The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018 was inducted over the weekend, to much — too much, really — fanfare. I’ve blogged my opinions about the voters’ choices before, so won’t flog that dead horse anymore.
I wrote at that time that the Moody Blues were long overdue for that recognition. The Moodies were there from the early years of my listening to The Music — their first charting single, “Go Now,” was a Top 10 hit in 1964 — and they definitely had an impact on album, progressive and psychedelic rock. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an early influence on the early influencers of rock, was also a worthy choice for induction.
But my other favorite among this year’s inductees, Dire Straits, came along at an interesting juncture for rock, and my my interest in it. Founded in 1977, the band emerged when many of the ’60s bands had broken up or formed supergroups, disco had infiltrated the genre, arena rock dominated the concert scene and shows had become overproduced extravaganzas.
Call them New Wave or whatever, bands like Dire Straits, Petty and the Heartbreakers, Elvis Costello and others cleaned up The Music and took it back to its roots. Personally, it was a time when I was listening to different kinds of music: serious/classical, jazz, old-time acoustic.
Like most rock fans, the first Dire Straits song I heard was “Sultans of Swing,” their paean to a Dixieland band playing in a London nightclub. It came out in 1978, and it struck a chord: Late in the ’70s, I went to the Emporium of Jazz in Mendota, Minn., to hear Dixieland, owned albums by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra and listened to that sort of thing on public radio.
“Sultans,” of course, has that great line in the penultimate verse, commenting about the “young boys … fooling around in the corner”: “They don’t give a damn/’bout any trumpet playing band/It ain’t what they call rock and roll/Then the Sultans, yeah, the Sultans they play Creole.” And if you’ve ever heard Creole — Buckwheat Zydeco, for instance, who I experienced in concert a decade or so ago — you know it rocks.
But back in the late ’70s, for some reason, I wasn’t buying many rock albums. I had moved away from my Radio Free Madison cocoon, didn’t hear as much new music on the radio and didn’t get to record stores like I did when I was in the Mad City.
One day in 1980 or ’81, I was perusing the cutout rack — remember those, where the albums had a hole punched in the corner — at the Farmers Store here in Whitehall, and found Dire Straits’ Communique. I thought, “Great — ‘Sultans of Swing’!” Alas, their first hit was on their first, self-titled LP.
But when I put their second on the turntable for the first time, heard that Mark Knopfler opening guitar riff and those lyrics on “Once Upon a Time in the West,” I was hooked. It included a reasonable facsimile of “Sultans,” “Lady Writer,” but the real attractions for me were the aforementioned cut, “News,” Portobello Belle” and “Single-handed Sailor.” It’s still one of my favorite albums.
Before too long, I picked up Love Over Gold, the followup to Communique, Making Movies, somehow having escaped my attention. The story in the extended piece “Telegraph Road” fascinated me, and the humor in “Industrial Disease” was one of the things that attracted me to Knopfler’s lyrics.
(The line in the latter song about the visit to the doctor — “You’ve got smoker’s cough from smoking/brewer’s droop from drinking beer” may in part be an inside joke. Knopfler and another founding member, drummer Pick Withers, played in a pub rock group called Brewers Droop before forming Dire Straits, which went by the name of Cafe Racers originally.)
That was the extent of my Dire Straits collection for a couple decades, though. A few years ago, I downloaded their debut album, and thus got regular access to “Sultans”; the rest of the LP, I thought — contrary to some music critics’ opinions — was not as good as Communique
More recently, I added Brothers in Arms. That 1985 album underlines the impact that Dire Straits had on The Music: One of the best-selling LPs of all time (30-plus million copies sold), it was one of the first ever recorded digitally. (Knopfler was notable for wanting to improve the band’s sound by using new technology.)
Brothers was also the first album to sell more than a million copies on compact disc, a new medium at the time. “Money for Nothing,” the album’s hit single, was the first video ever shown on MTV in the U.K.
Dire Straits existed as a band for only a total of 15 years, initially from 1977-88, reuniting from 1991-95. In that time, they became one of the most commercially -successful bands of all time, won four Grammy Awards and had albums on the U.K. charts for 1,100 weeks.
They did that with just six studio albums. I have four of those, but plan on adding the other two — probably Making Movies first, because I love “Romeo and Juliet.”
Knopfler has enjoyed a successful solo career over 22 years since Dire Straits broke up the second time, and I may look at some of those albums, too. The first of his solo LPs, Golden Heart, includes “Done with Bonaparte,” which I’ve heard a few times, and enjoy.