Sweet surrender on the quayside
You remember we used to run and hide
Okay so I’m cheating again I only bought this LP for the first time a couple of months ago, but in my defence I submit that I’ve heard it approximately 35,902 times in my life* but never got around to getting the vinyl. I picked the album out of my parents’ collection when they were out one day, I was marginally intrigued by the blurred cover and I always loved that spacey Vertigo logo**. I slipped the album on and I was gone. Dire Straits had arrived.
No money in our jackets and our jeans are torn
Your hands are cold but your lips are warm
I was perhaps 11, 12 at most. I knew my Beatles and Stones singles, bits of Floyd and Marley along with various bits of pop trash I liked at the time, but this was different. This was something to be digested as a whole album. I quickly got obsessed and chased down the other two Dire Straits albums my dad had on tape and, until Live Aid and Queen struck me in 1985 (a couple of years later), they reigned supreme as my favourite band. Hell, I once spent three days clearing out a massive goat shed to earn the money to buy Brothers In Arms the week it came out – you tell that to kids these days, that’s a proper investment in your music – I stank of sweat and goat shit for days, none of this Spotification Tubes they do nowadays.
The reason it grabbed me so much? none of the usual adolescent reasons, there was just something so romantic, perfect and poised about it and that really appealed. Take ‘Down To The Waterline’, it’s a tale of quays, cold hands and hot lips, delivered just so after an appropriately misty introduction. It manages to be hot-blooded and nostalgic all in one, but overall there’s a romance there that appeals to me. Oh and some wonderfully precise picking, as you’d expect. Well, that and the fact that I’ve always been a sucker for anyone I can sing along to without straining my own very limited vocal chords.
Near misses on the dogleap stairways
French kisses in the darkened doorways
To listen to Dire Straits is to be struck by the quality of the songs, time and time again. ‘Water Of Love’, ‘Southbound Again’, ‘Lions’ they’re all great, a neat filtering of English sensibilities through an American lens, or maybe more precisely through a pseudo-American lens created by all those Anglo guitarists who fell in love with the land of plenty back in the 50’s and 60’s^. Mark Knopfler by force of will and virtuosity later turned Dire Straits into one of those one-man bands like the Cure, or Whitesnake but back in 1978 they were a proper beat combo, putting it out there nothing fancy, they don’t make it cry or sing and that’s fine by me, I’ll take the slow romantic swing of ‘Wild West End’ any time.
Best of all for me is their least typical song here ‘Six Blade Knife’, always loved this one. There’s a strange air of dark kinky menace hovering hereabouts and that’s not really something you can write about Dire Straits very often^^. That’s not quite how I thought of it aged 12, but there was something a little, umm, thrilling about this one, even if I couldn’t have accounted for it back then. I just love the restraint that thrums throughout this track, Knopfler’s vocal is brilliant, he sounds like Dylan doing a DeNiro impression, but in a good way. I still don’t really have a clue what it’s about, but that’s not the point, it’s a mood piece and the line ‘You take away my mind like you take away the top of a tin’ is hissed to perfection.
It doesn’t need saying what a brilliant guitar player Mark Knopfler is, so I’ll witter on about it for a bit anyway. The thing I liked best about him on Dire Straits and Communique at least, before the music got more bombastic, was the sparseness of his playing. We get treated to exactly the right number of notes, just the ones we needed, no more and I really like the space this creates in his songs. I’m no hotshot guitarist^* but I can imagine it being a more difficult exercise to leave notes out than to cram more in, especially on a debut LP when you want to show everyone what you can do. We’re back to that word ‘restraint’ again.
It also doesn’t need saying how uncool Dire Straits became later on, excellent though some of their music was still. I blame that bloody headband, personally – that was tragic even by mid-80s standards. I’ve fought their corner from time to time, despite getting more enamoured with energetic sloppiness than finely crafted precision as the years have rolled on. It doesn’t matter, Dire Straits was released amidst all the white-hot ferment, filth and the fury of UK punk, it’s always been pretty uncool; timelessly good songs shrug at the very concept of cool, it’s an irrelevance, let posterity sort ’em all out.
PS- see what I did there I reviewed Dire Straits without even mentioning that song. I rule!
*figures approximate at time of going to press. Estimates may go up as well as down, please get the bill payer’s permission before dialling.
**my copy just has the boring 80’s Vertigo logo.
^and who spent most of their careers ripping off, the divine, JJ Cale.
^^although it has often been said about me. Hey ladies? you know what I’m saying? … umm, hello … ladies? Don’t go!
^*although I can play the riff to ‘Smoke on The Water’ at 1/4 speed, given a decent run up, as long as the wind is blowing in the right direction.