“Success I adore. It means I can buy 1959 Gibson Les Pauls and Triumph motorcycles. But I detest fame. It interferes with what you do and has no redeeming features at all.”
As has been pointed out many a time before and no doubt will be whenever they are written about or discussed, Dire Straits were a great band at the wrong time. A four-piece routed in the classic-rock style emerging from London’s pub-rock scene at a time when punk was holding sway here in the UK, epitomised by John Lydon’s ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt.
Yet one of the reasons Dire Straits are still written about and no doubt will be for some time to come was that they did find success thanks to Mark Knopfler’s fluid, finger-picking guitar style and ability to come up with something as catchy as ‘Sultans of Swing’ on their first outing. ‘Sultans of Swing’ managed to break the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic and their first album, Dire Straits – produced by Steve Winwood’s older brother Muff and released in 1978 – was a similar success.
Less than ten years later, in September 1988 with five albums behind them and after an 18-month tour of 247 sold-out stadium and arena shows, Knopfler – who had taken control of the band completely by the time of 1980’s Making Movies (a move helped along byJimmy Iovine taking him to watch a Springsteen session where everybody called Bruce ‘Boss’) in a move which had seen the departure of his brother David and original drummer Pick Withers – dissolved the band.
All the numbers and constant attention had lost meaning for the band, especially Knopfler who would tell Rolling Stone “”A lot of press reports were saying we were the biggest band in the world. There’s not an accent then on the music, there’s an accent on popularity. I needed a rest.”‘
It was, in hindsight, a pretty appropriate place to call it a day – having risen from an unlikely breakthrough to the millions of sales achieved by Brothers In Arms. Those first five albums are stuffed with great tunes and I’ll happily put any one of them at any time – especially Love Over Gold which is by far and away their finest work even if Brothers In Arms became the monster in terms of sales. And yet they had one more in them..
On Every Street
After Dire Straits we dissolved in ’88, Mark Knopfler recorded a soundtrack for Last Exit To Brooklyn and formed The Notting Hillbillies, a country-leaning group who released Missing… Presumed Having a Good Time in 1990. It felt like, free of the expectation and incumbent attention given to anything Dire Straits, Knopfler was having, well a good time.
Then, in early 1991, the band – well, bass plater John Illsley, Knopfler and manager Ed Bicknell – met for lunch and decided to reconvene Dire Straits. Just like that, apparently. Personally, I can’t help but feel there was a little more to it than that because the resultant On Every Streets now – having spent more time of it late than I have for years after picking up a copy on cassette for a quid – feels like an album of two halves, a split-personality of an album that not only suffers from the CD bloat that was rife during that era (especially ironic given Brothers In Arms the first album to sell a million copies on that format was a much more concise effort) but also feels like it suffers from a lack of interest from Knopfler himself across several tracks.
The time of release for On Every Street was as inauspicious as their debut only this time even the band members would admit that, following the album’s tour, “whatever the zeitgeist was that we had been part of, it had passed.” 1991 was also the year of ALT ROCK in deserved big letters – Nevermind, Ten, Badmotorfinger were breaking grunge out of Seattle and U2 had discovered irony and wrap around sunglasses in time for Achtung Baby! It didn’t feel like the time for a new Dire Straits record (any more than, really, 1994 would feel like time for a new Pink Floyd album) but, now, free of the judgement of the time, On Every Street has a lot of good stuff on it. It’s just that, sandwiched between are some real duff moments.
If you look at it almost as an ‘every-other-track’ album, On Every Street carries its weight. I’m starting to wonder if the conversation at that lunch in 1991 was more along of the lines of a record label pointing out that one more album was due and that if Knopfler wanted to keep major-label backing for his solo work, these new songs needed to go out under the Dire Straits name one last time. Or perhaps I’m being cynical – there’s no such statement or quote to attest to this but I can’t shake the feeling that those tracks which feel like Knopfler isn’t giving it his most on are the most ‘Twisting By The Pool’ / ‘Walk of Life’ style blatant attempts at appeasing the expectation of a ‘Dire Straits hit song’. The guiltiest? ‘Heavy Fuel’ and ‘My Parties’. I mean, take just those two off and you’re down to a stronger album already, right?
But, back to the every-other-track / cd bloat theory that’s hiding a stronger album theory.
‘Calling Elvis’ isn’t a bad song, it’s pretty good and Knopfler’s guitar work is understated but lets loose in a way that’s still delicious all these years later. The album’s title track follows and ‘On Every Street’ is a gorgeous tune – subject matter that calls back to ‘Private Investigations’ and a guitar solo that takes over three minutes in that I can listen to daily and still love.
Not only that but ‘Fade to Black’ has a lovely hushed, noir-like low-key vibe with Knoplfer dropping licks aplenty and an organ part that recalls Making Movies in a way. But to get to it you have to skip ‘When It Comes To You’ – a song that’s not the worst on the album but doesn’t really offer much and jars when listened to in flow. Skip over ‘The Bug’ (you only need to hear it once) and you’re back to the gold (as in Love Over) territory again with another stately, brooding and gorgeously played ‘You and Your Friend’. To me it plays like a wonderful hybrid of ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ and ‘Brothers in Arms’ in style and it’s easily a highpoint:
Skip the next track – the easy, low-hanging fruit lyrics of ‘Heavy Fuel’ (“When my ugly big car won’t a-climb this hill, I’ll write a suicide note on a hundred dollar bill”), and move straight on to ‘Iron Hand’, easily one of Knopfler’s finest. From this point, save for ‘My Parties’ which feels like b-side ‘Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-Shirts’, the album remains pretty decent.
That’s the thing that links all the ‘meh’ tracks here whether it’s ‘The Bug’, ‘Heavy Fuel’ or ‘My Parties’ – they all feel like the actual b-sides that were released with the album’s singles. When they were recently made available on Spotify I was keen to hear but then ‘Kingdom Come’ and ‘Millionaire Blues’ are actually pretty interchangeable with ‘The Bug’ and ‘Heavy Fuel’, even Knopfler’s vocals sound as uncommitted. Which makes me think not only are these tunes that MK could toss off in his sleep but that were it not for CD runtimes and presumed label pressure, they too would’ve been trimmed off.
Back to the good stuff – ‘Ticket To Heaven’ has a much lighter, folkier and almost Celtic touch with a few strings added on and Knopfler’s in great voice (it’s a good signpost for his solo work on The Ragpicker’s Dream). ‘Planet of New Orleans’ is back to the noir-vibe of ‘Fade To Black’ but with extra guitar atmosphere and sax while ‘How Long’ is as obvious a light-hearted and folk-leaning Mark Knopfler solo song as it’s possible to be and serves as a fitting sign-off on the last Dire Straits album while remaining optimistic and hinting at what was to come.
You see, that’s the thing – where it’s really good On Every Street works brilliantly. For a long time Dire Straits had ceased to be the ‘band’ it started out as and had become a vehicle for Knopfler’s song writing with John Illsley along to pluck the bass. At this point Knopfer was leaning to a much different style to that which had proven the biggest ‘hits’ for Dire Straits but there was – and still is – a huge amount of great tunes to be found. Who knows – had On Every Street been allowed to focus on that element, without the filler and the negative reviews it drew as a result, maybe he’d still be releasing albums under the band name rather than his own.
As it was, the album drew lukewarm reviews at best though through a heavy tour schedule (300 shows in two years which were documented on the patch OnThe Night live album) and promotion still shifted 10 million. Knopfler’s second marriage fell apart, the tour was stressful and overblown and reminded all of what caused the first end back in ’88. Thus it was that, in 1992, Knopfler said ‘goodnight’ to 40,000 people in Spain for the last time as Dire Strait’s frontman and stepped into a solo career that has been producing solid solo albums and soundtracks since ’96. The band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 – there was no reunion and Knopfler didn’t attend, with John Illsley stating “I’ll assure you it’s a personal thing. Let’s just leave it at that.”
Oh, here’s On Every Street, don’t forget to skip a few: