The album Dire Straits, the debut by British band Dire Straits is one of my favourite records. It’s a casual masterpiece, alternating between the urgency of Down To The Waterline (one of the great album openers by anyone and any record) and the laidback lurch of Water Of Love. There’s bar-room boogie (Setting Me Up) and cool country-soul (Six Blade Knife). And that’s just the first four songs of side one, in order.
I’m sure loads of people dislike Dire Straits by Dire Straits. I’m sure plenty of people hate it on principal – because they consider Dire Straits only for what they became, not because of what they were. It’s ridiculous to make this generalisation but that’s never stopped me before – I would say that, much like the solo work of Paul McCartney – it’s easier to just say you assume something is no good, rather than to listen to it; understand it, evaluate it.
It might as well have been recorded in a bubble.
It makes no attempt to acknowledge punk, to understand any of the musical ideas that were hip, or bubbling up from under; it makes no bones about standing out on its own as a version of country, a version of blues, a version of folk and a version of rock that is twisted and rolled together; that is in fact some weird British version of an Americana – one that didn’t actually exist and hasn’t since the album. It is its own thing; of its own creation in its own time. Dire Straits could have recorded the album Dire Straits in 1969 or 1985 or any time in between and it would have ended up sounding like the Dire Straits album that Dire Straits released (called Dire Straits) in 1978.
Then there’s the jagged riffing of Setting Me Up with a jazzy underlay of drums – it’s identifiably Dire Straits but where did it all come from? It’s such a sophisticated, together- sound – such a mark of a mature style from a bunch of young (non) punks. It’s a fully formed sound/style that is almost without antecedent – certainly there’s no one sound that Mark Knopfler was aping. He’s got some Albert Lee-isms to his playing, he’s got some blues-derived lyrical phrases (both in his guitar playing and his actual lyrics) and he’s got some of J.J. Cale’s warble (both in the guitar playing and the vocal delivery) but there’s no one artist that is evoked, no one record or – even – genre that is the constant reference point; that had to have happened so that Mark Knopfler could form Dire Straits and release the album Dire Straits.
You can earmark Chet Atkins, you can point to skiffle, rockabilly and folk, to a youth spent devouring some jazz and blues – but there’s no one sound that informs this record.
Pick Withers is a star of the album. His drumming is sympathetic, it’s interesting, it’s dynamic, thoughtful. It’s almost always perfect. But the precision never makes it feel glossy or shapeless – Withers lives up to any drummer’s hope by playing for the song always – but there are so many examples where he gets to shine. In Six Blade Knife his brushes are like a great Mick Fleetwood performance; in Down To The Waterline he propels the song, offering mini-explosions to keep it well-fire; it’s a similar approach for The Sultans Of Swing.
John Illsley offers bobbing bass that never clutters the compositions; he’s felt on every track and if Withers took some of his cues from Mick Fleetwood then Illsley definitely picked up some clues from John McVie – check that link to Sultans Of Swing and listen to Illsley do his thing underneath Knopfler’s widdlywiddlywiddly run of notes that form one of the great guitar solos. That’s classic supporting playing – you can listen to that guitar solo and be blown away by the bass playing sitting underneath it, helping to prop it up.
And speaking of Knopfler’s playing there is also David Knopfler – the secret strength and silent star of the early Dire Straits – crucial to the magic of the band’s first two albums; this one and Communiqué. He was overshadowed by his older brother but he played the perfect rhythm guitar role. Listen to In The Gallery for a great example of his jazzy voicings underneath the lead line; his support of the bass and drums, locking in as a rhythm guitarist should, being part of the rhythm section.
It was a team effort to hone the sound but the songs all came from Mark Knopfler, who, at 28 had a maturity to his writing that carried this work – carried this album. There’s a rare confidence – nothing brash about it, just honest, careful and sure.
Knopfler knew how to produce, write and play with his debut album – even knowing to place his best songs as the lead in for side one (Down To The Waterline) and side two (Sultans Of Swing).
Dire Straits would of course, slowly, surely, blow up in to one of the big pop acts of the 1980s – its biggest selling album was its downfall; the reluctant guitar hero would (have to) become the reluctant pop star.
But that first album – Dire Straits by Dire Straits – to my ears it’s a subtle masterpiece. A gem that continues to shine long after I first heard it.
And somewhat ironically, by ignoring the punk sounds of the time, and in fact any trends, Knopfler and his crew showed something of a punk spirit (ethos) in the creation of this self-titled debut album. I consider it a punk record for the attitude and arrogance of the way it was made, if not for the sound.
Know it – before you judge it.
Anyone else out there a fan of Dire Straits by Dire Straits?
Postscript: Here’s my interview with Mark Knopfler.
Postscript to the postscript: My vinyl copy of Dire Straits by Dire Straits features a felt-pen inscription on the cover: “Robert, Merry Christmas! James”. It strikes me that Dire Straits is very much a guys-band – and that Dire Straits by Dire Straits is the sort of album one guy might give to another; a band for mates.