Monday, 11 May 2015

Dire Straits: Non Album Songs 1977-1991





Non-Album Recordings #1: 1977 (The Demo Tapes)


Many many AAA bands recorded demo tapes to become famous. The Dire Straits tape is one of the most thrilling: rockier than anything that ever made the record and with no overdubs or frills - like the first album, but more so somehow. sadly despite becoming one of the most famous demo tapes of them all Dire Straits have never officially released it (Mark Knopfler has never been keen on returning to his 'fame' years): we leave this article here in the hopes that one day someone will see sense (and while not available officially they can be heard on many bootleg and in the grey area of copyright control on Youtube: we even have our own 'Alan's Album Archives Dire Straits Playlist' if you can't find it so look us up - assuming the videos remain up however far away in the future you happen to be reading this).

Meanwhile back in 1977, when 'Youtube' was still slang for a badly fitting tanktop and the internet was so unlikely as to be made out of magic, Dire Straits are busy taping their first songs.  Recorded a full year before their release on the first self-titled Dire Straits record and effectively the 'demo tape'  - or rather three demo tapes - that got them signed the band have never sounded more free or natural, their heavy year of gigging clearly paying off and turning them into a tight quartet. Mark Knopfler often sounds uncomfortable with the vocals, his guitar licks don’t quite have the confidence he will have in a year or so’s time and the usual glossy Dire Straits production is a long way away but even given such surroundings these six recordings are among the best things the band ever did, fresh exciting and energetic even compared to the re-recordings a year later. Interestingly David Knopfler is also a writer on the demo tape although his song 'Sacred Loving' never made the first album (unlike most of this material) and mysteriously doesn't seem to have leaked on bootleg yet either. The middle of the three tapes is the one sent on speculation to the BBC and thus the first time since his teenage years that Mark's material was actually broadcast on radio DJ Charlie Gillett's show. Indeed, it was his enthusiasm and the audience's strong response that first inspired record label Vertigo to take a look. All in all an impressive eight of these songs will appear on the Dire Straits debut album the following year (with 'Lions' the only track yet to be written) and will be dealt with in more detail there (the exception is 'The Real Girl', one of the few bona fide Mark Knopfler songs the band never returned to) although this tape itself was never actually broadcast and tragically has never had an official release: it fully deserves one revealing a natural, instinctive, truly cooking band. For now we're more concerned with the differences between the demo tapes and the finished versions, so feel free to skip to our review of the first album a-coming up next in this book if the songs are more your thing (please note as well: the running order for this tape has varied every time I've seen it and there are no obvious aural 'clues' as to what goes where  - so we've simply listed these songs in the order they happen to be on my copy).

[1a] 'Water Of Love' is a lot slower and bluesier, with Mark's vocal sounding bolder and more upfront without so much production behind it. He sounds great actually, making you wonder why they ever buried it, doing a great job as a wannabe blues singer 'crying out for some fuel and rain'. The emphasis on the guitar-weaving rather than the bass and drums also makes this one of the more different songs on the demo tape, closer to folk and the 'Man's Too Strong' style protest songs of later years than the finished LP version. David, especially, is a little star, getting a chance to play the 'lead' washes of colour while his big brother plays the tricky rhythm part. The result is a great blues pastiche with much more heart and feeling than the album version. Unreleased: Taped July 27th 1977
Turning next to what was already the band's biggest showstopper of their early gigs, [2a] 'Sultans Of Swing' is already a great groove. Dire Straits are understandably less polished and poised here than on all the later versions we'll get to know and without the production sheen and echo this track seems much smaller somehow - but that's only to the advantage of a song about the intimacy and excitement of playing in a small club. Pick gets far less to do, without his usual drum rolls and John is near enough inaudible, while David is near enough a second guitarist throughout. The song is also sufficiently new for Mark to fluff the opening to the second verse ('And Harry...yer...Harry he doesn't mind..'). However once again this song already has character and Dire Straits seem very much like a band to watch. Unreleased: Taped July 27th 1977

 [3a] 'Down To The Waterline' is next, starting with a bit of tuning and a squeal of feedback. The main differences are that the familiar opening peal of Mark's guitar and Pick's ** cymbals is joined by David's rhythm, who does indeed have a much bigger role to play all round on these demo tapes (before his brother falls in love with double-tracking and does everything himself!) Everyone sounds a little too 'busy' here, not content to let the song unfold in real time (this was, remember, a period when two minute bursts of adrenalin were back in fashion), with Mark's solo one of the few times he ever plays too many notes and shows off! There's less emphasis on the riff for now too, the track more about mood and atmosphere for now. The song is already sounding good, though and while you miss the polish of the final version this version might just win out on pure character, played entirely live in the studio. Unreleased: Taped July 27th 1977

[**] 'Wild West End' is slightly quicker and slightly less out of keeping with the other demoed songs than the first album version. David's busy guitar work sounds slightly out of tune and rather hissy, but otherwise this is a superior performance all round: Mark Knopfler does his first of many 'husky bluesmen' impersonations on this recording but this original is best, almost speak-singing the song for the most part and with the occasional deep-throated chuckle thrown in too. All in all this version of the song is much more peaceful than the one that made the album, with a mass singalong chorus that works rather well. Unreleased: Taped July 27th 1977

 [4a] 'Six-Blade Knife' is rather different too. The album version is slow and subtle, breaking out into a trot only when Mark's vocal becomes impassioned. This version is much livelier, opening with a fun guitar solo that bounces around the riff like it's a bouncy castle and with the guitar weaving driving him on Mark sings at a much faster pace here. The result is one instance where the band improved the song between demo recording and album, but it's still a highly interesting find that reveals how great Dire Straits must have sounded at their early gigs back when nobody knew who they were. Unreleased: Taped sometime in October 1977

[5a] 'Southbound Again' is much more about the riff than the song on the demo tape. Mark even gives what's either a grunt of frustration or exhaustion after nailing it all the way through to his bandmates come in. Once again the rhythm section is recorded so low that this version never really swings and you badly miss the pealing overdubbed guitar of the album. Mark sounds rather good as a bluesman once again, though, while the tricky finger-picking stomp is a sound that suits the band rather well - it's a shame they never really returned to it again. Unreleased: Taped sometime in October 1977
[**] 'In The Gallery' is another of the highlights of the tape, Dire Straits getting even further out into reggae territory on this scratchy, bare-bones Western. Mark Knopfler sounds as if he's been drinking and smoking all morning to get his 'wasted' vocals just right and performs another stunning vocal much more convincing than the one that made the record. Otherwise the differences aren't that many: this song is slightly stiffer, fully in keeping with a band that don't know it that well yet, but pretty much all the pieces are in place already. Unreleased: Taped sometime in October 1977
[6a] 'Setting Me Up' is perhaps the greatest moment on the tape. The finished version is the closest thing to a 'pop' song the band had after 'Sultans' and the final recording seems airbrushed to within an inch of it's life to make sure everything is where it should be. This version is much rawer, much looser and much more in keeping with another angry burst of guilt and betrayal. The finished version is essentially a happy song: surrounded by sweepy harmonies Mark seems relieved to have escaped the wrath of a romance that was hard on him; this version isn't a memory but very much caught in the middle of an unhappy time. The chorus isn't breezily swept along, it's a stop-starty pause-for-breath section that exhausts the narrator even singing about it. Mark sounds rather good being angry and the band really should have kept this arrangement in the final album - less commercial it may be but it's a lot more 'real'. Like the rest of the tape, Dire Straits are clearly a band bouncing with ideas - no wonder they got snapped up so quickly after making it.

The fun but inconsequential [**] 'Eastbound Train' was a live regular that was treated as a bit of fun between the more serious early songs and later became a natural home as the B-side of first single 'Sultans Of Swing'. An allegedly 1977 live recording - the first known of the band - has this as the only recognisable Dire Straits song in the pack and dates back to mark's teaching days (it describes, fairly accurately I've been told, the journey home from Deptford, where Mark would have been jamming with brother David and his pal John, to his flat at Buckhurst Hill; by the way I have some doubts about the dating of that 'first' tape - it sounds more like Mark in his 'teacher' days treating music as a hobby and most of the first album songs were written by 1977 as the demo tape reveals: my dating is more 1975, 1976 at the latest, or so I think anyway).  A tale of falling in love with a complete stranger and imagining all the things they have in common even so far all that's involved is the whacking coincidence of them taking the same train every day and have never spoken, it shows off Mark's strong eye for detail without being as memorable as most of his later songs. Unreleased: Taped November 7th 1977

So far we've had an impressive eight of the nine songs from the first record more or less as they'll end up on the finished album. [**] 'The Real Girl' is the one song on the demo tape that the band never returned to and while that's understandable given how 'wrong' this track sounds in context, it's a shame because they won't ever make a song quite this daring ever again (well not till 'Telegraph Road' at least). The angriest song from an angry period, this is all too clearly about Mark's split from his first wife and childhood sweetheart Kathy, reeling from being let down again and assuming the worst of all womankind as a result. Basically a long list of insults with one of the best finger-snapping riffs in the band's canon, this has Knopfler sounding ever deeper and huskier, softened only by the pretty chorus harmonies. Fed up of being messed around Mark pleads for 'no actresses in distresses 'n' strangeness's' and later branching out into invented insults on the line 'don't give me no pseuders, pruders or funny fooders'. Instead he longs for his 'only one' who in  this song is named...Cheryl (so is presumably fictional, given that no biographers or fans have ever worked out who she is - although it seems a strange and un-rhymeable name to come up with on the spot). Whatever the source, 'Real Girl' brings out the best in the band, allowing them to be funky and slightly more contemporary than their usual  1950s-style selves. Unreleased: Taped November 7th 1977

Non-Album Recordings #2: 1978
[  ] 'Eastbound Train' is a fun boogie-woogie Knopfler song that's one of the earliest of his songs the band played. Despite fitting in with the 'travel' theme of the first album rather well and appearing with the other first album songs on the 1977 demo tape, the band decided it was surplus to requirements and booted it off to the flipside of first single 'Sultans Of Swing'. That was probably a good move: it's not that 'Eastbound Train' is bad, but it is a lot lighter than the other early Dire Straits songs and wears the rockabilly 50s influence even more on its sleeve. Like many early Knopfler songs it's a slightly passive song whereby the narrator meets the love of his life on a train but according to the song never even makes conversation with her, content simply with the brief bit of magic that's lightened his day (even 'Sultans Of swing' has the narrator enjoying the band, not playing in it himself). The train route - from King's Cross Station to Mile End Road and 'Central' - is pretty accurate for where Knopfler was living at the time in Buckhurst Hill and probably covers his routine home from work in his teaching days (where he would indeed have been 'Eastbound'). Interestingly as early as this song - composed circa 1976 judging by its appearance on early band recordings and interviews at the time - Mark promises to deliver his message 'through the radio', clearly assured that his songs would one day make the air. A fun song, this love storey involves much strutting and duck-walking Chuck Berry-style while Knopfler also does a pretty good imitation of a howling train. Alas to date this song and all other exclusive Dire Straits B-sides have yet to appear on CD. Find it on: the original single 'Su;ltans Of Swing'

Non-Album Recordings #3: 1979
In the running for 'Comunique' but booted off the album for unknown reasons, [  ] 'What's A Matter Baby?' ended up waiting some sixteen years to find an official release on the 'Dire Straits At The BBC' set. As new wave as Dire Straits ever became this is a strangely aggressive song with a punchy two-pronged guitar attack and a slightly flamenco riff that sounds like a few random ideas from the 'Dire Straits' and 'Love Over Gold' albums have been pasted on top of one another (it makes more sense when you learn that this song is the only collaboration between Mark and David, merging th elder brother's commercial nouse and threatbneing chorus with the younger brothert's aggressive poetry). Lyrically too this is a harsh song dismissive of some lover which fits in with the band's early years, but with a more poetic and mystical touch in the verses (e.g. There's a shadow hanging over the valley, a total eclipse of the moon') that sounds more like the band in later years. The riff isn't that far removed from 'Expresso Love' record the next year either interestingly, which might explain why this song wasn't resurrected for 'Makin' Movies'. This tale of Knopfler first trying to comfortt and then getting rather fed up of an upset loved one remains one of the band's most overlooked moments and is well worth hearing by fans who like the band's earlier aggressive style. Find it on: 'Dire Straits At The BBC' (1995)
Non-Album Recordings #5: 1983

With the length of time between albums growing with every release, Dire Straits decided to release a sort of halfway house, with an EP instead of a full album in 1983. This was something of an odd idea: 12" singles were the current medium of choice and had basically replaced any need for an 'EP', running a similar time whilst taking up about half the work (most tended to feature either lots of already-famous songs as B-sides or endless remixes of songs that went into double-figures thanks to a bit of natty editing; given that most Dire Straits songs already ran for this time this seemed rather unnecessary). Indeed the EP (short for 'Extended Play') hadn't really been seen since the late 1960s: LPs were more affordable and bands weren't on the must-have-product-every-six-months-or-else bandwagon of the mid 1960s (when record companies genuinely feared that rock was a passing fad they had to milk straightaway to get their money's worth). To be honest, the daftly titled 'ExtendeDancEPlay' is probably the worst idea Dire Straits ever had, with a bunch of songs frankly not good enough to release on record and with a decidedly retro poppy flavour. Even the sleeve was atrocious: a silhouette of two young lovers, umm, twisting by the pool drawn in ugly bold blocks of colour that's dated as badly as the music (even the cover for 'Makin' Movies' of red-on-lue is more interesting than this). Amazingly, despite all the progress the band had made with 'Love Over Gold' it's throwaway B-side 'Badges Stickers Posters T-Shirts' that Dire Straits take as their model for this EP, with a similarly jazzy musical feel and a rather irritating flimsiness (the American edition of this LP duly added that very song as a fourth track - 'Investigations' hadn't sold as well over there so that song was still largely unknown). If the last album was represented by the epic dense history tale 'Telegraph Road' then this was a very short and very dull cul-de-sac. Who'd have guessed after the biggest single mistake of their careers that Dire Straits would bounce back with one of the biggest selling albums of all time? After so many top five singles in a row this release stalled at #14 in the UK and a lowly #53 in America (the band's worst showing since 'Tunnel Of Love' in Britain - a song everyone owned on album already by then we might add - and their worst performance ever in the States).
Admittedly Dire Straits have always had a strong 1950s influence (Mark's decade growing up) but usually they do something clever with the style, adding some modern stylistic twist or theme or simply playing so well you don't notice. [34] 'Twisting By The Pool' is what the band would have sounded like had they been brought up in the 1950s and the results are dire. The song is clearly meant to be amusing, with slight melodic overtones of 'The Walk Of Life' to come, but instead just comes over sounding dumb. Here to prove it is that chorus in full: 'Yeah gotta be so neat, dance to the Euro beat, yeah gonna so cool, twisting by the pool'. It's not exactly poetry is it? Even the band sound less than convincing on this one, a couple of takes short of gelling together with Clark providing much of the colour and new drummer Terry Williams (used to heavier rock than this) hopelessly out of his depth. Not many Dire Straits song are an unmitigated disaster (heck, I even liked 'Communique' and parts of 'On Every Street') but this one is a disaster. Oh and guess which of the three rare EP tracks made it to the 'Money For Nothing' compilation? Yep that's right - this one, a song I skip on principle nowadays, not so much twisting by the pool as twisting in my armchair to hit the 'off' button before my ears are given permanent damage. Find it on: 'ExtendeDancEPlay' (1983) or the 1989 compilation 'Money For Nothing'

[35] 'Two Young Lovers' is marginally better, in the same way that getting beaten up is marginally nicer than being run over. Another irritatingly retro rocky song with a scratchy saxophone sound and not much going on, it's the kind of song The Beach Boys would have refused to put on an album for being too 'obvious'. A tale of a summer romance with an older man and a younger girl ('He said 'Baby let me teach you' she said 'OK - when?' He said 'How can I reach you baby? I'd really like to see you again!') you expect some nasty twist at the end (this is a 50s style song after all): perhaps a motorbike crash or one of them catching the other two-timing. But no: the pair get her parents blessing and get married. That's it. The end. What the? At least 'Expresso Love' and 'Solid Rock' had the good grace to give us a driving funky riff and a strong performance when it offered us 'empty' words, but this lame duck can't even waddle to the end of the song without falling over. Thankfully a live version on 'Alchemy' from the following year is superior (mainly because the band sound like they're having fun taking the mickey out of it), but is still easily that album's weakest link. Other wise this song is still officially unavailable on CD and if you haven't heard it then - man am I jealous! That's two minutes of my life I will never get back... Find it on: ExtendeDancEPlay (1983)

Against all the odds, the final song in the rockabilly trilogy [36] 'If I Had You' is actually rather good. A yearning teenage Knopfler narrator is suffering his first crush and like many first crushes seems to care little for the girl of his affections but more what having her as his girlfriend would mean to him ('I could be a poet, like Muhammad Ali!') A curious structure means the verse has one line too many (Knopfler has to sing '...stings like a bee' under the chord changes and guitar solo to keep up) aside this is a very pretty track with Clark providing the beauty and stability and Knopfler attacking the song with a staccato rhythm guitar part as well as his usual lead. He also sounds much more lively on the vocal and is believably a teen in love. As simple as the other two songs, perhaps, but played with a lot more heart and the sudden switch for the gulped 'baby...baby don't let me go' extended finale is rather moving; you know instantly as a listener that this is a crush rather than true soulmate love but you also know that Knopfler's character doesn't know that yet. Unforgivably, this has since become by far the most obscure song from this three-track EP and has yet to appear on CD in any version.  Find it on: 'ExtendeDancEPlay' (1983)

Non-Album Recordings #6: 1991
Our final pair of non-album recordings are a pair of B-sides that came out on the back of two of the three 'On Every Street' singles (the third, 'The Bug', simply revives 'Twisting By The Pool' - what a slap in the face that is for a last release!)   The first of these [58] 'Millionaire Blues' is a sequel of sports to 'Badges Stickers...', another wry dig at the celebrity culture which finds Knopfler sounding uncomfortable with the weight on his shoulders. A song about what a modern twitter trend would call 'First World Problems', it's the tale of a man who has everything but is so wrapped up in his own minor world of problems that he can't see the wood for the trees. Over the course of the song his Jacuzzi needs a new battery, his butler quits (he probably needed a rest, poor man) and he gets barred from a bar (probably from his behaviour on a previous visit). Throughout it all the narrator sighs, feeling 'as low down as the heels on my alligator shoes'. Sung with panache by Knopfler and with some great guitar breaks the performance of this bluesy song is almost strong enough to rescue it, but remains something of a one-novelty song and ultimately unsatisfying (partnered with 'Calling Elvis' it sounds like a joke too far to be honest) As with the other non-album B-sides 'Millionaire Blues' has yet to appear on CD. Find it on: the 'Calling Elvis' single (1991)

[59] 'Kingdom Come' is thankfully a slightly better place to leave the Dire Straits discography, although it's still one of the weaker songs of the period. One of the - many - B-sides to 'Heavy Fuel' it's a heavy country-blues that's sung with the same sarcasm but has a nice strut about it that 'The Bug' and 'Heavy Fuel' itself could have benefitted from more. Pretending to be a 'hard man', Knopfler threatens to blow 'anything I want to kingdom come' but the presence of an angelic Alan Clark keyboard part and the sense of the narrator protesting too much hints at what a weak and lonely soul he really is. The danger is that we're in gun nut territory here, Knopfler hinting that the alienation of those who laugh at the narrator and his 'strange' friends are responsible for the moments people snap and start shooting strangers in gun massacres. For one awful moment Knopfler sounds so serious you half behalf he shares the same views until a daft 'I say we ought to drop the bomb' over the fade finally pushes this song into the realms of fantasy and away from those who could take the song at face value. An epiphany at the end of a moment of realisation on behalf of the narrator might have helped the song immensely, but then it's clearly written as a throwaway no matter how much love and attention is invested into the actual recording of it here. Mark will re-use the 'boom' phrase of the chorus in 'Boom, Just Like That' in 2004. Find it on: the 'Heavy Fuel' single (1991)




No comments:

Post a Comment