Monday, 23 February 2015
You can read this review and more in 'Solid Rock - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Dire Straits' by clicking here!
Once Upon A Time In The West/News/Where Do You Think You're Going?/Communique/Lady Writer//Angel Of Mercy/Porotbello Belle/Single Handed Sailor/Follow Me Home
"He sticks to his guns, takes the road as it comes, even when it takes the shine off his shoes"
Scurrilous Scandal! Single Handed Sailor! Mark Knopfler Ate My Hamster! And More!...
CALAMITY! Dear readers, here is the news. Since we last left Dire Straits on their voyage to becoming rock and roll Gods several things have changed. While the band's rise to fame seems entirely natural and all a part of rock and roll lore today, things weren't that smooth sailing for album number two. Vertigo were keen to have another heavy selling hit on their hands but Dire Straits were never the sort of band who coped well with pressure (they famously delayed following up 'Brothers In Arms' for six years in the hope that their public would have forgotten all about them by them) and they fell out big time making this rather rushed album, released a mere year after the first (normal rock and roll practice but quick stuff indeed by future Dire Straits standards). The band aren't getting on, the heavy touring and commitment needed to make it to the big time showing itself amongst a band made up of two brothers and two local mates they knew and with old problems and issues coming to light. Worse, Mark Knopfler has found the might of the composing Gods deserting him, having now calmed down and got the stress of his divorce to his first wife (the prime influence behind most of first LP 'Dire Straits') out of his system.
Trouble! We often write on this site about a band's 'difficult third album', the one that really tests them as the sheer glee of fame and fortune wears off - in Dire Straits' case it's different: Mark is so new to writing (seriously at least) that Dire Straits have hit their stumbling block as early as album two. 'Communique' is, from the title on down, the sound of a band who are desperate to communicate with their fans - but have suddenly realised that they haven't actually got very much to say. Many fans have wondered how on earth Dire Straits could have gone so downhill so fast but in retrospect the difference between the albums seems obvious: the debut album is by a tight band who know their material well, have rehearsed it for a year now and know it backwards, determined to do anything to get their message across - this second is by a band who cracked it, instantly, in one go and then suddenly have to make a follow-up album in a hurry, singing songs made in a hurry (Knopfler, a fairly slow songwriter, had nothing useable spare) and rehearsed and recorded within mere weeks, discovering in the process they didn't actually know each other as well as they thought. While it's true that all four members of the band had more than their fair share of bad luck trying to become 'rock stars' (or at least make a living out of playing music), Dire Straits are one band who would have really benefitted from having more time together as a unit before their big breakthrough arrived. The story has long been that 'Communique' is a pale shadow of an album, disappointing to everyone from the band down. But heard now, in context of a six-album career, is it really that bad?
Tell Us Your Story (And Save Us Having To Do Any Work!) Well, Mark Knopfler has a great idea that could have been the saving of this album had the band had more time to work on it. The first album was so good precisely because Mark had 'lived' through those songs - in character usually (Knopfler isn't really a 'confessional' style songwriter). Having worked through his anger at his marriage breaking up, (bar one last moving song 'Where Do You Think You're Going?', the highlight of this album) Mark looks back at his other life's experiences. Sadly we never did get to hear his 'teacher' concept album, but there's no doubting that 'Communique' is his 'journalist' album, a reflection on what he learnt during his years as a reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Post in Leeds (who seemed not to know about their famous protégé when I once had an interview there). The title track is the most obvious example of this, Mark recalling trying to get a tried and tested cagey famous name to speak to him as a nervy inexperienced cub reporter and largely failing, the track perhaps coming to him because of his difficulty getting his own sub-conscience to write in a hurry. 'News', however, laughs at the idea of anyone ever being able to 'report' all angles successfully - the song was inspired by an event in Leeds shortly after Mark left to become a full-time guitarist and which he may well have had to cover: a man being knocked from his motorbike, the challenge being to sum his life up in a few lines by talking to family and friends (easily the toughest job a local reporter ever has, although trying to ignore the barbs of the sulky photographer who secretly wants to be a writer comes a close second). The theme of writing crops up in other songs too: 'Once Upon A Time In The West' is a wry comment about living in the modern-age when there seem more cowboy-outlaw cops-robbers battles going on than ever, written with all the old-before-his-time nonchalance of a reporter whose spent so long viewing the seedier side of his local community that some of the despair has begun to rob off. 'Lady Writer' continues the theme, this time inspired by novelist Marina Warner whom Mark once saw discussing her work on television (and features the second appearance of a common Knopfler theme: falling in love with strangers from afar without ever quite meeting them, a trick already established in B-side 'Eastbound Train'). Even 'Single Handed Sailor', an attempt to write about one of Mark's heroes - navigator Sir Francis Chichester- is sung with more bounce than the rest of the album, but even here there's a reflective stance as if Knopfler is upset that he can't write fully of what life was like for another person. Indeed this idea that Knopfler is getting further and further from his 'public' and the roots that made him special will become another major theme of the Dire Straits era best heard on the 'On Every Street' album although it crops up frequently on his solo albums too, where one-time history student Knopfler finds a neat solution to this problem by writing about larger-than-life characters of the part (an idea which starts with Chichester on this very song).
Behind The Headlines! There's another reason why 'The News' might have been on Knopfler's mind. Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers happened to be sharing a flat with Lindisfarne guitarist Si Cowe (struggling for work after the band disbanded in 1972, but about to pick up again with a reunion the same year as Dire Straits' debut) the night the rest of the band came round to discuss 'band names'. While Mark's jokey suggestion about the band's perilous financial situation was greeted warmly, the band had a few other ideas too, with the band toying with calling themselves 'The News' at one stage and ex-reporter Knopfler imagining the fun he could have with the album cover layouts (something which sadly never happened; Cowe was so taken with the name 'The News' that he pitched it to Lindisfarne on their return, which is why their similarly rushed 1979 album is so named - a nice bit of AAA cross-over there!)
Back At Mark's Pad! This record's cover is about the closest anyone in the Vertigo art department ever came to that idea, incidentally, although their pretty sleeve of blue with a man heading out to sea superimposed on top of a letter (a literal 'watermark' ho ho ho!) must surely have come from listening to the first album (which is all about travel, with a restless narrator without anywhere to call home and walking around seeing sights - including the band who play 'Sultans Of Swing, which in those days at least wasn't a self-referencing song as everybody assumes it is nowadays). By contrast this record is 'about' home - with songs about laying down roots and feeling like you belong - 'Single Handed Sailor' is about the voyage home to familiarity as much as it's about the voyage out to discovery; 'Once Upon A Time In The West' gets cross at the local traffic preventing the narrator from getting home and 'Where Do You Think You're Going?' sounds positively apoplectic that the narrator's girl could have anywhere better to be than home with him right now. The album even ends with Knopfler ushering us to 'follow him home', adding that even with the 'sun going down' he knows his home territory well enough to navigate by the 'moonlight'. There's a feeling that, after a nasty directionless frustrating period (which saw Mark unable to settle in his job and fall out with the childhood sweetheart he'd so longed to marry) he's in a good place again, his bravery in holding out for a musical career finally rewarded and the rows with his wife fading in his memory. Alas - and not for the first or last time on this site - this wonderful development in someone's personal life is bad news for their musical one: the single reason this album doesn't work is that it doesn't have the attack of the first album, being much less aggressive without yet coming up with the keyboards/atmosphere/long slow build up of tension that will later single Mark out as one of the best writers of the 1980s.
Scandal! The trouble with this album isn't that it doesn't have good ideas - it does - or that it's badly played - it isn't - but that the band have gone about the results in the wrong way. Many fans called this a blander version of the first album - which it is - but not because the songs are bland per se (although nothing here quite adds up to 'Sultans Of Swing' 'Southbound Again' or 'Six Blade Knife') but because the band are going about recording them all wrong. Someone should have stepped in, told Dire Straits there was no point playing with their old drive and attack when the songs weren't the driving and attacking sort and encouraged Knopfler to find his voice much earlier. The idea of a writer trying to keep in touch with his public now he's been deemed to be 'different' when he knows deep down he's as ordinary as they come is a terrific theme for a record. Had we had more songs of that sort then Knopfler's growing reputation as a 'spokesperson' for his times would have been nicely enhanced, with a wholly different feel to the songs on the first album. However somewhere along the way someone seems to have panicked (perhaps everybody on all sides panicked - or perhaps the band were simply too naive still to notice what a theme this could have been) and simply gone about doing this album the same way because it worked last time; that's like saying that 'Sgt Peppers' would have been better cut the same way as 'Please Please Me' because that album was a success too - in hindsight the single worst decision of the band's career.
Wot's That Yoo Say?! You see there's nothing here that a longer spell in the rehearsal room and a new set of recording sessions couldn't have improved (and agonising as the wait must have been for poor Vertigo, a record label short on funds who'd suddenly stumbled on one of the best-selling bands in one go, with very little marketing effort on their part bar a 'leaked' demo tape and an 'Old Grey Whistle Test' booking, they should have known better and treated their new nervy and yet so obviously talented songwriter with more support). You see, at times this album works really well with two un-sung gems that never get the recognition they deserve. 'Portobello Belle' is a pretty love song - arguably the band's first if love song to music 'Sultans Of Swing' doesn't count - with a glorious tune and a swagger that's going to prove priceless come the making of third album 'Makin' Movies'. 'Where Do You Think You're Going?' is priceless too, a scary song with Knopfler at his evilest, sounding all the better for the careful control and low-key tension the band come up with (the flashes of colour on Knopfler's lead guitar have never sounded more stinging) and not co-incidentally played with all the fire and attack of the first album. However nothing on this album is truly bad - as opposed to, say, 'On Every Street' where a good third is unlistenable - it just sounds undercooked, poorly developed, rambling and coasting like a rather fat caterpillar where the first album stung like a bee and aimlessly hurling out ideas in all directions. Perhaps the ultimate irony of 'Communique' is that it's the channel of communication that lets this album down: the songs are (by and large) sound, the playing fine (if a little tired) and the production features much the same mix of live-in-the-room-but-with-a-bit-of-polish-added-later that suited the band so much better than the heavier, weightier sound of later years. The problem is that the three are saying different things: spiritually this is a prog rock album about the problems people have talking to each other, played with the aggressive texture of the band from the first LP and with the first stirrings of the poppy 80s coming out of the final mix. Had the band gone with the songs and turned them into densely textualised epics of how an audience relates to their newly chosen spokesperson (one who clearly feels inadequate at having the spotlight thrust so squarely in his face after so many years of nothing but dreams keeping him going) instead of trying to rave it up like a bunch of 50s rockers told to play like a punk band it could have worked (enough to make 'Communique' a minor gem at least).
Meet the band! Like the first album, this record is a nice opportunity to hear Dire Straits the way they were intended to be heard, rather than as Mark Knopfler's back-up band. Once again I'm dead impressed with David Knopfler's rhythm guitar playing which adds the fire and fuel his elder brother seems to have temporarily lost and driving 'Once Upon A Time In The West' and 'Single Handed Sailor' especially hard. Presumably the brother's clashes - which started here but came to a head on next album 'Makin' Movies' - came from the fact that David was still playing with such an aggressive style on songs that didn't need them while his brother was trying to 'grow'. However to put the blame on the younger Knopfler would be wrong - you can hear how hard he's trying to get this band to fire, to sound something like they used to and the record desperately needs...something to fill that big hole in the middle where the commitment of the first album used to be.While coming to this album from later LPs means you automatically yearn for Alan Clark's keyboard washes, the pair make enough surface noise for any band. Behind them John Illsley and Pick Withers are easily the best rhythm section the band had, keeping things simple and sturdy, whilst flying along with the Knopflers when occasion demands. Interestingly though the band are already best on the ballads, something they were lacking on the first album (with 'Lions' generally agreed as the weakest recording if by no means the weakest song on the debut) - something that will help the band a lot in the years to come...
The End - or is it??? Overall, 'Communique' is like the newspaper it should have represented somewhat disposable. Knopfler hasn't yet learnt the art of writing for characters rather than himself (though he'll become one of the best first-person narrators in the business by the time of 'Love Over Gold' in two albums time) or the audience friendly inanities that groove so finely as per 'Makin' Movies' (and I say that as someone who likes that album, by the way, which is almost gloriously empty at times). It is instead the sound of a man trying on a confessional aggressive style on an album that's meant to be laidback - but not that as laidback as the soggier sorrier patches of this album (almost every song ends with long slow fadeout, clearly trying to replicate the trick of 'Sultans Of Swing' but these songs aren't built for it - these are recordings that have already run out of ideas and you want to end as soon as possible, not go on forever). In other words I can see why so many fans disregard this album, which has nothing as gloriously instant as the first album. I'm not sure either that I entirely agree with the small core of fans who claim that if you get to know it this album is the best thing the band ever did either: two great songs do not a classic album make and there's way too much filler here which would have been booted off almost any other album (made over a much longer stretch than this album). However somewhere in the middle seems to be the best way to treat this album to me: it's got some nice ideas and performances which isn't enough to make it one of those 'AAA unsung classics', but neither is it a disaster - nothing goes wrong, it's just that so little goes right. In a nutshell, it's not an album to treasure full of magic, but enough parts of it sparkle to make it worth your while doing some extra digging. Perhaps the best news of all is how quickly the band learn from this lesson and put things right almost straight away - taking their time over next album 'Makin' Movies', a record which actually features worse material occasionally ('Les Boys', the band's first unmitigated disaster) and certainly has less of a story to tell; however that album gets away with it by rebuilding the band from the ground up as a good-time rockabilly band as powerful as anyone else around and with just enough poetry and ideas to make their music truly sing.
Correction! By the way Mark Knopfler never did eat my hamster, we were just trying to get you to read this article. Well it worked for the Sun newspaper - Freddie Starr never chomped on a rodent either but everyone still bangs on about it!
'Once Upon A Time In The West' sounds immediately like you've put on the 'Dire Straits' record but at a slightly slower speed. There's a sense of laidback ease in this song that's a mile away from the attack of the first record and yet everything here sounds eaxactly like it did before - the two guitars locked away in their own worlds and only occasionally glancing at each other, the steady rhythm backing, the pealed guitar solo and the slight sense of menace in Mark Knopfler's voice. The difference this time is that Knopfler doesn't have a problem with one woman but with an entire system and somehow his sarcasm is less effective as a result. The central idea of the song is a good one though: the idea that modern living is less a concrete jungle and more a Spaghetti Western without the romance. The classic opening line about 'people getting a cheap laugh by going over the speed limit' and a few other lines like 'heap big trouble in the land of the plenty' make it clear that when a young Knopfler was playing Cowboys and Indians he was always the latter: the modern capitalist world is too wrong, too corrupt, with petty laws that people break without thinking and nobody picks up on. The world as it stood in 1980 is divided into varying degrees of outlaws, with even the 'peace-keeping corps' carrying guns for their own safety and where no one is safe, with even a 'hero getting a bullet in the chest'. Knopfler's romantic vision of what the world would be like when he grew up (with clearer distinctions between right and wrong) is being addressed here and ought to sound sensational: the social conscience that features in so many future Knopfler classics making its first tentative sounds here. But the band still think they're singing updated blues songs like 'Switchblade Knife' and instead of giving the grandiosity and prowling menace Mark needs they simply treat this as another indifferent song about love gone by, their slower pace obviously meant to show sly menace but sounding more like strutting. This in turns lead Mark to horribly over-enunciate his lyric and proving for once and for all that the acid tongue he used so viciously on the first album came about because of a nasty period he needed to get off his chest - not because that's who he is.
News is another sign of the darker side of life delivered by a man looking round for sad subjects to get angry about in order to fill the gap his improved love life has left him. Knopfler sounds strangely unmoved by his own tale, which is of a man running away from an argument with his wife and getting killed through his own carelessness and letting his own emotions get to him (the line 'He gets on his horse' has led many fans to believe he's another cowboy, but actually Mark was thinking about a new report in his 'old' paper The Yorkshire Evening Post about a motorbike accident and perhaps wondering how he would have reported it. Unfortunately newspaper articles are different to songs (well, duhh - though see our review 'Sometime In New York City' for how even ex-Beatles made that mistake sometimes) and Knopfler's mixture of empathy dispassion here (so useful in local journalism) is a curse here not a blessing: Knopfler's vocal suggests a dismissive sneer and his lyrics an 'it happens all the time' shrug of the shoulders, but if so why should we listeners care about it either? Just look at those lines, which in another setting could have come with a jolly cartoony tune ('He crosses the floor, he opens the door, he takes a sniff of the street') That's a shame because the subject matter about an unnecessary waste of life and how we're all just one un-thinking careless mistake away from death could have been a very poignant song - and the later, more experienced Knopfler would have known just how to handle it too (with the sense of weary melancholy and life lessons of 'Love Over Gold' or the fiery second side of 'Brothers In Arms'). Here Dire Straits just play what's always worked till now, albeit with an even slower tempo and even more gaps between the guitar phrases, while Knopfler sings in a styling that made him sound so tough on the first album - except he shouldn't be sounding tough, he should be sounding moved or totally removed from the whole scenario. Only one magnificent arrangement touch (the song fading out on Pick's heavy drum pattern, which wearily comes to a close before dramatically shutting off, as if the narrator is fading away and dying).
'Where Do You Think You're Going?' is a third dramatic and angry song in a row, but for some reason this one works a lot better - perhaps because Mark's lyrics and performance are heartfelt this time (this is one last song about his difficult love life, a theme that won't return until final album 'On Every Street') or perhaps because the band finally try to do something different, starting off with Mark alone summoning his inner bluesman before the band pile in bit by bit as his emotions run out of control. The guitar riff is also the single greatest one on the album, sounding in turns playful and claustrophobic and making it all the harder to tell whether the narrator is a nice guy having a rather bad day and pushed too far or a controlling psychopath. After all, these lyrics are anything but cosy: most pop songs when they treat the subject at all have jealousy as a mini comedy-drama, where the joke is on the narrator for being so narrow-minded and everyone knows the story will end happily with the lovers confessing their need for each other in the last verse. That's not true of this song, where Knopfler's ice-cold admonition stops his girlfriend in her tracks, as if caught mid-flight out the door. At first Knopfler tries to sound caring ('Don't you know it's dark outside?') before revealing just how jealous he really is ('Don't you care about my pride?') The hint is that it's happened before, that previously it was a running gag but now the narrator is 'sick of joking' and asks her to take sides: will she choose him or her new lover? Like 'Once Upon A Time In The West' this is another cowboy movie, this time a shoot-out at high noon with Knopfler laying it out on the line: if his partner steps out that door she's never coming back again. The most serious song on a strangely serious album (even when in the woes of misery, the first album still managed to sound playful) it's easily the best performance on the album the whole band sizzling with drama and revelling in the chance to embellish such an emotionally resonant song.
Communiqué itself is, by a second, the longest song on the album - which is odd because it sounds the least substantial by far. Remembering his days as a reporter, Knopfler starts to write a different kind of song altogether: a moving one about having to interrupt a family's grieving for some pithy quotes for an article he was running as a cub reporter - the hardest job on a local paper, right up there with reading centuries-old micro-film (that's the technology, by the way, not the issues themselves which can be even older) and trying to remember who in the office takes what tea out of which mug - Knopfler would have been given all the rotten jobs at the Yorkhire Evening Post as the most 'junior' member of the team, fresh from university. Alas the song then moves on to a more vague debate about the idea of mankind's struggle to communicate, which ironically or otherwise comes with such a 'never mind about that - let's get jolly!' chorus that the whole song suddenly likes one long list of mistakes and how not to communicate the original feeling that must have started the song. A second and third verse then turn the tables on the narrator himself, a reporter living a life full of all the dirt he loves dishing out on other people - which is better, but still pale by comparison to the FBI informer who gets tricked by his wife on the future 'Private Investigations'. Throughout it all Dire Straits don't so much play as noodle, dragging the song out past it's natural 3:30 end for another two minutes of aimless jamming. This band have never sounded more like the Grateful Dead - but unfortunately it's the Dead on an off-day where you know exactly what note is coming next. Most fans tend to dislike this song - I don't like it much either, but at least it has the good grace to start with its heart in the right place, even if everything else got a bit left behind in the sub-editing (the fourth hardest part of being a local journalist - seeing an article you worked to the bone, making it balanced and full of the right 'rhythm' which is then cut to ribbons by a gorilla of a sub-editor whose never read a book in his life - perhaps its flashbacks to this that caused Knopfler to make so many of the songs on this album so long and rambling?!)
Lady Writer is, in the context of the album, not a bad song: there's lots of nice flashy guitar above one of David Knopfler's best rhythm thrashes and a tune that you can hum along to quite easily, even if it never quite memorable enough to remember once the record starts. Released as the first single from the album though - and the long-awaited sequel to 'Sultans Of Swing' it was a disaster: there's no energy here, no clever chord changes or memorable hook and the song doesn't make you feel anything: instead it's another whole load of nothing. Having escaped his first marriage bachelor Knopfler was on the pull and - his sudden fame perhaps going to his head - imagines himself going out with all sorts of unlikely people in this period he never actually met. This is, in effect a love song to novelist and historian Marina Warner who made a career out of looking back at 'accepted history' and re-working it from a female perspective. Mark saw her talking about her book 'Alone Of All Here Sex' - a discussion of the portrayals of the Virgin Mary' on a TV chat show in 1976 and her ideas clearly struck a chord with history student Knopfler (particularly the idea that there history tends to be made up of points of view rather than facts - something that seems to have stayed with Knopfler down the years). In practice then this could have been another great song, with Knopfler remarking how the world had always got it wrong and how 'the lady writer on the TV' had changed his mind about the way the human mind works - alas in practice it misses the mark completely, ending up being a rather weird love song to a feminist (who probably wouldn't have appreciated the sentiments, although as far as I know no one has ever asked her about it). Lines like 'Talking about the Virgin Mary on the TV, reminded me of you - yeah' plus the odd line of 'dead ringer' and 'jazz singer' makes this song sound more like a comedy song and Dire Straits do indeed play with a lighter touch than normal. However there's nothing really fun or light about this song, which is just a faster version of what, yet again, Dire Straits have always played (it's only been a year but already seemed like longer after an album and a half all in a similar style) and Mark sings it the same way he's sung the whole album: deep and creaky. As an album track it's passable, thanks to the nice tune and the faster tempo - as a second single it's a tragedy which the band will struggle to recover from (and only averted by a last-gasp decision to release 'Romeo and Juliet' as a single in 1981 - both are love songs that are actually quite similar on a surface level but that isn't a gap in quality between them, it's a gulf).
Angel Of Mercy is another of Communique's songs that's pleasant but unmemorable, weak and insipid rather than awful. Of all the songs on the album it seems like the one that's most rushed: the band's performance needs another couple of takes to really nail the track's twisty groove, while the lyrics moves from the inspired ('I want my reward in heaven tonight, just like you promised!') to the tired ('I go to dragon at noon and I won the fight!') At least on the positive side Dire Straits are shaking things up here - if we treat 'Sultans Of Swing' as a special case (it's a moment of escapism on a record where the narrator has a lot to escape and who knows the momentary lift will end as soon as the music does) then this is the first 'happy' Dire Straits song without a sting in the tail. Interestingly, Knopfler's third love song (his first not about lady writers on the TV or passing people he meets on a train) isn't a mere mortal but an 'Angel Of Mercy' who 'saves' him and redeems his lost faith in the powers of love after troubled times. Knopfler may have been writing about a 'Six Blade' rather than the 'sword' she urges him to give up in this song, but the sudden change in outlook will change his band's sound forever. There's a risqué line that's rather daring for 1980 ('You don't need protection', during a verse that takes place in her boudoir so can surely mean one thing) and a slight cheekiness to this song - there's something about it that suggests the narrator is simply intoxicated (whether by mod or liquor or both we never find out) and means nothing of what he's saying and probably won't remember it in the morning. Like many a drunk the song also goes on too long, repeating the lengthy chorus (the least attractive part of the work) a full six times and only then adding a guitar solo at the end. As a one off this is quite fun, if a little gormless (Knopfler tends to be a better writer when moved by something - having a good time isn't generally a source of his better songs) and coming to this song straight after the debut would have been a shock at the time, back when people thought that was 'all' this band could do.
Portobello Belle goes one better than both of the last two tracks and amazingly a third straight love song in a row (was this album deliberately planned to reflect this?) While I'm not convinced this relationship is due to last any longer than 'Angel Of Mercy', at least she 'sounds' like a real person. To understand this song, once again we have to deal with the changes in Mark's life: after falling out with his wife in Newcastle Upon Tyne, he moves to Leeds for teaching/reporting work and then moves to Deptford where he crashes with his brother while trying to make a go of music. The advance of the first Dire Straits album, along with the sudden income from the royalties, changed Mark's life forever: after somewhere around two years of being rootless he can suddenly afford to live anywhere he likes: London's Portobello district was his choice and for a writer who so often turned to his surroundings this would have been a big change (it's not for nothing that Mark titled his exuberant finale to the 'Local Hero' film 'Going Home' - a phrase that would have been even more suitable to the movie). A district of Notting Hill, it's also the 'name' of his next band 'Notting Hillbillies'. Portobello, then, represents new beginnings and a sense of optimism after so many years of struggling - even the girls are different to the ones he's already known: 'She ain't no English rose!' sings Knopfler about this girl who's sexy and she knows it. Knopfler's roving eye records perhaps a little too much detail here (the line 'her breasts up on the offbeat', although in context that's actually the cleverest line in the song, instantly summing up someone whose proud of who she is and isn't about to change) but instead of the sleazy song this might have been, Knopfler stays awed of her power throughout. After years of trying to impress his traditionally brought up working class first wife with appearances, Knopfler's suddenly met a person (or possibly a whole range of girls) who 'don't care about your window box or your button-hole'. Even the beggars from Ireland Knopfler passes in the street are 'up' a class from what he knew back home - they don't get in the way pretending to play on street corners, they 'serenade' the passers-by, while the 'wino' who leers at her from a passing truck is instantly put down by a woman fully in control. Mark's vocal is suitably in awe too, arguably his best on the album full of earthy grit and airy swagger, while the rest of the backing is taken up for the first time by layers of keyboard washes and a piano part, taking the place of most of the guitar work (has he just had a row with David, who might not even appear here? Was this song so close to his heart Mark insisted on getting it right and different? Or did they try this the 'usual' way before finding the band's usual style didn't fit?) Either way, 'Portobello Belle' is easily the album highlight and a key song for the band's future development, proving that they could do so much more than merely play like Sultans or snipe about ex-wives. Delightful.
Single-Handed Sailor is a surprise return to the album's first side about news stories. This one concerns Sir Francis Chichester, the first man to solo circumnavigate the globe and whose ship 'The Gypsy Moth' would have been moored at Greenwich at the same time this song was written, not all that far from Mark's new place. The voyage took between August 27th 1966 and May 28th 1967 - which means that poor Francis missed out on hearing 'Revolver' on original release but did get back hoe in time to hear 'Sgt Peppers' - at the age of sixty-five (the date most men would have started collecting their pensions in Britain at the time). Dire Straits could have treated this story-song like a sea shanty (it has the same 'roll', especially in the verses, suggesting this is how the song started) but instead treat it as the most 'Sultans Of swingy' style song the album, all uptempo and full of glittering guitar solos (again it sounds as if Mark is playing both parts here, the slow moody solos and the finger-picking Chet Atkins style rhythm). Interestingly Mark skips out most of the voyage itself - which for most writers would be the 'interesting bit' - and instead starts with a whole verse about leaving port and a final verse about getting home again, a recurring theme of this album. Chichester is never named but presumably that's him asking a passing seaman 'hey, what do you call this thing?' and his leap of joy when he finds he's made it back home to the right port. The theme of the song, though, is one of achievement against all the odds: the most moving line in the song is about what Chichester overcame to do what he did and Knopfler hinting that he made it for 'his' generation: all the time thinking of a 'mother and her baby and the college of war' where he grew up and learnt his trade (actually Chichester's eyesight was too poor for him to join up but he wrote several RAF training manuals that arguably saved thousands of lives). However none of the above prevents 'Single-Handed Sailor' from sounding a little sloppy or from sticking out on the album like a sore thumb, a complete one-off story-song that the band never tries to repeat ever again.
Follow Me Home does however segue nicely thanks to a burst of ocean noise and the story of another weary traveller trying to get home. Perhaps a little too consciously styled on 'Lions', the closer of the debut record, this is another slow low-key track about being adrift and restless and would perhaps have sounded more at home on that first LP. While I rather like 'Lions' though, with its slow-burning surreal lyric and refusal to throw in the towel, 'Follow Me Home' just drifts around, looking for a tune as much as a harbour. I'd have been quite happy to dismiss this song as a failed attempt to sound like the band did on the last album and nothing more, but apparently the song digs deeper than that and was close to it's author Knopfler's heart. The song was inspired by a holiday Knopfler took a few years before when trying to forget his first wife and trying to woo a girl to come back to his hotel. The town (Knopfler revealed in an interview it was on an 'island' though he doesn't specify which one) happen to be having a feast day with lots of partying and the priests have all left their church, leaving Knopfler alone. While the narrator apparently never gets his girl to follow him 'home' (an interesting word in context, as he presumably means the hotel or cottage where he's staying rather than 'home' in the sense it's used across the rest of the album), he does have something of an epiphany, claiming to feel 'the song in my bones and I know the way'. Many songwriters, especially those who struggle, have one sudden moment i their lies when they know what they do in the future will 'work' : Ray Davies had it when he wrote 'You Really Got Me', Stuart Murdoch had it when he turned to music to escape his years of illness and confinement to bed and Pete Townshend discovered it the day he accidentally leapt up in the air and stuck his guitar into the ceiling at a Who gig and saw the audience re-action. 'Follow Me Home' sounds like Mark's moment of realisation: that only here, so many miles away from home, can he understand where he went wrong and where to go next. Perhaps the rituals going on behind him were of more help than he thought. Alas that emotion and sense of wonder only comes through in the lyric sheet, not the music itself, which simply sticks to a rather dull groove of nearly six minutes. Perhaps meant to reflect the repetitiveness of the ritual music he heard on the island, it's a shame that the experiment doesn't really come off with this slow lazy rigid song the polar opposite of the energy and fervour of 'Sultans Of Swing'.
Overall, then, 'Communique' is an album full of ideas, most of them good ones, with a great concept album about what mankind treats as 'news' and his ability to communicate on side one balanced by a more emotional second side about various love stories (switch 'Where Do You Think You're Going?' for 'Single Handed Sailor' and you'd have a perfect divide between the two). What this album doesn't have is enough time to make the most of either of these album threads and the 'news' stories in particular needed a good sub-editor or at any rate a producer's hand stronger than Barry Beckett's and Jerry Wexler's (the first album was such a success they seem to have assumed the band knew what they were doing). If the first album was a trip in the fast lane, an exciting thrilling take-no-prisoners ride, then 'Communique' all too often sounds as if its trapped behind a slow-moving lorry - literally if the opening track is anything to go by. However it's wrong to think that 'Communique' is simply a pale copy of the first album: it was at least at the writing stage a sufficiently different and interesting work which should have stretched the band's sound out further past celebrations of musicians and tough love stories. It's the execution that lets this album down, with far too many slow ballads and limp similar-sounding arrangements sucking all the verve and intelligence out of this album. How ironic - an album about communication that's let down by the communication between songwriter and band.