Career Killers: “On Every Street” by Dire Straits

Date
Apr, 17, 2020

There are two types of “one man bands” in rock music. There are literal examples like Nine Inch Nails, World Party or Five For Fighting, which each consist of one permanent member and are, essentially, solo vehicles in all but name. Foo Fighters started out as a one man band before Dave Grohl decided to make it into an actual group.

Then there are the bands where one member does, virtually, all of the work. John Fogerty was the primary songwriter, lead singer and lead guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revival. Same with Kurt Cobain for Nirvana, Billy Corgan for Smashing Pumpkins and Syd Barrett for Pink Floyd. Meanwhile, The Cure’s Robert Smith sings, writes, plays guitar, bass, keyboards and other instruments, produces the albums, and decides who will stand with him on stage. Usually what happens is either the other members of the band get fed up and quit or the person in charge realizes he or she doesn’t need the others and goes solo.

For Dire Straits, both of those things happened.

Dire Straits burst onto the British music scene at a time when punk bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash and new wave groups like Squeeze were starting to emerge. Established acts like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who and The Rolling Stones were still prominent, as were glam acts like David Bowie, Elton John, T. Rex and Roxy Music. Like fellow debutants, The Police, Dire Straits didn’t really sound like any of their peers and were hard to categorize. Their complex, narrative-style songs were bolstered by Mark Knopfler’s virtuosic and unique-sounding guitar work and distinctive baritone vocals, allowing his band to stand out.

After releasing their self-titled debut album in 1978, Dire Straits experienced a steady rise in popularity, culminating with 1985’s megahit album, Brothers in Arms. That title was somewhat of a misnomer. While the band had always revolved around lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Mark Knopfler, by the time Brothers in Arms came out, Dire Straits was, arguably, no longer a band. Much like how Sting’s dominance within The Police had helped hasten their demise, Dire Straits had become a dictatorship of one — a solo vehicle for its do-everything frontman. Drummer Pick Withers and rhythm guitarist David Knopfler (Mark’s brother) had quit, leaving only bassist John Illsley along with Mark Knopfler from the original lineup. “He was the bloke I had shared a bedroom with,” David told The Express in 2015. “How could I be deferential to him? Mark and I had a different vision of what we were up to. I was building a democracy and Mark was making an autocracy. Everything put a strain on us.”

On the strength of four hit singles (including one iconic music video), Brothers in Arms sold 30 million copies worldwide and established the band as global superstars. Most of the attention, naturally, fell on Knopfler, as his “working man” image (complete with uncool looking sweatband) and rugged charisma earned him comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, while his guitar playing was acclaimed by the likes of Eric Clapton.

Knopfler’s sudden celebrity caught him off guard and he eventually grew to dislike it. “We got so big we had three stages and we were leapfrogging around in front each other. You’d walk into catering and see guys you just didn’t know, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t want to be that. I didn’t want it to be that size,” Knopfler told CBS Sunday Morning in 2019. “I can’t think of anything good about fame, can you?”

Despite the comparisons to The Boss and Slowhand, John Fogerty is probably the most striking parallel when it comes to describing Knopfler. Both men had distinctive vocal and guitar styles, did most of the work in their respective bands, and fell out with their brothers/bandmates. Both men also had a fascination with the American south, although Fogerty was more interested in swamp rock while Knopfler’s tastes skewed towards country.

Most importantly, both men were willing to walk away from their bands at the height of their success. Knopfler dissolved Dire Straits in 1988 and then spent the next few years working on projects that suited his fancy. He formed country-and-folk band The Notting Hillbillies, recording an album and touring throughout 1989 and 1990. He also recorded an album with one of his guitar heroes, country musician Chet Atkins, releasing Neck and Neck in 1990.

So it was a bit of a surprise when Knopfler decided to re-form Dire Straits and release a new album: 1991’s On Every Street. Knopfler could have easily recorded Brothers In Arms II and the fans and record label would have been thrilled.

Instead, On Every Street sounds decidedly different than the band’s previous five albums. Arguably, the album seems to work better as a Mark Knopfler solo record and presages much of what he would do over the next two decades.

For one thing, On Every Street has a clear country influence – something that’s probably understandable given Knopfler had spent much of the previous six years playing it. Lead single “Calling Elvis” is an understated rockabilly/blues number that features tight interplay between Knopfler’s intricate guitar playing and Toto’s Jeff Porcaro’s delicate drumming. It’s an unconventional lead single (second single “Heavy Fuel,” with its pounding riff and satirical first-person lyrics that make it similar to “Money for Nothing” probably would have been the safer choice) and one that takes a few listens to really appreciate.

The country influence on the album extends to fourth single “The Bug,” which features Nashville superstar Vince Gill on background vocals, and “When it Comes to You.” Meanwhile, album closer “How Long” sounds like it could have worked as a track for Knopfler’s 2006 duets album with Emmylou Harris.

Meanwhile, other album tracks that sound more consistent with Knopfler’s subsequent solo career include “Iron Hand,” a sparsely produced acoustic song that contains vivid war-themed lyrics that sounds like it could have been on Golden Heart, Knopfler’s proper solo debut that came out five years after On Every Street. Additionally, “Ticket To Heaven,” with its sensual rhumba beat, sounds like it could have worked on one of the many movie soundtracks he’s worked on in the intervening years.

On the other hand, one song that does sound like Dire Straits is the title track, an exquisitely beautiful piece that probably would have been a big hit had it been on Brothers in Arms or 1980’s Making Movies. Knopfler has always been good at writing songs that deal with longing and quiet desperation, and “On Every Street” is one of his very best.

There’s gotta be a record of you someplace
You gotta be on somebody’s books
The lowdown, a picture of your face
Your injured looks
The sacred and profane
The pleasure and the pain
Somewhere your fingerprints remain concrete
And it’s your face I’m looking for on every street

Dire Straits, “On Every Street”

Ultimately, I really enjoyed this album. In some ways, I actually prefer it to Brothers in Arms. However, I also understand why it was widely seen as a failure – despite selling 15 million copies worldwide. On Every Street produced no hit singles and garnered lukewarm reviews at the time of its release (AllMusic called it “low-key to the point of being background music”). Moreover, the album just felt irrelevant. It certainly didn’t resonate with the public the way previous albums had. It was just kind of there – sitting in the front of record stores with the other top stars out of obligation.

Obviously, chart success and sales aren’t everything, but it’s clear that time hasn’t been good to this album. Most critics have ranked it at or near the bottom of the band’s discography and none of the songs have had a lasting effect on pop culture. Nowadays, when you hear Dire Straits songs in movies, TV shows, commercials, or even stories about Mark Knopfler, you tend to hear songs like “Money for Nothing,” “Sultans of Swing,” “Romeo and Juliet,” or “Walk of Life” – you certainly won’t hear “Calling Elvis.” Maybe the six year gap between this and its predecessor was too much and the music scene had changed to the point that Dire Straits had become yesterday’s news. Band manager Ed Bicknell seems to subscribe to this theory, telling Louder Sound (albeit when talking about the On Every Street tour): “Whatever the zeitgeist was that we had been part of, it had passed.”

Or maybe it was because Dire Straits reunited for all the wrong reasons. Band members have acknowledged that there was pressure from their record label and concert promoters to do the lucrative album and tour.

Additionally, Knopfler offered a puzzling and seemingly indifferent answer. In an interview with an Australian network, when asked why he got the band back together, he said simply: “It’s what you do.” He repeated that claim in another Australian interview and said something similar to MTV and the BBC. While Knopfler did add: “I get more enjoyment out of this than I get from doing things with other people, or doing film scores or session work or producing people,” the whole thing smacked of obligation more than inspiration.

Or perhaps the answer lies in Knopfler’s own background. Before he was a rockstar, Knopfler studied journalism in college and worked as a cub reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post. “I don’t think I would’ve ended up as a songwriter quite the same without journalism,” Knopfler told WBUR in 2018. “I think it made me sharpen my act up, get myself organized, learn how to condense things.”

It also taught him how to write songs with interesting characters, coherent storylines and rich narratives. Whether he was drawing on his own experiences, reporting on things he had witnessed, or writing about historical events, Knopfler is clearly someone who understands the art of storytelling.

As such, it makes sense that he would reconvene a band he no longer needed for an album and tour under the harsh lights of fame that he had come to despise simply because “it’s what you do.” Maybe he was following a script he had written out in his head and doing what he thought he was supposed to- being in a band and continuing to feed the monster. Or maybe this was his way of getting closure on his Dire Straits experience before embarking on his solo career.

Either way, whatever “fun” that Knopfler may have been talking about vanished once the band hit the road to support On Every Street. The band played 229 shows in 19 countries in a grueling tour that lasted from August 1991 to October 1992. According to Louder Sound, by the time the tour ended, Knopfler’s marriage was over and the band was deader than disco. “Mark and I agreed that was enough,” bassist John Illsey said. “Personal relationships were in trouble and it put a terrible strain on everybody emotionally and physically. We were changed by it. Neither of us wants to go back to those days.”

And Knopfler has been true to his word. He’s steadfastly refused to reunite Dire Straits, no-showing the band’s 2018 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and saying nothing about Dire Straits Legacy, a band formed in 2018 featuring keyboardist Alan Clark, percussionist Danny Cummings, saxophonist Mel Collins and guitarist Phil Palmer along with Trevor Horn from The Buggles and Steve Ferrone of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

Clearly whatever script he’s decided to follow doesn’t include a triumphant reunion scene.

theconvictor

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