Saturday, January 2, 2010

Dire Straits -- "Tunnel of Love" (1980)

Many people forget that Mark Knopfler used to really rock and roll. Nearly all his solo albums have been so low key, that they can often blend right into each other. But when he led Dire Straits in the late 70's though the mid-80's, he knew how to turn on the jets. I miss that Mark Knopfler.

After two successful albums that sounded pretty much the same, rhythm guitarist David Knopfler left the band. Dire Straits decided to employ a New York City-based production and engineering staff who worked behind hit albums behind Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Patti Smith.

First there was co-producer Jimmy Iovine, who produced some of the best rock albums of that era before tossing it away to form Interscope Records and rap success. Engineer Shelly Yakus had worked on everybody from Van Marrison and Blue Oyster Cult to Alice Cooper and Lo Reed. And if there wasn't enough of a Springsteen connection, all the keyboards were played by Roy Bittan.

They wanted something that was going to sound different and succeeded in every way. Poetic, big in your face drums, closely mic'd guitars -- this was the early 80's rock vibe being sent out by the studios of New York.

I was doing a publishing internship with the 13-30 Corporation in Knoxville, TN, the first and only time I lived in the south, when this album arrived in the mail. I had made friends with the guys in my building, all U of T students, who thought it was pretty cool that a New York City guy was getting freebie albums in the mail.

Making Movies arrived in a flat cardboard box. I took it to my friend's apartment, put it on the phonograph, and commenced our nightly foosball match. I'm not kidding when I tell you that we played it twice that night, it was that good. This was not the light and airy Dire Straits of "Sultans of Swing" or "Lady Writer," but one with overdrive muscle, huge sound, and cinematic scope (hence the album title).

If "Lady Writer" is my favorite Dire Straits song, the album opening 8-minute epic "Tunnel of Love" is millimeters away as a close second. When CD players first appeared in the US in 1983, I was a early adopter, even though the discs all had to be imported at that time (there were no US plants -- nobody was sure if the format would take off). One of my very first CD's was Dire Straits' Making Movies on Vertigo Records, and the accompanying booklet was"printed in West Germany." For several years after that, when I wanted to demonstrate how awesome a CD could sound on a decent set of speakers, that was the first disc I went to, cranking up "Tunnel of Love," letting the brief Rogers & Hammerstein "Carousel Waltz" blend into that first minor power chord with drums forming the wall with it.

I'll concede that composing songs as coherent stories is difficult. It is like writing at least several short stories, and somehow making the lyrics fit the music in telling those tales. To this day, Knopfler has that God-given skill (next to his absolutely certified Fender Strat style) of spinning musical yarns.

"Tunnel of Love" is a moving nostalgic trip about a wild night out at the carnival, one which Knopfler says in the video below was near Newcastle, the now gone amusement park called "The Spanish City." This rollicking speedboat of a song captures the frenzy, lights, games and chasing a mysterious girl with great emotion that goes up and down like that roller coaster. But in one part, he alludes that the character is reliving that colorful scene with that same girl. You're never sure. The song actually slows down considerably in the middle and Knopfler sings that verse twice, pausing for effect, sounding weary, perhaps nostalgic.

Getting crazy on the waltzers but its life that choose,
Sing about the sixblade sing about the switchback and a torture tattoo.
And I been riding on a ghost train where the cars they scream and slam,
And I don't know Ill be tonight but Id always tell you where I am.

In a screaming ring of faces I seen her standing in the light,
She had a ticket for the race just like me she was a victim of the night.
I put my hand upon the lever said let it rock and let it roll,
I had the one arm bandit fever there was an arrow through my heart and my soul.

And the big wheel keep on turning neon burning up above,
And I'm just high on the world
Come on and take a low ride with me girl.
On the tunnel of love.

It's just the danger when you're riding at your own risk,
She said you are the perfect stranger she said baby lets keep it like this.
Its just a cakewalk twisting baby step right up and say,
Hey mister give me two give me two cos two can play.

And the big wheel on turning neon burning up above
And I'm just high on the world
Come on and take the low ride with me girl.
On the tunnel or love.

Well it's been money for muscle another whirligig,
Money for muscle another girl I dig,
Another hustle just to make it big,
And Rockaway Rockaway.

And girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did,
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids.
Oh girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did,
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids.

She took off a silver locket she said remember me by this,
She put her hand in my pocket I got a keepsake and a kiss.
And in the roar of dust and diesel I stood and watched her walk away,
I could have caught up with her easy enough but something must have made me stay.

And the big wheel keep on turning neon up above
And I'm high on the world
Come on and take a low ride with me girl.
On the tunnel of love.

And now I'm searching through these carousels and the carnival arcades,
Searching everywhere from steeplechase to Palisades.
In any shooting gallery where promises are made,
To Rockaway Rockaway from Cullercoats and Whitley Bay out to Rockaway.

And girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did,
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids.
Girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did,
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids.

Now that you've caught your breath with this first sweeping song, it's time to get to the rest of what is undoubtedly Dire Straits' best album. The absolutely haunting "Romeo and Juliet," more skirt chasing in "Espresso Love," and the mournful "Hand In Hand" all follow. On their double album of covers and b-sides from a couple of years ago, The Killers had their cover of "Romeo and Juliet" (which didn't even come remotely close to the original, but I'll give them points for excellent taste).

From the Brothers in Arms tour in 1985, here is Dire Straits performing "Tunnel of Love" at Wembley Arena in two parts. Knopfler in his usual bandanna, a complete master of the guitar, tossing off little bits of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "Stop In The Name of Love" in the opening intro. That's longtime bassist John Ilsley in the blue shirt to Knopfler's right. Former Rockpile drummer Terry Williams was behind the kit. With the introduction of piano in Making Movies, Knopfler recruited Guy Williams to the band. Watching the video reminds me of a British Springsteen -- clearly Knopfler was influenced by the man.


Anonymous said...

Slight correction: that was keyboard ace Alan Clarke who joined for the Making Movies tour. For an even broader sonic palette, Dire Straits recruited a second keyboardist for the Love Over Gold tour (Tommy Mandel, known for his work with Bryan Adams and many others). Guy Fletcher, who replaced Mandel for Brothers in Arms, has collaborated with Knopfler ever since.

Thanks for the informative write-up. Truly one of those "desert island" records.

Maroussia said...

It will be great to watch Mark Knopfler, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.

Nick said...

Thank you so much for the informative post about the Making Movies album. Great to read how you got to know the record. I just love it and you are right, it is Dire Straits' best album; in my opinion it is a street's length ahead of all their other records. Truly rock from the heart. "Tunnel of Love" is my all time favorite, no doubt that I want this amazing song being played at my funeral, it is an absolute masterpiece. By the way, the band apparently recorded demos for two more songs for the album, i.e. "Making Movies" and "Suicide Towers". They never made it to the final selection, but can still be found on a number of bootlegs. Thanks again, it was a pleasure to read!