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If I’m going to talk about Dire Straits, which, in this case, I obviously am, the starting point is simple: Mark Knopfler is, stylistically, my favourite guitarist, bar none. Like many, I spent part of high school spewing obvious names for “best guitarist ever”, but have long since abandoned this for two simple reasons: first, none of us knows all the guitarists, not even all the guitarists in popular music, nor what performances are comfortable for them versus extreme work, and second, I’m not a player myself, so how could I really judge such a thing? What I can do, though, is establish a sound that I personally like–and, of course, that is not a singular sound in all honesty. I’ve (more privately) expressed appreciation for the tone Jeff Beck achieved on his peculiar, semi-electronic records from the early ’00s. Eric Johnson, too, is noted particularly for his tone. Andy Gill of Gang of Four has a wonderfully clangy, abrasive style, so on and so forth. But, given the option, I choose Knopfler consistently, because I like the way he plays in-and-of itself, rather than as appropriate for a style, for virtuosity, or because it ends up with clear and pretty sounds–it does those, but is unmistakably a guy playing guitar at the same time.
When I asked for a Dire Straits selection from my 3 LPs (I actually have every album on CD), I noted that I don’t listen to Communiqué much and never have, my brain having rather haphazardly categorized it as the most “bland” Dire Straits record. Really, that judgment is purely personal and internal, and reflects only the absence of songs I know and love (think the big singles, of course), as well as the absence of curiosities like Love Over Gold‘s “Telegraph Road” (a 14-minute long track, wildly out of character in the band’s studio oeuvre, normally maxing out at a bit over 8 minutes in rare exceptions, but largely hovering in the 4-6 minute range). Making Movies has my favourite Dire Straits song (“Romeo and Juliet”) while Love Over Gold has the aforementioned expanded travel of “Telegraph Road”. What does Communiqué have to pop up immediately in my memory?
Of course, I dropped the needle and was reminded–oops. I always think, for some reason, that “Once Upon a Time in the West” is on their 1978 eponymous debut, but that actually starts with “Down to the Waterline”–a solid opener, but no “Once Upon a Time in the West”. As someone who also loves movies, and started branching out into both movies and music at the same time, I’ve forever associated Sergio Leone’s C’era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon a Time in the West to us English speakers) with this song, humming or singing it to myself any time I stumbled into a physical copy of the movie. Lyrically, it makes no sense, but the dry way Mark has always sung, seemingly with just a tinge of the droll, made a strange kind of sense to me, despite the contrasting lushness of Morricone’s score for the film¹ and the expansive, cinematic eye of Leone’s films. I liked to imagine it was at least a jumping-off-point for the song, but it’s highly unlikely. Still, it’s a fantastic track–a piercing lead that’s backed by a pretty set of chords, before turning to a plodding groove of a track, Mark’s lead carrying on less sharply, working a wonderful bend of a lead over the semi-reggae rhythms of John Illsey’s bass and Pick Withers’ drumming. Mark and his brother David work in half-muted chords that also imply reggae origins.
The whole first side of the album is a bit more on the easy, breezy side–“News” is gentle and simple, the melody and playing style, as well as the steel implying the kind that would show up on their next album in the form of, well, “Romeo and Juliet”, actually, though there’s a greater sadness, and no real move to the kind of crescendo that track experiences. Even when Withers’ drums assert themselves more clearly, and Mark’s lead takes off, it stays restrained in overall atmosphere, though that lead presses firmly at those restraints. It makes clear, though, that interesting contrast that often occurs with Mark’s more emotive playing and his semi-gruff, often “huffed” lyrics, which seem to be pushed out through his voice, natural, but sort of forced, in a good way–a rough edged, less sarcastic than masked, guarded contrast to the clean, clear notes he elicits.
“Where Do You Think You’re Going?” broods and simmers menacingly, though I find myself unsure why exactly, lyrically. Some have suggested it’s about domestic abuse (though I’m not at all convinced by these explanations, and numerous lines don’t seem to fit that well), but there’s certainly some kind of hidden threat here–whether it’s from the character Mark sings as, or from where the “girl” he’s singing to plans to go. It takes off into a more energetic pace with a rapid beat from Pick that starts moving the track along. But Mark, ever the leader, manages to soften and slow the song around that beat, his leads matching the tempo but so smooth and curved that it keeps that hidden threat from becoming obvious or overbearing–just slinking along in the shadows instead.
The title track is perhaps the most uptempo track on the whole of the first side, and exhibits the firm fingerpicking that characterize a lot of his work. It swings with the kind of swampy groove of a Dr. John song almost, but then sways at the bridge on top of B. Bear’s piano and turns a bit more familiar as a Dire Straits song then. But the next verse, naturally, reclaims that slinky, swerving groove, so nicely punctuated by the plucked strings. Handclaps shade a solo that sounds at least partly improvisational, the song turning briefly to a kind of “jam” on the back of Withers’ now “pea-soup” drumbeat.
There was only one single on the album, and it was “Lady Writer”, by far the most uptempo track on the album, and a pretty logical choice for a single as a result. Mark’s lead is somewhat reminiscent of their breakout hit, “Sultans of Swing”, but the track itself is a little friendlier overall, in keeping with the relaxed tone of the whole album. While it smokes its way through the verse, it breaks into sunny waves on the chorus, Mark’s lead and vocal sort of fading into the distance as it ends. The backing vocals of David and Illsey are apparent throughout the track, but the high point is doubtless the searing solo that flies out of Mark’s fingers straight through the song’s fadeout–a wild burst of showmanship that shows the peculiar restraint his style tends to exhibit: whatever fancy flares he adds, it never seems overbearing or overly showy.
“Angel of Mercy” sees the return of the low swing that typifies the Dire Straits sound, or at least most of it. David and John’s backing vocals are full and clear again, while Mark’s burn right over the top aggressively. The choral feeling that comes from the three of them singing together through the chorus and the meandering lead Mark lays over the whole thing gives it a nicely contrasting flavour from the rest of the album, one that manages to hit the highs and the lows, while not straying too far from the breezy, low tide of the album’s overall tone. Mark exits the track with another solo, but this one just slides right into place confidently and comfortably, rather than sizzling like he did at the end of “Lady Writer”.
There’s a very light touch to “Portobello Belle”, Mark’s voice and an acoustic alone at open. Illsey, Withers and Bear join, and it’s clear this is one of the songs that will focus on Mark’s songwriting rather than his playing. It’s actually extraordinarily prescient, as it resembles the work Mark would do as a solo artist thirty years later on Kill to Get Crimson in particular (though shades of this style echo through a lot of his solo albums). It’s a simple tune, largely, and it’s the buoyant, sharply bright acoustic that really defines the track, as well as the light touch of keys from Bear behind it. Illsey’s bass is perhaps its most upfront, similarly cheerful, and it makes for an appropriate but unique track for the record.
There’s a lot folded into “Single Handed Sailor”, as Mark returns to electric, his fingers active but subtle in their constant motion. Illsey makes his voice known most clearly here–his instrumental one, that is. A very full bass-line that shifts it under the tightly fingerpicked rhythm track. While it also avoids abandoning the lazy tone of the record, those two instruments really keep it moving a lot more than much of the rest of the album. Taking another chance to wander around instrumentally, the latter portion of the track is another exhibit for Mark’s cool tones and swaggering guitar lead, covering a lot of ground but continuing to avoid fireworks and explosions, in favour of a kind of displayed subtlety.
The breezy tidal feel of the album is made blatant as “Follow Me Home” opens, the sound of small waves crashing on a shore balanced on the light touch of hand drums. Mark’s voice is languorous, matching the swaying rhythm guitar, and his own crying lead. It’s vaguely hypnotic, island-y, like a seductive hymn from beside a beach’s bonfire. Mark’s solo sparks and flits upward at moments, but doesn’t quite take off on its own. Rather than clearly echoing or harmonizing words, David and John on backing vocals widen the sound of Mark’s voice. The track doesn’t build up to a huge moment, or even a hint of one. It just sways back and forth with that slow burn, perhaps best thought of as a culmination of the album’s tone as a whole: it maintains the breezy tone, while turning a moment that implies endings and rest, it instead points toward further activity, acting as both fade-out and hint of what’s to come.
Communiqué was the last album to feature David Knopfler, who has also gone on to solo work, though it is largely unheard, unlistened, and unmentioned. Word is, he doesn’t like to talk about his brother at all, and one can only guess that a split so severe and so early in a band’s life does not bode well for their relationship. Of course, it may say something that Mark was writing all of the songs already, and it was the age-old concern about getting a voice heard. Whatever it may have been, this has remained a clearly voiced vehicle for Mark’s songs, playing, and writing–fair, unfair, or otherwise.
I can’t really complain about that, and found this album was not quite so “slight” as I remembered (or, really–imagined) it to be. I can’t say it moved too far up the ranks in terms of my favourite albums by the band, but I’ve often favoured the earlier works of the bands that rocketed to stardom in the ’80s after solid starts in the ’70s (similarly, as they will not come up later here, I favour Zenyatta Mondatta or Regatta de Blanc over Synchronicity without reservation).
If you do only know the band for their singles, I strongly recommend expanding that experience, as Knopfler’s work is superb in a sense that lends itself less to dropped jaws and applauded virtuosity than just being damn fine sounds. And that phrase is one that might be best to describe what appeals to me in music, I think–nothing technically descriptive or specific, but emphatic and distinct enough to have a kind of identity–though, admittedly, one that requires expansion to be understood.
Which is, of course, what this writing is here to do.
¹While I do have an imported copy of that score on CD, I only have a 2xLP compilation of Morricone themes and the score to Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) on vinyl.