Monday, 22 January 2018

Dire Straits Essay: 'From 'Dire Straits' to 'Mass Consumerism'


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Mark Knopfler and to some extent the younger members of Dire Straits had a long, hard climb up to the giddy heights of fame. Mark started playing professionally as a musician as early as his teens but for the next decade the closest he came to fame was as second guitarist in an outfit named 'Brewer's Droop' who'd already made their one and only record by the time he joined the band. Mark's first design was always to be a musician, but needs meant that he tried his hand first as a journalist (being good enough to be headhunted by a newspaper in Leeds - who'd forgotten all about that by the time I went for an interview with the same paper) and then as a lecturer while playing at night. Other AAA musicians had day-jobs too: Roger Daltrey longed for his days as a metal sheet worker to f-f-f-f-fade away, while Paul McCartney wound coils to please his dad before giving up work for the lure of Hamburg and Graham Gouldmann worked on the 'fashion' side of the music industry by working in a Gent's outfitters. But Mark held down his day-jobs for a full decade, still plugging away at his music career and struggling to make ends meet long past the point when even the most driven musicians have given up and accepted that they might not 'make' it. The first Dire Straits album wasn't written over a long learning curve, the way so many other AAA debuts were, but at a turning point in Mark's life when his first wife and the childhood sweetheart he thought he was destined to be with forever had given her exhausted husband an ultimatum: it was her and a normal, simple life or the music. The guitar won.
This is, as things turn out, a great move - Mark made far more money from being a musician and got to see the world to boot, as well as making his mark on life in a way that he never would have done no matter how talented his class of History students or however many major news stories were happening in Leeds in 1980. What many reviewers and commentators have missed though is how much of a risk and a gamble this was - and how unlikely it was that the placid, humble, likeable Knopfler would risk it all for a future that looked uncertain. There was something of a financial crisis on in the mid 1970s, the point when in his mid-twenties people were really on at Mark to concentrate on a 'proper' job. This was a time when jobs were few and far between and against all odds Mark had nailed two which, while not great pay in and of themselves, both promised security and financial reward further on down the line. Mark wasn't some molly-coddled kid with a family inheritance over the horizon like Gram Parsons or (to some extent) Mike Nesmith either: his father was a Hungarian immigrant who came to Britain with nothing and the Knopflers had grown up not in the land's capital cities but comparatively deprived Tyneside (and not a particularly wealthy district either), the family having already discovered that in their first choice of Glasgow prices were just too high to live. Mark and the others would have grown up being told, over and over, that their only real chance of making money was to get a simple factory or an office job, cross their fingers and hope for the best. The fact that Mark was bright enough to get onto a journalism course, was clever and talented enough to get headhunted by an actual paper (a rarity now, never mind then) and then got a lucrative teaching post (when, obviously, you had to be pretty bright to know things in order to teach them in the first place) would have put even more pressure on him to knuckle down, not rock the boat and turn up at work alert and awake, not worn out by a night of playing to ten people in a bar every night for peanuts - not just for a few weeks or a few months or even a few years but for virtually a decade. That's commitment, that is and makes Mark, as just-about a contemporary with most 1960s stars given his 1949 birthday, the last of the 'love of art, not for money' practitioners that gave that decade their name - even though Mark will become more linked with the greedy capitalist 1980s than any other era.
Money is, as a result, a big thing to Knopfler and his band-buddies, starting with that band name. One thing that I really miss from never having been in a band is the 'naming day' when band mates get to throw out a series of increasingly unlikely names until they're all drunk or desperate enough to agree on one that sticks. The best ones tend to be the ones chosen democratically ('Grateful Dead' chosen at random out of a dictionary which happened to spell out a Medieval song type anyway, 'Blind Lemmon Jefferson Airplane' the fictional blues player that band gradually shortened and the we-need-a-pun-like-The-Beatles, we-love-Buddy-Holly and oh-look-it's-Christmas three-way pun of The Hollies. You can tell when a band name is good by how many claim to have come up with it: by contrast everyone has disowned coming up with the name 'The Spice Girls'. But I digress). The future Dire Straits had one of the funnest and silliest sessions, which reportedly ran through one evening through the night and into the next, as Mark camped out on his brother's sofa in the flat he shared with John Illsey, with Pick Withers visiting and all the band visiting their semi-famous neighbour Si Cowe of Lindisfarne. In a sign of what a big deal having a 'proper' job was, the band to be went through all sorts of names connected with Mark's former days as a journalist, with ideas later recycled as songs including [12] 'The News' and [14] 'Communiqué', as a desperate attempt to please music journalists and help oil Mark's old contacts into giving them a review. Then the monikers got surreal the drunker the band members got, with their chosen names sadly lost in the mists of time. Then some hero - and it's a sign of how good the name is that lots of people have 'claimed' it - chose 'Dire Straits'.
It's the perfect name for several reasons: One is that the band really were in 'Dire Straits' at the time. Though David, Mark and John all had day-jobs they were struggling financially and knew it and the band really was the last throw of the dice with Mark now twenty-nine. Secondly it summed up the band spirit well: this wasn't a glittery platform-booted glam rock band but a group that knew what it was like to be low and desperate, without the inherent anarchism of punk either. 'Straits' after all is an archaic word used by sailors for a channel of water - 'dire straits' entered the general vocabulary to mean 'in difficulty' or, if you were Northern, 'up shit creek without a paddle'. When Mark gets his first great rush of songs out of his system after his divorce and he starts looking round for ideas circa the 'Communiqué' album he seems to have toyed with going more after the 'true' name definition, with tales of a [18] 'Single-Handed Sailor' getting lost and lots of songs about 'Going Home'. But that's a red herring: it's the financial aspect he'll make his own, with 'Dire Straits' summing up the needs and desires of a generation used to going without through the 1970s three-day-strikes and power-cuts suddenly realising circa 1980 that they (at least in Britain) have something of an economic boom and no one to take it away from them (when Dire Straits really take off, with album three just out and big, album two doing well and album one still charting two years on thanks to word of mouth). This is the real reason Margaret Thatcher managed to stay in power for so long, despite committing so many horrors to so many people - and the timing didn't really have anything to do with her at all but the policies of Jim Callaghan slowly coming good (ironically we'd be in a much better state financially now had Thatcher stayed in opposition instead of taking down all of labour's good ideas).
Anyway, Dire Straits slowly match and mirror the concerns and principles of their era like no other which is why they appealed to so many and sold so well (though being a clever songwriter and a fine set of musicians with their own distinctive original sound helped of course) - and the real concerns and principles, not the Stick-Aitken-Waterman escapism angle, the irony of Madonna or the hedonism of Prince and Michael Jackson. You can see this progression album by album. The Dire Straits' debut in 1978 is very much a product of its time: the narrators are as broke as writer Knopfler was, walking down paths by rivers and attending (presumably free) art exhibitions in their quest for knowledge to make up for what they can't pay for. There's an undercurrent of poverty too on songs like [4] 'Wild West End, [5] 'Six-Blade Knife' and [8] 'Setting Me Up'. We 'know', because of what Mark has said since and a few hints that it's his ex- wife and former partner stabbing him in the back and causing him to 'run away' from his old life, but Knopfler is ambiguous enough as a writer for these songs to read like an escape from tribal gangs. 'Dire Straits' is Knopfler at his most desperate, hungry, violent and troubled, the sound of a kid who has nothing - but equally nothing to lose. The only escape comes in the form of a band in a club playing for peanuts but living out the lives they want, with [2] 'Sultans Of Swing' (ironically enough Mark's first big money-earner) the 'real' Knopfler, playing music for the hell of it, not for reward or to make a living.
After the cul-de-sac of 'Communiqué in 1979 (which continues the same themes in a slightly lighter mood but throws in some of Mark's most existential intellectual songs too) we end up in 1980 with 'Making Movies' when things are on the turn for the nation at large and the world in general. The mood is upbeat and playful (perhaps because the band actually have money for more than mere survival for the first time in their lives) and Mark starts looking at the outside consumerist world for the first time. Though the album is still primarily concerned with age-old concerns like romance, the themes are updated for modern-day living. [23] 'Romeo and Juliet' takes the age-old story (which Shakespeare pilfered rather than created) and updates it 'West Side Story' style for a pair of families who can't get it together because they live on different sides of town, one rich one poor. Money and the jealousy this causes within both sides of the family is the sticking point for something wonderful. [24] 'Skateaway' meanwhile is a song of lust on skates, the narrator daydreaming from his cab while a beauty on wheels rushes past him, the epitome of everything 1980s (false and big in other words), navigating both traffic and would-be suitors like bulls in a dance also centuries long (just never like this before). [25] 'Espresso Love' also shows from title on downwards how love has become treated just like any other consumable, meant to be disposable and the answer to a quick fix rather than long-lasting and comforting. Mark's had a first taste of money after years of trying to make it - and he hates it.
That theme is taken further on what's surely Knopfler's masterpiece as a 'spokesman for his generation' on 1982's 'Love Over Gold'. We start in the town of [29] 'Telegraph Road' (we'll ignore for now that he's describing a whole town despite the title) which was built with so much love and promise and co-operation but in the modern-day has become a trap for wage slaves, a world where everyone seems to be working for somebody else and nobody is 'free' to do what they want or feel they ought to be doing. Mankind, who once looked down on animals, is now envious of the birds who can 'fly away from this rain and this cold' while the inhabitants of the town are tied to it by jobs and responsibilities, as if they were shackled. [30] 'Private Investigations' finds a transaction over money taking place - but it's not what you think but a private eye being hired to spy on a lover and see what she's up to. In the modern consumerist world it's easier to pay someone to do the grubby details than either trust your partner or talk to them yourself. [31] 'Industrial Disease' is a mocking take on the compensation culture growing in the 1980s, but also a heartfelt lament over how poorly employees get in an attempt just to live. [33] 'It Never Rains' returns sadly to the theme and ideals of the first album, albeit older and wiser, as the narrator loses everything again and even the thing he had faith in (money?) had proved to be a red herring. Only on [32] 'Love Over Gold' does Mark finally get to come out with what's on his mind: that for all his wealth he'd rather feel rich through love anyday - that money can disappear with one bad financial decision but true love can only grow with every investment the lovers make. Period B-side [34] 'Badges Stickers Posters T-Shirts' then turns the venom against a consumerist society in o the rock world, a place where art only exists to 'sell' things to gullible fans. There never was that much Dire Straits merchandise for such a big band really was there?!...
On album five 'Brothers In Arms' Mark reaches his zenith. The irony is that the song that's probably made Mark more money in a single go than any other is [39] 'Money For Nothing', the single most currency-damning song he ever wrote. The song was meant as pure sarcasm, copied from the desperate sales-patter of a TV salesman and combined with the similar drivel handed out on MTV for music as a commodity (another irony - the video for 'Money For Nothing' was by far the most played, though only a few of the TV stations' DJs ever seemed to get the joke). This is an empty consumerist society where people don't just want stuff but demand it, even though they really don't need it and where the people who make a profit from it are secretly (sometimes not so secretly) slagging 'us' off. The fact that co-writer Sting was exactly the kind of disposable pop writer to come with something like this for real only made the joke funnier. That's the most obvious example on the CD but [45] 'One World' treads similar ground on a song that would in modern-day parlance come with the hash-tag 'First world problems', as a rich musician struggles to find the right sleeves for his records, the posh laces for his new shoes or the right notes from his guitar for a hit blues song that will make him more money - even though making money is the last thing a 'blues' song should be about. On [44] 'The Man's Too Strong', corruption is also rife in society, money making a figure so big that they can get away with being evil in plain sight, the narrator poor and helpless. Once again love is an 'escape' from this society, closely followed by the brotherhood of the album's title track. The 'real' album message though comes on [42] 'Why Worry?' in which the ups and downs of financial reward (and love) mean nothing because what 'they' don't tell you from their ivory towers is that human life is full of ups and downs and cycles and that to be truly rich you have to know what it is like to be poor (and perhaps vice versa).
After releasing about as anti-capitalist an album as anyone made in the mid-1980s, Mark suddenly made heaps of money from it. Making a sequel full of more songs about how horrid money could be made him feel kinda queasy so instead Mark took the band off for a 'gap year' that lasted for seven, before bouncing back with the deliberately muted 'On Every Street', a desperate attempt to re-connect with his 'roots' from the early days when he was penniless. Many of these narrators are suffering again, much like the first album, trapped by poverty and a lack of love. [47] 'Calling Elvis' is a wannabe musician longing to be rich and famous without realising the traps to come, [54] 'Iron Hand' looks again at how the haves rule the have-nots and even millionaire rockstars like Knopfler can't fight them so money is effectively worthless for what *really* matters in life) and [53] 'Heavy Fuel' and [56] 'My Parties' mock the indulgent lifestyle of the rockstar with the same glee heard on [39] 'Money For Nothing'. Mark's new motto is best summed up by the chorus of that album's 'joke-song' [51]'The Bug' - someday you're the windshield, some day you're the bug, some days you win, some days you lose. Money and fame have nothing to do with it. Dire Straits also (nearly)end, with the penultimate officially released song in their canon, the decidedly tongue-in-cheek [59] 'Millionaire Blues' on which Mark has his cake and eats it, laughing at his feeling depressed when he's so wealthy and lives a lifestyle other people would kill to get crimson for - and yet which he knows (and knew all along) was never going to solve all his problems at one stroke anyway. He'd still rather take love over gold anyday.
Thereafter Dire Straits split and Mark can go back to being 'small' instead of 'big', where he feels much more comfortable. When he relinquished the band name Mark also gladly gave up the responsibility of that 'spokesperson for a generation' tag and with it many of his social and political songs. However some of his personal songs also deal with money in some way, particularly the songs about his re-location to America (and the very different financial climate to the one at home, with more prospects for making money but also a bigger divide between rich and poor) or his memories of his own poverty-stricken childhood. Notable songs include 'Before Gas and TV' where heaven for Mark is a world that hasn't been encroached by the kind of useless consumer gadgets he once harangued on [39] 'Money For Nothing',  the cutting 'You Don't Know You're Born!' which seems to be about a younger generation born obsessed with electronic gadgets and Mark's last sad trip back home to his roots and his memories of struggling before leaving for the States on 'Fare Thee Well, Northumberland'. 'All The Roadrunning', the album made with Emmylou Harris, is particularly interesting in this regard - it's a sort-of concept album in the grand country-rock tradition in which the pair of lovers try to keep their marriage afloat while struggling financially and dreaming of a better life (which returns us more or less full circle to the first album, albeit this couple mostly choose to stay together). It's the 'working class roots' album Mark had never quite got round to writing despite dropping hints on most of his LPs - and ironically enough it's his only album to be almost completely filled with 'characters' rather than narrators who sound suspiciously like Mark himself.
However the 'key' album in all of this is the desperate and dirty 'Kill To Get Crimson' from 2007 (the start of the 'credit crunch', which is surely no coincidence) which seems to have been inspired in part by research into the Knopfler family tree and the hardship that seems to have been there on both parental sides. Virtually every song is about a likeable character turned bad by desperate times and the songs all come with the grainy grime-and-soot feel of a Dickens novel. Songs like 'Behind With The Rent' are self-explanatory, while 'The Scaffolder's Wife' looks at the painful lines on the face and the hard abrasions on the hands of a working class mum and 'Punish The Monkey' has a rights-less employee quaking over what his boss is going to do to him for making a simple mistake. On this album money isn't for nothing at all - it's the only way to survive and it's gripped desperately with both hands by characters who would die without it. A happier song about Mark's ancestors, 'Border Reivers', appeared on the next album 'Get Lucky' (where my predecessors probably mingled with the maternal side of the Knopfler family, raiding the Scots and English nobles in the no-man's land between the two countries before Hadrian built a blooming great wall there - which still didn't deter them by the sounds of things). 
Overall, then, Dire Straits have come to define the world's ever changing mood over money. We start off desperately needing it, laugh at the changes it brings in society when people have it, cringe at the corruption and greed it inspires, mock the millionaires who think it's all that matters and end up desperately needing it to live again. What will come next? I for one would like to see Knopfler return to the politically minded songs of 'Love Over Gold' and 'Brothers In Arms', using his position as a songwriter with a loyal fanbase who can afford to be brave and doesn't care about being rich to sock it where it hurts, to return to the mocking hollow laughter of [31] 'Industrial Disease' [33] 'It Never Rains' and [44] 'The Man's Too Strong'. That's where Mark's talents lie best I think - empathising with the 'little people', realising they're not that little and summing up their desperate struggles against a power much bigger than they are. It's a fight not many other songwriters were brave enough to make, particularly in the 1980s when he was at his most successful and a 'dog-eat-dog-world' was the whole ethos of an era. We need a writer like that again, to remind us that the 'real' skivers and scroungers aren't the lower-class people trying to make a living or even the people who fall into the societal trap of demanding a microwave oven' and 'MTV' on a wide flat-screen pricey TV to keep up with the neighbours - it's the bankers who caused us to be poor, the politicians who helped lead us there and media who point the finger of blame at the 'wrong' people. Instead of being encouraged to heap praise on millionaires (especially inherited millionaires) or people in power (who got there through cheating and/or family connections) we should instead remember the Knopfler mantra that money doesn't maketh the man and that the 'real' heroes are the [2] 'Sultans Of Swing', playing in a club for virtually nobody, for the sheer joy of making music. Money means nothing, at least when you get hits for 'free'.


Mark Knopfler "Tracker"
(Mercury, March 2015)
Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes/Basil/River Town/Skydiver/Mighty Man/Broken Bones/Long Cool Girl/Lights Of Taormina/Silver Eagle/Beryl/Wherever I Go
Deluxe Edition Bonus Tracks: .38 Special/My Heart Has Never Changed/Terminal Of tribute To/Heart Of Oak/Hot Dog
"I'm just a long hauler, a grinder at the game"
Mark's clearly found his mojo again, bouncing back after his double CD set 'Privateering' with another lengthy new album after just a three year break (half the time between the last two Dire Straits albums). 'Tracker' is the best in a long while too, perhaps since his third solo set 'Shangri-La' and Mark's grown even further into his low-key lived-in pastoral voice and style since he left his band behind a full twenty-two years ago now. Like his other recent albums, it's a mixture of the new sounds he hears now Mark's moved to America with his third wife and reminders of the Celtic and Geordie roots he left behind, a heady mixture that meshes together even better here than usual, perhaps because Mark is so practiced at this style now. Many of the songs are 'character' tracks, story songs about his memories of his working class roots that offer a delightful mixture of poverty pressure and just the right amount of hope, returning to the idea of 'Love Over Gold' if on a much smaller scale, full of characters who are hurting and yet still have time on their side to put things right (Guy Fletcher makes another return appearance, though this is the only link to Mark's old band sound). This is a world that takes Mark's sentiments on [42] 'Why Worry?' to heart, set in a world where Mark knows fairytales can happen and things can go right, no matter how dead-end life seems sometimes.
However the big change since the last record is that most of these stories are more personal too and in a way this is the story of Mark's life to date (who needs an autobiography with an album like this one?!) The theme of the album seems to be 'gosh, did that all really happen to me?' with a touch of 'the grass is always greener' as Mark revisits parts of his past with a much happier, kinder eye than he ever felt at the time, perhaps because his troubled turbulent past still led him to his happy present, largely free from pressure or bills. The Dire Straits years are fading more and more into the distance, with Mark embracing a completely new way of life so at odds with his old one. 'Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes' remembers the years of plotting to be a star in Mark's teenage days while trying to make the money stretch ('Not that we ever cared'), the spacey 'Basil' is an old song in a new setting that goes back to Mark's days as a cub journalist wary but respectful of his old boss, 'Long Cool Girl' is one of Mark's greatest love songs since [23] 'Romeo and Juliet', just floating around on a gorgeous melody full of that distinctive guitar picking, while much of the rest of the album takes things through to the present day. This is a delightful trip down memory lane in fact,  but it's British music's memory lane rather than Mark's own past, heavy on the ballads and low on the rock and pop. It's a graceful way of approaching old age, returning to distant memories along the way. It's perhaps his most consistent solo record so far.
 If you can, I'd go for the deluxe edition of this set as many of the 'bonus' tracks are  - typically - better than the real thing and certainly a lot more adventurous, perhaps missing from standard editions because they don't fit this autobiographical 'theme'. '.38 Special' is Mark's first bluegrass song, a plucked banjo replacing the usual sound of his national guitar on a chirpy outlaw song about fearing the devil, a cross between [44] 'The Man's Too Strong' and [46] 'Brothers In Arms'. In a telling twist that suggests that Mark is moving back to his old political 'Love Over Gold' self the devil proves to be a 'banker' who recklessly gambles with money and causes untold suffering in the Wild Wild West. The gorgeous aching 'My Heart Has Never Changed' may be in a 'new' folky style but it's also a song about lost loves and old times, Mark playing a trucker who sees a waitress who reminds him of his first love (presumably Kathy from the first album) and fears his heart will break again too, realising he still loves her as much as he ever did. 'Terminal Of Tribute To' features the long-awaited return of the synthesiser on a moody song that wouldn't have sounded out of place on 'Brothers In Arms' with some stunning guitar. The mood though is more like the first album as he complains about a narrow-minded person whose sulking and taking the 'bitter pill' over something said many decades ago. 'You've never made it and never will' sings Mark on a line that any other singer would make a bitter jeer but here sounds like a sad sigh. I'm fascinated by who this song is about and the line about how 'music and movies' don't 'shine through'. Is it brother David? If so Mark is being a bit unfair there (the younger Knopfler's albums are as good as Mark's these days) but then this isn't the cruel and callous song it reads but a song of real love and frustration, the sort of thing you can only deliver to someone you feel genuinely close to. 'Heart Of Oak' is almost Medieval, with Mark sounding like a wandering minstrel on a solo folk tune about an unknown hero, a 'soldier' who 'battled with the best' and Mark greatly admired. Sadly he's not giving us any clues who he means this time around and given the setting ('youth and fire won the day') might be thinking of an old schoolfriend. The result sounds like an old school song, but I mean that in a nice way - this is an old survivor looking back on the past and prior innocence with a chuckle. Finally 'Hot Dog' is a little like the blues-rockers from 'On Every Street', tough and taut but also deeply silly - Mark's in a 'fighting mood' , worried about 'trouble' from a 'hot dog' bully he's trying to evade. This song really is the 'mustard' for fans of Mark's bluesier, grittier finger-picking style and will find much to admire here, even if the backing is a bit rigid and dull. Overall, then, the five extras may well be a lot more impressive than the main courses - and are certainly a lot more varied.
However the album itself is not without its worthy moments. 'Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes' is great fun, ,mark remembering his teenage years with fun and affection, paying tribute to the friends who always made him laugh and his family who somehow put food on the table, even though looking back he can't belief he got through days of being so poor once upon a time. mark's eye for detail is strong here, marvelling at a world where the family couldn't even afford to put a light on the stairs so he used to crawl hungover to bed in the dark - in contrast perhaps to his current big posh house. It's a fun, jovial song about how [39] money really is for nothing - and it sounds like the chicks were plentiful too if not exactly free! Mark is already looking to a future though, 'not planning on hanging around' and hinting at what happens next when he leaves 'to start a band' and escape a life that, actually, he was quite happy with.
'Basil' picks up what happened next, Mark joining the staff of a newspaper and adjusting to his new surroundings. 'Basil' is a new character in Mark's songs, a 'Gateshead Girl' he kissed despite having a childhood sweetheart back home still. However she's a minor part of this song - more interesting is the mixture of surly seen-it-all and excitable staff at the paper Mark works for, grumpily sending off for copyboys and reflecting on a life wasted on local town meetings ('Even a poet's gotta eat' this song sighs slyly). The music is more low-key for this one (it sounds like the lyrics came first) but the lyrics are fascinating, Mark padding out his life 'finding time to think about time' and wondering whether to stay put, go back home or break off for the wild blue yonder. This is the first of the album tracks to feature co-singer Ruth Moody (of the under-rated Australian folk band The Wailin Jennys - their Neil Young covers are exquisite although none of them are called Jenny, confusingly!) and she's perfectly cast, a much better fit for Mark's voice than Emmylou Harris was, with a kindness and calmness that suits this song.
'River Town' is surely a hymn to the Newcastle Mark doesn't get to see very often these days. I wonder too if it's a self-consciously happier sequel to [3] 'Down To The Waterline' seen with happier eyes, the waters  of Newcastle not empty but overflowing with beauty (and love perhaps, given the old [1] 'Water Of Love' metaphor, now that Mark looks back on things) as Mark travels back briefly, waiting to get a boat out of there (perhaps to get to London? In which case this is a sequel to [6] 'Southbound Again' and [9]'Eastbound Train' too!)
'Skydiver' is surely the Dire Straits years - we've got a very heavy Pick Withers style drum pattern, a slowed-down interpretation of Mark's old Chet Atkins-style finger-picking and lyrics about being a 'bad boy'. However this song is set on a racecourse and features a chancer betting on the dogs - is this symbolic, perhaps, of Mark's big 'gamble' trying to get somewhere with a band even when he's getting nowhere? Mark's quite happy even when he loses though and in retrospect Mark even looks back on his days of unemployment and poverty with a kindly eye. The narrator loses all his money but stands on a hill and looks down on the sleepy town around him, realising no one cares and he can 'do what I want and go where I want and don't give a damn about a thing!' His excitement is infectious on this funny music-hall style novelty song with a catchy chorus.
'Mighty Man' is a slow-burning epic, similar in style perhaps to 'Love Over Gold' (so no prizes for guessing it might be my favourite song on the record!) However it's played not with a full band but a Celtic one plus a steel guitar part that's sublime. Mark's at the peak of his fame and power, but already he's realising how little that counts for anything, his 'two fingers' pointed at the establishment 'not working' as he watches things get worse for the friends he left behind in Newcastle. This gorgeous slow ballad feels like an old Scottish folk song and is small and muted yet somehow still full of grandeur. Mark is 'just a drifter in a rainbow, one of the thousands who could never go home'.
'Broken Bones' is a more awkward, troubled song about getting older, the narrator taking medicine 'like a man' and 'not making a fuss' as he lies in ice. Though this character has clearly been doing something physical (a gun duel by the sound of it), I do wonder whether this is a song about rehab, Mark trying to do his 'time' at a hospital and not end up there again while feeling shame. An urgent, angular riff makes this a difficult song to listen to but that's good for this part of an album that's been sleepwalking till now.
'Long Cool Girl' is the most hummable, immediate song on the album with a melody as warm as summer and a beauty that sparkles every bit as much as the girl in the title. Mark has jumped in time here, paying tribute to third wife Kitty (mark jokes that he 'likes to say her name' for comfort but doesn't actually mention her here - it's clearly Kitty though, with Mark leaving to play gigs 'around the world'). Mark is in 'point blank range' even when he's playing halfway round the world and enjoying her sunshine even when he's passing through a changing world of weather. A dreamy, pretty song where not much happens but nothing needs to when you get to bask in a glow this beautiful.
'Lights Of Taormina' is a slow pretty country-blues that's perhaps not quite up to the album standard but is still likeable, remembering a holiday in Messina, part of the East Coast of Sicily. Mark recounts the song in a 'postcard' fashion, watching the colours and admiring the local volcano, but what he never writes home is the company - the kisses with a mysterious exotic lady and lazy nights staring at the lights i the sky. 'Seems like another lifetime' Mark sighs, no doubt wishing those days would come again.
'Silver Eagle' is more low-key folk with characteristic Guy Fletcher keyboard washes. This is one of the more troubled songs on the album, Mark returning to his sleeping wife in a hotel and taking in all the sights as he realises that it might be his last time to do these things. It could be, too, that this is Mark playing a gig near where an ex lives and that he's only imagining her sleeping, half a mile from his 'silver eagle' (an aeroplane?) Mark conjures up the last days of Dire Straits when his second marriage to Lourdes was breaking up with passion and detail, imagining a 'sea of faces' devoted to him in the audience every night but feeling like a heel every time he creeps past home in the middle of the night to play another gig still 'hoping for peace of mind'. This is one of Mark's more poetic, ambiguous lyrics though which could mean all sorts of things and it's surreal style suits him well.
The 'proper' album closer 'Beryl' is an interesting song. It sounds very much like Mark's songs with Emmylou and the character is not unlike her too, a singer who gave her all but never got the success she quite deserved. Or maybe it's a sequel to [16] Lady Writer and not about a 'Beryl' at all but about Marina Warner, the feminist author who was inspiration for that song after Mark saw her on TV and ended up chariman of the Booker Prize committee the same year that 'Tracker' came out (even so, I still don't know why it's all too late' - surely that means it turned out right in the end and isn't that a more fitting theme for the album anyway?). However rather than get too deep Mark instead chooses to make this another silly novelty song (sample lyric: 'Beryl was on another level when she got a Booker medal she was dead in her grave').
The album then ends on the song's most gorgeous moment, the love song 'Wherever I Go' again featuring Ruth Moody whose note-perfect here as the will-they won't-they lover. Mark sighs that he's 'bound to wander from one place to the nexty' ins search of a perfect life but that wherever he goes his wife is a star 'fixed in my sky' calling him home and his 'flame' for her burns bright. By the end of the song Mark is leaving a bar to travel the world again, fitting in one last round before heading off wherever life takes him, to the accompaniment of a lovely sleepy saxophone part by sessionman Nigel Hitchcock (at last, a sax played the way it should be!!!) The result is one of the simplest but also one of the prettiest and most affecting songs Mark ever wrote, ending with him saying his 'goodbyes' just in case he doesn't get a chance to make them to us again. It's a sweet gesture on a very sweet LP and *sniff* if you excuse me, I think I have something in my eye...
Overall, then, 'Tracker' is a likeable album indeed. Of the sixteen-track deluxe edition maybe only three tracks aren't first-class and rest is delightful, open and honest and revealing in a way the private Knopfler has never been till now. This is also an album awash with interesting textures, gorgeous beautiful ballads and a beautiful timeless production so that it sounds as good as it reads for once too, with no interruptions by comedy Geordie singles or desperate-sounding pop songs. Like the cover, Mark may be 'lost' in thr country, in the middle of nowhere and a million miles away from the popstar highway, but that's because he's chosen to be here, to revel in the low-key music of this record and bask in its beauty without a need to pander to public or reputation. On this evidence long may Mark stay here and it's a delight to follow his career to the point where he now sounds so happy and content, the trials and difficulties and obstacles of his path now merely adventures to be enjoyed in old age with a wry smile and a chuckle, Mark knowing that it all worked out for the best in the end.  

David  Knopfler "Grace"
(CD Baby, September 2016)
The Final Miles/Sullivan/Hard Times In Idaho/Nickels and Dimes/Two Roads/The Last Goodbyes/Honey Tastes Sweet/This Ship Has Sailed/Dawn Patrol/The Great Nowhere/So Was I/Underland/Grace In The Gutter
"Sometimes it's a blur, sometimes it's all there"
How utterly fascinating. We wait all those decades for an autobiographical Knopfler album - and within six months we get another one! The brothers are clearly still listening to each other and heading down the same path, although it seems unlikely that even a writer as prolific as David could have written an entire album from scratch just because his brother came up with one. What's more, the different record styles reveal a lot about these two brothers' personalities. Mark's memories are about people he knew and missed and the thoughts running through his head at any one time. David's style is more impressed with scattered images, remembering specific incidents without giving so much of a 'before' or 'after' picture. The result is another likeable album that brings out the best in David the way the style did from Mark and at its best (particularly highlight 'The Last Goodbyes', a sea shanty where the water is life and the storm might claim the narrator - and eerily similar in feel to Mark's 'Wherever I Go') is every bit as moving as memorable. David even throws in his own gorgeous love songs, telling his wife that 'nothing tastes as sweet as you'  - and it's unusual for either brother to write such simple heartfelt songs till now. 
Most songs are also concerned with going on a 'personal journey', with 'The Great Nowhere' revealing that a wanderlust streak isn't confined to just one Knopfler brother! 'This Ship Has Sailed' also sounds like David's response to being kicked out the band, watching 'shining stars' while heading down a quite different path 'like a thief in the night'. However the biggest difference thematically is that David is more concerned with the past and who got left behind than himself - he may even make a dig at his brother on 'So Was I' as he challenges Mark's new-found peace by reminding him of not just the wives but the children he left behind to move to America (which is only fair if 'Terminal Of Tribute To' is a dig by Mark at David, with its barbed comments about a talent who never got anywhere).One other moving song here is 'Underland', a tale of the down-trodden and vulnerable getting bullied by the Conservative Gocernment as it's re-elected again in Britain, to the horror of many disabled and unemployed and poverty-stricken. 'Can't you help?' pleads David, shocked that the 'Government won't understand' how their decisions taken so lightly affect so many and urging people to step in and help. Simple it may be, simpler than any of the Thatcher protest songs by Mark on 'Love Over Gold', but it's still moving and a statement that really needed saying by somebody - brave to David for being that someone. Lyrically David was always every bit as good as his brother - just different - and this may well be his finest set of lyrics yet as he digs a little deeper than normal to look at how the years have affected him.
Alas musically David is still sometimes a little bit behind. The one thing this album sadly doesn't have compared to 'Tracker' is variety, with most songs sticking to the same folk-rock-country-acoustic lilt again, with David struggling whenever he departs from this style (such as the hokey 'Dawn Patrol'). If folk is your thing then you will find much to enjoy, but David started off as the biggest rock and roller in Dire Straits and showed over the years that he was pretty darn good at handling other styles from pop to jazz too, so it's a shame in many ways that this album tends to feature several variations of the same laidback folk-rock tune. That's particularly hard going during the second half of the album when the songs need a bit more life and enthusiasm to them with so many ballads strung together, but still that's what Mark tried on 'Tracker' and just about got away with so you can see why David might fancy his hand at the same thing.
'The Final Miles' is a tale of a childhood spent being, well, a surprisingly well behaved little boy actually with David doing what his mama tells him and learning to read from a pocket Bible. No mentions of an annoying elder brother however...
I'm not sure who 'Sullivan' is (and can't find any mention in David's interviews) but maybe he's Mark? 'Oh America, he's blowing away' sighs David on a return to his favoured sea shanties, wondering why his brother won't speak to him or tell him he's emigrating.
'Hard Times In Idaho', meanwhile, simply nicks Mark's solo style on a tale of American poverty almost comical when a storm hits ('Those wind-chimes are clacking like you just don't know!')
'Nickels and Dimes' is a pretty song about being content to lie off loose change rather than millions, although David's pretty laidback melody and clever tune make this one of his more immediate and commercial songs ironically. The money really is worth nothing here - no mention if the chicks are free.
'Two Roads' sounds like 'Privateering' with David finding his own path, contentedly for the most part, though he gets angry on the verse about someone 'always looking through me' and telling him he's not good enough (does this person wear a headband, prey tell?)
'The Last Goodbyes' is a moving farewell song about biding your time before the inevitable end, even though ironically this song has far more life and a more aggressive assertive electric attack than usual and a nice Mark soundalike picked guitar part.
'Honey Tastes Sweet' is a low key ballad again paying tribute to a 'muse' who brought both sweetness and honesty to the narrator's life, leaving him to never know if he's going to get the taste of 'honey' or 'razorblades' each times he sees his ex!
'The Ship Has Sailed' is a great song that returns to David's sailing themes, sighing over missed opportunities and being becalmed but figuring that he still has a destination to reach before journey's end. Another very commercial track.
'Dawn Patrol' is a jaunty sea shanty that again returns to the sailing theme, with a Lindisfarne style mandolin solo for good measure.
'The Great Nowhere' is acoustic and intimate, with memories of Dire Straits' early days and the moment the band all came together 'following with our hearts'. The main guitar riff is clearly a slowed down version of a typical Mark Knopfler style but the mood is older, wiser and altogether quite different. Fascinating.
'So Was I' is one of the album's lesser moments, perhaps again about David's artistic elder brother. 'If that was my family I'd hold them close forever' sighs David, imagining himself rising out of nowhere 'like Lazarus' despite being dismissed by the 'star' everybody listens to. We've been here before with David but this time the mood is much kinder, content to have gone down a different path in many ways better than the more restricted pressurised one his brother has taken.
'Underland'  is a song about disappearing from view, played with a country-rock vibe that sounds like The Rolling Stones. This time David pleads for help that never quite arrives.
The album ends with 'Grace In The Gutter', the narrator trying to move on but 'landlocked by memories'. This album summary lacks the sparkle of the beast of the album but sums it's acoustic trip down memory lane vibe up nicely.
The end result is a pretty decent album that might well contain some of David's best work, every bit as good as Mark's, but an album best heard occasionally as a nice surprise when you put your mp3 player or i-pod to shuffle rather than experienced all in one go.





Mark Knopfler and Evelyn Glennie  "Altamira"
(Universal, April 2016)
Altamira/Maria/Dream Of The Bison/By The Grave/Onward/Marcileno's Despair/farewell To The Bison/This Is Science/Glory Of The Cave/Farewell To Altamaria
"God made the world - but Mark made the soundtrack album!"
'Tracker' isn't quite 'goodbye' though (that would be too perfect wouldn't it?!) as Mark leaves us in this book with another of his film soundtrack scores after his longest gap so far (fourteen years). You can see why 'Finding Altamaria' (to give the film it's full name  - odd the score should shorten it!) appealed to him: it's a Spanish film, similar in many ways to 'The Princess Bride', starring Antonio Banderas and gives Mark the chance to play lost of flamenco guitar. The result is like hearing the instrumental break from [30] 'Private Investigations' lots of times over , which is no bad thing but does become a little wearing across a full album. I'm surprised, though, that Mark didn't pick up on the film's themes of ancient past and cave paintings, which could have teased out quite a different Celtic score in another setting - instead the sound is oddly modern compared to Mark's trademark these days. Percussionist Evelyn Glennie gets co-billing for a lot of this material, which is odd - because there is barely any percussion across the whole record! Instead this is a guitar n synths affair with the occasional string accompaniment and Guy Fletcher has never sounded better, perfectly in tune with what Mark's guitar is up to. The result is haunting rather than memorable but works well both in the film (set in the title town, in the Spanish district of Cantabria) and as a record if you don't expect too much from it except a few lovely tunes and superb playing.

These songs are instrumentals, unlike the last couple of Knopfler scores, just lots of atmosphere. Sometimes this works so well this might well be Mark's best score so far: the opening 'Altamira' is haunting, like a Wild West cowboy film but one clearly set in Spain. 'Dream Of The Bison' is fascinating, Mark sparking off Guy Fletcher's harmonium as the pair put together some spooky, ethereal other-worldly sounds (if this film has been a sci-fi epic I'd have believed it given this soundtrack, but no!) 'Onward' is spooky, filled with tension and dread, like the hush before the bass-thuds on 'Private Investigations'. Admittedly cello solo 'Marcileno's Despair' is a rum moment (at least until a hauntingly beautiful string part sweeps in, crying bitter tears) and two spooky 'Bison' tracks are probably one too many, but this is lovely stuff and Mark really has an ear for what does and doesn't work in both film scores and soundtrack albums by now. The film's not bad either, although it is eclipsed by the soundtrack I have to say. Overall, you could say I'm an admirer of 'Altamira'!20+


A Now Complete List Of Dire Straits Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

‘Dire Straits’ (1978)  
http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/dire-straits-1978.html
'Communiqué' (1979) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/dire-straits-communique-1979.html

'Makin' Movies' (1981) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/news-views-and-music-issue-5-dire.html

'Love Over Gold' (1983)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-82-dire-straits-love-over-gold.html

‘Brothers In Arms’ (1985) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/dire-straits-brothers-in-arms-1985.html

'On Every Street' (1993)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/news-views-and-music-issue-79-dire.html
Surviving TV Appearances (1978-1991) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/dire-straits-surviving-tv-appearances.html

Unreleased Recordings (1978-1991) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/dire-straits-unreleased-recordings.html
Non-Album Songs 1977-1991 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/dire-straits-non-album-songs-1977-1991.html
Live/Solo/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part One (1977-1999) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/dire-straits-livesolocompilation-albums.html
Live/Solo/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part Two (2000-2014) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/dire-straits-livesolocompilation-albums_25.html
Mark Knopfler’s Guest Appearances https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/aaa-extra-mark-knopflers-guest.html
Essay: From ‘Dire Straits’ To ‘Mass Consumerism’ https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/dire-straits-essay-from-dire-straits-to.html
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/03/dire-straits-five-landmark-concerts-and.html


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