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Thursday, April 05, 2018

Dire Straits

My next entry on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2018 is Dire Straits. It seems a no-brainer that they should be in, as I would guess everyone of a certain age knows who they are and can recognize a good number of songs by them.They are kind of under-the-radar successful: they've sold 100 million records, and have spent 1,100 weeks on the UK album charts, fifth all-time. But is there anybody who can say that Dire Straits is their favorite band?

I can pinpoint exactly the first time I heard them. I was in high school, and my habit was to listen to the radio at night (WPLJ). I heard a song that I liked that sounded like Bob Dylan, but no, it was a new group called Dire Straits. The name of the song was "Sultans of Swing," which is still a classic rock staple and set the pattern for Dire Straits--the serene guitar playing of Mark Knopfler, and his gruff vocals.

Interestingly, the band made only six studio albums. My favorite is Making Movies, which contains the epic "Tunnel of Love," the terrific "Skateaway," about a girl roller blader making up movies in her head from the songs she listens to the on the radio as she skates through traffic, and my favorite Dire Straits song, "Romeo and Juliet," which is also one of my favorite songs period. Listening to it calms me down and puts me in a good place. It was around when I was in a college production of Romeo and Juliet, and makes me think of that, and that is a good thing.

A lovestruck Romeo sang the streets of serenade
Laying everybody low with a love song that he made
Finds a streetlight, steps out of the shade
Says something like, "You and me, babe, how about it?"
Juliet says, "Hey, it's Romeo, you nearly gave me a heart attack"
He's underneath the window, she's singing, "Hey, la, my boyfriend's back
You shouldn't come around here singing up at people like that
Anyway, what you gonna do about it?"
Indeed, "How about it?" If only love were that simple. 

Their biggest selling album is Brothers in Arms, probably because of their most iconic hit, "Money for Nothing," which Knopfler wrote after hearing two laborers disparage the work ethic or rock stars. It has Sting wailing the ubiquitous chant of "I want my MTV" (kids, MTV once played music videos 24 hours a day) and has some scorching guitar riffs. Everyone knows these lyrics, right?:

And he's up there, what's that?
Hawaiian noises?
Bangin' on the bongos like a chimpanzee 
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Get your money for nothin' get your chicks for free

Note the casual racism. Overt homophobia is cut out of the radio edit.

Knopfler has gone on to have a successful solo career and as a composer of movie soundtracks (one of his best is Local Hero, which I will discuss tomorrow). His work with Dire Straits may not be game-changing; the sound the group made was more retro, reminding people of everything from the Bakersfield sound to blues. But listening to them brings me pleasure, and what more can you ask from a musician?

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