Monday 27 April 2015

Dire Straits: Surviving TV Appearances 1978-1991

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Just when you thought you were safe from an article all about an AAA band's TV appearances, here is another one! Dire Straits might not have been the most photogenic of bands - they tended to let their music do the talking and rarely appeared on random TV programmes plugging their wares like some AAA bands (especially those brought up in the sixties). However of all the bands we cover they were perhaps the biggest pioneers in music videos behind The Monkees, creating some of the most adventurous and certainly longest music videos of our entire collection. What's more they recorded videos for just about every single released from 1981 onwards, taking full advantage of the popularity of MTV (seriously: 'Your Latest Trick' and 'Why Worry?' are all that's missing from albums three to six). Usually these lists would have documentaries, concerts and TV shows interspersed within this list, but a brief dalliance with the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1979 and a popular gig at Live Aid aside, Dire Straits weren't really that sort of a band, so this article will be a little different to the usual ones we cover, complete with set-listings.
The really good news is that, thanks to their birth in 1978 (round about the same time the UK started properly cataloguing and hanging onto its archives) this Dire Straits lists is pretty much complete, with no performances lost forever in the ether (although, as with all these lists, there's a good chance we've missed some obscure release broadcast on some network somewhere, so feel free to post a message on the website and we'll update this book if we ever re-issue it in the future). 

The other good news is that almost everything on this list is available to view officially somewhere (the 'Sultans Of Swing - The Best Of Dire Straits' DVD, for instance, features every single promo video - which is quite some going!) so for once our 'Dire Straits' youtube playlist looks a little lonely (however feel free to follow us and have a roam around this and all our other ones still at - where else are you going to find clips of singing dogs nestling against Beatles cartoons and a Pink Floyd fridge?!)  Note too that we haven't bothered with releases that are available 'complete' which should, hopefully, end up in our DVD section at one point (that's basically the concerts 'Alchemy' - 1983 - and 'On The Night' - 1993 - we've given the music videos also collected onto disc and the Live Aid set special dispensation to remain or this article would be a bit short!) Also while we're at it, we're only including releases that use the Dire Straits name in our list: those interested in Mark Knopfler's solo career might be interest in the following, all available on Youtube at the time of writing: music videos for 'Going Home - Theme From Local Hero' (on which Alan Clark appears too), 'Darling Pretty' 'True Love Will Never Fade' 'Silvertown Blues' 'Cleaning My Gun' and 'Piper To The End', plus a Jools Holland 'Later...In Concert' show from 1997, the 2011 documentary 'A Life In Songs' and the BBC produced 2013 interview 'Mark Lawson Chats To Mark Knopfler'. There are also promos for the Notting Hillbillies singles 'Your Own Sweet Way' and 'Feel Like Going Home'. Right, now the official business is out the way it's onto our list which includes everything from TV salesmen to intergalactic phone-calls with puppets to Mark Knopfler looking cool with a headband...

1) The Old Grey Whistle Test (UK TV 15/5/1978)

Sultans Of Swing/Wild West End/Lions

Dire Straits are at their youngest and hungriest here, being one of only two places where you can see the original line up (Including David Knopfler on nicely aggressive rhythm guitar). Amazingly this performance also remains the only non-live version of 'Sultans Of Swing' around so it's forever turning up to represent the band on various DVDs/documentaries/'I Love 1980s/rock/headbands' type programmes. It's a good one too, Mark seeming right at home as he stares down at his feet before pulling off peal after peal of classic guitar. The whole band play well in fact, with John Illsley and Pick Withers setting up the mother of all grooves behind (note the fact that there are no keyboardists yet, later one of the big ear-catching parts of the Dire Straits sound). 'Sultans' is clearly already the highlight but the other two songs - rarer album tracks from the debut eponymous record - sound good here too, far too good to throw out of the setlist a mere year later. 'Wild West End' features a lovely David Knopfler introduction and the band sound nicely at home on a ballad, Knopfler leaning into the mike to whisper and grinning his head off at something going on stage left (what on earth is whispering Bob Harris up to now?!) This performance surprisingly popped up alongside 'Sultans' on a BBC4 compilation 'Guitar Heroes At The BBC'. 'Third song 'Lions' however has to the best of my knowledge never been re-broadcast: a shame because in many ways it's the best performance of the three, taken at a slightly faster lick than the studio original and with an even better clearer sound on Knopfler's guitar (even if his vocal is noticeably rougher than the other two).  A nice find with Dire Straits exactly the kind of band The Old Grey Whistle Test was meant to showcase: one who could really play live, had charisma and charm and came with something to say. In retrospect that they only ever came back once more.

2) Rockapalast (German TV 16/2/1979)

Down To The Waterline/Six-Blade Knife/Once Upon A Time In The West/Lady Writer/Single-Handed Sailor/Water Of Love/In The Gallery/Follow Me Home/News/What's The Matter Baby?/Lions/Sultans Of Swing/Wild West End/Where Do You Think You're Going?/Eastbound Train. Footage of a rehearsal take of 'Sultans Of Swing' also exists.

There's a case to be made that Germany had all the best TV. Take 'Rockapalast', a classic live show that took place late at night most weeks and featured a huge array of talent over the years - usually bands on the up before they found mega-stardom. The only full-length concert known to exist from these early years, it's not as slick and professional as 'Alchemy' or 'On The Night' but is a lot more exciting than both, with Knopfler muttering inaudible asides into his mike between songs and the band tackling lots of rarer material from their then-new album 'Communique'. The band aren't on as great a form as at the OGWT but are still super-fast and super-ready for the fame coming their way, with Knopfler pulling off some stunning guitar work throughout the set. Note too the presence of rare track 'Eastbound Train', demoed by the band in 1977 but skipped over for the first album; it's presence here in favour of most of the first album songs suggests that the band may have been toying with reviving it for 'Communique'. Highlights of the set include a nice, almost reggae-fied version of 'Six Blade Knife' and a funky 'Water Of Love' that sounds much more upbeat and aggressive than the album version. The band play with a harder edge all night, much like the sound of this second album, which will come as a surprise to the fans who don't know it; in many ways actually it's a shame that this show didn't come from slightly later as hearing the stronger  'Makin' Movies' rockers played with the same fire as here would have been quite something. One problem though: there seems to be something up with the lighting, with Dire Straits playing in the dark for most of the set and there's a slightly fuzzy tone to the quality (although this last case could just be the only extant copy I've seen). There's also a slightly annoying echo on Knopfler's voice which takes the blunt edge off a lot of these early songs which badly needs it. Still, this is a nice oft-forgotten performance (sometimes repeated in Germany but rarely elsewhere, sadly) long overdue for a DVD release.

3) The Old Grey Whistle Test (UK TV 29/11/1980)

Tunnel Of Love

Returning to the OGWT to promote album number three 'Makin' Movies', the band are much more confident although surprisingly they only seem to have taped one song. This performance features Alan Clark and rhythm guitarist Hal Lindes in the line-up for the first time and both seem to be having fun, with the elder Knopfler looking round at his colleagues much more than normal. Musically this is a slightly faster take of the album favourite, complete with the organy opening from 'Carousel', but sounds simplified a little too much with Knopfler reduced to almost speaking the lyrics in an attempt to keep up. The solo in the slower, middle section is exquisite, however. 

4) Romeo and Juliet (Music Video 1980)

Oddly the first Dire Straits video eschews the very obvious visual signals in the song for some peculiar mind-games about the characters getting lost in a huge overgrown maze. This Romeo is a weedy bespectacled Cassnova - not what most fans were imagining - while Juliet looks like a 1980s version of a blonde bimbo (brunette, shoulder pads, very red lipstick and a horrendous taste in fashion). Along the way we somehow end up at the cinema (still within the maze), Romeo falls from a 'balcony' cut into the maze and the pair make out in silhouette. Definitely one of those videos where the director was thinking too much! Perhaps tellingly, the band don't make an appearance in their first video, not even Mark Knopfler! (Presumably this is to cover the fact that David has been thrown out the band, but Dire Straits haven't announced it yet).

5) Skateaway (Music Video 1980)

This one is more like it, though no less weird I have to say. Clearly using the same set, this time the 'maze' is seen from different angles and is painted over with 'arrows' and made to resemble a 'road' as per the lyrics of this song. Not that many fans are looking at the background anyway, given that a whacking great rollerskater in a mini-skirt is taking most of the screen most of the time. She actually looks more like the 'Juliet' I had in my head, modern and sassy in a very 80s way, with a walkman on her back. The lines 'she's makin' movies on location' also leads to a fun section where we break the fourth wall and see the 'clapper board' and various extras breaking into shot too early! The band - Mark John and Pick - only appear right at the end in silhouette on a revolving platform down the end of a corridor (actually that maze again with a bit cut out of one wall) before awkwardly dancing slightly closer to the camera over the last minute or so - by the way we're going to see more of that platform in the next video!

6) Arena (UK TV BBC Documentary 1980)

One of those moody elongated documentaries that are the hallmark of 'Arena', complete with inane-yet-suddenly-by-turns-fascinating interview snippets and a chance to see the band at rest and play. Mark messes around with his acoustic guitar (to not much interest to be honest), Pick chats from behind his drum stool (and makes some rather good band noises, replicating what his school band used to sound like!) and David, looking old and sad before his time with almost a full beard, doesn't talk about leaving Dire Straits but does reflects on a 'tiring two years' and sounds depressed about having lost touch with all his pre-fame friends. There's concert footage from the early days interspersed too (is there a missing gig from the 'Communique' period?) While clearly a puff piece for third album 'Makin' Movies' this is - occasionally at least - a revealing little programme that says much without saying a great deal (very Dire Straits in fact!) Though not yet repeated (not in recent years anyway - it was on twice in the same year), Mark must be proud of having earned the right to be on one of the BBC's flagship programmes: the video on the internet was uploaded by none other than Mark's official Youtube channel!

7) Tunnel Of Love (Music Video 1981)

My favourite of the Dire Straits videos, this third single from 'Makin' Movies' features the bonkers imagery of the first two videos with more natural shots of the band performing (well, miming) to the song. The band are a three-piece again, with no explanation given for whose playing the keyboard opening (Alan Clark will officially join the following year) and only three of them appear on the video's famous 'revolving band' image over the opening (making good use of the revolving platform hired for the last video shoot). The un-credited director still clearly loves his silhouettes, though thankfully this time they're played by extras rather than the band, not to mention girls in very 80s makeup (blue eyeshadow this time round).

8) Romeo and Juliet (Top Of The Pops 1981)

Perhaps surprisingly the only Dire Straits appearance on the UK's premier music programme, this much repeated clip features a very short-haired Mark showing off his new National Guitar (the silver one that's about to appear on the front cover of 'Brothers In Arms' in four years' time). What's odd is that the band are plugging this song, which had fallen out of the charts by this time and plugging a song that was going down rather than up was against TOTP policy in those days (did someone not have the heart to tell the band they were meant to be playing 'Tunnel Of Love'?!) Alas most repeats of this clip cut it short to two or three minutes but the original runs as long as the record.

9) Private Investigations (Music Video 1982)

An atmospheric video to match an atmospheric video, this one is clearly more 'serious' than the last three and yet doesn't have quite the 'bonkers' distinction of the past three. Once again here Knopfler has created a wonderfully lurid, visual premise (a tiring spy trying to track down his own wife's extra-marital affairs) which is treated rather clunkily and boringly, with lots of shots of walking feet, searching in drawers and 'blinds on the win-ders'. In a sign perhaps of how the band were becoming viewed, only Knopfler appears for the first half of the song doing the most random things: writing at the spy's desk, peering through his window-blinds and blowing out candles (as well as, more reasonably, playing the Spanish guitar solo at the heart of the song). The others only appear in close-up near the end. The sudden mood switch in the middle (including Clark for the first time, although we don't see very much of him - which must have been a huge disappointment for him at the time!) - when the song gets electric and nasty - is well covered though, with the scene suddenly switching without warning from night into day on the first throb of Illsley's bass guitar. Oh and the big finale? Erm, a toy clown falls off a shelf. No I don't understand that one either...

10) Platengala International (Dutch TV 1982)

A rare TV appearance from the period with the band miming and alternately looking over-intense and serious or giggling when they catch each other's eyes. 'Investigations' is a rare song to see performed at all - it's very long and cumbersome, great as it is - and seeing this video, with the band standing round looking bored during the hushed dramatics during the second half, explains why. Still nice though.

11) Live Aid (13/7/1985)

Money For Nothing/Sultans Of Swing

Live Aid was intended from the first as a commercially-driven enterprise, with only the biggest acts of the day allowed to take part. In previous years you sense Dire Straits might not have got the invite. However 1985 was their year and they had to be there, premiering their new single 'Money For Nothing' with a guest appearance by co-writer and fellow Live Aider Sting, who wanders around the stage looking lost while mugging 'I want my MTV' at all the cameras (it is, perhaps mercifully, the only time he ever re-created his part on the song, which live was generally handled by Clark and Illsley together). The new song is near-enough perfect for the event, a reminder that even in the money-loving 80s there are more important things than commerce and Knopfler's 'look at them yo yos' comments seem oddly prescient given that the band followed U2 on stage (at 6pm British time). The new song goes down almost as well as a new-look 'Sultans Of Swing' which has by now been tripled in length to better resemble the other songs in the band's set, complete with saxophone solo and five-minute guitar break at the end. Excessive, maybe, and not a patch on the OGWT version of the song, but 'Sultans' copes with the changes remarkably well and sounds far perkier than later versions of the song from the 'Alchemy' and 'On The Night' DVDs. In all, Dire Straits did a great cause proud.

12) So Far Away (Music Video 1985)

By 1985 Dire Straits are well known enough to be granted the right to actually appear in one of their own videos. 'So Far Away' is compared to the earlier clips almost extraordinary in its sheer ordinaryness: this is the band 'playing' (actually they're miming again) without any funny business: no mazes, no extras daubed in make-up, not even a silhouette. As a result, is it just me or is it really boring too? It's also slightly disconcerting to see the usually sombre Knopfler smiling quite so much, usually all too obviously falsely. Look out, though, for the first use of the iconic 'National' guitar silhouette right at the end of the song a few months before it appears on the front of the 'Brothers In Arms' sleeve.

13) Money For Nothing (Music Video 1985)

The most inventive and certainly the most famous Dire Straits music video was directed by Steve Barron features electronic digital shop assistants speaking Knopfler's sarcastic lines (the idea is that he's trying to sell the unseen narrator a TV in a TV repair shop and is commenting on all the 80s 'faggots' on the TV screens). Dire Straits, meanwhile, appear on a TV screen at the back of the shop which the assistants pass, zombie-like, during the course of the song. Modern viewers can't watch this video without thinking of the retro-graphic game 'Minecraft' (the characters share the same 'Lego-block' style shapes) but actually this was cutting edge for 1985. Hilariously Sting's part in the middle (the beginning is rather glossed over) is sung by a tall, thin, weedy shop assistant! Sadly, though, the director chickens out of showing us just what exactly the peculiar euphemism 'Hawaiian noises' are! Often voted in 'top 100 music video' polls this video created  a huge splash at the time, although it's actually dated worse than the 80s costumes in the earlier videos.

14) The Walk Of Life (Music Video 1986)

Alas this third video has the band running out of ideas. Dire Straits' most 'American' recording (it's basically a collage of all the mid-50s Americana rockabilly records Knopfler used to own), this video is more or less equally split between shots of the band grinning again and, erm, American Footballers, basketball and baseball players  ('He got the action, he got the motion, that boy can play!' - yes I see that now, but what about the lines 'Here come Johnny singing oldies, goldies' surrounded by footage of Michael Jordan?!) All too clearly an attempt to crack the coveted 'American' market, this results in a rather hackneyed video which somewhat failed - after scoring a #1 hit with 'Money For Nothing' in the US this single fell back to #7 despite peaking at #2 at home.

15) Brothers In Arms (Music Video 1986)

The best of the 'Brothers In Arms' videos, this moody black-and-white Raymond Briggs-style scribbled promo by director Bill Mather manages to fit the loose idea of Knopfler's words (visions of peril and thunder across the sea) without ever being too literal (there are no soldiers, for instance, although there is inevitably a 'mist-covered mountain'). The shots of the band interspersed within the song (using a black and white lens and a charcoal filter by the looks of things to make things even darker) works really well and at times you can't see the join (sometimes there isn't one., the illustrators actually physically drawing the band just to keep you on your toes). The result is one of the band's better videos on a song that on paper at least seems like one of the hardest to pull off, full of nuances and layers that are difficult to get across in videos, even one as long as a Dire Straits' always are.

16) The Nelson Mandela Concert (UK TV 11/6/1988)

Walk Of Life/Sultans Of Swing/Romeo and Juliet/Money For Nothing/Brothers In Arms/Wonderful Tonight (backing Eric Clapton)/Solid Rock

In 1988 our fellow AAA monikered organisation (Artists Against Apartheid) decided that Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday marked an excellent chance to both celebrate his life and achievements and help put pressure on the African Government of the day to free him from prison. In the end it took another 20 months and a lot of controversy (the BBC were widely condemned for giving it so much screen time, while the Americans took the easier decision of simply editing out anything even vaguely political and just keeping the music) but this high profile concert ('a political Live Aid') was a big deal at the time and featured several big names. Dire Straits were an obvious choice to ask to appear having broken the album sales record with 'Brothers In Arms' and were both the headliners and the first act to be asked to play (they were used as 'leverage' to get other bands to sign up). However the band nearly came unstuck when they asked for the not unreasonable step of being able to rehearse inside the arena before the event - after two years off the road they were a little rusty (and sounding it too, it has to be said). In the end the Dire Straits performance was one of the low points of the evening, without the controversy surrounding other guests (such as Stevie Wonder, who walked off with ten minutes to go when a machine 'ate' his pre-taped backing or Whitney Houston who complained at being asked not to mention anything political on stage). Knopfler did however jam with Eric Clapton and Dire Straits added their unique 50s-80s fusion onto one of the better performances of his 'Wonderful Tonight' song written for wife Patti Boyd.

17) Live In Knebworth (UK TV 30/6/1990)

Solid Rock/I Think I Love You Too Much/Money For Nothing/Sultans Of Swing (Mark Knopfler also guests with Eric Clapton and Elton John's bands)
There have been lots of live concerts at Hertfordshire's Knebworth House since 1975, but the 1990 shows was by far the biggest with TV-streamed performances by Paul McCartney, Queen, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Status Quo - oh and Dire Straits, then breaking a two year silence that had seen Mark Knopfler play with The Notting Hillbillies and boogie on a duets album with Chet Atkins. Playing a short set by their standards, a slightly slicker and less exciting Dire Straits started off by going back to the past with a rather lumpy 'Solid Rock' before playing the set's biggest surprise, an Eric Clapton-guesting version of 'I Love You Too Much', a song Knopfler wrote but wasn't sure who to record it with (he'd tried it out with The Notting Hillbillies but it was too 'blues' for them - it didn't suit Dire Straits either judging by this performance and in the end he gave it to musician friend Jeff Healey for his solo album 'Hell To Pay'). The band then exit to the strains of two of their bigger and most popular classics, although neither charge along quite as well as in the past. With Dire Straits disbanding for another year, it seems that they 'failed' Knopfler's litmus test at this concert and forced him to re-think where to take the band next.

18) Calling Elvis (Music Video 1991)

The silence of 'what next' was broken by an eagerly anticipated video. Figuring that the music business had been using them like a 'puppet', Knopfler collaborated with Thunderbirds creator Gerry Andersen on a music video that would re-launch both their careers. The video 'worked' for Thunderbirds, who went on to an enjoy a renaissance all out of scope with the programme's worth (I'm a 'Stingray' man myself - they had better characters and plots), although Dire Straits never really recaptured their earlier glow (this song peaked at a disappointing UK peak of #21, although the Americans seemed to like it more). The video is fun, with Thunderbirds-style puppets of all the band (with Illsley's spiky hair and Knopfler's headband especially spot on) while the Thunderbirds crew both appear in stock footage and 'working' the stage (where Brains does the lighting and Lady Penelope seems to be the stage manager). There's also a weird sub-plot about Thunderbird 4 (the yellow submarine one) submerging in a lady's bath (she looks not unlike the model seen in 'Skateaway' although unhelpfully no sites out there will tell me who either of these women are). All this is pretty neat, but has absolutely nothing to do with the song which yet again takes a very visual image (Mark calling up his old idol in Heaven) and promptly ignores it, with perhaps one institution too many taking part in this simple video. There's also a confusing tagline with puppet-Knopfler mumbling something into a microphone that sounds like 'that's us - we're out' (although he could equally be saying 'what the?!? Help! OUCH!!!')  Oh and the performances are pretty 'wooden' too - and we don't mean the puppets!

19) Heavy Fuel (Music Video 1991)

This is more the sort of video fans were expecting, a neat reflection of the lyrics of one of Knopfler's more sarcastic songs. Just as 'Money For Nothing' worked by putting the 'words' in the hands of a character, so this one is mainly about a mealy-mouthed roadie who bosses everyone (including the band) around. A clever use of colour means that we sonly see 'his' black-and-white world with swirls of colour every so often and the band are clearly having fun with the 'new wave' of early 90s pop and boy-bands (the roadie dressing up in a backwards baseball cap and shorts).The promo ends with everyone friends again, he roadie coming out on stage to correct the microphone and being co-erced into an uneasy looking group hug live on stage - until a fan breaks through the crowds and runs in screaming anyway (would you believe it, she looks like the 'Skateaway' model yet again...)

20) The Bug (Music Video 1991)

An odd place to end this list and in fact an odd end to the Dire Straits discography full stop. Taking the line 'it's one step forward then it's back you go' a little too literally, this song tells the story of a 'Romeo and Juliet' style pair of lovers who love and hate each other, but jumps back and forth through their time zones more often than a timelord. Somewhere along the line she grows up to be a model and he becomes a racing driver. Meantime a Nashville-suited Knopfler leads the band through this quirky sounding song with a nice lot of close-ups of all the band members this time. Like most of the videos on this list I haven't got a clue what it all means...

A Now Complete List Of Dire Straits Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:
‘Dire Straits’ (1978)
'Communiqué' (1979)

'Makin' Movies' (1981)

'Love Over Gold' (1983)

‘Brothers In Arms’ (1985)

'On Every Street' (1993)
Surviving TV Appearances (1978-1991)

Unreleased Recordings (1978-1991)
Non-Album Songs 1977-1991
Live/Solo/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part One (1977-1999)
Live/Solo/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part Two (2000-2014)
Mark Knopfler’s Guest Appearances
Essay: From ‘Dire Straits’ To ‘Mass Consumerism’
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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