This morning a band, and their debut single, who I was often ridiculed for liking when I was younger, and such smirks and nudges have followed me ever since.
“See him?” I would imagine I overheard people whispering to each other. “He likes Dire Straits.”
Let me put them in chronological context; first I had adored and wanted to be Shakin’ Stevens; then, briefly, I really liked The Police, who were swiftly ousted from their pole position by Status Quo, who in turn, much as I may have tried to deny it throughout my twenties and early thirties, have never really strayed too far from the top of my favourite musical acts. But before I discovered what is now known as “indie music”, there was a brief period where Dire Straits were the band who came closest to usurping my double-denimed heroes.
I’ve written before that I don’t think any of us really stop or grow out of loving the pop records we loved as a kid; they may be superseded by cooler bands with cooler haircuts but that little kernal forever remains within. I still have a few songs by Shaky on my iPod, and I absolutely love it when they pop up on shuffle, for they remind me of much happier and more innocent times.
By the time the Straits bug bit, I was in my mid-teens, still relatively happy (although my parents saw little evidence of this) but a lot less innocent (but still a lot more innocent than I strove to be, if you catch my drift).
Like many others, my jumping-on point with Dire Straits was their 1985 behemoth album Brothers in Arms, which I bought, along with pretty much everybody else, it’s polished sound serendipitously linked forever to the new format about to revolutionise the way we consumed music: the compact disc.
I began to investigate them further, purchasing something from their back catalogue whenever I ventured into town. I remember being relieved that, at the time, there was only four albums and an EP to catch up on, not like the umpteen albums and Best Ofs that I had to plough through when learning how to love the Quo (which was a joy, not a chore, obviously).
I think the last one I bought was their debut, eponymous album, which contained Sultans of Swing, a track I already owned on a various artists compilation album called Formula 30 I’d picked up a few years earlier.
It’s by far the best thing on that debut album. This, from Wiki:
“The lyrics were inspired by a performance of a jazz band playing in the corner of an almost empty pub in Deptford, South London. At the end of their performance, the lead singer announced their name, the Sultans of Swing; [lead Strait man Mark] Knopfler found the contrast between the group’s dowdy appearance and surroundings and their grandiose name amusing.The lyrics also refer to ‘guitar George’, and to ‘Harry’. These references are of George Young and Harry Vanda from the Australian band The Easybeats”
To these ears, Knopfler was describing what we now rightly recognise and revere as the Pub Rock sound of the 1970s, that gave us such acts as Dr Feelgood and Squeeze, to name but two; “Sultans…” is practically a social document of the movement, of band members who were playing for fun with no real thought of making it professionally (“And Harry doesn’t mind if he doesn’t make the scene/He’s got a daytime job, he’s doing alright/He can play the Honky Tonk like anything/Saving it up for Friday night”) and of largely disinterested audiences (“They don’t give a damn ’bout any trumpet playing band/That ain’t what they call rock’n’roll”).
And then there were those between-lines guitar flourishes we would come to be familiar with; to this teenager, who had recently graduated from an acoustic guitar to his first electric one, this was my catnip, a great way to learn to play little riffs and licks, which I studied and copied and learned how to play in my own not-quite-as-good way.
Again from Wiki: “Writing in 2013 on the impact of the song, Rick Moore of American Songwriter reflected:
‘With “Sultans of Swing” a breath of fresh air was exhaled into the airwaves in the late ’70s. Sure, Donald Fagen and Tom Waits were writing great lyrics about characters you’d love to meet and Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen were great guitar players. But Knopfler, he could do both things as well or better than anybody out there in his own way, and didn’t seem to have any obvious rock influences unless you try to include Dylan. Like his contemporary and future duet partner Sting, Knopfler’s ideas were intellectually and musically stimulating, but were also accessible to the average listener. It was almost like jazz for the layman. “Sultans of Swing” was a lesson in prosody and tasty guitar playing that has seldom been equalled since. If you aren’t familiar with “Sultans of Swing” or haven’t listened to it in a while, you should definitely check it out.’
No, I’ve no idea what prosody means either.
With an unbiased, fresh pair of ears, if you will please:
Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing
See? Bloody marvellous.
Oh, and since he’s back in hospital (again) and I know he likes this one, this is for you Dad.