Sunday, March 8, 2015

Love Over Gold: More Like Length Over Gold

For most bands, an eight minute opening track would seem pretty long. For Dire Straits, eight minutes wasn't long enough. How about fourteen minutes? Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about. "Telegraph Road," the first song on 1982's Love Over Gold, practically makes "Tunnel of Love" sound like a Ramones single. Or, to put it another way, "Telegraph Road" was probably every radio DJ's perfect chance to go grab a quick cheeseburger. In the time it takes me to listen to "Telegraph Road," I could finish one of those maddening jigsaw puzzles where half of it is just a picture of generic blue sky. Why do they make those, anyway? And what's with the album cover? What is this, a Metallica record? A Magic: The Gathering card? At any rate, Lover Over Gold might mimic the five-song format of a classic prog-rock album, but Mark Knopfler wasn't interested in warlocks and wizards.

No, he was interested in the crumbling hopes and dreams of a once-prosperous society. "Telegraph Road" is the story of America. It's the story of a civilization growing, cresting, and declining. Above all, it is the story of a very, very long guitar solo. From Wikipedia:
Inspired by a bus trip taken by Knopfler, the lyrics narrate a tale of changing land development over a span of many decades along Telegraph Road in suburban Detroit, Michigan. In the latter verses, Knopfler focuses on one man's personal struggle with unemployment after the city built around the telegraph road has become uninhabited and barren just as it began.
Yeah, but that was 1982. Look at the place now! All right, let's see what we've got here:
A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a sack on his back
And he put down his load where he thought it was the best
Made a home in the wilderness
He built a cabin and a winter store
And he ploughed up the ground by the cold lake shore
And that man turned out to be ... Eminem's great-grandfather! No, no, I'm just playin'.
And the other travelers came walking down the track
And they never went further, no, they never went back
Then came the churches, then came the schools
Then came the lawyers, then came the rules
Then came the trains and the trucks with their loads
And the dirty old track was the telegraph road
Then came the Taco Bells, and then came the Best Buys, and then came the Lenscrafters, and then came the Starbucks ... wait, nope, that's not where he's going with this:
Then came the mines, then came the ore
Then there was the hard times, then there was a war
Telegraph sang a song about the world outside
Telegraph road got so deep and so wide
Like a rolling river
OK, then about seven minutes in (!), this whole Ken Burns documentary thing turns into a first-person Springsteen-esque bitchfest:
I used to like to go to work but they shut it down
I got a right to go to work but there's no work here to be found
Yes and they say we're gonna have to pay what's owed
We're gonna have to reap from some seed that's been sowed
And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles
They can always fly away from this rain and this cold
You can hear them singing out their telegraph code
All the way down the telegraph road
Damn birds. They don't know what it's like to file for unemployment, do they? There's another verse, but you get the idea: the flyover states are fucked. Hey Mark, you're not even from here. Although everything you're saying is completely spot-on, you don't get to say that crap about working class malaise; only we get to say it.

Did I mention that this is a really long song? To be fair, the "song" more or less ends before the ten minute mark, but it turns out Knopfler needs to jam. So we get a four minute guitar solo, which must be treated with the greatest reverence, like a flag-lowering ceremony. The whole camp is required to stand at attention and salute during the folding of the outtro, and Knopfler's solo is not allowed to touch the ground.

When the record company sat around and said, "All right we need a hit from this thing," I don't know who suggested "Private Investigations," but I would have called that person an idiot. "Private Investigations" is essentially a spoken word monologue (where Knopfler indulges in his Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade fantasies) with some occasional and unexpected piano and guitar crescendos in the background. I don't hear a hook, I don't hear a chorus, I don't hear any singing - it's the birth of Mumble Rock. And yet, in the UK, this peaked at #2. That is why they get paid the big bucks and I don't.
It's a mystery to me, the game commences
For the usual fee plus expenses
Confidential information, it's not a public inquiry

I go checking out the reports, digging up the dirt
You get to meet all sorts in this line of work
Treachery and treason, there's always an excuse for it
And when I find the reason I still can't get used to it

And what have you got at the end of the day?
What have you got to take away?
A bottle of whisky and a new set of lies
Blinds on the windows and a pain behind the eyes

Scarred for life, no compensation
Private investigations

Smoky Dire Straits mood pieces: the stuff that dreams are made of. The obvious single, at least to American ears, was the Side Two opener, "Industrial Disease" (clocking in at a brisk 5:50). With its roller rink keyboard, continuous drumming (not always a given in a Dire Straits song), and stream-of-consciousness verbiage, it sounds for all the world like an early version of "Walk of Life," perhaps crossed with Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues"? It's a jolly little number that treats the broad sociological term "Industrial Disease" as if it were a genuine physical ailment. During one verse, Knopfler comically plays doctor:
Doctor Parkinson declared "I'm not surprised to see you here
You've got smoker's cough from smoking, brewer's droop from drinking beer
I don't know how you came to get the Bette Davis knees
But worst of all young man you've got Industrial Disease"
He wrote me a prescription he said "You are depressed
But I'm glad you came to see me to get this off your chest
Come back and see me later - next patient please
Send in another victim of Industrial Disease, ha ha, splendid!"
Umm, I don't think it quite works like that. Though it didn't set the Hot 100 on fire, "Industrial Disease" was, according to Wikipedia's Dire Straits discography page, a big US radio hit on the Mainstream Rock chart. In the end, it seems American listeners took the title to heart and apparently chose love, given that the album didn't go gold until 1986, but somehow, given that it was arguably their most uncompromising and least commercial release, Love Over Gold hit #1 in the UK, Australia, and several other non-English-speaking nations. Maybe they used the album as a handy way to keep track of their washing machine cycles. Love Over Gold: Songs You Can Time Your Laundry To.

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