This is the first album on the list which is still, several months after I drew it up, highlighted as being one which could drop out if I remembered something else which really should be on there instead. And I have no idea why, at this stage, because if this project is about memory (and it is), then this is one of the clearest album-related memories I have.
You know, at the time, the six years of secondary school felt like an eternity, which is hardly an original observation, and – of course – looking back at them now, they passed in the blink of an eye. And that’s particularly true for all the music I consumed in those years. It was, as I’ve mentioned once or twice, a tumultuous time in music, and while we had far fewer ways of accessing it than are available now, I think it meant that we treasured every moment; every time something jumped out from the background noise and caused us to sit up and take notice.
I certainly listened to the people I’d got to know at school (and elsewhere) whose taste aligned with mine; we swapped tips and recommendations more often even than we swapped albums, but the moments which really landed were the ones I discovered for myself. Listening to the radio in the evenings, whether the relatively clear Radio 1, or the much more scratchy and romantic-sounding Radio Luxembourg, the moment when you discovered something you were sure no-one else had heard stuck in the mind, even if sometimes it just faded back into the ether because you’d missed the announcement, or the signal faded before you could hear who it was.
I know for sure that I first heard Joan Armatrading on the radio that way, as well as Be-Bop Deluxe (I’ll be coming back to that shortly), Magma (I have no idea who was playing Magma in the night on radio which reached me, but it was out there, and I was at once fascinated and terrified), and a dozen others either obscure or just soon-to-be-famous which I considered in some way ‘mine’ because I’d heard them, and liked them, without being told if they were ‘cool’ (or whatever word we were using at the time) or if it was part of some wider scene which I hadn’t heard of.
Late night radio was a strange mysterious place where you might hear absolutely anything, including Radio Moscow competing with Voice of America, or even what were reputed to be coded messages being passed between spies.
Or you might, one evening while trying to get to grips with trigonometry, hear Sultans of Swing and lose your train of thought while wondering what this was, and what it was doing on the radio.
I think I’d seen the adverts for the album before hearing the song – I can’t be sure, but I remember slightly tasteless line drawings of plane crashes titled ‘Anyone can get into Dire Straits’, and thinking that sounded like a radical kind of band, unencumbered by ideas of propriety, only to discover that they were – well, what, exactly?
I’ll tell you what they weren’t; they weren’t in any way punk, or new wave, or post-punk, or whatever 1978 was supposed to be about. They sounded like nothing else I was listening to, but they didn’t sound like the ‘pub rock’ I was half expecting – this wasn’t Dr. Feelgood (who definitely appear in the ‘dozen others’ up there) or Ian Dury; it wasn’t Dave Edmonds or Nick Lowe or any of those artists who also weren’t really related to the punk scene, but who were being pulled along in its slipstream.
Dire Straits sounded like they had dropped in from a parallel universe where punk never happened, and musicians were still judged by their technique and production values; where being a bit of a ‘muso’ was a thing to be proud of, and where you could still write songs which read like short stories and somehow managed to be self-referential without sounding obscure or wilfully self-indulgent.
Dire Straits were just weird, you know? It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. I loved the single, and I rushed out and bought the album, and loved it too.
And the album is still on this list because of exams.
In the spring of 1979, between bouts of hay fever and the thrill of a generation-shifting general election (I sat my French Higher on election day; we tried to protest that our concentration had been disrupted by the SNP vehicle driving around using its megaphone to encourage us to get out and vote), I spent the last few weeks of fifth year studying, or – to be more strictly accurate – ‘studying’. Classes were done for the most part, I was at home on my own with only the history textbooks and my album collection for company, and I used Dire Straits as my study guide.
Side one would give me a solid twenty minutes on the causes of the First World War; side two would see me through trying to remember the sequence of post-Napoleonic congresses ( Vienna, something, Troppau, Laibach, something else, possibly Vienna again). Or something else; I remember the record way better than I remember what it was I was supposed to be learning.
(I just looked it up; Vienna, Aix-la-Chappelle, Troppau, Laibach, Verona. Apparently.)
Anyway, it was a couple of years before I figured out that in order for me to focus and actually learn stuff, I needed music without lyrics; music which wouldn’t keep distracting me with intriguing words, and which might cause me to remember that Queen Victoria carried around a six-blade knife or something.
What I do remember, however, is that the rhythm of studying, the 20 minutes at a time pace, was entirely driven by listening to this album, over and over while I tried to force my brain to remember stuff. I’m sure I actually listened to other things as well; but this is the one I remember, and this is the one which was never going to be bumped off the list. I’m not sure how representative of what I was listening to in 1978 it really is, but I do know that it didn’t matter whether it was fashionable; all that mattered was that I liked it.
Of course I have a vinyl copy of it now. Taking it out of the sleeve just now, I paused when I saw the label. This is a Canadian copy, bought second-hand a couple of years ago; was that Warner Brothers label the same as the one I had? Imagine the frustration of being in my bedroom in 1979 and having a question like that occur to me – I’d never know. I’d like to let the 16-year old version of me know that he can’t imagine how cool the future actually is, and how trivial it is to look up the label design of the original UK release of Dire Straits and have the pure nostalgia rush of seeing the original Vertigo ‘jellyfish’ label in greens and blues, and to be – just for a second – sitting on my bedroom floor surrounded by notes on the Corn Laws and the Great Reform Bill.
Dropping the needle on side one instantly reminds me why I loved this. Down to the Waterline is evocative of something I couldn’t have put my finger on then, and I doubt I can now – it’s just something spare and chilly until that instantly recogniseable guitar breaks in and transports us to the waterfront; not the one I was familiar with from where I grew up (and not, I suspect, the one where Mark Knopfler grew up; this has much more to do with Marlon Brando than it does trawlers coming in from the North Sea).
Water of Love frustrated me then because I couldn’t look up exactly what kind of guitar that was making that distinctive sound. Again, I can just look it up now, although now I can easily pick out the sound of a National guitar with its metal resonator without looking it up; again, sixteen-year-old me would have been amazed by how much room there remained in his brain for useless information.
Setting Me Up is where I probably first started to wonder about what kind of music this was I was listening to; it’s kind of rock, but it’s full of other things – I was aware of the general sound of country music, for example – perhaps this album marks the beginning of my dislike for labels on music. Somewhere around this time, I decided that there were only two kinds of music; things I liked, and things I didn’t. I did refine this a bit over the years, particularly when I decided that the vast majority of music landed in the category ‘things I haven’t given enough time to yet’, but somewhere around here, I started to consciously try not to pigeonhole music, and to take what I was hearing on its own terms.
Six Blade Knife is so laid back it might well keel over at any point. I’m not sure, listening to it now, how any of this was supposed to help me study, but perhaps I was less likely at 16 to just close my eyes and drift along with it instead of getting on with what I was supposed to be doing.
I’m pretty sure there’s an album much further down this list which conjures up the same feelings as Southbound Again – the sense of moving on, going somewhere, probably to the south, somewhere which promises things somehow not available where I live now. It reads like a despairing cry from someone at their wits’ end, but it sounds like a recommendation to get on the road and look for something else; I was already thinking about where I wanted to go and study; all I knew for sure was that it would be somewhere ‘down the line’
As I flip this over, I’m not sure I understand what about it appealed so much to the teenaged version of me; it feels like a much more ‘grown-up’ album than the pop-punk and rock I’d been living with. Maybe that was the appeal; sixteen is a tricky age.
The big hit single is in its proper place – track one on side two – and I’m not sure there’s much more to say about it; it’s a fixture of the general consciousness, but a couple of observations, perhaps. First of all, it’s the first time I remember being aware of a discrepancy between the printed lyrics and what is actually sung. It gave me an abiding interest in the record-making process; surely it’s somebody’s job to just check that the words on the inner sleeve match what is actually on the record? How do these things get decided, anyway?
The other thing is something I alluded to earlier; one of the things I most like about Sultans of Swing is that it’s talking to itself. They’re not playing jazz or Creole, but the instruments to respond to the words, so that when ‘guitar George’ knows all the chords, we get to hear some of them in a way which just underlines that this is a million miles from all the three-chord songs in the major key I’d been immersing myself in.
It’s OK to love both, though.
In the Gallery is an honest-to-God polemic. I mean, it’s delivered in a lazy, laid-back style which will likely cause you to miss the point entirely, and I don’t agree with the premise particularly, but I’m struck by the whole argument about authenticity in art, because I think that’s what’s going on here with the music – Dire Straits don’t care if they’re not trendy and iconoclastic; they have no time for the simple or the anti-music; no patience with being contrary or radical; they understand and recognise quality and staying within the recognised boundaries.
Again, I don’t hold with any of that, but I completely understand what they’re saying, and I do love this album even though it’s a million miles from pretty much everything around it.
Wild West End starts with that National guitar again, and is probably my favourite piece on here; it tells a story which romanticises London in a way which resonated powerfully with me at the time, and which still works, even though that West End doesn’t exist now, and probably never did – it was a vision of a place which I so very much wanted to experience for myself, and never quite did. It reminds me strongly of the opening to David Mitchell’s remarkable novel Utopia Avenue, which begins right where Knopfler is drinking his coffee and chatting up the waitress, but quickly shows you the things which Wild West End glosses over; the underbelly of Soho and the West End don’t really show up in this airbrushed version.
I remembered Lions being much slower and darker that it actually is; I don’t know why that is; it may have something to do with the fact that I probably associated it so strongly with the fact that I was convinced I would never learn all this stuff; that I’d inevitably fail all my Highers and have to find something else to do when I left school. It’s actually much closer to Wild West End part two, with the daytime crowds all heading home, and leaving the lions in Trafalgar Square to the mercy of the drunk and lonely. It’s a song about being a commuter, which is really not what I remember at all.
I think to enjoy Dire Straits now, I have to be in the mood for it; way back then, I could put it on at any time and get something from it, but I’ve listened to it now while actually looking forward to hearing something else entirely, and I enjoyed the nostalgic aspect without ever quite feeling myself transported back to 1978.
It all worked out, though. I got the grades I needed (apart from History, which was upgraded on appeal after I pleaded hay fever, which was at least partly the truth), I had one more year of school which I spent cramming in as much music as I could, putting on plays, and learning about anything and everything in the hope it would prepare me for the next stage of life.
I didn’t get to London, but I’ve never regretted the choices I made back then, when I had no idea who I was, and no idea if I should like Dire Straits or not. Turned out, it didn’t really matter.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
The second album is an attempt to exactly replicate the first, and suffers from not being as fresh or new, but Making Movies, Love Over Gold, and Brothers In Arms are all famous for a reason. Dire Straits weren’t radical or raucous, but they knew what they were doing.
Compilations to consider?
I have a pretty comprehensive one called Private Investigations which includes some of Knopfler’s solo work, and is about as comprehensive as you’d ever need.
Yeah. Alchemy is, if you like Dire Straits, pretty much essential. They were a fantastic live band, and all the performances on Alchemy are elevated significantly above the studio versions. Forget the compilation, go get a copy of this instead.
Anything else? There are dozens of videos out there of Mark Knopfler doing his thing; I always enjoy them when I stumble across them, but I can’t think of anything else I’ve ever read or seen about Dire Straits. They weren’t the kind of band who lent themselves to wild autobiographies or detailed video retrospectives. But you should own a copy of Knopfler’s score for Local Hero, though – everyone should.