realising he's in love with someone he shouldn't be. There's a nice tune but it's all a tad too slow and like much of the record doesn't really go anywhere.
Just as the 'locket' on the front cover suggests a long-held secret finally being opened, so it does feel as if this album is the 'real' Knopfler - and that Dire Straits was an anachronism that happened to do quite well. In retrospect maybe it's that which put me off so much when I first heard this album: this isn't just a break from 'Dire Straits', it's a put-down - a thorough cleansing designed to cut out the wheat from the chaff in Knopfler's fan-base, a step to be taken when you're ready. It's taken me some 20 years, but at last I'm as ready as I'll ever be, with half of this album now sounding good - it's just a shame about the other half!

                                                                         
Mark Knopfler "Wag The Dog (Soundtrack Album)"
(Vertigo,  January 1998)
Wag The Dog/Working On It/In The Heartland/An American Hero/Just Instinct/Stretching Out/Drooling National/We're Going To War
"Wag Max The Singing Dog? I don't think so - nobody wags my tail but me - woof!"
Mark's sixth film score was his first for nine years. Recorded after the relatively poor reception to 'Golden Heart', it sounds in retrospect like Mark going back to work without having the pressure of a major record release and all the pressure of a solo career on his shoulders - the film industry in effect 'saving' his career the way it had in 1983.Perhaps the most unusual film choice, 'Wag The Dog' was a black comedy, a parody of the film 'American Hero' with Robert De Niro as a 'spin doctor' trying to promote a 'fake war' to detract from the president's sex scandal (if you've looked at the date and thought 'that sounds familiar' then actually you're wrong - the film itself came out in 1997 just before the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal and is an eerie case of fiction prefiguring fact. Of course this hasn't stopped the conspiracy theory that scriptwriters Hilary Henkin and David Marnet 'knew' about the affair in the first place). This marked the first time since 'Local Hero' that Knopfler had been hired without knowing anybody connected to the film and he seems to have actively sought out a 'different' project after getting typecast as the writer of 'celtic' music for whimsical comedies.
In fact Knopfler's score is different all round: for a start this soundtrack features an actual 'songs' rather than wholly instrumental pieces and the title track is in fact a  'comment' on the music business - not in a 'Money For Nothing' sense so much as the sarcasm of mock-commercial-single 'Twisting By The Pool'. The title track, for instance, is a whole bunch of 1950s dance styles cobbled together into a lyric along with the idea that the people we think in charge are having their strings pulled by somebody else, the tail rather than the dog ('Make him roll over, lie still, attaboy - wag that dog baby!') However this song is actually less appealing than the instrumentals, which can be considered Knopfler's most 'English' score after the Scottish one for 'Local Hero' and Irish one for 'Cal' (plus the fictional land of 'Florin' one for 'Princess Bride') - an odd idea for a very American film and yet, like usual, Knopfler's instincts are generally spot on. The highlight 'An American Hero' which despite the title sounds just like The Shadows, while 'Just Instinct' is a Medieval English jig and 'Stretching Out' is very Dire Straitsy (it even features Guy Fletcher on keyboards). The only thing preventing this score from being as well loved as 'Local Hero' and 'Princess Bride' is its brevity, the soundtrack album running to a mere twenty-four minutes - had it been twice as long and with another song to go with the instrumentals it would have been excellent; even as a curio though it's rather good.

"Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits"
(Mercury/Warner Brothers, November 1998)
CD One: Sultans Of Swing/Lady Writer/Romeo And Juliet/Tunnel Of Love/Private Investigations/Twisting By The Pool/Love Over Gold/So Far Away/Money For Nothing/Brothers In Arms/Walk Of Life/Calling Elvis/Heavy Fuel/On Every Street/Your Latest Trick/Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)`
CD Two (Mark Knopfler Live at The Royal Albert Hall, May 1996): Calling Elvis/Walk Of Life/Last Exit To Brooklyn/Romeo And Juliet/Sultans Of Swing/Brothers In Arms/Money For Nothing
"Goodnight - thankyou - it's time to go home, and he makes it fast with one more thing..."
Having just spent a lot of money launching Mark's career with an album that wasn't too well received, Mercury were keen to exploit the rights to the Dire Straits back catalogue they'd bought up. With 'Money For Nothing' now a decade old and the band now a memory rather than a living force, the band seems to have let the record company just get on with it, coming up with a far more obvious and beginners rather than fan-designed track listing, plus an oh-so obvious shot of a National Guitar for the front cover. The result should probably be called Dire Of Strait's 'greatest hits' rather than a best of - the band's songs all run so long that by the time you include the 'obvious' there's not much room for the 'colour' of their back catalogue. There is, for example, no room for fan-loved classics like 'Down To The Waterline' 'Water Of Love' 'Portobello Belle' 'Telegraph Road' or 'Why Worry' and the fact that there are all of eight songs that 'copy' 'Money For Nothing's track listing - despite the addition of just one new studio album to the band's catalogue - will tell you all you need to know about the two different approaches. However while not very imaginative at least this set is thorough, containing every single UK or US top 60 hit (even 'Lady Writer', which just scraped in) with the exception of 'Skateaway', which is a bit of a shame. Shock horror too the songs are included in the right order! Well not completely - that would be too much ask - with 'Your Latest Trick' and 'Going Home' oddly appearing via live versions from 'On The Night' rather than the originals and so included at the end. But the fact that this compilation nearly gets it right shows that someone was thinking the right things at least (and 'On Every Street' would have been a bit of a downer for the set to end on).
Since its first release in 1998 this set has been re-issued twice with two very different bonus discs. The first time was a two-disc 'special edition' not long after the first release containing a bonus mini-concert of seven Mark Knopfler live songs recorded at The Royal Albert Hall at the launch for 'Golden Heart' in May 1996. Though nicely played - and with the surprise addition of the title song from 'Last Exit To Brooklyn' - it's far from essential, Knopfler in coasting mode and clearly outgrowing the need for arenas (it's the last time to date he's played a venue of that size). The second re-issue in 2002 added a second disc of DVD videos, most of them music promos that we've covered in our 'TV broadcasts' section. It is worth owning, though, even if you already own a lot of the videos on one of their other re-releases as they are fairly well represented and feature Mark Knopfler's occasionally illuminating comments about each song as an 'extra' (although, shockingly, many of the guitar solos are edited down - what idiot thought someone buying a Dire Straits DVD might be at risk of getting bored during a guitar solo?! We fans got flipping 'Alchemy' into the flipping top three on both sides of the Atlantic and that was flipping nothing but one long guitar solo with the odd bit of music in between!)

                                                                       
Mark Knopfler/Various Artists "Metroland (Soundtrack Album)"
(Vertigo,  March 1999)
Metroland Theme*/Annick*/Tour Les Garcons Et Les Filles/Brats*/Blues Chair/Down Day*/A Walk In Paris*/She's Gone*/Minor Swing/Peaches/Sultans Of Swing**/So You Win Again/Alison/Metroland*
* = Mark Knopfler Score ** = Dire Straits Studio Recording
"Run for cover in the light of day"
Mark's next project is a sort of film version of the Tyneside set sitcom 'Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?' whereby an old friend from ten years earlier settles back in his hometown - and makes the main protagonist question all he has and hasn't done with his own life. Although most of the film is set in and around London, the 'flashback' scenes make this Mark's 'French' album to go alongside his 'English' 'Irish' 'Scottish' 'American' and 'Fairytale' ones. Mark sounds less involved in this project that some of his others, though and like 'Comfort and Joy' his music is supplemented by lots of scene-setting late 1970s tracks which do a good job at addressing the change-in-the-air feel of 1976 to1979 (one of which is 'Sultans Of Swing', naturally enough). In total he writes half a dozen new pieces (with the title 'theme' repeated once in an instrumental version), all of which sound like a throwback to the mid-80s Dire Straits sound with lots of keyboards and atmosphere (played once again by the Straits' Guy Fletcher). The highlights of these are the strutting 'Brats' (a very 50s rockabilly instrumental with a twinge of jazz), the lovely folky instrumental 'Down Day' and the minor key ballad 'She's Gone', which are all fine additions to the canon. However the title track itself is merely ugly, an focussed blues song where 'Metroland' is a place rather than a means to get there, an escape from the real world that features Mark either acting badly or on a very off vocal day. Other filler instrumentals are just plain weird ('Annick' is a bar-room blues complete with honky-tonk piano, more fun to play than to listen to one fancies, whilst 'A Walk In Paris' is what Dire Straits might have sounded like had they been French, Pick Withers had only owned brushes and David Knopfler was an accordion player; the mind boggles). All in all, then, 'Metroland' is another frustratingly half successful Knopfler film score, shorter and less substantial than his early works but still with flashes of brilliance. 

                                                                   

Mark Knopfler "Sailing To Philadelphia"
(Vertigo,  September 2000)
What It Is/Sailing To Philadelphia/Who's Your Baby Now?/Baloney Again/The Last Laugh/Silvertown Blues/El Macho/Prairie Wedding/Wanderlust/Speedway At Nazareth/Junkie Doll/Sons Of Nevada/One More Matinee
"Something's going to happen to make your whole life better...one day"
Knopfler's second solo album is a marked improvement, without the uneasy experiments in country and much more of a natural blend of the sort of music Mark wants to play (low key folk-rock songs) and what his audience expects (there's lots of his electric guitar splattered across this album). 'Philadelphia' is, from the almost-out-of-shot-aeroplane cover down, an attempt to show the ugly side of life behind the fame and for all the images of motion in the CD booklet this is a very still, very quiet little album. Listening to this record it's hard to believe that a mere fifteen years earlier Knopfler was the rock God everyone wanted to hang out - this is his first in a run of 'pipes and slippers' albums but actually none the worse for that; slowing the tempo and power down puts more emphasis back on Mark's strengths as a singer, writer and guitarist without the 'rock beat' sometimes getting in the way.
In case you hadn't guessed from the title, this is Knopfler's 'Americana' album. It is perhaps ironic that after so many years of endless travelling Knopfler finally uses the image of movement on an album that for once wasn't written on the move, but then this isn't an album so much concerned with travel as much as putting down roots, with Knopfler getting to grips with his new half-home. Many of the songs are set in the States and those that aren't have Mark asking effectively 'what am I doing out here?' (the title track, a parable about the formation of the Mason-Dixon Line that divides North and South America, even interrupts the history lesson for Knopfler to identify himself with his fellow 'Geordie boy' Jermiah Dixon). That in itself is not unusual - Knopfler was spending more time in the States with his third wife Kitty Aldridge and like many a writer before him adapted to a new country that once seemed 'so far away' as his new home. But this isn't the modern America or even a mythical America he writes about on this album: it's the forgotten, poverty-riddles backstreets of America he writes about here, as if in shock at how a country so rich and powerful can so often resemble his own tough upbringing in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. These streets aren't paved with gold but with people facing tough times with fortitude, scrimping and saving to afford 'prairie weddings', car racers in Nazareth who don't quite realise the dangers they face or entertainers who've been putting on the greasepaint every week since 1954 determined that this week they're going to be 'spotted'. Everyone is trying to fulfil their dreams across this album - and yet there's a hollow sense that comes from Knopfler having been there, with all the success and riches he could ever want, and knowing how empty it all is. He's too good a writer to pity rather than sympathise his characters and yet there's a feeling of frustration on this album that comes over loud and clear at times.
In many ways, 'Sailing To Philadelphia' sounds like an apology, as Knopfler turns back once again to the social consciousness of 'Love Over Gold'. Deeply unhappy with the riches and fame Dire Straits had brought him, Mark sings about the poor and their struggles over and over here, as if determined to keep them uppermost in his mind and not be cut off from them like other 'rich' rock stars. In a deeply ironic twist of fate, Knopfler starts writing about people in poverty rather than the comparatively spoiled rich narrators of his Dire Straits work ('Romeo and Juliet' 'Private Investigations' 'Heavy Fuel' et al) for a series of characters across his solo work who all seem to be in 'dire straits' of one sort or another! In retrospect it's easy to see that Mark is already thinking about his slow burning project with Emmylou Harris (started in 1998, it will become 'All The Road Running' in 2006) as many of these songs sound a lot like hers: stark, monochrome and blunt, yet somehow full of love.The album starts in a 'drinking den' where 'everybody is looking for some arms to fall into' and ends up with a couple of travelling entertainers at the end of their careers still dreaming of 'the big time'. If 'Brothers In Arms' displayed the broadest brush-strokes in Mark's canon, then 'Sailing To Philadelphia' is Knopfler's touch at his deftest, an album that says little on first hearing but speaks of so much pathos and futility reading between the lines. 'Philadelphia' is also notably light on autobiography - admittedly Knopfler's never been a confessional writer of the CSN school but what's happening to the characters in his songs often synchronises at least with his own life. That isn't true here, with all these characters drawn from Knopfler's past rather than his present and with the only really autobiographical song here ('Do America') a self-deprecating comedy of the 'Millionaire Blues' type (the narrator sure he's 'hot as a pistol' because he's gone over big in 'Birmingham and Bristol' so surely US fame can't be far away?!) The song ends dramatically with the line 'statue of liberty - but everybody's looking at me' and that's the album in a nutshell: Knopfler wants to be a director not an actor, pointing the musical camera at what he wants us to focus on, without the celebrity and fame getting in the way. It's an admirable stand to take, actually, and arguably the best handling of sudden fame of any of our AAA stars and to date Knopfler never has given in to the urge to make a quick guaranteed buck with his old band, content to tell 'the truth' to a small minority of people than shout at a whole group of people who won't listen to what he has to say.
So this is very much a more unified and carefully planned album than the rather daft and inconsistent 'Darling Pretty'. But is it any good? Well the good news is that the worst tracks - the attempt to experiment with new styles that Knopfler should never have gone anywhere near - are gone and considering this album contains an impressive fourteen songs (double the amount of most Dire Straits albums!) there's not that much filler here. The bad news is that there isn't much here that really stands out from the crowd and rather inevitably it's the songs that contain a little of the old fizz and fire from the old band days that stick in the mind most: the album's one big production number 'Whose Your Baby Now?', the 'Ride Across The River' soundalike 'Prairie Wedding' and the typically pretty ballad 'Silvertown Blues' (treated with far more subtlety and poignancy than the similar songs from 'On Every Street'). Most fans tend to enjoy the big name guest stars here too (something Knopfler hadn't done since Sting co-wrote 'Money For Nothing') - James Taylor's co-vocal on the title track, Van Morrison guests on 'The Last Laugh' and two members of Squeeze pop up on 'Silvertown Blues' (alongside old Dire Straits pal Guy Fletcher who plays keyboards through most of the album). However all too often these names get in the way: this 'feels' like it ought to be an under-stated poor-selling fan favourite, not an uncomfortable halfway house between the glory days of yesteryear and a new sound for a whole new audience. All that said, though, all kudos to Knopfler for having the strength of character to move on as thoroughly and as cleverly as he does here - sounding as if this the way his records should always have been made and that Dire Straits was just a 'bad dream'. Knopfler's avoided the traps that The Rolling Stones and The Who and so many others have fallen into of trying to hang onto their youth into middle age and through to old age and that's an achievement in itself. The fact that this album manages to be so good - our rating is that 'Philadelphia' is the best Knopfler solo album after 2009's 'Get Lucky' - is a happy bonus.
A pretty, more low budget version of the sort of slowly stretched out epics Dire Straits used to play - that's what opener and first album single 'What It Is', erm, is. Knopfler seems to be saying goodbye to his past, the drinking taverns of Newcastle on an unspecified party night (or is every night a party night?), but there's a hint that Knopfler's un-named narrator is a rogue, 'Dirty Dick in search of Little Nell'.
Title track 'Sailing To Philadelphia' sounds like late period Simon and Garfunkel as Knopfler takes a journey back through American history, narrating the tale as if he 'was' surveyor Jeremiah Dixon. Knopfler may have been struck by the similarities between them: he too was Newcastle born and bred, who found himself out of his depth and thrust into a new world thanks to his 'talents' and there are lots of lines in the song that could refer to either ('You gullible Geordie lad!' sings guest James Taylor affectionately at one point).
'Whose Your Baby Now?' is a thrilling return to the angry rock songs of betrayal from the debut album, Knopfler recounting how someone he once used to idolise and place on a 'rock' has now 'crumbled up and gone', complete with a delightful sing-along chorus, some lovely harmony work and some blistering guitarwork. The highlight of the album.
'Baloney Again' is a moody blues song, like those written for 'On Every Street' but more authentically realised thanks to Jim Hoke's harmonica and Knopfler's dusky deep vocal. Unusually Christian in tone and set back in the 1930s, this latest Knopfler character is struggling with the racial violence shown towards him and looking guidance but isn't 'fed up' of his belies yet, still dreaming of a better tomorrow.
'The Last Laugh' is another pretty song about poverty, Knopfler and guest Van Morrison recounting how 'mad old soldiers down in the gutter' and those at their wits end will always feel like they've won a victory if they can get the last laugh in.
'Do America' has a little of 'The Bug' about it, a scattershot riff that sounds almost like a parody of Dire Straits and is highly fitting to this nostalgic the=-jokes-on-me tale of Knopfler's days as a 'star'. Everyone urges him to 'do America, do do America' and that's always been his dream 'since I was a kid at school' - but his 'dream' was misguided; he actually sees less of life thanks to his fame and his big thick sunglasses, missing out on all the fun he once had back home. Funny as it is, though, this repetitive song does rather pall before the four minutes are up.
'Silvertown Blues' is another gorgeous song, quite possibly Mark's best since the title track of 'Brothers In Arms'. The pair of songs share a similar sense of drama and atmosphere, although rather than a tribute to 'mist-covered mountains' it's a tribute to the beauty of an industrial landscape that is ambiguous to be either Newcastle or America again. Knopfler's poetic lyrics reveal how crushed the people are ('Men with no dreams around a fire in a drum') and his hopelessness at not being able to put things right (he has a 'bucket of gold' with him, but that's not enough 'silver' to help this whole steel-coloured town).
'El Macho' is something of a struggle - a reggae song played on horns, no less! Perhaps remembering his own youth and laughing at the similarities between his own home visits now he lives abroad, Knopfler recalls the rich 'Yanks' coming to Britain with all their money and taking all the girls, musically kicking himself by looking in a mirror and saying sarcastically 'yeah you look a fine thing, Jerry!' The backing doesn't fit the song, although in its own way its pertinent as a reminder that the character is an 'immigrant' in a strange land.
'Prairie Wedding' is more gold, with Guy Fletcher's warm bed of keyboards the perfect accompaniment to a husky voiced Knopfler's brittle song about a family who have nothing except each other. Taking his beloved to a down-trodden farm Knopfler's narrator feels guilty about the poor future he has to offer his intended and we never do hear if she simply says 'no', but the gorgeous sway of Fletcher's keyboards floats above the poverty offering hope. A very clever song.
'Wanderlust' is one of the album's lesser moments, Knopfler turning into full blues singer mode on a song with hardly any lyrics and almost haiku-style in its simplicity. The narrator has a bad dream, with only his own  'wanderlust' as a companion.
Knopfler's fascination with cars on his solo albums has surprised many - it's grown to be more or less the dominating theme of the past two records at the time of writing. 'Speedway At Nazareth' is the first of these, a car race set in the then-future of 2001 narrated as if it's a traditional country ballad. The car driver is unfocussed when his girlfriend walks out on him and crashes the car at circuit after circuit. This song isn't about that sadness, though, or the narrator's 'down-in-the-might-have-beens' mood but  the thrill of the night it all finally comes right at the last race of the year when he blows away the opposition (again its fascinating to view this as Mark's parable about his career and message of 'don't give up' - if you've joined us here after skipping the review of the first album Mark came to making music late at the age of 29, a series of failed attempts and other careers behind him).
'Junkie Doll'  is a fascinating song, though not one made for repeated listening. Another blues number, it seems to be a drugs song ('Turnpike Lane, you spiked my arm') but seems most likely to be Mark waving 'goodbye' to the infatuations he had in the past (both with people and with fame, perhaps) now he's with the 'real' love of his life. The 'drugs' he refer to sound more like places from his past, while Mark boasts proudly 'now it's all gone, I'm all clean'.
'Sands Of Nevada' is a more produced recording than many on the album, complete with strings and howling wind effects. Another Americana song, this one concerns itself not with the razzle dazzle of Las Vegas down the road but the comparatively poor neighbour Nevada whose entertainment industry has faded as the gambling clubs and casinos have grown. Knopfler's narrator is a local whose dreams have 'crumbled in a wasteland of cut glass' - he may well be thinking back to Newcastle in the 1980s here.
The album closes with 'One More Matinee', the tale of two performers who always vow to retire but never before, convinced the next night might be the one that makes them 'stars'. Alas this closing song is rather unmemorable compared to the rest of the album, but there's a sweet lyric and a nice chorus harmony featuring the guys from Squeeze. 

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