Monday, 4 May 2015
Dire Straits: Unreleased Recordings
1) Real Girl (1977?)
We've already covered this on our review of the 1977 demo tape, but it's such an important oddity in the world of Dire Straits we thought it deserved another mention. This rather harsh and dismissive song would have fitted in nicely on the edgier nastier tones of the debut LP and is clearly about Kathy White, Mark's first wife from his pre-fame days. However you can see why it didn't make the first album: it's not that it's bad and the highly rockabilly string tugging is if anything the most 'Dire Straitsy' song on that first demo. But stylistically this song doesn't fit, turning Dire Straits into something of a 'personal confessional' band rather than the character-driven/social commentary group they will become: the song starts with the uncharacteristic piece of swearing 'I don't want no suckers, head fuckers, bad luckers...' (perhaps another reason why vertigo didn't want this song out, with the 'f' word still slightly taboo in music in 1978) before the narrator denounces all the women he knows as 'looking for takers, man rapers'. Mark sings with the deeper huskier voice of his later solo years and the effect is extremely convincing - more than you'd expect if you don't know this track and are judging by the records. However it's a case of great song, wrong fit and probably should have been left in the vaults.
2) Secondary Waltz (1977?)
This outtake comes with questionable dating, but we've lumped it together with the other early pre-fame songs because it 'sounds' like it belongs here, with a similarly scrappy sound and a rock-quartet four-bars style (although of course it could just be a 'memory' of how the band sounded in their earlier days, taped later) - other fans have dated it anywhere up to the 'Makin' Movies' period. This is another fascinating outtake, because it reveals just how very different the Mark Knopfler songwriter of the early days was compared to his solo self. You see Mark has released this song, on 'Kill To Get Crimson' in 2006, but this first and very Dire Straitsy recording (with oh so traditional guitarwork and lashes of rudimentary keyboards - a sign for many that Alan Clark is on the track, although they're simple enough for Mark himself to play) shares almost nothing except the title, the chorus line of 'waltzing with fear in our hearts' and the very basics of a melody. The c.1977 model is lightly threatening rockabilly - the finished version is almost toe-curlingly traditional country and achingly slow. I'd never much cared for the solo version of the song, but I really admire the Dire Straits version which has the strut of 'Walk Of Life' with the thunder of 'Heavy Fuel' and brings out the writer's eye for detail a la 'Romeo And Juliet' that much better. Unlike the first song on our list this one really should have been released - it's more than worthy of it, whichever album sessions it was originally a part of. 'Take three boys!' a weary Knopfler cries at the end, suggesting the song is something of a struggle to get right though - perhaps that's why it got left on the shelf for so long?
3) Eastbound Train (1977?)
Another leftover from the early days (back to Mark's teaching days in fact, making it one of his earliest 'hard' songs) which was a semi-regular in the Dire Straits setlists in the gigs promoting the first two albums and was arguably one of the best-selling Dire Straits songs after appearing on the B-side of the single 'Sultans Of Swing'. However we're willing to bet that not that many of you reading this will know about it: this highly derivative 50s rocker has yet to appear on CD and the original demo version never has, which is a shame because it has more 'life' than the finished version. While the usual sort of stuff musically speaking, the lyrics to this one are quite inventive, as Mark's eye is caught by a woman who catches the same train as him. According to the instructions Mark would have been going 'home' from his brother David and John Illsley's shared flat in Deptford to his own teaching digs in Buckhurst Hill.
4) Me And My Friend (1978?)
I'm still not sure whether it was by design or luck (ie whether the Knopflers had a friend in the audience with a tape recorder), but one of the earliest Dire Straits gigs from before the first album came out in from 1978 exists (short as it is) and I'm very grateful. By and large the band sound just like they do on their demo tape - which in other words means they sound just like they do on the debut album, but with even less frills and a far more compressed sound (Knopfler hasn't found the best way of making his guitar really soar yet). 'Me And My Friend' is the one oddity played at that gig, the one song not a part of that first album and sadly never heard of again. Mark's narrator is again enjoying music as escapism, part of a 'Sultans Of Swing' style rock band on stage (is it even the same band?), claiming 'me and my band are putting it down, into the ground' and acknowledging that 'we'd be a pain in the neck if we couldn't play!' While not the greatest lost classic in the world there's a nice riff and the band are enjoying themselves playing such a self-referencing song; in retrospect this would have made a perfect B-side partner to 'Sultans'!
5) Bernadette (1979?)
Another abandoned early song only ever played live at a handful of gigs - although in this case from a time when the band had a bit more of a following - 'Bernadette' is another first album sounding song. Like The Kinks' girl of the same name she's a bad sort, always messing with the narrator's head, with a 'wasted life and a wasted time - what's it going to take to change your mind?', although Knopfler makes less play of the 'burn-a-debt-and-owes-me-money' sort. This girl who once had so much potential but wasted it all is a common theme on the first record and this song comes with a very heavy 'Dead End Street' style stomp and some excellent rhythm guitar playing from David Knopfler. However the swing with which it's played and the swirl of lovely harmonies around the song instantly makes it the lightest Dire Straits song of the period too. In fact this more of a Noting Hillbillies style song.
6) In My Car (1979?)
Another live refugee from the same period is an early example of Mark Knopfler's love of vintage and fast cars - something we hear much more about in his solo work. The live recording I've heard prefaces the song with a rambling anecdote from Mark about how he blew his early advance money on a great car but parked it in the same beaten-down street he was still living in: needless to say it wasn't parked outside for very long...The song itself is more about the feelings of escape and freedom driving gives him and the subject matter and sudden switches of tempo make the band sound even more retro-fifties than normal. Once again David Knopfler is the star of the recording, driving the song on with some excellent gritty rhythm guitar stabs, while Mark either joins in or flies over the top with a blisteringly fast solo over the top. Another song that more than deserved a release - it would have enlivened 'Communique' up no end.
7) What's The Matter Baby? (BBC 1979)
The only official release for this early song comes on the Dire Straits 'BBC Sessions' disc. Given that this CD is itself something of a rarity, this article is rather short and the song is a good one we've plumped with another 'live' version of this song for our list. A cracking rocker that sounds more like The Who with some demented Pick Withers drumming and a stinging John Illsley riff that just won't let go (the solo break is pure 'Quadrophenia' and if that description hasn't got you excited then you're reading the wrong book). The lyrics are weird, supernatural rather than earthy ('There's a shadow hanging over the valley, a total eclipse of the moon') although even these fit with the slightly wider scope of 'Communique'. Once again that album would have been far superior with this track included to break the ballads up a bit and there's another classic almost flamenco-style guitar solo in the middle too.
8) Making Movies (1980)
Mark took the basics of that track and tried to use it a second time for an early song intended as the title track of the 'Makin' Moviers' album and which came with two lines that were later moved to that record's 'Skateaway' ('She's making movies, on location...'). However this version of the song doesn't hit the spot as well, with a clichéd 'oh yeah!' chorus medley and an its-take-44-and-I'm-getting-bored guitar part from Mark that all too clearly misses David's rhythm part to bounce off. The Arena documentary of the same year records a tired fed up band on the road in 1980 working on that 'difficult third album' - that despair doesn't come through on the album as released (which is largely upbeat and uptempo) but comes over loud and clear here, which might be why it was ultimately shelved. The song is interrupted by a demand for 'take 22' and a slower paced reflective section, although the lyrics make it clear this is a music video being directed and re-changed on the spot while the band hang around all day - in retrospect a fascinatingly early example of Mark sounding less than happy with the trappings of fame. However it's worth noting that at this stage Dire Straits had at best made two music videos, neither of them on location - and the band weren't even in the first! Odd as this is I'd still have preferred this song to 'Les Boys' from the same record.
9) Nadine (1989?)
Jumping forward a long way in time, this is the post-Brothers In Arms Dire Straits reunited briefly and playing live in concert (although bizarrely the bootleg is in much worse sound than when the band were unknown and not famous - did no one closer to the stage have a tape recorder that day?!) 'Nadine' is pretty ramshackle, in keeping with most performances from the brief 1989/90 reunions but is remarkable for one major reason: it's the only time Knopfler ever chose to cover one of his beloved 50s rockabilly classics. The song is a Chuck Berry one and shares most of the writer's trademarks (girls, cars, lust bordering on love and a lack of funds) but strangely enough doesn't feature much room for guitar except for a brief 'duckwalk' in the middle that sounds rather good - instead most of the solos are played on harmonica. The result is less than convincing and makes Dire Straits sound more like a pub band than ever, but is still worth a listen.
10) Feel Like Going Home (with vocals c.1990)
To be honest, this recording shouldn't be here - it's a Mark Knopfler BBC session re-recording of not a Dire Straits song but one of his Notting Hillbillies tracks. However we leave it here because it might well be the best thing on the list: Mark is speaking and singing on a tribute night for DJ Roger Scott, a longtime supporter of Mark's who died of cancer in 1989. Mark recounts that he was told his friend was poorly and asked to come visit, but record demands for the album being finished meant he didn't get there till the next day, by when he was too late. Mark then plays a moving version of the best track on the 'Missing...Presumed Having A Good Time' record that he was recording that day (and really wanted his old buddy to hear) and this is only recording of him singing the Charlie Rich classic (Brendan Croker does it on the record). The song sounds far more like Dire Straits here though, thanks to the less sterile arrangement and the presence of Guy Fletcher on keyboards who adds a lovely poignancy to the song. This is Mark's show and he turns in a tear-jerking vocal (deeper, just like his solo records) and one of his greatest ever guitar solos. The supportive Roger Scott would surely have loved it, especially this version of it. Mark really should have kept this song for the 'On Every Street' album - with its images of returning home it would have made a lovely full circle to the first album's themes of getting away and walking anywhere to get fresh ideas.
11) I Think I Love You Too Much (1990)
Performed just the once, during a short reunion show at Knebworth, this is a bluesy original by Knopfler which was an experiment at trying to find a 'new' sound for the band. On stage Knopfler comes backed by Eric Clapton (the pair alternating solos in the middle, with Clapton much more fluid than Knopfler's persistent finger-picking) and a group of backing singers, which instantly puts you more in mind of hopeless wannabes like Jools Holland's band rather than the real thing. However the song itself is rather a good one, returning Dire Straits briefly to their four-in-the-bar simplified songs of their early days. It would have been fascinating to hear a whole album of this - 'Calling Elvis' and 'The Bug' coming closest - but Mark decided the experiment hadn't worked (the crowd didn't seem that keen on it, but then that might be because they've just played 'Money For Nothing' and are all screamed-out) and abandoned it, never to be heard of again. Well not by Dire Straits anyway: Mark gave the song to his friend Jeff Healey to record for his 1990 album 'Hell To Pay', waving his writer's fee as a 'gift'. That take is more jazz than blues with a slightly slower tempo and a very different more elaborate texture than here.
12) Heavy Fuel (Alternate Take 1991)
Only one session tape of Dire Straits at work has ever come to light - and unluckily it's from their last and probably least interesting final album 'On Every Street'. However there's a case to be made that the album sounds a lot better like this, with Mark nice and raw on his guide vocals in contrast to the rather over-polished sounds of the final product. Everything is in place for 'Heavy Fuel' except the comedy really, which is probably a good thing - the track sounding more like a straightfoward rocker than a 'comedy' track with Mark overdoing the sarcasm. Otherwise the only difference is an even longer fade.
13) The Bug (Alternate Take 1991)
Knopfler's other big comedy song also sounds better for being played rougher and looser, without the sometimes heavy-handed attempts to be funny. This song sounds much more different without the characteristic 'hiccup' in Knopfler's guitar (the notes go 'twaaaang' without going 'twaaanggagagagaboobopdebam!'), while the guitar backing is much more country, with a pedal steel going on too. Without the guitar doesn't so much of the work there's more of a part for the drums to play and a nice acoustic guitar part in the background dropped for the record. Above all, though, Mark sounds as if he's having fun with the song, reducing it to its bare bones instead of trying to create the hit of the year. Sometimes less is more.
14) Iron Hand (Alternate Take 1991)
The most interesting of the four 'On Every Street' alternate takes is a gorgeous version of 'Iron Hand' which starts with a flute solo before a second half made up of just Knopfler and guitar singing without all those atmospheric synthesisers getting in the way. 'iron Hand' suddenly makes more sense: it's a song that's meant to be more 'folk-protest' (i.e. 'The Man's Too Strong') than atmospherics (i.e. 'Brothers In Arms'). By singing in his natural register instead of an even-deeper-than-usual gruffness Mark also sounds more natural and less like a wannabe folk singer. While still from the greatest Dire Straits moment this alternate take is vastly superior in every way, sounding more like one of Mark's soundtrack scores then the over-poppy final version. Goodness knows why he ever re-recorded it.
15) On Every Street (Alternate Take 1991)
Finally, the alternate take of the title track isn't as obviously different but again features a much more 'natural' performance from both singer and band. Alan Clark plays piano rather than Guy Fletcher on keyboards (suggesting that this song comes from early in the sessions) and this suits the song a lot more, keeping things simple instead of burying it under layers of sound and allowing the pretty understated tune to slowly unfold (there's no saxophone solo either, with Clark playing that part on a plain piano). Once again it's still not the greatest thing Dire Straits ever recorded but it is an awful lot better.
Well, that's all for now. We'll be back with more Dire Straits with the first of a two-part special looking at their solo/film scores/live album/compilations next week and we'll be back with the Grateful Dead entry in our 'unreleased songs series' sometime later in the month!