Sunday, August 17, 2014

Making Movies: Yuppie Heartbreak Never Felt So Good

When rock critics wax eloquent about all those great guitar-based bands to come of out late '70s England - all those D.I.Y. groups who honed their chops in small pubs and clubs across the British Isles - they're probably not talking about Dire Straits. Although Dire Straits rose to prominence in the same era, and even in much the same fashion, they weren't punk, and they weren't even New Wave. Despite the destitute-sounding name, Dire Straits ... were Yuppie Rockers.

While punk bands tended to possess rudimentary instrumental skills (and be quite proud of it), Mark Knopfler, on the other hand, could play guitar like the devil himself. Mark Knopfler played guitar like Zeus made love. I'm not terribly impressed by instrumental virtuosity, but when I hear that solo on "Sultans Of Swing," I think, "Yeah, that's pretty good." The trick is that Knopfler paired virtuosity with soul. He wasn't just showing off; his playing actually made the song better. But it helped that he was a good songwriter too.

Apparently when "Sultans Of Swing" came out in 1978, a lot of people thought, "Wow, I didn't know Bob Dylan was about to release such a great new single!" (Among those people, as many have remarked, must have been Dylan himself, who swiftly hired Knopfler to play on one of his infamous "born-again" albums, Slow Train Coming.) Sure, like Dylan, Knopfler could be prone to speak-singing, but I think he wore his heart a little more on his sleeve than Mr. Zimmerman did - although not too much more.

"Sultans Of Swing" and the eponymous debut album brought the group instant success, but the sophomore effort, Communique, kind of sounded like an inferior copycat and suggested a band that might have already run out of ideas. Little did those doubters know that, once the calendar turned to 1980, Knopfler was about to drop a bomb on y'all. Brothers In Arms may have grossed the GDP of a small Latin American nation, but in my humble opinion, Knopfler hit his artistic peak a couple of albums prior. Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you my favorite Dire Straits album: Making Movies.

Making Movies is the album Bruce Springsteen would have made if he'd ever bothered to learn more than three chords and had ever bothered to expand his linguistic vocabulary beyond the eighth grade. Making Movies is like if Eric Clapton became a progressive rocker. Mostly, Making Movies is one of the most beautiful "break-up" albums ever. It's such a beautiful break-up album that I almost want to get into a relationship with someone and then break up with her, just so I could go and listen to this album. From Stephen Thomas Erlewine's AMG review:
Without second guitarist David Knopfler, Dire Straits began to move away from its roots rock origins into a jazzier variation of country-rock and singer/songwriter folk-rock. Naturally, this means that Mark Knopfler's ambitions as a songwriter are growing, as the storytelling pretensions of Making Movies indicate ... And Making Movies is helped by a new wave-tinged pop production, which actually helps Knopfler's jazzy inclinations take hold.
Ambitions? When your opening track is eight minutes long, you know you mean business. The very opening of the opening track is actually a quote from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel, and from the looks of it, the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate demanded that Knopfler include a note next to the song title stating "Extract from 'The Carousel Waltz' by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III." So fuck Rodgers & Hammerstein, that's what I say. Hell, at this point, they needed Mark Knopfler more than he needed them. Anyway, the piano starts tinkling (ironically, courtesy of the E Street Band's very own Roy Bittan), the drums take over, and when that smoldering guitar comes in at 0:30, this rickety old carousel has turned into a vintage Chevy and you have just stepped on the gas my friend.

Knopfler even uses the same tunnel of love metaphor that Springsteen would use seven years later, but Knopfler's usage is so much more ... better. The lyrics read to me more like a collection of evocative images than a proper story, but I think here's the gist of it: deserted carnivals, desolate highways, curling cigar smoke, and lost love. He may be inviting this girl on a ride through the tunnel of love, but it doesn't sound like a very fun ride. Why was she "a victim of the night"? What the hell is a "torture tattoo"? And which "Spanish city" is he talking about? Madrid? Barcelona? Or maybe the Spanish City pizza parlor in Newark? Actually, according to Wikipedia, "The Spanish City in the song was a fairground located in Whitley Bay, part of the North Sea coast to the north-east of Newcastle upon Tyne, one train stop along from Cullercoats as mentioned in the song." Wikipedia, spoiling all my fun. But what does he mean by "when we were kids"? Has he known this girl since childhood? Or maybe he's talking to us, his listeners - "back when we were all kids"? So many questions.
Getting crazy on the waltzers but it’s life that I choose
Sing about the six blade, 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 where I’ll be tonight but I’d 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 races, 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 let’s keep it like this
It’s just a cakewalk twisting baby, step right up and say
Hey mister give me two, give me two, cause any two can play

Well it’s been money for muscle, another whirligig
Money for muscle and another girl I dig
Another hustle just to make it big
In 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
Yeah girl it looks so pretty to me, just like it always did
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids
For a band with such a sense of wit, taste, and elegance, you'd figure Dire Straits' videos would be fairly interesting, and the videos from the Making Movies era are, but not in the way one might think. It seems as though they were all filmed on a sound stage, and they all have this oddly artificial, "pop-art" feel that may not match the style of the music, but is very distinctive nonetheless. For example, the humans in the clip for "Tunnel of Love" exist in a universe free of any sort of wallpaper or furniture, as they simply move around in empty rooms with bare white walls. Some of the shots are amusingly literal (like the entire section paired with "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"), other shots simply abstract (a man rolling a coin across his knuckles?).

But all this is just window dressing for the outro. Look out, 'cause here comes the outro. Right around the five minute mark, Dire Straits take things down a little, the song becoming so quiet it almost feels like you can hear the earth turning. Knopfler repeats the bridge about the Spanish city, and starts jamming ever so minimally. But if you're thinking this is the fade-out, you are underestimating the majesty of Making Movies. Because this is where it gets epic. See, Knopfler can play fast, but he knows that he doesn't have to. He's like a coiled snake, waiting to strike. And the solo just builds, and builds, and builds, until he really lets it rip right around 7:25 and it's like the sound of every broken heart in the history of Western Civilization all rolled up into one fucking solo.

Well, your bruised and battered heart doesn't even have time to recover, because the album's second track, "Romeo And Juliet," is even more aching and vulnerable than "Tunnel of Love" is. In the hands of Dire Straits, Shakespeare's perennially referenced tragedy becomes a more one-sided affair, with Romeo caring a hell of a lot more about the relationship than Juliet, it seems. While Romeo wonders with incredulity, "How can you look at me if I was just another one of your deals?," Juliet says dismissively, "Oh Romeo, yeah you know I used to have a scene with him." "A scene? You used to have a scene with me? But Juliet, when we made love, you used to cry. Cry! Doesn't that mean anything to you anymore???" Although that line is brutal, particularly with the way the drums come in behind it, I think my favorite line would have to be "And all I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme." Think about it. Think about it.
A lovestruck Romeo sings a streetsus serenade
Laying everybody low with me a love song that he made
Finds a convenient streetlight, steps out of the shade
Says something like, "You and me babe, how about it?"

Juliet says, "Hey it’s Romeo, you nearly give me a heart attack"
He’s underneath the window, she’s singing, "Hey la, my boyfriend’s back"
"You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that"
Anyway what you gonna do about it?

Juliet, the dice was loaded from the start
And I bet, and you exploded in my heart
And I forget, I forget the movie song
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?

Come up on different streets, they both were streets of shame
Both dirty, both mean, yes and the dream was just the same
And I dreamed your dream for you and now your dream is real
How can you look at me as if I was just another one of your deals?

When you can fall for chains of silver, you can fall for chains of gold
You can fall for pretty strangers and the promises they hold
You promised me everything, you promised me thick and thin
Now you just say, "Oh Romeo, yeah you know I used to have a scene with him"

Juliet when we made love you used to cry
You said I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you till I die
There’s a place for us, you know the movie song
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?

I can’t do the talk like the talk on TV
And I can’t do a love song like the way it’s meant to be
I can’t do everything, but I’ll do anything for you
I can’t do anything except be in love with you

And all I do is miss you and the way we used to be
All do is keep the beat and bad company
All I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme
Julie I’d do the stars with you any time

The video takes place in the same geometrically simple landscape that the video for "Tunnel of Love" took place in, and is in some spots even more bizarre, particularly the scene around 2:28 where a room full of spectators dressed in Roaring Twenties garb appear to be watching a screen test of "Romeo" and "Juliet," and the projector burns a hole through the film, but the assembled viewers simply walk up and leave as if this happens every day. Making Movies? How about Making Movies Melt?

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