I miss old-school guitar rock culture. It was a simpler time when the main arbiter of quality and relevance was whether or not something ‘rocked’. Okay, that’s actually a pretty one-dimensional means of measuring quality, and let’s not ignore the fact that guitar rock culture was mostly the mindless lionizing of mediocre white dudes’ pretensions. But let’s not throw out the baby, as they say. The simple pleasure of rocking out has become undervalued. How have we come to this? Is it purely reactionary? We may be tired of elevating guitar players to god-like status, but there’s no reason not to go on elevating the music. Rocking is, after all, the cornerstone of all popular music, no matter how far it has strayed from 12-bar blues. And it will, like all things, come around again.
I like a love song about long distance and alienation. Everyone and everything is always too far away and too hard to get close to. That’s just a classic crying-in-your-drink sentiment, and if it comes in such an impeccably played and catchy package, then all the better.
Dire Straits made some great videos, and this one is an underrated gem. It really takes you back to 1980, and not in a bad-nostalgia way. The aesthetics could not be cooler, and the message couldn’t be either. It makes you look at dated technology – roller skates and Walkman cassette players – and remember how those things used to represent the greatest freedom. You could skate through life with music playing in your ears, escape the ordinary, become who you wanted to be. Damn, that’s what it meant to be cool. Kids these days will never know how game changing it was to have your own music in your pocket.
Times may change, but I’m still over here listening to blues guitar. That doesn’t make me a crotchety old person. It means, I hope, that just because the times aren’t conducive to blues guitar based bands like Dire Straits just now, the music will remain timeless enough for the times to roll over yet again. Were the times optimal for this kind of music in 1979? Not exactly then, either, with the fires of the punk revolution blazing and whatnot. Not in the next few years, with “80’s music” becoming what it was. Yet here’s a record that doesn’t care about any of those changes, and I will listen to it just as happily as I did 20 years ago.
In 1978 Dire Straits were already embattled keeping blues rock alive. Popular music was becoming more and more fractured, and in many cases moving away from the basics. There were fewer and fewer bands who wanted to master good old fashioned unpretentious blues rock, and this was before everybody started wearing Miami Vice suits. Dire Straits went against the grain with their combination of great musicianship and thoughtful lyrics. They didn’t have a gimmick! They just played really well, and people bought it. And all of their records are still great, because they’re trend-proof and timeless. There’s something to be said for not trying to reinvent the wheel.
If there’s one literary allusion that people never seem to get tired of, it’s Shakespeare’s play about the two kids who fell in love and killed themselves. It’s become a collective byword for romance, even though, as a love story, it’s not very encouraging. Well, I’ve never understood it, but I don’t have much use for either romantic cliche or Elizabethan dialogue. Thankfully, in this case, the allusion doesn’t grate on me. I love Dire Straits, and smart writing is one of the things I love them for. It would take an idiot to think that Romeo and Juliet represent happy romance, and Mark Knopfler is not an idiot, and he uses the allusion to signal romantic failure. That’s not exactly accurate, either, since the titular characters didn’t fail at romance in the traditional sense, but it works. The romance crashed and burned, maybe not on the level of suicide and murder, but enough to look like a tragedy to the writer at least. That I can relate to a little.
Come for Mark Knopfler’s guitarism, stay for the flute solo. An unexpected touch, but it works, and it’s touches like this that make Dire Straits so rewarding to explore. They weren’t a band who leaned on hit singles, although they had a lot of hit singles. They leaned on musicianship and thoughtful writing, which made them outliers among their peers in the 80’s. Though their output as a unit was small – only six studio albums – it was conspicuously solid. Every album was a solid winner, every track worth remembering. These guys did not do filler material, or try to be on-trend, or make unfortunate experiments. Sometimes it’s best to quit when you’re ahead, before the urge to do all of the above overtakes you.