It was really weird tracking the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame festivities this year. Really weird because, as a lot of you know, I’ve been a huge Dire Straits fan since the 1980s — and things really went strangely during the night.
Straits had the unfortunate circumstance of not having two of its founding members show up. One, drummer Pick Withers, really hasn’t been in the limelight much since he left the band following Making Movies, so his lack of appearance was no surprise.
The other is kind of the reason why any of us ever heard of Dire Straits in the first place.
Trust me, it was thoroughly disappointing to see Mark Knopfler not in attendance — or to act as if the Hall of Fame honor was really no big deal. However, Knopfler’s decision to avoid the ceremonies wasn’t any surprise, either.
And it was even stranger that bassist John Illsley had the uncomfortable task of inducting him and his bandmates. To my knowledge, no other inductee has essentially been told, “Here’s your trophy, now go induct yourself.”
It was truly uncomfortable all the way around.
Be that as it may, however, I got to thinking about Dire Straits’ induction disaster in another light: radio airplay. Over time, there has been a definite amount of shrinkage in classic rock playlists. A handful of artists will get significant airplay for their more recent or lower-charting hits, but that list is extremely short. U2 comes to mind…and that may be about it. And Dire Straits is a classic example. Essentially, the on-air playlist consists of Sultans of Swing, Money for Nothing and Walk of Life. When was the last time you heard Skateaway, Down to the Waterline or Calling Elvis? Those songs at least gained airplay after they were released.
So my thoughts then drifted to some of Knopfler’s best work, at least in my mind, with Dire Straits. I decided to omit his solo career because, aside from his first two solo albums, Knopfler’s career has largely been on retread and — to me — is not really worth celebrating.
For argument’s sake, I chose these five songs for Knopfler’s solos or outros (or both). A couple may have had airplay consistently in the past, but all five have two things in common: they are damn good and you likely won’t hear them on radio airwaves any time soon.
Where Do You Think You’re Going (Communique, 1979)
Communique was largely a dud to a lot of people in part because it didn’t show a lot of growth from Straits’ eponymous debut. However, there were some bright spots — and the outro for Where Do You Think You’re Going is at or near the top of the list. In true early Knopfler fashion, it’s understated — but it fits and augments the song as it closes.
Tunnel of Love (Making Movies, 1980)
From the variation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” to the lengthy outro, this is just lush. In trademark Knopfler fashion, the gentle breezes at the start of his outro aren’t what you hear at the fading end. In fact, the song kind of reminds you of a fun roller-coaster ride: slow going at the start and a rush for the rest of it.
One of the things you hear in Tunnel of Love that you don’t hear in Straits’ first two records is Knopfler’s willingness to trade the lead with his keyboard partner near the end of the outro. That was also evident in this particular countdown later.
Telegraph Road (Love Over Gold, 1982)
Simply awesome. From the guitar solo, following a poignant piano interlude, to a musically heartwrenching close, in my opinion this was Knopfler’s best song. You get a what-was-and-what-could-have-been sense about Telegraph Road from the lyrics, and the music is a perfect match.
Interestingly, the live version throws a sense of hope in at the very end with just a simple switch from the D minor chord prevalent throughout the song to a D major to wrap things up.
Love Over Gold (Love Over Gold, 1982)
Knopfler shifts from rock to jazz here, and the result is again spot-on. The outro, complete with a marimba solo at the end, is worth a listen.
Why Worry (Brothers in Arms, 1985)
Whenever the storms of life hit, I instinctively come back to this song. The volume never gets above a 3, but you don’t need that to have a great song. There is a joy and a peace about Knopfler’s song structure, even at the end when the drums begin to fill, and as usual the guitar work is understated but right on the mark.