Most people don't really consider British rockers Dire Straits to be an '80s band, aside from the group's No. 1 hit from 1985, "Money for Nothing," and its music video. But in reality - when active - Dire Straits was one of the decade's most important and unique contributors to the music landscape. Here's a chronological look at some of the group's finest tracks from the decade's first six years, all of which showcase the impressive songwriting, guitar playing and gruff lead vocals of frontman Mark Knopfler.
Mark Knopfler's distinctive guitar playing has always possessed a certain amount of bite, but he really seemed to reach another level as an instrumentalist on Dire Straits' 1980 release, Making Movies, and this jagged tune in particular. While the band had little in common with its punk rock contemporaries in an overall sense, the energetic immediacy of this great song taps into the primal appeal of punk on multiple levels. As a vocalist, Knopfler is more commanding at a whisper than almost any of his classic rock brethren, no matter the pyrotechnics they might spout. And the singular nature of his growling style fits perfectly with his inventive, active but never overly busy guitar work here. An underappreciated, long-playing rock classic.
It takes a certain amount of boldness for a pop star to take on Shakespearean characters in his work and abundant talent and vision to bring them to life anew in a six-minute folk song. Knopfler apparently has these characteristics in surplus, as this dazzling story song (the songwriter's version of an award-winning adapted screenplay) sparkles with vitality and passion from start to finish. Coming of age in the early '90s, I became introduced to this great song mostly through the Indigo Girls' wonderful though far less subtle version from 1992. But it's usually wisest to stick with the original, a maxim that's almost as much of a law as gravity in our stifled, remake-happy era. I prefer Knopfler's sonic movie, thank you very much.
3. "Skateaway"The combination of Knopfler's voice with his poetic songwriting gives an enticing impression of what Bob Dylan's best work would have sounded like had the man ever been much of a singer (or cared to concentrate on that aspect of his performances). That comparison is certainly nothing new, but ultimately Knopfler's songs maximize their impact probably as well as anyone's because of the warmth and intimacy generated through his vocals. This gem boasts an enchanting groove as well as evocative, reverent and unforgettable imagery of a rollergirl on her rounds and the observant souls lucky enough to see it. For that reason, despite its laid-back sound, this tune is rock and roll to the core, musical poetry that actually deserves such a label.
After the challenging, nearly progressive rock 1982 album, Love Over Gold, Dire Straits took a bit of a hiatus for Knopfler to dive into side projects and, perhaps, for the band to retool its sound. What resulted was a sweeping, eclectic approach for 1985's smash album, Brothers in Arms, that captured superstardom on the band's own terms. This song is one of the few overexposed signature '80s songs that I still consistently enjoy hearing, especially the eight-minute extended version. Knopfler's embrace of the spacey '80s keyboard sound somehow meshes perfectly with another tough, taut guitar performance. And conceptually, this is next-to flawless execution of an inspired pop culture idea that will probably always resonate.
The ubiquitous nature of Dire Straits' other two smash hits from that album doesn't sit quite as well with me, as I simply had to hear this track and "Walk of Life" too many times back in the day. As a form of protest, I'll include only one of these tracks on this list, and it's probably no surprise to regular readers of this site that I go for the less upbeat of the two. Knopfler certainly puts forth a laid-back groove here, but the distinctive melancholy of the tune's lyrics perfectly fits the singer's pleading, impassioned delivery. The melody remains timelessly affecting if far too familiar, revealing a grasp of pop songcraft at its peak. Now, maybe if I wait five years I'll actually enjoy this one again.