Archive for the ‘Music’ Category
Way back in February I did an article on REM’s Automatic for the People. I meant for it to be the start of a series of articles on my favourite albums. 6 months later, I’m finally following it up…
The rehabilitation of Dire Straits starts here. Too often grouped with pretentious prog rock shite, it’s time to set them free.
The whole idea of grouping them with prog is puzzling. I’ve even heard them referred to in connection with Jeremy Clarkson, as a dismissal of the band as part of some kind of fictitious uncool pretentious dad rock genre – I don’t understand that at all, for Mark Knopfler has written songs both subtly and explicitly critical of Clarkson’s great heroine Mrs T; if he listens to them, then he’s even more of an idiot than I thought he was.
But not only that, it’s missing the point. Dire Straits was a reaction to prog, not prog itself. In some ways, it’s closer to punk (although it isn’t), for it comes out of the same reasons at the same time – Knopfler’s vision of rock was more stripped down and folksy (hence the solo albums), courtesy of the Dylan influence, but at the same time it’s more sophisticated than plain pub rock: his talents with a guitar that make him one of the greatest ever to pick up a Fender. A lot of people must assume “it’s rock and there are long songs so it must be prog”, and yes, the music became more complex as the band developed, but it’s totally removed from stories of trolls and witches and medieval kings and classical influence.
The first album, self-titled Dire Straits, was released in 1978, and it still highly-regarded, hence it’s inclusion in 1001 Albums To Hear Before You Die (OK, so that’s not a guarantee of brilliance, but take it from me it’s critically-acclaimed). Sultans of Swing is of course the best-known song on the album, although it took until it was released in the United States, becoming a top 5 hit there, and continental Europe before the UK took any notice. The more laidback, Dylan-esque approach didn’t really fit in at a time where punk and disco were writing the music headlines, so it took time for the message to get out there.
This was followed by the hastily-recorded follow-up, Communiqué, released 8 months after Dire Straits. It was a commercial success, coming out at a time where the first album was still selling well, but ultimately it was bland, boring and dull, mainly because it might as well have been the first album re-released, or a bonus disc – there was nothing to distinguish it. The result was that Knopfler redoubled his efforts with the third album, which eventually would drive brother David (rhythm guitarist) out of the band. From this point, the band essentially became Knopfler’s pet project.
The third album would become Making Movies, released in late 1980. Though overshadowed by Brothers in Arms (and indeed the backlash from it, which has lasted to today), for me it is the band’s best album, coming at the juncture where Dire Straits’ music was becoming more complex and yet remained true to the original material.
Take Tunnel of Love, for instance – the first track on the album, 8 minutes long, and yet it’s still a relatively simple song. It has the feel of a Springsteen song, though I know Bruce has his own Tunnel of Love. It’s a story about a north-eastern fairground attraction (no, not that kind of fairground attraction, or indeed Fairground Attraction) between Knopfler and a mystery girl, but set onto some of his best guitar work, in particular the last solo (which is even better live in extended form). It’s one of my favourite songs (as in ever) – I don’t think I’ll ever tire of listening to it. And it’s mainly down to the solos. I can’t believe it has never got the acclaim it deserves.
This leads directly into the best-known song on the album, Romeo and Juliet, another love song loosely based on the play but from a post-relationship perspective (it’s based on Knopfler’s relationship with one of his exes). It’s a rare acoustic number for Knopfler, and again it works because of its delicacy (I am aware this sounds pretentious). This is followed by the upbeat Skateaway, capturing the early 80s trends for skating and the Walkman, which again features another great solo.
The problem (and this is the only criticism I have) is the album sets such a high standard with these three songs that it’s downhill all the way. The following songs are great, but they’re just not quite as good as the first three – Expresso Love is a good up-tempo number, but not quite as good as Skateaway; Hand in Hand is a nice slowy, but not as nice as Romeo and Juliet; Solid Rock is probably the heaviest song Dire Straits ever did, but it’s still quite short and fails to have a major impact. And then there’s Les Boys.
Les Boys, like Money for Nothing, has been accused in some corners as being homophobic. Now I don’t think it’s a particularly brilliant song, but I don’t buy this. Les Boys is about a group of gay cabaret singers in Munich, but I don’t believe they are the target of criticism – to me, Knopfler seems quite appreciative of them. If there is any criticism, it is subtly aimed at “the high class whores and the businessmen”, who are perhaps seen as exploiting them. As with Money for Nothing, people are almost certainly jumping to conclusions without reading and understanding what’s in front of them. I think it works well as a light-hearted end to the album. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Twisting by the Pool, later released on the 1982 EP ExtendedancEPlay, was originally first recorded during the Making Movies sessions – in its final form, it would have been a much better (and less controversial) ending to the album.
ExtendedancEPlay was released just after the next Dire Straits album, Love Over Gold. The album included just 5 songs, down from 7 on Making Movies, hence why I’ve combined the two into one article. I’ve also grown to like Love Over Gold a lot recently – 3 of the 5 songs were included on the greatest hits collection Private Investigations, which I bought a few years ago, with Industrial Disease and It Never Rains left out. Since ‘discovering’ those tracks, I really enjoy listening to the album all the way through.
This is the closest Dire Straits get to what you would call ‘prog rock’, though. All 5 songs are over 5 and a half minutes long. And yet it’s not prog because it still remains fairly stripped down and lacking the complexity and pretension (in my opinion) of Wakeman-esque guff. It would be like calling Junglelands ‘prog’ – and you wouldn’t do that because you wouldn’t give a Springsteen song the negative label.
Telegraph Road is over 14 minutes long, but I never get bored listening to it – I always like listening to it in one go. There’s so much going on there – it’s solo-lyrics-solo-lyrics-solo. The lyrics are all interesting, charting the development of an American suburban road before seguing into a love story set in the town, while the music is beautiful, rising and falling to match the lyrics, sometimes gentle and sometimes dramatic. Whereas prog’s monotony gets boring after a while, there is enough in this to keep you gripped. A long song isn’t necessarily too long, and despite its length, Telegraph Road never feels too long.
It would be tough to beat that after such a start, and indeed it is the high point of the album, taking up a third of its entire length. But that’s not to dismiss the rest of it. Private Investigations is a dark, menacing song, matching the lyrical content perfectly. It was the band’s biggest hit in Britain in terms of chart position, reaching number 2.
The second side of the original vinyl album begins with the up-tempo but sarcastic Industrial Disease was the lead single in the US, referring to the decline of British heavy industry and surrounding media sensationalism. This is followed by Love Over Gold and It Never Rains, which both refer to the same relationship as Romeo and Juliet from Making Movies. While Love Over Gold is sneering about deception, contrasting with the soft keyboard-driven music, It Never Rains builds from the gentle introduction (probably my favourite Dire Straits intro) to a harder and faster crescendo as the lyrics get angrier. Though I think it is an underrated song, I’m not sure It Never Rains was the right way to end the album. The song (and album) fades away just as momentum is building. It leaves you wanting more – maybe that’s the sign of a good album, but I think it needs another song.
I’ve sounded a bit critical here, but I am being particularly fussy: Making Movies and Love Over Gold are both excellent albums, performed by a band at its peak, away from the commercialisation and over-complexity of later work and performances. While I’ve put them together in one review here, they are both distinct – the two albums have very different feels and atmospheres. But you could do a compilation simply from this period, including all the songs off both albums added to Twisting by the Pool, Knopfler’s Local Hero music and other songs from the period. It would work.
Both are superior to Brothers in Arms, which has great songs but also goes on a bit. The criticisms of Dire Straits after for being boring are, in some ways, valid when looking at that album, by far their biggest success, but that neglects their previous work. It would be nice if Dire Straits got the critical praise for this period in their work that they deserve. It often seems to be neglected, BBC Four documentaries aside, and regarded as a bit boring and uncool, largely because every man and his dog had Brothers in Arms despite it not being a brilliant album and popular things are always uncool.
It’s amazing that such a wildly successful and yet relatively unpretentious artist should be ignored in this way. Nobody ever says they’re a Dire Straits fan. Until now. I am. I’ll keep listening forever. And eventually they’ll pop up something that doesn’t say “oh look, how uncool we were liking Dire Straits, how would ever do such a thing?” Knopfler and co can be reinvented.
I love Stewart Lee. I think he’s one of, if not the funniest comedian working today (as in in the world). But if there’s one thing I disagree with him on, it’s REM. In an interview in May last year in which he named his 13 favourite albums ever, he chose their second album, Reckoning, but in doing so said “I don’t think there’s any artist that I’ve ever liked who’s disappointed me more than REM.” In his opinion, their earlier albums, released on the independent label IRS before their move to Warner Bros in 1988, were much better, primarily because you couldn’t understand what Michael Stipe was singing, and that when you could understand what he was singing later on, “you realise it’s terrible pretentious rubbish.”
Now I’ve listened to a bit of REM’s IRS stuff, and a lot of their Warner Bros stuff. And I tend to agree with the usual narrative arc of their career – early stuff excellent, early Warner Bros stuff excellent, then diminishing returns after that, apart from the last album, Collapse Into Now, which I quite enjoyed. I also agree that their peak was with Automatic for the People.
OK, so I haven’t quite gone in depth on their early stuff yet. I’ve not listened to Murmur, their first album, which a lot of critics (presumably including Stew) say is their finest. But I think the great thing about Automatic for the People isn’t necessarily that it’s their best creation in a creative sense – it may not be. But the truth is that their IRS stuff, as good as it is, isn’t pop music. It’s pure alternative rock. Automatic for the People isn’t, and I think it’s stronger for that.
Think of it on a sliding scale. On the left, you’ve got pure art, done purely for the sake of it. Obviously it’s not totally objective, but that is where the best stuff generally is. On the right, you’ve got art for the sake of making money – One Direction, most West End musicals and Michael McIntyre. Personally, my favourite stuff isn’t necessarily to the extreme left of this scale – I tend to like music that straddles the divide the most, albeit certainly more to the left on the scale than the right. I’m willing to concede that it’s not objectively the best, but equally it tends to be the most celebrated music in terms of relatively mainstream critical acclaim – you could consider under this heading Radiohead’s OK Computer, early Queen, most of Led Zeppelin’s stuff, the Beatles’ highest rated albums (Sgt Pepper, the White Album, Revolver etc) and Muse’s best albums. And, of course, Automatic for the People.
The appeal of the album is that it has brilliant songs that you can sing along to. I know that songs you can sing along to normally gives you visions of Celine Dion, Westlife and anything overseen by Simon Cowell, but that doesn’t mean all music which you can sing along to is awful. But I do think some of the music on the far left of our scale, in my opinion, suffers from the tyranny of structurelessness – an obvious exception would be something like Thunder Road by Springsteen, which benefits from not being verse-chorus-verse. REM are the masters of making great music within that traditional structure, adding in political and cultural elements. Effectively, it’s like pop music but for intellectuals.
However, there is a problem with this – it has meant that some of the best songs on Automatic for the People, including one in particular (do I need to say?), have been massacred by the mainstream, overplayed and over-covered. And that’s always going to have an effect on how much you like a song or album. It’s nice liking something exclusive – I love the fact that no one else I know loves Dire Straits. Some take it to extraordinary lengths by only liking stuff that no one else has heard of, but I don’t intend on going that far, though I can understand the appeal.
But for me, Automatic for the People remains one of my favourite albums ever, simply because it’s good enough to escape being torn apart and having songs covered by G4, Paul Potts, the Helping Haiti collective and whoever else Cowell’s roped into ruining That Song That Everyone Knows.
I remember the day this album becoming something special to me. I’ve always liked a few of the songs on the album, but as an album, it didn’t mean much until I switched it on one day when I was quite depressed – I chose it because it is a dark, quiet album, matched to a dark cover, but with enough up-tempo songs to possibly progressively lift my mood, which it did. I’ve loved it ever since – I might have listened to it previously, but I genuinely discovered some great songs that day.
It starts with arguably the darkest, edgiest song on the album, Drive, before moving on to Try Not to Breathe, musically more upbeat but juxtaposed to lyrics about death. Death and pain, and overcoming that pain, is a prominent theme during the album. That Song That Is Always Played On The Radio is the best-known for that, hence its use in association with various sad events, like someone not getting through on the X Factor or something. But there’s also the beautiful Sweetness Follows which is along the same lines.
But equally, it would be wrong to say the whole thing is about death. One of the stand-out songs on the album is The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite – not necessarily a stand-out for being good (in fact, the band don’t particularly like it, although I do), but for not fitting in at all, by being the most up-tempo song on the whole album. There is also the vitriolic Ignoreland, a damning criticism of the Reagan and Bush (I) era in American politics, the quite but erotic Star Me Kitten (read Fuck Me Kitten), and another up-tempo number, the mandolin-driven Monty Got a Raw Deal, written about the tragic actor Montgomery Clift.
For me, though, a lot of the magic rests on the last three songs. First, there’s Man On The Moon, written about the alternative comedian Andy Kaufman (and probably the thing most responsible for bringing him into public attention this side of the Atlantic), It is arguably the second best-known song on the album behind That Song That Everyone Cries To But Still Sing Along, and another on this album that could claim to be one of REM’s best songs. After this, you have two slow numbers that could have feasibly closed the album. First, there’s the beautiful simplicity of Nightswimming – just Michael, Mike Mills on piano and a string arrangement that fits in so well you barely notice it’s there. Nightswimming, about innocence and memory, was chosen to close REM’s greatest Warner Bros hits collection In Time, which I think works well in that role, but here it is followed Find the River, a terribly under-appreciated song that I only discovered from listening to the album and is now one of my personal REM favourites.
That’s the great thing about REM albums. There are always little gems that keep popping up during albums that you don’t quite expect. What makes Automatic for the People so special and outstanding is that every song on there is a gem – simple but effective. That’s what makes it a little better from the likes of Green, Out of Time and New Adventures In Hi-Fi – all great albums, but not quite as good as this.
This is why, although REM have continued to put out greatest hits albums, they’re not a band you can truly discover in a greatest hits album – you have to listen to the studio albums to fully appreciate what a brilliant band they were. Sorry Stew, but they were.