When the car radio would cough up a Dire Straits song from one of their first two LP’s, I would change the station. It wasn’t any sort of passionate dislike, but the songs just did nothing for me. Then when Brothers in Arms debuted in 1985, I used several tracks as regular demo material when selling home audio at The Audio Den in Burlington, Vermont (where I first fell in love with THIEL loudspeakers). That record created quite a buzz, but as great as it was at that moment in time, I still wasn’t rushing out to see Dire Straits live (probably a mistake on my part).
Last week I was solicited by Amazon to check out the new 180-gram version of the Dire Straits LP, Communiqué. Caught up in a moment of nostalgic motivational energy, I pulled two LP’s from my collection—Dire Straits (from 1978 on Warner Bros.) and Communiqué on the same label from a year later. I listened to both records end-to-end, and wound up extracting three “deep” tracks (Once Upon a Time in the West, Single-Handed Sailor, and Follow Me Home) from Communiqué, recording them to CD and then to Apple Lossless on my iPod that I use for airplane travel. For the record, I grabbed these cuts because they have a certain ethereal sensibility mixed with great grooves.
That first Dire Straits record features Sultans of Swing and Down to the Waterline, but my reaction to the songs was the same as it has always been—ho-hum. Lots of seemingly lazy chord progressions, simple major and minor transitions, not a lot of musical acuity in the song structure, other than absolutely crushing virtuoso guitar work by Mark Knopfler. I like his singing too, it is unique and full of character, but the guitar work is truly memorable. The array of tones and dynamic wizardry that Knopfler exhibits on virtually every song is nothing short of captivating. Knopfler bends notes and plays tasty little ornaments—and he can get so amazingly quiet while still making all kinds of interesting things happen; and at the next moment a riff bursts to the forefront of the recording, but still with all of the sparkle and shimmer he was getting while playing more softly. And his range of sounds, from nearly muted to biting, and how rapidly he mixes them together, is astonishing—he is a stand-out instrumentalist. I loved listening to his work, but I found that as before, I was bored by the songs and ready to put the LP’s back for another handful of years.
This is one example of what leaves me flat: In the song Wild West End from the first record, there is a turn-around progression between the end of the chorus and the start of the verse that is made up of the following sequence of chords: A-minor, G-major, F-major, D-major, C-major, and D-major. The sequence offers nothing—it is the musical equivalent of a writer’s non sequitur. It gets us from the verse to the chorus mechanically, not musically. It’s like a pro athlete taking plays off—it bums me out. My perception of Dire Straits is that the songwriting evolved (not at all surprising) because the band’s later works were more compositionally intriguing.
The power of the Internet—one little e-mail solicitation for a 180 gram LP lead to all of this. If you want to spend some time with true electric guitar mastery—a wonderfully unique playing style rich with tremendously subtle details, the first two Dire Straits records are full of great moments. The songs leave me uninspired, but the dynamic recordings and the guitar work make for an interesting and worthwhile journey.