|Dire Straits 1979
Before I attempt to present a quasi-Southern journey through the good ole USA, I’d like to stick just a tiny bit more in England, London specifically. From London, hails one of the greatest purveyors of down home open road rock music, Mr. Mark Knopfler. Seemingly, the mutant musical offspring of JJ Cale, Bob Dylan, and Paul Kossoff from Free, he tried to use his own plundering roots as a pub rocker to explore Americana, roots rock, and southern rock music, then use those influences to go take them somewhere distinctly more modern.
Mark was always a very elegant, understated guitar player, he wasn’t one to wow you with musical dexterity but instead move you with his choice of notes to pluck. He showed a playing economy that was at odds with much of the young musicians of the time, but still very intriguing due to all the space he granted melodies to linger on in something in very short supply in the late 70s and 80s. I still find it fascinating that a true Englishman like Mark, could so brilliantly capture music people tend to dismiss as backwards (country and American rural) and draw from it something that could still push it forward amongst an onslaught of other new genres being created.
This kind of economy of taste does have its drawbacks though, when you ask most people if they like or know of Dire Straits, they know them from two things “Money for Nothing” and maybe “Sultans of Swing” which represent some upper echelon of dad rock, and easy to dismiss, thus making them simple to ignore even though their great back catalog is unique and distinct. This is a damn shame because a lot of what they did back then deserves a critical reassessment. Two of the songs I’m going to highlight today are just simple pleasures, one an intriguing country jazz boogie called “Lions” and other an Americana-influenced reflective ballad called “Wild West End” both from their 1979 masterpiece Dire Straits.
“Lions” is the final track of this album. However, its a great summation of the roots rock sound that Dire Straits had just finished dissecting through this album. Led by some truly thumping drum and bass rhythm work, Mark and his brother David trade flashes of call and response swampy blues guitar melodies. All of those melodies half-suggesting that they’re going to start playing full bore soon but in actually they never do. Its an interesting effect, as soon as you feel they’re really going to go for it, they melodically pull back and leave you out there lingering on that faint. This sonic feeling is done on purpose, Mark’s trying to show the trepidation of traveling where you should know better not to be. That’s where your mind starts to play tricks on you, are you heading in the right direction? can you trust your way there? and do you really want to be there? When the song finally opens up around the 4 minute mark its done when the venturer has realized that most unknown parts will always be the ones they choose to avoid going through by themselves. For me, this rocks in the weirdest way its a subliminal propulsion, one you have to mindfully place yourself with all the open space Mark’s playing leaves in those unknown rhythmic places.
“Wild West End” the homecoming song of the day is a true beauty. The topics described by Mark are presented with such brattish well-meaning naivete that you can’t help but admire the lovely melodies he surround all these youthful memories. Over his melancholic banjo playing, he overdubs some of the most languid playing he would display in the whole album. Sonically, almost seemingly wanting to converse frankly with the listener, he tries to display an affection for the queerness of the neighborhood he choses to travel to and from. Rather than boast or denounce his home, he calmly acknowledges the people and the great camaraderie he draws from them, its a strange kind of love but a love nonetheless. Only a neighborhood like the one he is describing, could accept this young man playing some of the best music ever written for older men. Somehow, its a song that on the best days, when you’re just relaxing, puts you in that place you want to be…even if thats just a walk on the wild side with your wild best friend (the one that gives you that courage to do so). For sure, tomorrow, I’ll try to present a place that with age, now I know I wouldn’t mind being in (if not just musically)…
Bonus track time, this is one of my favorite Dire Straits tracks “Skateaway” (which you can clearly hear the influence on such modern groups like War on Drugs), for me, its just another great modernist take on country boogie that sounds as good now, as then: