Making Movies. Dire Straits.
1980, Warner Brothers. Producer: Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Iovine.
Bootleg Cassette, 1985; Purchased, 2002.
IN A NUTSHELL: Nobody plays the guitar like Mark Knopfler – perhaps the most distinctive guitarist in the rock era. He writes grand, moving epics – six-minute movies in song. And though he’s not exactly a singer, he knows how to use his voice to imbue the songs with emotion. The band, particularly drummer Pick Withers, is excellent, and Bruce Springsteen’s keyboardist, Roy Bittan, helps to give the songs a certain majesty.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
I like guitar players. I like baseball players. Is there a relationship between the two? Well, first a little1 background.
Since 1957, sociologists have modeled the way in which new technologies are adopted by the general public. The first model, upon which all others have been based, is the Technology Adoption Life Cycle. It was established by researchers Beal and Bohlen and was developed by observing how farmers integrated new ideas and products into their farming operations.
The model was of little general interest outside a few economists and researchers until the computer boom of the 80s brought increasingly technologically sophisticated products to all types of marketplaces. Marketing folks scoured and devoured the research, finding applications for it among consumer products from Teddy Ruxpin and home computers to hospital infusion pumps. Geoffery A. Moore’s 1991 book Crossing the Chasm became the bible for how to reach members of a population with differing orientations toward new ideas. And today, with major advancements in computerized technology seemingly creating obsolescence in mere weeks, most Americans have become familiar with some of the terms created by those obscure 1950s researchers: “Early Adopters” and “Laggards.”
I have never been an early adopter. Around 1981 my high school purchased a few computers, and kids like me in the “honors” program were given first crack at taking the school’s inaugural Computer Class. I was one of the very few to decline. Since then, I have been a Laggard in nearly all cultural and technological developments, catching onto the tail ends of everything from VCRs to DVD Players to Blu-Ray Players to streaming media. I don’t have anything against technology, it’s just that I don’t really pay attention to developments until my VCR or DVD Player breaks down and I need a new one.
This Laggard-ness should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog about rock music albums. That’s right, I maintain a dead website type (the blog) about a dead music genre (rock) as heard on a dead medium (the album). I’m three for three.
Oh, and I typically start my blog with a personal essay, which has also been declared dead.
So given my laggardness and my interest in things that everyone else has already apparently forgotten about, it should also be no surprise that I’ve decided to compare famous guitar players to famous baseball players: the best in the world at a dying instrument as compared to the best in the world at a dying game. Perhaps, as the march of progress continues to quicken its pace, and the interval required for nostalgia to suffuse into popular culture narrows from 20-plus years to 10, and 5, and etc., I’ll be lucky enough to catch the second wave of interest in baseball and electric guitar – ironic though it may be – like a Victorian gentleman awakening in the midst of a Brooklyn Steampunk festival. (Shit. I just realized that the game Guitar Hero debuted nearly 15 years ago. I already missed the second wave!! Maybe it’s time for me to go buy a Wii and get started playing.)
Besides sharing their apparent anachronistic nature in today’s society, guitar- and baseball players share other qualities that make them ripe for comparison. For one, both pursuits are singular actions: guitar playing and batting a ball2 And in both actions, there can be a wide difference between how you are taught to do it as a beginner and how you end up doing it as a professional. Plus, each individual has a unique style, such that fans can sometimes tell a guitar player from simply hearing a note or two just as they can identify a baseball batter just by seeing some guy impersonate the way he swings the bat. Beyond that, as the careers of guitarists and athletes progress, fans form ideas and opinions about them that become as much a part of their mystique as their actual performance on the stage or ball field.
So here’s what I’ll do: I will pick a famous guitar player and explain why, in my opinion, he is the equivalent of a famous baseball player. In my comparison, I’m only going to use baseball batters. I’ve ruled out pitchers, except in one necessary case, just to make the comparisons more uniform. One more thing: I have at times had readers from outside the United States, and even though the web has shrunk our world immensely, I doubt if these readers will know most, or any, of the names and attributes of American baseball players. So, I’ve asked my friend Mark B., originally from Costa Rica, and a big fan of both baseball and soccer, to identify soccer players who match the attributes I’ve ascribed to my baseball players.
Jimi Hendrix = Babe Ruth (Pelé): The best ever. Sure, sure, in an artistic arena the use of a superlative is quite subjective. And even in a sport with statistics out the hoo-ha, there can be some debate about calling a player “the best.” But in terms of recognition, iconography, history … there can be no one else to pair with Jimi; and no one else to pair with Babe. And my personal reason why Ruth is the undisputed best: he wasn’t only among the greatest hitters of his generation, he was also among the greatest pitchers!!
Eddie Van Halen = Willie Mays (Cristiano Ronaldo): Both of these players performed with a flair that was unseen before they hit the big time. And in both cases, this “flair” often overshadowed how great they really were. In some cases misguided folks have claimed that both were little more than that flair. This argument is laughable. Mays’s stats and Van Halen’s playing demonstrate brilliance born from years of hard work. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t have fun and be awesome at the same time!
Keith Richards = Mickey Mantle (Georgie Best): Two people who lived their lives in such a way that nobody expected them to live past 40 years old. Alcohol & drugs & amazing feats with a guitar and a bat. Both are widely acknowledged all-time greats; both are widely acknowledged high-functioning addicts. Given the money and free time afforded both ballplayers and rock stars, I’m sure some others could have been on this list instead – but these are the two greatest.
Eric Clapton = Stan Musial (Lionel Messi): Two guys who led their all-time-great careers and lives in a very understated, workmanlike manner. Sure, Clapton had the drugs and alcohol battles, but despite that, he always seemed like a decent guy who just happened to have developed an extraordinary ability – just like Stan the Man! Both of these guys were young phenoms who ended up being the sort of person who’d live on your street, and somebody’d have to tell you, “Hey, did you know old man Musial/Clapton used to be a ballplayer/guitarist?” They always let their ability speak for itself.
Steve Howe = Hank Aaron (Eusebio): Both of these guys are two of the best ever, with multi-faceted abilities, and yet they both seem to be overlooked when speaking about the best ever. Maybe it’s because they both played for rather unpopular bands/teams: Yes and the 50s-70s Braves. But when either is mentioned among rock guitar/baseball fans, everyone acknowledges their greatness.
The Edge = Barry Bonds (Diego Maradona): Two guys who get a lot of grief because of performance enhancers – chemicals, in Bonds’s case, and pedals/effects/sounds in Edge’s case. But the thing is, in the era they both played in, this was how it was done3. Most everyone else was doing the same thing, and they didn’t reach Edge/Bonds levels. You may personally downgrade either one, but both will have a huge legacy despite their accoutrements.
David Gilmour = Mike Schmidt (Francesco Totti): These two guys are inextricably linked via my friendship with Dr. Dave. Both remind me of him, as they’re two of his favorites. But also, they both have a complete game, play with power and minimal flashiness, and are undisputed greats. A Gilmour solo and a Schmidt swing are both displays of beautiful power.
George Harrison = Yogi Berra (Rivelino): These two can sometimes be overshadowed by the incredible teammates they had in their career: Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Paul McCartney, John Lennon … But both are recognized greats in their own right, and would have been a success wherever, and with whomever, they played.
John Squire = Nomar Garciaparra (Marco Van Basten): “Who?” you may ask. And that’s the point. These two started their careers on an incredible trajectory, displaying once-in-a-generation talent, plus a special something that made them seem destined for greatness. However, drugs/injuries, etc, derailed their careers. But you can’t take away those first 6 or 7 years they had – they stack up against anybody’s.
Prince = Rickey Henderson (Ronaldinho): Both of these guys were such characters, almost caricatures of themselves – with Prince becoming an unpronounceable symbol, and Rickey always calling Rickey “Rickey” – that you could sometimes forget how awesome they really were. Both could do it all. Prince was more than a falsetto voice, Rickey was more than a bunch of steals.
Mike Campbell = Joe Morgan (Arjen Robben): These two are perhaps forgotten among guitar greats and baseball Hall of Famers, but they are instantly recognizable to any fan. Morgan’s arm-flap batting stance and hustle around the basepaths4, Campbell’s spare, haunting creativity. Their teams/groups wouldn’t have been the same without them, as any fan knows.
Mark Knopfler = Robin Yount (Zinedine Zidane): Guys who did things their own way, who toiled in relative obscurity for for Dire Straits/Milwaukee Brewers until they had massive success (Brothers in Arms/1982 World Series) and won a bit of fame. Knopfler plays jazz and rock without a pick, Yount won MVPs as shortstop and centerfielder, without an endorsement deal. They went about their business being incredible until everyone else finally realized it.
I was aware of Knopfler’s band, Dire Straits, from their very beginning, as their debut hit single “Sultans of Swing” was part of my 6th grade soundtrack, along with “Heart of Glass” and “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night).” I thought the song was okay, although I often got it confused with the song “Driver’s Seat,” by one-hit-wonder Sniff ‘n The Tears5, for some reason. Then MTV came along a couple years later, and it seemed like the band’s “Skateaway” was played every hour, almost as often as “Jessie’s Girl.” I found that song too mellow and grew to hate it. I preferred the energetic early-MTV fare, like The Producers and Saga.
As has happened so often in the music-appreciation realm of my life, I met Dr. Dave at college, and my opinions started to change. We both played on the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science baseball team, for a ridiculous coach that held practices early mornings in the gym. It was, February, 1987, and the previous evening the Grammy Awards were broadcast. As we ran our 5:30 am laps, I mentioned to Dave that Paul Simon’s Graceland had won Album of the Year. I remember Dave saying, in his distinctly Dave way, “Fuck the Grammys! Dire Straits lost to fucking Phil Collins last year. That award means shit!6” He was speaking of the band’s smash 1985 album, Brothers In Arms7. Thus began my formal introduction to the band. I eventually bought several of the band’s cassettes, but Making Movies is the one that’s always stood out the most to me.
One of the first songs I remember Dave playing me has become one of my favorite songs from Making Movies, “Romeo and Juliet.”
It’s a simple-sounding song that opens with Knopfler’s characteristic finger-picking on an old-timey resonator guitar. One of the key features of Knopfler’s guitar style is that he exclusively plays using his fingers on his strumming hand instead of a pick8. Not only is this song’s introduction finger-picked, but he uses fingers on everything else, as well. Knopfler’s voice doesn’t nearly match the giftedness of his guitar playing but it’s certainly distinctive, and his stylized singing conveys great emotion. In this case it’s the pain and anger (and even unfounded hopefulness) of heartbreak, telling a story of lost love based on his real-life relationship with American singer Holly Vincent9. It’s a rare Dire Straits song in that the guitar (though obviously excellent) takes a backseat to the vocals. The song effectively uses dynamics: quiet, matter-of-fact verses and emotional bursts in the chorus, with each chorus building in intensity. The drumming, by Pick Withers, is excellent, using rolls and accents in the choruses (i.e. 2:25 – 2:45) that make the song more than just a simple rock lament. It’s a beautiful song, and Knopfler’s mournful guitar does come to the forefront in the subtle guitar outro, beginning at 4:50. (By the way, listen for the little finger snaps from Knopfler, after the lyrics “hey, la, my boyfriend’s back” (0:57) and “band accompanies me” (3:31). I love little things like that.)
If you listen to this album and think, “Hey, it sort of sounds like a Bruce Springsteen album,” it may be because producer Jimmy Iovine had been an engineer on several Springsteen albums, and also because Iovine brought along E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan. Together they helped add a sweeping, majestic sound to the record, evident on the lead track “Tunnel of Love.”
Opening with a snippet of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel Waltz,” from the musical Carousel, Bittan’s piano enters with a fanfare to herald the epic song that follows. It’s about the intense feelings of young love set at an amusement park – in this case Spanish City, a seaside park from Knopfler’s youth – and the pull of memory as one ages. Once again Knopfler’s limited vocal abilities are put to fine use, imbuing the piece with emotion. But his guitar is the star of this song. He riffs and solos beautifully behind the lyrics throughout the song. The song pulls way back at about 5:00, filled with tasty guitar figures, setting the listener up for the ferocious solo to come, beginning about 5:55. This is a Robin-Yount-Hall-of-Fame caliber solo10 to end the piece, building from quiet spaciousness to furiously fast finger picking, and throughout reflecting the wistfulness of the lyrics. It’s a tremendous song.
As is another long one, a song I’d originally disliked though came to appreciate and love, the aforementioned MTV favorite “Skateaway.”
Pick Withers’s kick drum opens the piece and the song does one of those cool things where the drum beat sounds like the “1” is on a certain beat, but then when the organ enters you find the “1” is somewhere else. I love that. Knopfler’s squawky guitar enters, setting a mysterious mood, which is probably correct for me because 35 years on and I still don’t know what the lyrics mean – unless it is what it is: just a story about a young woman rollerskating. (Okay, I just read a theory that sounds accurate – that the song is about the movies we make in our heads to accompany the songs we hear. That sounds right!) Knopfler’s guitar fills take center stage once again behind his vocals, throwing in things like the run from 2:33 to 2:44 which is super cool. And by the way – he plays all those fills while singing when he plays live, which is rather astounding. It’s a mellow song that kicks into a slightly higher gear when the chorus comes around. Bittan’s organ fills out the song nicely, and bassist John Illsley does some really cool stuff during Knopfler’s outro solo, after 5:00.
Making Movies is not very long – only 7 songs. Of course, “Tunnel of Love” and “Skateaway” are both 6-plus minutes. But it’s an economical package, with most all of the fat stripped away. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity of sound on the record, but that’s not a knock: it is a concentrated dose of Knopfler guitar, unusual vocals and lyrical stories. “Expresso Love” follows the blueprint to a tee.
It’s a song about his love for a woman, and the concerns he has about it. I’ve wondered what “expresso love” is11, but it seems like it’s a love that is really intense, therefore only taken in small doses. The song has a cool girl-group drum beat going into the chorus, and that Knopfler guitar, of course. That guitar is featured on all of the songs, except for “Hand In Hand,” which is very piano-driven, and – to my ears – is the most Springsteen-y song on the album. The lyrics are a bit sad-sack, and while it has a nice melody, I miss the guitar. As for the song “Les Boys,” it has some guitar, but it’s a too oompah-sounding for me, and even though I’m a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the lyrics are too repetitive and pointless. (Okay, they’re glad to be gay – and?)
I prefer the solid rock sound of “Solid Rock,” Dire Straits’s version of hard rock.
This is the Dire Straits’ version of hard rock, with a driving pulse and Knopfler nearly shouting his lyrics. (He never really sings). It’s all chugging piano and guitars, and he throws in cool little guitar stuff – like the first time he sings “Long will live/Solid Rock” in each chorus, he does a little “blip” sound (first heard about 0:43), which I just love. Although its shouted title sounds like a fist-pumping salute to the longevity of rock and roll12, the Solid Rock in this song is actual rock: sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic, albeit used as a metaphor for human relationships. Knopfler plays a deftly intricate solo, as usual, and the song seems to end too soon.
I love Mark Knopfler’s distinctive guitar playing. When I’m thinking about guitar players I love, his name doesn’t immediately pop into my head, but when I listen to Making Movies, I remember just how much I love his style. (And when I think about him doing it all without using a pick, I’m astonished!) It’s the same way with baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount – except for the part about using a pick. I love that different people can be so good at doing the the same thing, yet do that thing in a style they share with no one else. It speaks to both the individual and the communal nature of human beings. And it brings lots of joy to fans like me.
“Tunnel of Love”
“Romeo and Juliet”
“Hand In Hand”