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"It ain't what they call rock'n'roll"

Class C

Main Category: Roots Rock
Also applicable: Singer-Songwriters
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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Dire Straits are not cool. They did not shift the musical paradigm, nor did they even write great music - from a pure technical standpoint, that is. And they're immensely popular. The disproportion is painful, and so it is understandable that a lot of the more intelligent public for miles around and more again is distinctly alergic towards Mark Knopfler and his brand of songwriting. Yet the fact alone that a band as seemingly 'unimaginative' as Dire Straits, who seemed to be stuck in a timewarp and successfully ignoring just about every new trend and brand of music that'd appear since the late Seventies, could manage to strike it big, first among the critical crowds of the day, and then with the commercially-oriented LP-buying crowds of the day, is worth acknowledging even by Knopfler's biggest enemies. If anything, Dire Straits were one of the few bands of the late Seventies/early Eighties proved that the "old school" of music-making was still vital despite any of the prog or punk or New Wave or synth-pop tendencies of the time. In a more risky way, they preferred to take the 'bluesy' way, writing songs that were based on ace guitar playing, soulful vocal delivery and whatever-could-be-that-third-thingie-that-comes-along-with-the-blues rather than songs based on firm pop hooks. Hence, the acute boredom often induced on people by the band. Hence all the problems...

...and hence all the success and all the uniqueness - after all, at any given time any country in the world needs a bunch of middle-aged philosophically-minded spiritual gurus, and Mark Knopfler qualifies in a definite way. Despite the fact that Knopfler doesn't have anything even remotely resembling a 'sharp pop sensibility' - the few instantaneously memorable songs of his like 'Walk Of Life' would have to be deemed accidental - he's got a lot to compensate for that. He's an excellent lyricist, capable of both wonderful romantic writing and biting social critique, as well as a master of these haunting little pictures of British urban life, sorta like a Brit analogy of Springsteen but without the unbearably fake 'heroic-romantic' aura. He's an ace guitarist: people often seem to be forgetting that fact, but Knopfler's minimalistic style that he introduced in 1978 was a true shock at the time, and although it did not cause a 'revolution' in guitar playing like Van Halen's debut or anything, Knopfler's playing style was influential (although, of course, we mustn't forget that Knopfler himself owed a huge debt to THE MAN behind the back of at least half of the bluesy performers of the past thirty years, J. J. Cale). Finally, Knopfler just seems like an overall nice guy. He's managed to hit it off well with quite a few classic rock heroes, having played with everybody from Clapton to Dylan, and unlike J. J. Cale, the basic reaction one gets from an average Dire Straits album is always hope and uplift rather than fear and depression; granted, Knopfler can be pretty depressing at times, but for the most part, the mood that Dire Straits songs evoke is that of a mixed "optimism-pessimism" - life sucks, but only when taken from a certain angle, because there's a positive moment even in the worst of events. Would you call 'Sultans Of Swing' a bitter sarcastic condemnation of contemporary mores or rather a statement that self-contention and happiness is exclusively a matter of the one who craves for them? I'd vote for the second.

The big problem of Dire Straits, then, is the boredom factor which exists despite all the pluses. Dire Straits' debut album is a total gas, and one of my personal favourites of all time; with distinct and clear melodies, beautiful lyrics, and breathtaking minimalistic guitar lines, it still stands as the band's absolute peak that they hardly ever managed to top. But then a year later Knopfler went ahead and remade the album, losing all of the freshness and originality - by the time of the third album, Making Movies, he'd managed to slightly correct that mistake, but that fact alone should give you a clear idea of Dire Straits' main weaknesses. The critics weren't really disappointed, though, and Dire Straits enjoyed minor commercial success and major critical luck until Brothers In Arms, when Knopfler's ultra clever MTV-bashing trick with 'Money For Nothing' earned them major commercial success with what actually turned out to be their most untypical (although hardly the worst, as some diehard fans pretend) album. Then they disbanded - maybe out of fear of further commercialization, but then again, "Dire Straits" was never much more than just a moniker for 'Mark Knopfler and those who play the other instruments for him because he's only got two hands'. Then they came back together for a reunion album and a tour and then they disappeared altogether. And Knopfler? He's still around, having joined the Great Washed Up Club together with McCartney, Clapton, Elton John and company, but, as is the golden rule, he still fares quite well when he's on his own and not taking part in the umpteenth Prince's Gala Trust shenanigan or something like that. And hey, I'm not gonna hold that against him.

Basically, I suppose that one starts to appreciate the music of Dire Straits more and more as one lapses into old age - hey, I kinda find it scary myself that I'm so thoroughly addicted to the band's debut record even if I'm still far from reaching my thirties. But then again, age can also be judged as a state of mind, right? I doubt that the Dire Straits fanbase consists entirely of Geritol clients anyway.

And here's the lineup for you: Mark Knopfler - lead guitar, vocals; David Knopfler - rhythm guitar; John Illsley - bass; Pick Withers - drums. David Knopfler left the band, 1980, soon accompanied by Pick Withers. The Alchemy lineup of 1984 consisted of Mark, John, Alan Clark on keyboards, Hal Lindes on rhythm guitar, and Terry Williams on drums.




Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

The best music for old men ever written by a young one. Fabulous.

Best song: impossible to tell. At least three or four equal candidates - hell, this album is so darn equal...

Track listing: 1) Down To The Waterline; 2) Water Of Love; 3) Setting Me Up; 4) Six Blade Knife; 5) Southbound Again; 6) Sultans Of Swing; 7) In The Gallery; 8) Wild West End; 9) Lions.

At one time, this record was one of my most obvious candidates for the Top Ten rock records ever written, and although objective reasoning leads to declining that proposition (in fact, it's not even my favourite post-1975 record any longer - that honour now belongs to Brian Eno's Before And After Science), it's still an unbelievable experience... In fact, it got some of my friends into rock music, and that's saying something. That said, a serious warning must be made: Dire Straits is definitely not for everybody. Normally, this is one of the best examples of the 'love-or-hate record' I've ever witnessed, with opinions mostly sticking either to 'this is the rare case of a perfect rock album' camp or to 'this is so deadly boring I simply can't stand it' camp. I definitely belong to the first camp, and therefore, if you happen to know nothing about this album and haven't even heard 'Sultans Of Swing' (although even liking 'Sultans Of Swing' doesn't guarantee that you'll like the entire album), please read the following review carefully before giving this piece o' plastic a try. This might be hazardous.

And it's easy to see why. One thing Mark Knopfler, the band's leader, singer, main composer and lead guitar player, certainly can't be accused of is diversity. The nine songs on Dire Straits, the band's self-titled debut album, mostly stick to the same blues-oriented style. Well, they're not exactly blues, all of them, more of a folk-blues combined approach here, with most of the melodies being pretty obvious and - dare I say it? - generic, and I'd be the last person to deny that 'Sultans Of Swing' and 'Down To The Waterline' are based on the same pattern, or a similar thing with 'Setting Me Up' and 'Southbound Again'. This is a serious blow for persons alergic to blues-rock, especially after their expectations had been set high with all kinds of glorious reviews.

However, Dire Straits is not really about the melodies. Well - okay, so it is, in a large part, because despite all the criticism, at least half of these songs are as catchy as anything, with such memorable highlights as the chorus to 'Water Of Love' or 'Setting Me Up' being perfectly hummable and all that. What is truly unique and mind-blowing about the album is its overall atmosphere. Knopfler was writing a record about late-Seventies England, capturing the contemporary spirit like no one else could at the time. In a sense, Dire Straits can be seen as a direct response to the punk movement from the 'older', 'wiser' generation - or maybe simply from the 'quieter' generation, the kind of people who preferred not to vent their frustration in the open but instead let their feelings gush through in a more subtle, 'intelligent' manner. Many probably tried to do that, but it was Knopfler who succeeded: Dire Straits is definitely not a punk album, but in some respects it is angrier, more sarcastic, and more hard-hitting than all of the British punk bands of the time, the Clash and everyone else included.

I'm not British, of course, but it hardly matters - it's extremely easy to identify with the album that seems to take you places on almost every number. Knopfler is the overlord here, in many respects. The lyrics are sheer brilliancy, something in between 'working class poetry' and Springsteen's philosophy, borrowing from the sincerity and passion of the former and the wittiness of the latter. Knopfler's ragged, 'senile' voice is at his very best, ranging from quiet loving whispers to loud gruff screaming (well, relatively loud - this is one of the most quiet albums ever recorded). But, of course, the album's main attraction is Mark's minimalistic guitar playing. Obviously, he took his cue from J. J. Cale and Clapton, but he carried that minimalism even further, relying more on the beauty of each individual guitar note than on the beauty of a fast'n'fluent combination of 'em (not that he couldn't play fast'n'fluent - check out the breathtaking arpeggios on the fade-out of 'Sultans Of Swing'). Note that the album should be played loud, very loud, or else you simply won't have the possibility to soak in all of his little delicate tricks he plays along the fretboard, particularly on numbers like 'Six Blade Knife'.

And what about the highlights on here? The first six songs all qualify. We start our journey in the dark depths of 'Down To The Waterline', with one of the moodiest introductions ever recorded on tape and an acute, blistering drive. Did I mention the production yet? That dark, echoey, 'dusky' sound that really gives you the impression of a dark Thames border where 'she can still hear him whisper, let's go down to the waterline'? Amazing. Then we get carried away into the metaphoric desert where Mark needs some 'Water Of Love'; again, the lyrics are perfectly suited to the music, with a sparse arrangement and Mark's 'dry-sounding' steel guitar really giving the impression of desert traveling. 'Setting Me Up' is one of those bouncy numbers, with a great danceable groove and a more personal feel to it; love the guitar solo at the end. Then comes my current favourite, 'Six Blade Knife', a song that's arguably more evil in its essence than all the heavy metal genre put together. The monotonous, "boring" rhythm that seems so intent on driving its point into the ground, Mark's lyrics about how "Everybody got a knife it can be just what they want it to be/A needle a wife or something that you just can't see" that you can almost see delivered with a slight hint of a Satanic smile on the face, and again, that irresistible minimalistic guitar going ping... ping... ping... in the background - the song hardly reaches the tenth part of the basic volume of a Deep Purple song, but the tension actually mounts ten times as fast. And, of course, later on we return to London again to hear 'Sultans Of Swing'. I'll keep silent about that one - everybody knows it and everybody loves it, even if I'm a bit depressed about "radio overplay" having effectively murdered its basic point in most listeners' minds. Ah well, just boycott the radio, I say.

The last three songs is the point at which many people start to really get bitchy - sure, 'In The Gallery', 'Wild West End' and 'Lions' don't seem to be adding anything new, and this, taken together with their particular lengthiness, is... eh, well, you get my drift. But actually, they're not any less atmospheric or vivid than anything else on here; if anything, I'd say that Mark's guitar doesn't take any particular new twists and that's what renders them a wee bit colder than all the rest. Even so, 'In The Gallery' has a great swing to it, as well as excellent lyrics that condemn following fancy trends in modern art; 'Wild West End' is gentle, nostalgic and picturesque; and 'Lions' ends the album on a note that we'd certainly expect - deep nostalgia, pessimism and depression. 'I'm thinking about the lions tonight... what happened to the lions?' Nobody knows.

To end it all, I'd say this: it is truly hard to enjoy the album immediately. Just as it is perfectly ready to gladden the hearts of some people, it does absolutely nothing for others. The point is that while it was written by a relatively young man, its message is for the older generations - people usually start listening to such music at least in their thirties, maybe even fourties. If you're a twenty-plus old like me and enjoy this record, well, lucky you are (or maybe we just got old a little too soon?) It is a clear and obvious 'just say no' to the aggressive and raunchy spirit of rock'n'roll and an embracement of 'quieter' and more 'relaxed' values (note that I don't say 'mainstream' - Dire Straits is certainly close to a 'mainstream' album, but so are lots of albums that are aggressive and raucnhy). But even if you're a young punk lover or a happy pop admirer, don't be quick to make the mistake of condemning this stuff as 'boring'. Yes, it causes people to sit down, relax and 'introspect'; but what's wrong with that? Get off that choo-choo train and get some rest.



Year Of Release: 1979
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

The best music for old men ever written by a young one. Horrendous.


Track listing: 1) Once Upon A Time In The West; 2) News; 3) Where Do You Think You're Going; 4) Communique; 5) Lady Writer; 6) Angel Of Mercy; 7) Portobello Belle; 8) Single Handed Sailor; 9) Follow Me Home.

Whenever somebody comes up to me and says, 'That Dire Straits album is some of the most boring shit I'd ever be a-hearin'!', I always take a deep breath and say, 'You must have confused that one with Communique'. (Okay, to be fair with you, I ain't never encountered such a situation, but I figured out it would be a cool way to start the review!). Seriously, now, Dire Straits' second album was a huge disappointment for me, and although in retrospect I feel like I have earlier been a bit too harsh on the guys, Communique is still not the best move that Knopfler could have made at the time.

The album didn't make the band any new friends, and the old ones sure dug it; but those who'd expected that Mark and his lads were there to save rock'n'roll or anything, with their novel attitude, cynicism and impressive playing, proved themselves mighty wrong. Communique is nothing but a pale carbon copy of the band's debut: basically, everything that can be found on this album can be found on its predecessor, but definitely not vice versa. Yes, the band is still going on with the same vibe: quiet, relaxative rootsy music with elements of jazz and country, driven forward by Knopfler's dextrous guitar picking and his "dark hoarse" of a voice. And I can't even say that the melodies on Communique are all that weaker than before, because Dire Straits were never the masters of unexpected melodic hook to begin with. But several important things are lacking or have changed.

First of all, I'm kinda disappointed with the lyrics - a little. Where the lyrics on Dire Straits were very much subject-oriented, drawing vivid and impressive pictures of the dark and depressing "night London" life, that really put you out in a world of its own, here Mark goes for something far more intimate and personal, and thus, far from everyone can identify with what he's actually saying. What the hell is 'Once Upon A Time In The West' about, after all? One can only guess... Not that the lyrics are bad; but this deeply-rooted, serious, pseudo-mystical attitude to earthy reality is not what I'd expect out of Mark. Some say that he'd been even further influenced by Dylan at the time, and this is possibly true, considering that he helped Bob record his first Christian album at the time and also that 'Angel Of Mercy' sounds like a pure Dylan rip-off; but I also see a cheesy smell of Springsteen here, and I don't like it. Leave Springsteen for the States and follow your own path. I far preferred Knopfler singing about "french kisses in the darkened doorways" and the Sultans of Swing.

Second and far more important, the sound is far less diverse here. What?, you'll say. How can a Dire Straits album sound less diverse than their debut? But come now, the debut was pretty diverse in that it at least set slightly different moods. You got your nostalgic kick in 'Down To The Waterline', your bit of despair and hope in 'Water Of Love', your bit of subtle menace in 'Six Blade Knife', your bit of gentle romance in 'Wild West End', your bit of angry social critique in 'Gallery' and even your couple of faster dance numbers. Here, basically every song sets the same gloomy, monotonous, melancholic pattern, and Knopfler uses more or less the same guitar tone and tonality throughout the whole record. The only major exception is the intentionally cheerful 'Angel Of Mercy', but like I said, it's such a blatant Dylan rip-off that it ain't even funny.

What's worse, Communique is full of self-recycling. I mean, it was tolerable when we had 'Down To The Waterline' and 'Sultans Of Swing' on the same record, because they triggered different imagery in your head, but what the hell is 'Lady Writer', the third rewrite of the tune, doing here? Not to mention that I don't like the production. Apparently, something happened - I'm a-guessin' that Mark's guitar meshes a bit too much with brother David's rhythm playing and the resulting sound is thicker and less spare than before, which isn't interesting at all. Cut the crap, we're here to hear Mark, not his interplay with David. Another "highlight" on the record is 'Once Upon A Time In The West', a future stage favourite, and it sounds nice and moody, for sure, until you realize that it's actually a near-perfect copy of 'In The Gallery', right down to certain rhythm syncopation techniques. These two are the most obvious examples; I could go on for kilobytes trying to pick out all the other similarities, but why should I? Okay, just one more thing: 'Follow Me Home'. What the heck is that? It borrows the rhythmic punch off 'Six Blade Knife', but it's bleaker, blander, and far less distinctive. I rarely have the patience to sit through the coda to the song - usually I switch off the CD long before the end.

Again, I reiterate that none of these defects is enough to condemn the record by itself. It's just that when they are all combined together, you suddenly realize that while the form is still the same, the breathtaking magic has all but evaporated. Mind you, I still like the record because I like the form; but try as I might, I can't give it more than an overall ten, for a striking lack of originality or "magic". 'Once Upon A Time In The West' is still a good tune despite its rip-offey nature; 'Where Do You Think You're Going?' is a little bewildering; and perhaps only two songs can be treated as near-classics. These would have to be 'Portobello Belle', a very pretty and gentle ballad the likes of which - I give - are missing on the debut album, and particularly 'Single Handed Sailor', the song that distinguishes itself the most in my memory due to actually posessing an interesting and memorable riff. The only one on the album.

That said, the album appeals a lot to diehard Knopfler fans, and I can hardly blame them. I just wouldn't go that deep, you know. For me Communique is actually a very tragic event - sure, they'd pick up some steam later on, but so far, they'd demonstrated that Knopfler's main force lied in atmospherics, and that force wasn't going to be eternal.



Year Of Release: 1980
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

More abstract and romantic this time, but at least it's not a clone of the debut.


Track listing: 1) Tunnel Of Love; 2) Romeo And Juliet; 3) Skateaway; 4) Expresso Love; 5) Hand In Hand; 6) Solid Rock; 7) Les Boys.

Big changes here (at last) - brother David is out of the band for reasons I wasn't too hot on finding out. They hadn't really recruited anybody in his place yet, but Roy Bittan plays keyboards on most tracks instead... Roy Bittan? He used to be with Springsteen, didn't he? Maybe that's why this album sounds a lot like Bruce, which is hardly good news for me. See, Making Movies isn't exactly a huge departure from the previous two albums: it still relies heavily on all kinds of humble, minimalistic sound patterns, rudimental melodies and atmospherics in the first place. But it's certainly different. The keyboards often mellow out the level of energy, but not necessarily in a bad sense. Mark tones down his guitar in many places, often picking up the acoustic instead, and for the most part staying away from the chuggy, boppy rhythms of old. In other words, it's more of a true 'band' effort than usual, at least, as far as the playing goes.

Another change is in the lyrics - Knopfler continues to get more and more abstract, distancing himself from the striking 'dark London' imagery of the debut and mostly just concentrating on love thematics. Heck, this is 'making movies' after all, not 'making noise' or 'making a fuss'. Love movies, of course. Just look at the titles: 'Tunnel Of Love', 'Romeo And Juliet', 'Expresso Love', 'Hand In Hand'... any more questions? This 'alienation' from strictly Brit thematics does indeed result in some songs bearing a striking similarity to Springsteen's overall style, except that this is generally mellower, quieter and subtler than Bruce. It also helps that most of the songs are at least moderately catchy.

'Tunnel Of Love' suggests that something's going wrong from the very beginning - what's that keyboard intro from Rodgers and Hammerstein doing here? Weird, although the song almost immediately metamorphoses into a far more traditional and 'normal' trademark Dire Straits rocker. Eight minutes is a bit too hard, I deem, but the lyrics are good (heck, they're hardly worse than Costello, and that should say something), and the extended solo in the outro, while not dazzling, is just as moody and thought-provoking as ever, securing Mark's status as a worthy disciple and successor of Eric Clapton when it comes up to playing a deeply emotional solo. Yeah yeah, I know they're all washed up old coots now, but that's a different story. We're talking nineteen eighty here.

The following five songs all qualify in one respect or another - the worst that I can say, probably, is that not a single one of them manages to grip me that tightly, for more or less obvious reasons. The songwriting is good, but not spectacular; no truly gorgeous hooks, just a decent enough level of songcrafting. In other words, there's a big fat pro and a big fat contra to be stated about every one of them. 'Romeo And Juliet', for instance, is lovely and romantic, but relies on the general vibe of 'Wild West End' too much, even if it actually speeds up and becomes louder in the middle. 'Skateaway' has a deply inspired chorus which I can easily identify with (heck, I'm the one dreaming all these 'rock'n'roll dreams' and 'making movies all night long'!), but the main verse melody is dang near non-existent - what with the chuggin' guitar that's mixed so poorly it almost isn't heard at all and all those annoying echoey drums.

'Expresso Love' almost deceives you from the beginning with its grim, grumbling chords - you think it was going to be a gritty heavy rocker, but then in comes the rollicking piano and you just get 'Tunnel Of Love Vol. 2'. Again, the chorus is kinda catchy and the energy's high, but what's up with the guitar solos? What a muddy sound! Jimmy Iovine should be shot for producing in such a messy way. Then again, it's 'produced by Jimmy Iovine and Mark Knopfler', so maybe it was Mark himself who made an asshole of himself. 'Hand In Hand' is pretty pedestrian too, but the chorus is catchy again. Can't resist catchy choruses. And finally, 'Solid Rock' is the only really rocking piece on the album, and a good one, and it is not a Christian anthem, and it should not be confused with Dylan's song of the same name released on Saved that same year - even if it's a really strange coincidence, considering that Knopfler actually collaborated with Dylan on Bob's previous album in 1979. Uncozy, isn't it?

The record, of course, is nearly ruined by the universally despised 'Les Boys', a rather straightforward and stupid attack on everybody's favourite minority set to a diddly duddly dinky melody that doesn't fit at all with the rest of the album, but wouldn't suck per se if it weren't for the stupid lyrics that don't fit at all with the rest of the album either. But I don't actually hate the song - I don't know what drove Knopfler to penning that 'pamphlet', apart from his being raped multiple times in Paris gay clubs, of course, which he had a habit of visiting just for a quick innocent order of some orange juice. If that's the case, we can all empathize, can't we? And who could prove it was otherwise?

Seriously now, the record is slightly messy, but it's at least an improvement on Communique - Knopfler actually tries to break out of the vicious circle, and patchy as the record is, it still features good tunes (which guarantee it a strong ten) and the impeccable Knopfler atmospherics and excellent lyrics (which push the rating up to a VERY weak eleven). Actually, my main gripe is that there are too few songs: seven? He could have easily split a couple of them in two.



Year Of Release: 1982
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Boundary expansion - less humble than before, and also less idiosyncratic, but immaculately produced anyway.


Track listing: 1) Telegraph Road; 2) Private Investigations; 3) Industrial Disease; 4) Love Over Gold; 5) It Never Rains.

With Making Movies, Knopfler tried to diversify his formula by adding piano and a couple relatively new guitar-picking elements, but it still wasn't that much of a departure; Love Over Gold, then, is Mark's most serious bit of musical progress made since the debut album, and one of Dire Straits' finest hours. The fact that there are too few songs on here - five in all - used to bug me a little, but time heals all wounds, and eventually one comes to realize that the song length is justified. What Knopfler had in mind here was to present an album of epic stature: shake off the guise of a 'quiet humble guy' and make something louder and more explicitly powerful than usual. You could argue that Knopfler's main strength always lies in his being quiet and humble, and that's actually true, but Love Over Gold presents a perfect compromise between the 'subtle' and 'bombastic' approach, and makes its move wisely and with gusto.

Namely, the songs are longer, which is a sign of pretentiousness, and the sound has also changed a bit: Knopfler allows himself to be - at times - raunchier and louder than before, using heavier tones and more guitar effects ('more' is still 'just a few' for Mark, but remember the guy's conservative stature and realize that this album is truly experimental by Dire Straits' standards). At the same time, he never goes overboard with these things, and the classic DS vibe is still faithfully preserved on most of the tracks. As for the song length, it's first and furthermost not a big problem because Dire Straits' songs - remember that? - never used to sound that much different from each other anyway, and I don't really care if Knopfler re-writes the same five-minute long song twice or turns it into one huge ten minute long epic. On the contrary, it might even be an improvement: since Dire Straits are such a perfect band for relaxed thought-provoking atmospherics, all these huge song lengths don't feel at all overbearing.

Even the album cover is excellent - the lightning picture sets a perfect background for the grim, dark intonations of the album... and it's a really dark dark sneerin' bitin' album, with songs ranging among Knopfler's most pessimistic and depressed anthems. The dehumanization and decadence caused by civilization ('Telegraph Road'), digging round in dirty laundry ('Private Investigations'), modern world corruption ('Industrial Disease'), broken dreams (title track) and ruined people's fortunes ('It Never Rains') - these are the lyrical subjects you'll have to tackle. Granted, Knopfler always had his share of bile to soak his albums in, but he always used to dilute it with some extra romanticism, like on 'Down To The Waterline' or something. Nothing of that here - you're in for a dark dirty ride.

Trying to describe the individual songs in details would be a waste of time - even if the details are significant, these are not the kind of details you could prattle about in a record review. So here's just a brief outlook: 'Telegraph Road' is arguably the most masterful song on here, a 14-minute long majestic epic that rolls along at a steady rhythmic pace and actually deserves the length because, well, it's a brief narrative of the history of civilized mankind, after all. (Okay, not that detailed, but close). 'Private Investigations' is slow and moody, staying away from the rhythmic power of the band in favour of classically-influenced acoustic pinching from Mark; but please pay close attnetion to the classy moodshift in the middle, as the once innocent and 'feeble' melody that could be fit for a weather forecast suddenly gives way to an ominous minimalistic bassline and a moderate 'onslaught' of heavy piano chords and distorted power chords - the best moodshift you'll ever encounter on a Dire Straits song, no doubt.

'Industrial Disease', opening the second side, is the kind of song that predicts the fast-rockin' sneer of 'Money For Nothing' four years later; objectively, it seems to be the weakest link on here, with its near-comic stance and a vocal melody that is totally ripped off from Dylan's 'Highway 61' (and the lyrics betray a strong Dylan influence as well - seems like Mark had been listening way too closely to Highway 61 Revisited), but I love the song anyway exactly for being a cute little comic breather in between all the grim moody stuff. Nice organ work, too.

The title track, entirely piano-dominated, doesn't inspire me all that much, but at least it sounds like nothing off Dire Straits, so I can't accuse Mr Knopfler of you know what. Fortunately, the album ends with 'It Never Rains' instead, a half-ballad/half-rocker with another impressive moodshift, featuring cool fresh guitar licks from the Guitar Master who even 'stoops' to using a wah-wah effect during the solo and a phaser for the rhythm work. What's that, Mark Knopfler falling for the latest in hi-fi technology? Err... well, then again, it was nineteen eighty-two, so maybe not.

Overall, those who can't take in the idiosyncrasy of Dire Straits are well-recommended to seek out this album instead if they want to see how Dire Straits the band used to be great once. Their last - and one of the best - efforts before Mr Knoplfer finally walked the Plank of Pretentiousness and started trading in melodic skills for commercial success and pseudo-ambient sonic landscapes.



Year Of Release: 1984
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

One of the friggin' best live albums of the Eighties - EVEN if it's essentially a one-man show.


Track listing: CD I: 1) Once Upon A Time In The West; 2) Expresso Love; 3) Romeo And Juliet; 4) Love Over Gold; 5) Private Investigations; 6) Sultans Of Swing;

CD II: 1) Two Young Lovers; 2) Tunnel Of Love; 3) Telegraph Road; 4) Solid Rock; 5) Going Home.

Apparently, Mark Knopfler isn't one of those dudes who really treasure their back catalog. A double live album this might be, with an extra added track on the CD release, but only two songs from the first two albums are retained in the setlist: 'Once Upon A Time In The West' and the inevitable 'Sultans Of Swing'. The rest focuses almost entirely on material from Making Movies and Love Over Gold, and that's not my idea of a great Dire Straits live album. I mean, I have nothing against either of these records in particular, but when you get this lengthy runthrough when one melodyless deep 'n' introspective social rant is followed by another, you start really yearning for the concise and up-to-the-point songwriting of Dire Straits. It's really no mean feat, then, that Alchemy still manages to be a superb live album despite all the odds.

Like I already mentioned, a Dire Straits performance is essentially a one-man show. I don't want to underestimate the talents of the rhythm section; they're there, and there they will stay. I do, however, want to state that the stupid keyboardist us almost ruining the show with his 'atmospheric' synthesizers, basically run of the mill Eighties synths that lend an air of genericness to everything, particularly 'Sultans Of Swing' which sure didn't need no keyboard butchering. Bastard. There's some nice organ back-up occasionally, but for the most part, ew, yuck, I hate that boggy kind of crap. But, of course, no ridiculous keyboard will overshadow the fact that a live settting is where Knopfler's talents are at his most obvious. Mark's playing in 1984 is certainly different from his 1978 style: not as 'minimalistic' as before and suited a bit more to fit the arena-rock concert settings, but it's hardly any less intriguing.

So, yeah, this is a double album of very long songs and very lengthy instrumental passages. Then again, a good instrumental passage is worth something, isn't it? Knopfler prefers to speak with his guitar rather than make it sing, wail, guzzle, or go chunka-chunka. And, in fact, his singing (or "mumbling", should we say?) and playing are pretty much interchangeable - the guitar sounds are completely interchangeable with the vocal utterings. Superficially 'negligent', isolated sequences of notes that hardly connect together at all well and yet somehow manage to. And not an ounce of self-indulgence even in the lengthiest numbers, unless you count every lengthy guitar solo to be self-indulgent by definition. The sound is so soothing and warm that the vocally-dominated numbers like 'Romeo And Juliet' actually work just as well as the guitar-dominated numbers like 'Once Upon A Time In The West'. The latter is used as the album opener, by the way, and extended over twice its original length, but it's not that I mind - on Communique, the song was nice but hardly anything logically more than a pale rewrite of 'In The Gallery', but here, it acquires a truly epic and magnificent status, despite the fact that I can't say much more happens in the song this time around than, you know, originally. Ah, hell. Whatever be, Alchemy provides you with a ton of cathartic moments if you let yourself be seduced by it.

Where the album sags most, I think, is in the middle of the first CD, with 'Romeo And Juliet', 'Love Over Gold', and 'Private Investigations' all in a row, crawling at that snail pace and totally bereft of any active kind of excitement, but at least, the editors made a good job of diversifying the album with an extra rendition of 'Expresso Love' - and, of course, the first CD does end with a rip-roaring 'Sultans Of Swing' the eternal classic status of which can't be obscured even by those obnoxious keyboards. Knopfler's solos on the song simply smoke, and he does trustily end the performance with an exact reproduction of the breathtaking arpeggios which bookmark the fade-out of the track on the original album - but he makes us wait for them with anticipation, with a slower section and a small set of 'intermediate climaxes' enough to send the audience into total overdrive. It's also the best place on the album to see the man's general technique, I guess.

The second CD is mostly occupied by trusty renditions of Dire Straits' trusty anthems, 'Tunnel Of Love' and 'Telegraph Road', which sound all right, I guess, but my bet is on the more upbeat 'Solid Rock' and two 'surprise' songs. 'Two Young Lovers' might just be the funniest track Dire Straits ever did, essentially a simplistic but oh so amusing boogie graced by terrific Mel Collins' sax work. And the final instrumental, 'Going Home' (theme from Local Hero), ends the album on a - perhaps predictable - but still really fitting note, with a great poppy melody that can't be beat.

Man, was this review dull and lifeless. Well, what can you do when you're dealing with a double live album of eleven tracks mostly consisting of guitar solos and soulful mumbled blumbles? Try writing something informative yourself. Thank God I don't get paid for that crap. I'd probably die of shame. Anyway, in case you skipped over the entire review and were lucky enough to get right to the ending sentence: get this album. If you're dumb and deaf enough not to appreciate the eternal genius of Mark Knopfler, fate may send you kids that will be more understanding than their idiot dad.

Then again, it may not. Idiot dads are supposed to have idiot kids. Unless they have a genius mom, of course, but why should a genius mom ever want to get entangled with an idiot dad? Now here's a question worthy of Mark Knopfler's philosophic considerations.



Year Of Release: 1985
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

An album of contrasts it is, but it's also definitely un-Dire Straits sounding.


Track listing: 1) So Far Away; 2) Money For Nothing; 3) Walk Of Life; 4) Your Latest Trick; 5) Why Worry; 6) Ride Across The River; 7) The Man's Too Strong; 8) One World; 9) Brothers In Arms.

Dire Straits sell out. Or?.. Goes without saying that it was 'Money For Nothing' that triggered the band's commercial breakthrough on this release; I have a hard time trying to explain its enormous success through any other possible means. 'Money For Nothing' was THE song of 1985, I guess, with endless radioplay and the infamous MTV video. Some might find the idea of a song whose primary aim is to bash MTV actually broadcast over MTV confusing, but the very fact that MTV did provide the necessary green light, I think, goes to show how much different that medium was back in the early Eighties from what it has become now. Yeah, think the "Rolling Stone" of the early Seventies vs. the "Rolling Stone" of today. Spot the three differences?

'Money For Nothing' is, of course, a great song, no matter how much it gets overplayed. The best gruff guitar riff ever to appear out of Mark's imagination, cool character-assassination lyrics (that verse about 'the little faggot with the earring and the makeup' did cause and still causes some controversy among the more PC oriented types, but hey, the song's not about homosexuality after all, it's about unjustly earned commercial success) and the spooky 'I want my MTV' logo all over the place. Yes, it sounds nothing like classic Dire Straits and must have alienated many a trusty fan. But get this - the song is made in prime MTV stylistics of the time while still being a parody on that style. It is, therefore, quite dated, and I wouldn't recommend praying on the song because it was simply made with a different purpose. Just have all the necessary fun with the stupid synth grunts, with the ridiculous 'look at them yo-yos' stuff, with the silly vocal overdubs, with Knopfler's patented 'idiot rag', with the dumb repetitive riff... there ain't no guitar solo in the number, but that would sure as hell only spoil the picture. Remember - 'we got to move these refrigerators, we gotta move those colour TVs!'

Of course, 'Money For Nothing' is not the only strong side of the album. Knopfler's problem, though, was that ironically, he did make Brothers In Arms far more commercially oriented than any of the previous efforts. The production is now heavily based on synths and electronically enhanced drums, and the songs shrink from magnificent bluesy epics to ambivalent proto-adult contemporary borefests. To make matters worse, the three most upbeat songs are placed right at the beginning of the album - apart from 'Money For Nothing', that's 'So Far Away' and 'Walk Of Life', both excellent and actually catchy numbers that earn a rightful place in any greatest hits compilation but do not always get it. 'So Far Away' is a prime chunk of blues-pop that does the old trick of tonality change in a pretty nifty way, turning from bright to dark in the twink of an eye, and sports a gorgeous romantic atmosphere by means of not more than two or three guitar chords. 'Walk Of Life', then, is the only song in Dire Straits' catalog that's really brought to life by a keyboard line - and what a keyboard life. Poppy beyond belief, uplifting beyond said belief, and totally deceiving - if only the rest of the album would live up to the promises of the song, it would be a serious contender for best Dire Straits album, maybe even edging out the debut in the long run.

Unfortunately, that's not quite the case. What follows these three upbeat showcases of energy, wit, sarcasm and optimism, is a long, slowly moving, and primarily atmospheric set of leeeeengthy, boooooooooring bluesy/jazzy numbers, all relaxed, all soft, all tremendously repetitive, at least several of which, like 'Why Worry?' and 'Ride Across The River', after having bored you with four or five minutes of vocalizing, then evolve into four or five more minutes of purely instrumental jamming - jamming of the "we've all just spent three years in a coma" kind, too. Now don't get me wrong - these songs have their moments. Repeated listens confirm the strong suspicion that there are indeed hooks in many, if not all, of them, and that the main melodies aren't as sludgy and grudgy as on first listen, but are in fact meticulously laboured over and DO cause emotional resonance. But it's just the feeling of being deceived, the anger at the crushed expectations... well, you gotta understand me. And plus, that stuff really all sounds goddamn same.

At least, Knopfler does let it rip on 'One World' a bit to add some tension - a moderate atmospheric rocker with some really angry guitar lines, kind of like a second version of 'Money For Nothing' that takes itself far more seriously than its predecessor. I have also come to appreciate the soft-jazz number 'Your Latest Trick', much as that main saxophone melody does sound like something you'd hear as background music in a cheap restaurant on a lazy autumn evening. 'Why Worry' has an incredibly pretty little acoustic pattern. 'Ride Across The River' has a catchy vocal setup and even angrier guitar soloing than on 'One World' - curiously, though the song itself is basically a soft sludgy jam, the guitar solos are among the heaviest Knopfler ever played. And 'The Man's Too Strong' mixes all that proto-adult contemporary crap with a genuine folk melody. That's also nice. The only song I have not been able to catch on was the title track - the atmosphere and lyrics are decent, I suppose, but I still need at least some semblance of a hook to go along with. Hmph.

So it's not hopeless, although I still think it is a sellout - there are too many revolutionary (for Dire Straits' standard, that is) changes from the early sound, obviously made to fit the public tastes, to discredit that idea. And I know plenty of people who idolize the 1978 album, yet curse Brothers In Arms the way a deranged prog fan would curse Phil Collins for all of his problems. But, well, if Knopfler chooses to work within a different paradigm, it's his right - who am I to say 'no'? I'm just here to state something like: 'That song, 'Brothers In Arms', gotta be one of the most yawn-inducing sonic bores I ever be a-hearin' in this 'ere life!' But then again, I'm also here to state something like: 'That song, 'Walk Of Life', that one really got me juices a-flowin'!' Why Dire Straits disbanded - or went on a lengthy halt, whichever you prefer - after this album is a mystery for me, but like I suggested earlier, maybe they really didn't want to get any more commercial. Oh well. At least they didn't do a "1986 album".



Year Of Release: 1991
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Dull, yes. Predictable, more than ever. Easy-listening, by all means. But at least the stylishness is still there.

Best song: MY PARTIES

Track listing: 1) Calling Elvis; 2) On Every Street; 3) When It Comes To You; 4) Fade To Black; 5) The Bug; 6) You And Your Friend; 7) Heavy Fuel; 8) Iron Hand; 9) Ticket To Heaven; 10) My Parties; 11) Planet Of New Orleans; 12) How Long.

Six years gone, and the housewife-compatible bad boy of rock'n'roll is back to make yet another quintessential Dire Straits album. Upon first listen, I wasn't ready to award this 'comeback' anything more than a weedy, slime-covered 8; repeated subjugation steadily pushed this upward to a weedy, slime-covered 11; the final result is a sunny-looking, positively minded compromise. On Every Street comes and goes, but given some space for adjustment and a proper attitude on your part, it at least leaves a warm feeling.

It is very much a final album, you know; Knopfler has had a prolific solo career in the past decade and a half, but I'm not too familiar with it, and for all I know, On Every Street is the proper modest ending for a modest creative biography. Generally it follows the line of Brothers In Arms, but there are echoes of past albums on here, too, and what's most remarkable is the stylistic diversity - although every song on here is thoroughly "adult contemporarified", their essence differs. There's blues, jazz, R'n'B, country, hard rock, even rockabilly and a bit of music hall, and it's the saving grace of the record: no matter how generic and underwritten the actual songs might be, they never flow into each other so that you can't make out the differences.

And this record needs a saving grace. There are really no creative advances here, in fact, there's a lot of retreating going on. Lyrically, nothing truly stands out except for maybe a bit of sneering sarcasm in 'Calling Elvis' and a bit of warm nostalgic feeling in 'Planet Of New Orleans'; this was clearly destined to be a music-oriented album rather than a text-oriented one. But the music, in general, is tired and unimaginative. The most obvious example is 'Heavy Fuel' - a painfully obvious attempt to recreate, at least partially, the success of 'Money For Nothing'; yet the message of the song is nowhere near as hard hitting, the riff, although similar, is nowhere near as memorable, and the arrangement is nowhere near as complex - the only good thing about it is that it's also far shorter than 'Money For Nothing', without the portentous intro and the interminable outro. (Although I must say that lengthy outros are a big problem for this album; practically every song, short or long, has one, and it eventually starts getting on one's nerves). And the same, to a lesser extent, can be said about at least half of the material.

So the proper way of "getting it", I think, is to seriously tone down the expectations and just use it as high quality background music. Not all adult contemporary is bad, certainly not when it is masterminded by a guitarist and an arranger as skilful as Mr Knopfler. And there's also one more important thing: On Every Street isn't really gloomy, like most Dire Straits albums are. Very few songs reek of genuine pessimism; the overall tone is light and playful rather than depressing and nihilistic. Which is actually weird - normally people like Knopfler get more poisonous and nasty with age, but not him. It takes a few listens to realize just how light the album actually is, but once you're there, the feeling of boredom gets forever replaced with a sort of "nice sound, isn't it?" feeling.

It's hard to choose favourites either. Even the obvious misfires like 'Heavy Fuel' aren't all that bad - they're trying to be special and failing, but they're okay anyway. And instead of making the slow tuneless dirges last for ages and then give way to more slow tuneless dirges, like he did in 1985, here the slow tuneless dirges eventually get a rhythm and a discernible melody. The title track, for instance, starts out like it wants you to die and never come back, but after a while it starts picking up steam and gets this nice long rhythmic soft-rockin' coda - a very pretty one, too. 'Planet Of New Orleans' takes a million light years to get dynamic, but it eventually gets dynamic, and somehow manages to seem epic without seeming false. This "somehow", the way I see it, is obviously tied in with Mark's cleverly choosing just the right guitar notes to play, but I couldn't explain that in words, so I'll let you make your own decision. Although actually I'd like to add that I really love the final "battle" between the sax and guitar solos in the 'New Orleans' coda - done with an amazing feeling of taste.

I guess the song that really gets me going is 'My Parties', perhaps the truest in style to the real Dire Straits because of the classic air of "negligence" in Knopfler's delivery. It sort of flutters over your head with its light loungey rhythm, saxes, guitars, that whiff of the 'don't-give-a-damn' attitude, and an ultimately memorable chorus. Nowhere near a classic, but nothing on here is; it's just the wonderful atmosphere, one to which you simply can't say "no". Almost the same goes for the relaxed, but controlled blues-rock of 'When It Comes To You', similar in mood to a lot of same-style "old man sings danceable blues" tunes (check out the Grateful Dead's 'West LA Fadeaway', for instance), but distinguishable nevertheless because it's Mark Knopfler, and you can't mistake Knopfler's voice and playing for anybody else's unless you're the kind of roots-rock hater who can't tell Eric Clapton from Keith Richards and both from Robert Johnson.

Then there's the generic, but fun and toe-tappable fast rockabilly stuff ('The Bug'), and the generic, but fun and spirit-lifting country-western stuff ('How Long' - great choice to end the album), and the generic, but fun and sentimental R'n'B stuff ('Ticket To Heaven' - interesting to see Knopfler try and imitate something in Phil Spector's 60s style), and the generic, but thought-provoking slow blues ('Fade To Black' - thank God the whole album isn't like that, but one tune like that per album is okay by me). I could go on, but why? Every song is different, and yet every song serves its own purpose, providing a fitting testament to the band. In fact, I guess that for the whole concept of this thing an 11 could easily be awarded - but given that I'm not exactly burning with the desire to hear this album again, I guess I'll stick with the 10. Besides, the album sleeve depresses me.

PS. Did I mention the album's structure yet? How cleverly the tracks alternate with each other, almost always a slow one between two faster ones and a faster one between two slow ones? That way, you never really get the same New Age-y feeling that undermined Brothers In Arms. I appreciate that.



Year Of Release: 1993
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

Now that's one live show I wouldn't be missing THAT much.

Best song: WALK OF LIFE

Track listing: 1) Calling Elvis; 2) Walk Of Life; 3) Heavy Fuel; 4) Romeo And Juliet; 5) Private Investigations; 6) Your Latest Trick; 7) On Every Street; 8) You And Your Friend; 9) Money For Nothing; 10) Brothers In Arms.

I may be wrong about this of course, but it's still stimulating to see the end of this album as a great illustration of the "hammer and anvil" in between which you find the unhappy remains of Mark Knopfler. If you ask me, it's obvious just how much he really doesn't care about performing 'Money For Nothing' - the original nine-minute epic, with its buildup and its sharp riffage and its (maybe unnecessarily, but that's not the point) lengthy coda and its crucial importance to the entire album, is here reduced to a quick perfunctory run-through, lopping off the introduction and the conclusion and with Mark mumbling and grumbling through the lyrics as if he were ashamed of them. (Well, maybe he is, what with all the accusations of homophobia attached to them). I can't really blame him for that - no matter whether you like the song or not, and I do like it a lot, this is not really what the quintessential Dire Straits were ever about, and associating them with 'Money For Nothing' is even less correct than associating Stevie Wonder with 'I Just Called To Say (I Wrote My Dippiest Song Ever But As Long As It Sells) I Love You".

But the irony is to realize why exactly Knopfler rushes through the song - he rushes through the song to quickly make way for eight minutes of... 'Brothers In Arms'! 'Brothers In Arms'! A song that's certainly far more suitable to the general Dire Straits image, but which is so goddamn boring! Slow! Unmemorable! Melodically unexciting! And so totally same in vibe with three or four songs already played at the same show! And now here comes the question: is it really worth so deliberately downplaying one of your best songs in favour of one of your least thrilling ones if you somehow happen to hate the former and love the latter? That's the hammer and the anvil for you all right.

And the main problem of the album. The cool rockin' stuff is kept to a minimum and the slow ploddin' dirgey stuff is thrust right in yer faces. The setlist is comprised almost entirely out of numbers from the band's last two albums; two lonely exceptions are 'Romeo And Juliet' and 'Private Investigations', songs towards which I've never been inimical, but come now, if you do want to offer alternative live versions of Alchemy material, shouldn't they at least be of songs like 'Sultans Of Swing' or 'Telegraph Road'? There's enough gloom and doom in the rest of the setlist as it is. After all, goddammit, it's just not true that Dire Straits are and have always been adult contemporary. And On The Night, if nothing else, presents them as adult contemporary.

There is one really bright shining moment on the record - when the keyboards announce the boppy uplifting introduction to 'Walk Of Life'. A good advice - if you happen to be listening to the album in its entirety, reprogram the tracks so that 'Walk Of Life' would be among the last ones rather than in the beginning. Otherwise, it feels like after a great life-asserting moment you just get continuously whacked and whacked and whacked on the head, and I dunno about you, but I likes me my bandages after being whacked on the head, not before. But then again, my vision certainly differs from Mr Knopfler's, and I'm sure he had his own reasons for his own sequencing.

Which also, by the way, includes collecting all the energetic material - apart from 'Money For Nothing' - at the beginning and then feeding you more and more slowness and darkness until you start to suspect that Knopfler just didn't have that much gas to begin with. So 'Calling Elvis' and 'Heavy Fuel', while not chef-d'oeuvres per se, in retrospect will seem the closest thing to God's grace as you make the cumbersome, wearisome trip through songs like 'You And Your Friend' and 'Your Latest Trick'. To add insult to injury, it really doesn't look like Mark is trying too hard. He's still a great guitarist - always was, always will be - but these here songs, most of them don't require great guitar playing, and he isn't all that ready to transform them into something different that would. Saxes and keyboards, yeah, right, they are prominent, but Knopfler notably recoils from putting himself centerstage when it comes to the instrumental parts. And who needs that?

Even so, I'm giving this pale shadow of a live album a 9 just because I like this guy so much. Because, come to think of it, there are no truly bad songs on the list, just a couple boring ones and lots of slow good ones - after all, what definitely distinguishes a poor selection of songs from a selection of poor songs is that you can sort of warm up to the former but you only get colder and colder towards the latter. There is absolutely no need for anybody to shell out money for this stuff, but in the end it all depends on the level of your tolerance. Because I honestly can't say it was a bad show. 'Money For Nothing' is the only number on here, really, that gets the jerk treatment; Knopfler still deeply cares for the rest.

It's not too hard to see why the tour was a financial disappointment, though. With Brothers In Arms, Knopfler gave the masses 'Money For Nothing' - something that headbangers all over the world could associate with - and 'Walk Of Life' - something that pop lovers all over the world just couldn't say no to. With On Every Street, he didn't give nobody anything like that, and with this kind of setlist and setlist preferences, it was obvious that the masses wouldn't exactly be flocking over. In short, just another case of a "misguided" popular success that wasn't really necessary neither for the people nor, more importantly, for the creative entity. Huh. Imagine that.



Year Of Release: 1995
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Never thought I could complain about a live show being "too loud", looks like it's gonna be a first.


Track listing: 1) Down To The Waterline; 2) Six Blade Knife; 3) Water Of Love; 4) Wild West End; 5) Sultans Of Swing; 6) Lions; 7) What's The Matter Baby?; 8) Tunnel Of Love.

Hmm... looks like Dire Straits weren't that much of a guest of honour on the BBC, seeing as how this is such a short disc for the CD age. All the numbers but one were recorded during a single show in July '78; only 'Tunnel Of Love', tucked on as a postfactum deal, dates back to a different performance, the band's '81 appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test. And seeing as how the band was only starting its official career back then, almost everything is from the debut album - the sole exception is a previously unpublished track called 'What's The Matter Baby?', which basically sounds like an inferior outtake from the debut and would have fit in well on Communique but for some reason remained unused.

Now the weird thing is, this should have worked, but somehow it doesn't. I do note that all the fans and reviewers uttered a feeble yes when the album got released, for the obvious reason: this is the pre-fame Dire Straits, the humble and intimate Dire Straits, before the bombastic arena tours, before the lengthy epics and the adult contemporary jamming and the endless guitar wankathons and what-not; and as much as Alchemy is generally revered, some gave the palm to the BBC recordings as the finest representation of Knopfler and Co. at their live best. So maybe it's just me. But something in the way Mark treats these six compositions, constituting some of his finest material, just doesn't suit me at all, makes me feel like there's some subtle, but nasty violation going on.

They're too... aggressive, shall we say? Too rock'n'rollish, maybe? The awesome charm of Dire Straits was its virtually Taoist nature: music happened out there without you actually noticing anything. It was music, and it had melodies, and it had an immaculate flow, but at the same time, you really couldn't tell what was going on. The guitars weren't scraping, the bass was muffled, the drums went softly and steadily like the pads of some feline hunter. Of course, this was as much the achievement of sound engineer Rhett Davies and producer Muff Winwood as it was the band's own. But the problem is, they didn't have neither of these two guys on the BBC with them.

And as a result, the performance is rougher, grittier, and scratchier. The bass is just a real MONSTER - well, compared to the studio sound, of course. It's as if they wanted to be real threatening and angry with those ferocious basslines. The guitars have a sort of crunch - again, not an AC/DC-like crunch, but a crunch nevertheless. The drums are not only not muffled, but they actually have this stupid echo to them, and besides, Pick Withers seems to abuse the cymbals, perhaps he was angry at having been underused in the studio. Yes, you may like it - I don't. I don't like this effect. The songs are still great, and the band is still tight, and Knopfler is naturally sincere and convincing, but the quintessence is sorely missing.

And nowhere else does it show so obviously as on 'Six Blade Knife'. In the studio, Knopfler had the volume knobs with which to work his magic - let me remind you to check the importance of that little trick if you ever have the chance to relisten to the original. Here, the possibilities are limited, and besides, you just can't allow yourself to sound all that quiet. Okay, so the BBC environment doesn't really require for you to bring the house down, but this is a rock concert anyway, and at a rock concert, you rock, regardless of whether you're actually a Sultan of Swing or not. And 'Six Blade Knife' is that one song on Dire Straits which gets ruined first of all when you're beginning to 'rock' it.

It's also strange that they keep concentrating on the "quieter" songs like 'Water Of Love', 'Wild West End' and 'Lions'. I would rather expect them to bring out the "truer" rockers of the album - such as 'Setting Me Up' and 'Southbound Again'. At least they do 'Sultans Of Swing', which almost manages to preserve the original aura intact yet still gives Mark a few minor chances to improvise, so it's natural that it's automatically the best song on the album.

If I'm sounding too harsh, I'll apologize by saying that, considering all odds, there wasn't too much alternative to their sounding this way back in '78. What were they supposed to do, switch to unplugged in concert? And I'm not sure that would actually help. I can only imagine that a truly perfect live show for Dire Straits would be to plug into a couple tiny amplifiers in a living room and play their stuff for a company of ten or fifteen people (at most), but unfortunately, we don't have any recordings of that kind. So there's no choice for me but to just keep on playing the studio stuff, or, if I do desperately want me some live Dire Straits, return to Alchemy, which already features a completely different musical ideology and doesn't ruin my expectations.

You don't even have to go far to see what I mean - the 'Tunnel Of Love' performance on here is a perfect illustration. It's big, well amplified, bombastic, Springsteenish, with a long teasing Alan Clark piano intro, and not tremendously interesting when taken out of context. I'd never take the studio take of that song over even a few seconds of Dire Straits, but in a live setting, I'd rather have 'Tunnel Of Love' than a brutally violated 'Six Blade Knife'. I still give the album a 10 because the songs are all awesome, but I doubt I'll ever want to hear it again as long as my trusty copy of the debut still keeps spinning. Once it ceases to, though, I might eventually forget just how outta sight the studio sound quality was and slowly gain appreciation for the early live sound. But I doubt I'll ever live to see this.

Oh well, still pretty important as far as historical documents go, I guess...


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