Dire Straits: Making Movies (1980)

Favorite album by Dire Straits?  Brothers in Arms was their biggest commercial success.  Love Over Gold their most adventurous, but Making Movies is my sentimental favorite.

Dire Straits was one of the most commercially successful bands of the 1980s.  Most of their success came in that decade, racking up sales of 100 million albums. They broke up in 1990, then reformed for a few years before splitting again.  A guitar virtuoso, Knopfler has a distinctive finger-picking style of jazz and folk playing.  His low voice has more range than he seems to use, at times almost mumbling (hence the Bob Dylan comparisons), but after all, he wants his MTV.

Their first album was released in 1978 and featured “Sultans of Swing” with that infectious groove and his tasty guitar solos.  The album was a big hit around the world. Their second album, Communique, was their sophomore slump.  By the third album, Making Movies, band leader Mark Knopfler, had things figured out.

Dire Straits was an anomaly for the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The trend was going to toward a muscular guitar punk sound, the rise of the hair bands, or the British synth industrial sound. Knopfler’s lean guitar-driven songs might have been more at home in English pubs than in American concert halls.  Their music found a niche in radio programming and that grew into immense international popularity.

By 1980, the band was now down to three full-time members.  David Knopfler, brother of Mark, was no longer in the band.  Mark Knopfler supplemented the band with other musicians including Roy Bittan (E Street Band, Chicago, Meatloaf) and Sid McGinnis (David Letterman’s band, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie).

Making Movies was a huge advancement.  The key was in the songwriting. A smaller band gave Knopfler a chance to mold the sound.  One could argue that Dire Straits was really Knopfler and his backing band.  Knopfler wrote the songs, sang the songs and produced and arranged the songs.  The sound is tighter and songs more focused.

Knopfler co-produced the album with producer whiz Jimmy Iovine (Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks), and that certainly helped.  Each of the first albums had a different producer and approach.  Those albums defined the Dire Straits sound, but Iovine and Knopfler focused on the songs. From the opening of “Tunnel of Love” you knew this band had shifted gears.  Going forward, even the band’s longer, more dynamic songs with broader instrumentation, would do so with purpose and focus.

Making Movies sold over one million copies, but that was only a fraction of what Brothers in Arms moved.  Is sales a good indicator of quality or creativity? Sometimes.  Brothers in Arms is a great album, no argument.  Without Making Movies, there would not be a Brothers in Arms.  When you see an artist grow, the size of their canvass expands, as do the tools they use.  In Making Movies, Knopfler had moved beyond primary colors but he hadn’t gotten to the rainbow yet.  That was coming.

Side one

“Tunnel of Love” (Extract from “The Carousel Waltz” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II) 8:11  That mid tempo Dire Straits groove that Knopfler likes, a bit like Springsteen, especially since piano player Bittan is tinkling the ivories, with great fills. The length of the song also allows for some noodling on the guitar, and a quiet passage that allows the song to slowly build for the final part of the musical journey.

“Romeo and Juliet” 6:00  Knopfler has a romantic side, a story song.  One of his best songs. The combination of heart felt lyrics and a wonderful musical songscape.  The outro is some of his best guitar work.

“Skateaway” 6:40  A slow intro to let the music take form.  Lots of echo on the drums, a preview of the coming decade of musical production.  A song that doesn’t venture far from the groove, but it is one that is easy grab onto. A driving but not overpowering rock song.

 

Side two

“Expresso Love” 5:12  Another slow building song, the piano and guitar get it going before shifting into a faster gear.   Knopfler wrote some very good uptempo songs, somewhat similar but decorating them with different keyboard and lead guitar parts.

“Hand in Hand” 4:48  Another quiet intro with piano and acoustic guitar.  With the musical styling of Springsteen and the vocal fogginess of Dylan, this song rings very familiar, but not a copy of either.  This song would have been perfect for Dylan’s Desire album of 1975.

“Solid Rock” 3:19  The hardest rocking song on the album, it burns rubber from the opening chords.  The band sails across the highway in top gear.  No deep lyrical content, just supporting the music on this one.  Great guitar work, as you would expect.

“Les Boys” 4:07  I don’t know what Knopfler was thinking on this song.  It is criticized most everywhere because of its anti-gay lyrics.  I never cared for the song or the cabaret style.  Forgettable song. For me, the album ends with “Solid Rock.”

Indeed, compared to his crystalline elegance and fragile introspection on the first two LPs, the creator of Making Movies now seems as bold, confident and determined to take chances in life, love and rock & roll as the brassy rollerball queen he watches with such fascination in “Skateaway.” – David Fricke, Rolling Stone review

One of the differences here was letting the songs breathe, not over producing them, Iovine helped to find the sweet spot.  The other secret was in letting Roy Bittan style each song with his piano.  Bringing Bittan over from the E Street Band for this album was a keen decision, it pays off big time.

This album lacks a “Sultans of Swing” or a “Money for Nothing” type single, but no matter.  It is a solid album of well-constructed and unpretentious songs. Drop the needle and enjoy.


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