Dire Straits – Dire Straits (1978)
Welcome back to YDCS where this week we’re taking a look at a blues-rock act out of England that shaped rock throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Dire Straits was an act formed by Mark and David Knopfler, John Illsley, and Pick Withers who worked hard to get to the top of the rock scene. This group of gents went about promoting their mixtapes the old-fashioned way, by going into record agencies and pitching their music. After being initially turned down, the band struck gold when a radio show in London picked up on what would become their smash hit, Sultans of Swing. From there, the band was offered a full record deal and went into the studio to record their debut album which would spawn two iconic singles, Sultans of Swing and Water of Love.
This self-titled debut album is defined by its blues rock sound that is especially reminiscent of Eric Clapton’s Slowhand that we covered earlier. Musically, Dire Straits follows traditional blues rock with dual guitars and heavy usage of I-IV-V chord progressions (the most common blues chord progression). I would add that Mark Knopfler’s ability on the guitar and picking technique, both on this album and in future releases, is one that can’t be overlooked and arguably puts him on the short list of greatest rock guitarists of all time. In my opinion, this is a defining album for the band, most notably because they found their sound early on and didn’t go through multiple albums to get there. Throughout their career, they were known for producing blues rock inspired tracks and this album certainly leans heavily into that and is a premier example of what the genre has produced. I hope you enjoy the album!
Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown
Down to the Waterline: A perfect 10/10 on the first track. The blues rock that the band was known for was present in full force on this first song. What I like most about Down to the Waterline is how tight the band sounds and the funky guitar riff through each of the verses. This upbeat, bluesy track should be mentioned in the same breath as Sultans of Swing, and is arguably better than the other single issued for this album, Water of Love. Down to the Waterline is a better example of the band’s musical capacity and is more musically complex than other tracks on the album in the same way that Sultans stands out for its musicality. Waterline is a track that can best be experienced by putting on a pair of headphones and listening to how every instrument melds together. This track is decidedly worthy of the “They Don’t Make Music Like This Anymore Award.” Dad’s Rating 10/10
Water of Love: Released as one of the singles for the album, I actually don’t find that much special about Water of Love. I like how the band seems to be on the same page and the vocals and instrumentation fit together nicely, which I would argue is not the case on some later tracks. To counterpoint, the instrumentation in particular feels too restrained. There are other slowed down tracks on this album that still allow for superb musicianship to filter through, but I don’t think is one of them. Dad’s Rating 5/10
Setting Me Up: This is just a classic blues rock track with a great guitar solo, and not much else to write home about. The instrumentation is above average and the band feels as tight as they do on some of their best pieces. There’s not much to fault here except that it does get lost in the band’s repertoire because it doesn’t stand out. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Six Blade Knife: We heard how Water of Love left some to be desired in a slowed down song, and Six Blade Knife fulfills everything I wanted in the former but didn’t have. The musicianship in the “call and response” between the lyrics and guitar shows that the band has some chops that they’re trying to display and the hushed vocals really fit with the tone of the song. This song brings to mind images of bands playing in smoky, low-lit bars while the patrons groove along to the band. Six Blade Knife is how you make a slow-tempo blues rock song. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Southbound Again: I really like Southbound Again, and it’s a really fun track to listen to! The song has a bluesy groove to it and the more drive than most of the songs on the album, but my problem with it comes from its lack of musicality. The band doesn’t do anything here to show their instrumental proficiency and it’s honestly a good thing that the song is so short because it would otherwise drone on. Listen to this then listen to any other track on the album and you’ll see that the band just isn’t reaching their fullest potential with this song. Dad’s Rating 6/10
Sultans of Swing: Was Sultans of Swing going to be anything other than a perfect score? No, no it wasn’t. The band is incredibly tight in their delivery on this track, and Knopfler’s picking during the second guitar solo is nothing short of legendary. I would argue that Sultans is a song that starts strong with that ever-recognizable guitar riff and gets stronger the longer the song goes on before finishing at the second guitar solo. Though I will rate this song a 10/10, I believe that Waterline accomplishes the same thing Sultans does in incorporating a highly technical solo, a captivating and groovy guitar riff, and tight playing from the band in a song that’s almost 2 minutes shorter. Regardless of my personal opinion, this song cemented the band’s place in the halls of classic rock’s most well-known artists with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 and deserves the “They Don’t Make Music Like This Anymore Award.” Dad’s Rating 10/10
In the Gallery: In the Gallery is a great example of a deep-cut that never got much traction but deserves a listen! I’m particularly fond of how the lead guitar seems to wander during the verses, almost providing an exclamation mark or appositive statement to Knopfler’s lyrics. To a negative point, I will criticize the vocals on this track, they were difficult to understand and I actually had to look up the lyrics to understand all of them. This is a good track to listen to from a purely instrumental point of view, but good luck with the lyrics. Dad’s Rating 6/10
Wild West End: The Dire Straits show their smoother, calmer side on Wild West End. Musically, the band is just as strong here as on their more well-known tracks and they don’t feel restrained by slowing things down. There’s the same “call and response” between the lyrics and the guitar here that we heard on Gallery as well. I’m going to criticize Knopfler’s vocals again though, I actually find them grating enough on such a peaceful track that it takes me out of the song. Dad’s Rating 6/10
Lions: I much prefer Lions over West End or Gallery for the fact that the song actually feels like it fits together. Previously I’ve criticized the harshness of the vocals, but they’re more restrained here and I believe that improves the song. The musicianship that we’ve heard from the band on the rest of the album is equally present here as it is through the rest of the album. This is a deep cut that’s worth listening to! Dad’s Rating 7/10
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