Albums of my Years – 1983

1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be…

Man, I’m slipping with these already and I’m only three in… In 1983 the Empire was defeated, Superman split himself in two to fight with himself and Tom Cruise created a new visual that would henceforth be associated with Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’…  Not that I was able to catch any of this on screen at the tender age of two or three.

Nor did I have any awareness of the music world in 1983. I’m sure I heard many a radio hit of the day from The Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ to Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ in one way or another but my recollections of them are as likely or valid as that Orange Clown’s tax returns.

1983 saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller – released the previous year – hit the top of the charts in the US. It would spend 37 weeks there eventually. During which time CDs went on sale in America where the Beach Boys were banned from the Fourth of July festivities in Washington – then Interior Secretary (which apparently doesn’t involve dictating wallpaper and furnishing choices) James G Watts stated that rock bands attracted “the wrong element”.  Turned out President Reagan felt a bit cheesed off by the decision as he was a Beach Boys fan – Watt apologised and received a gift from the Pres – a plaster foot with a hole in it.

The Rolling Stones were quids in – not that they were strapped for cash, mind – as they signed a $28 million contract with CBS, a then-largest recording contract ever. Money isn’t everything, though – Jagger and Richards were increasingly stroppy with each other and, the following year, Mick would sign a solo deal with CBS and while the band would drop Undercover in ’83, it would be another 3 years until their first album under their new label and contract.

Both Mick Jones (The Clash) and Dave Mustaine (Metallica) got their marching orders this year. Some decisions made in 1983 worked out well – such as agreeing with the management-employee that said “yeah, Johnny Electric is a shit name, just call the band Bon Jovi” (or words to that effect).  Others didn’t work out so well – like an off-his-tits on cocaine Marvin Gaye, convinced that there were multiple plots to kill him, gave his father an unlicensed Smith & Wesson.38 special calibre pistol for Christmas. Must have been an absolute sod to wrap that.

Simon and Garfunkal called it quits, again, in 1983, as did Sly and the Family Stone, Humble Pie and The Who.  Meanwhile Bon Jovi, The Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices, The La’s, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Noir Désir and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds all formed in 1983.

Dire Straits, following the success of Love Over Gold, released ExtendedancEPlay, which contained the worst song they ever committed to tape in ‘Twisting by the Pool’. Sonic Youth dropped their debut full-length, Confusion Is Sex – though, as much as I love Sonic Youth, I wouldn’t call it essential. This one is unlikely to be known to many as it barely made a ripple and, much like the band themselves, sank without a trace shortly thereafter but… a band called U2 released their third album War in 1983, with songs celebrating New Year and pointing out just how frustrating Sundays can be:

I wonder what they’re up to these days. Maybe they found a trade and took an apprenticeship somewhere….

ZZ Top dropped Eliminator, which catapulted them to MTV stardom, in March of ’83 while Pink Floyd released Roger Waters’ rant The Final Cut – needless to say it’s not my pick of the year. Mark Knopfler stepped away from the Dire Straits name for the first time with his first solo and soundtrack album Local Hero:

Men at Work’s Cargo – which featured the classics ‘Overkill’ and ‘It’s a Mistake’ – also arrived in 1983 as did, keeping in this blog’s wheelhouse, albums from REM (their debut Murmur) and The Replacements with their brilliant Hootenany on which they really started pushing away from their early punk sound and hinted at what was to come:

I think it’s fair to say there were a lot of solid albums in ’83 that I could quite happily feature on these ‘pages’ – Billy Joel (who I don’t often tip a hat to) released the hit-stacked Innocent Man – which I remember picking up on cassette at some point in time, Bob Dylan dropped back into non-religious music with the brillian Infidels and, much to the frustration of produce Mark Knopfler (who was having a busy ’83) left ‘Blind Willie McTell’ from its track listing while Tom Waits started his journey into the abstract with Swordfishtrombones.  Having boosted David Bowie’s Let’s Dance to a different level with his guitar playing earlier in the year, Stevie Ray Vaughan released, with Double Trouble, his phenomenal debut Texas Flood:

So what gets my pick for my favourite album of 1983…. well, there’s been a couple of their tunes on the entries to date but this the last year in which they could possibly feature because….

The Police – Synchronicity

Released pretty much bang on halfway through the year on June 17th, Synchronicity spawned 5 singles, all of which hit the Top 20 in the UK with the ubiquitous ‘Every Breath You Take’ hitting the top spot here and across the pond. It gained near unanimous praise in the press, interrupted Thriller‘s stay at the Top of the US chart as it traded places to notch up 17 weeks at number 1, picked up a Grammy Award, continues to be named as one of the best albums of the 80s and pop up in Best Albums lists but would be the band’s last.

It was recorded by a band already pretty much falling apart, watch any documentary or interviews with the members and you get an idea of the tensions that drove The Police.  The band members would record from different parts of the studio – Stewart Copeland (fucking awesome drummer) would drum from the dining room, Andy Summers in the studio itself (it was recorded on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, it’s a hard life) with Sting recording from the control room. Any overdubs were done one member at a time.

And yet it never sounds disjointed. Synchronicity is the sound of a band at the peak of their powers. NME’s review from the time described it as “a mega-band playing off glittering experimentation…. the music fuses intuitive pop genius with willfully dense orchestration so powerfully dense it stuns.”

And that’s why I rank Synchronicity as their finest – The Police were masterful songwriters yet, like so many other, they almost fought against it as if it were wrong to create perfectly crafted melodies – they came up in the punk movement so tried to hitch a ride on that scene’s energy, then there was the insistence of trying to shove reggae into the mix, with Sting’s god awful forced accent. I agree with Elvis Costello’s statement at the time: ‘Somebody should clip (him) round the head and tell him to stop singing in that ridiculous Jamaican accent.”

So while I love a huge amount of The Police’s music, Synchronicity, where they finally ditch all that and create beautiful melodies and textures – is the album that I happily sit and listen to all the way through. I can’t recall when I first heard it -growing up after it was released it feels like ‘Every Breath You Take’ has always been there, but even after hearing it so many times it never bores:

Though my favourite on this album is ‘Synchronicity II”, I love the drive and energy of the song and the fact that it’s couple to those lyrics; “Another suburban family morning, Grandmother screaming at the wall. We have to shout above the din of our Rice Crispies..” I can’t think of another song that mentions Rice Crispies or take its inspiration from Carl Jung…. and then references the Loch Ness monster.

The videos….  I think they were all by Godley and Creme (ex 10CC). A duo whose first music video was for their own single ‘An Englishman in New York’ (funny, that) who directed so many pivotal music videos of the 80’s which all had a distinct feel that connects to memories of my youth so vitally that it’s impossible for me to listen to these songs – pretty much the entire second half of this album was released as a single – and not be transported back to that time.

I’ll finish with ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’ – the video for which spawned one of my favourite Andy Summers quotes and points out just how clearly the writing was on the wall for the band. Godley & Creme filmed it a little unusually – the music was played fast and Sting – who  loves the video “It’s incredibly atmospheric, and I think the set design is brilliant” – mimed at high speed so that when played at normal speed it gives a weird slo motion affect. Andy Summers pointed out: “I was kind of pissed off about that one. I’ve never been much of a fan of that song, actually. Sting got to shoot his part last in that video and made a meal of knocking all the candles out. Fuck him.”

Albums of my Years – 1980

What’s this then?

Well: this year will feature my last birthday with a 3 at the start. So, I figured that, given my average posting frequency and to allow a post every week or so, I’d pick an album from each of the years I’ve been on this ride in the theory that this would leave me enough time to complete a 40 post series just as I hit 40.

I’ll be picking one album from each year that’s either a favourite, one that means something to me and has not been covered in these ‘pages’ thus far.

Sound alright? I am, of course, always happy to get feedback or recommendations for anything that I may have missed along the way – especially in those years when I hadn’t yet mastered walking.

So, let’s start from the top…

1980 saw a fair bit going on in the music world:

Paul McCartney kicked off his 1980 in jail in Japan when he was caught with some marijuana on him – they’d kick him out of the country two weeks later.

Don Henley also got in a bit of bother with the rozzers and drugs, albeit some harder substances when police hit the motherload in his house after a naked 16-year-old prostitute(!) had drug-related seizures and they found another 15-year-old girl(!!) tripping balls. He ended up with all kinds of charges which, oddly enough, didn’t end up as lyrical fodder for ‘Boys of Summer’…. ‘you got ya hair combed back and those quaaludes are kickin in, baby.’

Led Zepplin’s powerhouse drummer John Bonham’s wholehearted embrace of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of excess reached its inevitable conclusion and he was found dead by bandmate John Paul Jones – the drummer having choked on his own vomit after downing several pubs worth of vodka. The band would disband a month or two later.

Back to Fab – John Lennon and Yoko Ono got busy recording Double Fantasy which dropped in November. But, just one month later, Lennon was entering the Dakota building when he noticed Mark Chapman standing nearby and nodded at him – presumably recognising him after Chapman had requested Lennon’s autograph earlier in the day. Moments later Chapman fired five shots at John Lennon’s back, from about ten feet away and 1980 drew to a close with 100,000 mourners holding a public vigil in Central Park for the murdered John Lennon.

Bit of an odd one to be born into, really. In terms of album’s released in 1980, it’s slim pickings from my wheelhouse.

Split Enz released the phenomenal True Colours (home to ‘I Got You’ and ‘Nobody Takes Me Seriously’ and a buttload of other crackers)…. The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta dropped in October and it, too, is stuffed with corkers.

The Joe Perry Project released their first album Let the Music Do the Talking which included the stonking title track and a good dose of riff-heavy tunes and some fella from New Jersey released an ep called The River... and a group of young lads from Ireland dropped their debut Boy and promptly vanished into obscurity.

BUT: I can’t choose The River as the ‘1980’ album. As much as it’s my favourite release of the year I’ve already talked about it at length and I don’t want to repeat myself. So.. what does that leave? Scary Monsters? Meh. Sandinista! ? Nah… though ‘Police On My Back’ is a fucking belter!

How about:

Dire Straits –Making Movies

Knopfler and co’s third album, Making Movies dropped on October 17th 1980. The same day as Bruce Springsteen’s The River and just 11 days before I did.

Dire Straits actually ‘borrowed’ both Roy Bittan and Jimmy Iovine from Springsteen for Making Movies. Knoplfer had wanted Iovine as producer after hearing Patti Smith’s ‘Because The Night’ and Iovine helped get The Professor involved. Probably helped that they were pretty much next door – Making Movies was recorded at New York’s The Power Station at the same time as work on The River was wrapping up. – I’ve pondered before if the seeds for, or at least the title of, the Boss’ Tunnel of Love song were planted here, there’s no way he’d not listen to what his producer and piano player had been moonlighting on.. or even listened through the wall with a wine glass?

That oft-maligned trade rag Rolling Stone has this to say of Making Movies: 

“Making Movies is the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler. The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances and the band’s cutting-edge rock & roll soundtrack is breathtaking—everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t. If Making Movies really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.”

To say I grew up with Dire Straits and Making Movies on in the background would be an understatement. Their love of the band was something that bonded my father and his best friend (my ‘Dutch uncle’) and it was continually played to the point that now, thirty some years later I still know every word on the majority of this album and still enjoy spinning it.

It’s the album that helped the band break out to a wider audience with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ did the business on radio. On yet another Springsteen connection (I know, I know) that beautiful guitar arpeggio? Go listen then go listen to ‘Jungleland‘ and the piano in the first verse. It wasn’t deliberate, Knopfler hit on it by pure chance while trying out a tuning with his National:

There’s nothing wrong with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but my personal favourite is still the first tune on the album, the Tunnel of Love / Carousel Waltz combo. When you combine it with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Skateaway’ I think you’ve got a pretty damn fine Side A there.

Side B isn’t too shabby. Granted ‘Les Boys’ wouldn’t be released today with it’s “Les Boys do cabaret, Les Boys are glad to be gay” lyrics but Knopfler’s guitar work is on form throughout, as with the tres-80s titled ‘Expresso Love’ and the charming ‘Hand in Hand’ which, for my money, points at sounds that would surface more on their next album Love Over Gold:

Still, what saves the album isn’t just what’s on it but what isn’t: ‘Twisting by the Pool’ was recorded during these sessions but was, thankfully, left off.

 

 

 

I have legalised robbery, called it belief

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a strange thing that I reckon probably means more in the States than it does here. I think it’s a lot of backslapping really but seems like excuse enough for a good bout of entertainment each year as those acts inducted – depending on which member is still not speaking to another for perceived slights / lawsuits / wife fondling or other – blast through a couple of their most well-known numbers.

While I’m sure many a musical press headline will be given over to whether an estranged guitarist will rejoin his former New Jersey bandmates and plug in his talkbox, the really interesting one for me is the induction of Dire Straits.

Aside from seeing a very British band being pulled into a distinctly American ritual, the big question is whether or not Mark Knopfler will decide this is reason enough to play with those other members that are being inducted.

Given that one of those members being inducted is his brother David, who left the band all the way back in 1980 and the two have barely spoken since – it makes for quite the plot twist. While original drummer Pick Withers left in 1983 his departure was an amicable one so I doubt any issue would arise there. Of course there’s no doubt bass player, and the only other member to have been a constant, John Illsley is up for it: he’s said as much to press since the announcement and, to me, seems like the Nick Mason of the band – always up for the reunion that isn’t in his power to call.

It’s odd that Dire Straits are being inducted at all, in a way. It’s probably evidence that the “fan ballot” is now being considered, I suppose (and who would’ve pinned Dire Straits as getting that many votes?), but while there’s no denying their talent and popularity (how many people have a cd with a shimmering National Resonator on the cover? Thirty odd million?) they never seemed likely contenders for such a… recognition.

In a way they were never cool. My wife recently said – while not faulting them – they were a bit “boring.” It’s certainly true that they were never really innovators or swore on national tv or that Knopfler’s image was permanently removed from any possibility of cool thanks to those sweatbands, but I find it odd they don’t get much recognition in the same way so many other bands of that era have been offered in the urgency to bestow “legendary” status on those bands music writers remember from childhood. Rolling Stone put it succinctly “it might be a stretch to expect [millennials] to understand how band frontman Mark Knopfler, a balding thirtysomething given to wearing headbands and wristbands, used to  fill arenas full of young people. Pop stars don’t really look like dads as much as they used to. ”

I guess they’re just not ‘cool’ enough to be mentioned as influences or remembered beyond ‘Money for Nothing’ or ‘Sultans of Swing’ as far as radio programmers go.

Which is a real shame. I grew up with a grey TDK mixtape of their first four albums on heavy rotation in my Dad’s car so they form an important part of my musical education and, as I’ve said before – they’re all too often sneered at though I’m sure there’s an awful lot of guitarists and bands influenced by Knopfler’s playing. If it wouldn’t be counter-productive I’d give my right hand to play some of those licks and master that tone (I remember spending a huge amount of time learning ‘Private Investigations’).

They weren’t just four (or five or six depending on the time you caught them) blokes that looked like your geography teacher playing in a pub band. They lasted as long as they did – going against the flow of punk, new romantics and synthpop and fucking Duran Duran – and sold as many records as they did because behind the deceptively laid back phrasing and style there’s a master songwriter and formidable guitar player at work in Dire Straits’ back catalogue and to refute that is just plain ignorant. So – regardless of whether some format of the band gets up and plays ‘Romeo and Juliet’ one more time – I’m glad to see them being inducted. Well deserved.

That being said I am rooting for Knopfler, Illsley and Withers to at least play together one more time and put the thing to bed properly.

In the spirit of trying to get away from the obvious, here’s a playlist of a baker’s dozen ‘non-regulation’ tracks that you won’t find spun on radio but really should.

 

 

Tracks: 5.15am

He thought the man was fast asleep
Silent, still and deep
Both dead and cold
Shot through
With bullet holes

This is an odd one and probably the least ‘cool’ track on this list which is strange and mumble-worthy in itself… Of all those bands revisited and touted as influences, given the remaster treatment and dusted off in the wake of nostalgia revivals, Dire Straits remained immune. Perhaps it was down to Knoplfer’s unfortunate headband / hair combo during the Money For Nothing era or that Harry Enfield sketch, or the over-presence of Sultans of Swing on the radio but, for a band that shifted over 100 million records (30 million shifted by Brothers In Arms alone), Dire Straits are still one of those bands that are sneered at though I’m sure there’s an awful lot of guitarists and bands influenced by Knopfler’s playing.

I’m willing to bet, though, that Knopfler himself couldn’t give a rat’s arse about it. Likely contributing to that lack of attention is the fact that, having quietly dissolved the group in 1995 having become uncomfortable with the scale of the tours and productions, Mark Knopfler has resisted any and every urge (if he even has them) to revisit the group having forged ahead with his solo career and no calls for the ‘Legend’ spot at Glastonbury are likely to change that.

I grew up with the sound of Dire Straits thanks to my Dad and the same is true of Knopfler’s solo material – it’s one of those common tastes we share. While I’m not a big enough fan to own anything beyond a Best Of comp I do know the songs and will keep an ear out when I hear them, if only for sentimental reasons. That and the fact that Knopfler’s guitar phrasing and tone is an absorbing an beautiful thing all by itself, especially on his solo albums. Shrangri La – Knopfler’s fourth solo record – is a different story though.

Recorded after a seven-month break from the guitar imposed by recovering from a motorcycle accident, I’d state this is my favourite thing Knopfler has put to tape and certainly his most-consistent. The slow-burn, blues tone is dominant, gone are the celtic/folk leanings of his earlier efforts and his laid back phrasing and story telling is leant to a much wider range of subjects including Elvis (Back To Tupelo), the founding of McDonalds (Boom Like That) and those uniquely British tales like the plight of the modern fisherman in The Trawlerman Song and the One-Armed Bandit Murder in what has to be my favourite Knopfler composition; 5.15am.

It’s an atmospheric tune that begins with a gentle strum that builds into a real bluesy tone as it tells both the story of the discovery of “one armed bandit man (who) came north to fill his boots”‘ body and its impact on the local coal-mining community where “generations toiled and hacked, for a pittance and black lung”.