If you’re just joining us, check out the About This Project link for details. Basically, I make playlists of all the singles by certain musical artists and then try to order them using the guiding principle “do I like each song more than the last song.” I define “single” in a broad enough way to include any song that was released as a purchasable single in any format in any country; as a promotional single in any country; as a video; or generally any song that I know charted anywhere. My main sources are Wikipedia (mostly reliable) and Discogs (reasonably reliable). I welcome editing feedback since sometimes I favor speed over spelling.
20. On Every Street
Third single from On Every Street (1991), released as a single in 1992
On Every Street has a reputation of being an afterthought of an album. The band had broken up in the 80’s and it was to be the band’s return to glory. It didn’t quite achieve that goal and the disappointing sales, shrinking attendance at shows, and Mark Knopfler’s growing disenchantment with celebrity ultimately led to the band’s permanent dissolution. For all that, the album isn’t that bad. With the recognition that I’m ranking the title track at #20, its really a rather enjoyable song that only slips in my consideration because Knopfler gets stuck in this repeating guitar figure at the end that feels like it runs for somewhere upwards of 36 hours. The first few minutes – while he colors with his guitar and sings about searching for an ex-lover – are really quite enjoyable.
19. Money for Nothing
Second single from Brothers in Arms (1985), released as a single in 1985
I’ve written this many times before, but when you release a song into the wild, you lose all control over what happens to it. In 1962, great jazz singer Joanie Sommers and her label thought it would be a great idea to release “Johnny Get Angry,” a big hit song whose central message seems to be that she wants the titular Johnny to be more controlling of her. Also in 1962, Carole King (!!!) and Gerry Goffin wrote “He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss” for The Crystals (produced by Phil Spector), which even at the time was considered to be totally evil and bonkers. I’m sure there are people who defended (and maybe still defend) these songs as products of their time but I think we agree that 57 years later, the times have changed enough that these songs are no longer acceptable. More recently, let’s consider at the painfully racist “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors, a song predicated on the idea that one squints when one masturbates, thus looking “Japanese.” That’s vile and many of us loved that song in the early 80’s.
Look, times change. It is easy to look back at songs from an earlier time and acknowledge that there’s some messed up lyrics but it is a little harder to look at songs we loved in our lifetime (especially in our youth) and own up that – yes – the song has some lyrical issues. You all know where I’m going with this. Somebody in Dire Straits world must have come around to agreeing with this stance because on their greatest hits package, the notorious homophobic verse from “Money for Nothing” was expunged.
I get that sometimes writers want to portray characters with ugly views but – as I said – you have no idea what’s going to happen to your song when it is released into the wild. Oftentimes, ironic homophobia (or racism or sexism) is indistinguishable from the real thing. Furthermore, in light of a couple of Knopfler’s earlier lyrics (“Les Boys,” the song that almost ruins Making Movies – I write “almost” because in 2019, you can just exclude it from your playlist and then the album is perfect), it’s really pretty hard for me to cut him slack on this one. Obviously, I have no idea what was in his heart then and even less of an idea what is in his heart now. He was hardly the only rock star occasionally writing problematic lyrics in the 70’s and 80’s – he’s just the one we’re discussing now. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles (together and solo) will have to wait their turn.
But what about “Fairytale of New York” (#5) by The Pogues? You know, I can make all the “higher literary value of the lyrics” and “it’s understood that both the characters are broken, nasty people” arguments I want, but the fact of the matter is that there’s not a whole lot of daylight between that song and this one. Times have changed and no matter how sentimental I feel about The Pogues, it’s time for that song to either be edited (as singer Kirsty MacColl was already doing when she sang the line as “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” in 1990) or to stop being a Christmas standard.
I don’t have the right to tell other people how to feel about songs (neither do you) and if there are people listening to this song and feeling hurt by the language or, worse, listening to this song and feeling empowered to be homophobic, I think that’s enough of a reason to turn it off. Listen to it in the privacy of your own headphones but let’s not inflict it on anybody else.
That all said, strike the verse in questions (which, as I mentioned, Dire Straits did) and I’d still rank this song a little lower than many might like strictly because my brain has been oversaturated with it over the years. I mean, that guitar riff is iconic and Sting’s “I want my MTV” variation on his “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” (#6) hook was both hilarious and exciting in 1985. It’s a well crafted, catchy as all get out pop-rock song. This list, however, is based on how much I enjoy each song and I can’t tolerate the second verse anymore, which means I never listen to the song the whole way through.
So, to steal and paraphrase a line from a colleague of mine, “R, why did you rank this song at #19?” “Because I was being generous.”
18. Twisting by the Pool
First single from ExtendedancEPlay (1983), released as a single in 1983
While there’s a sliver of some sort of social commentary buried in “Twisting by The Pool,” the song is essentially an atypical good-time tune from Knopfler and company. I recall it getting a certain amount of airplay on I-95 when I was growing up and I also recall (from following Billboard magazine quais-religiously) that it was a fairly big his in the UK. My teenage brain liked it better than my adult brain does. It must not have had a whole lot of traction in the U.S. because it quickly ceased to be played on our local rock station. Heck, even when they were struggling to find songs to pair with “Sultans of Swing” on Two for Tuesday (a day where they’d play two song by the same artist back to back), they’d almost always drag “Industrial Disease” back into the light than play this one. Too bad – pretty fun song.
17. Wild West End
Australia and New Zealand single from Dire Straits (1978), released as a single in 1978/79
One thing I guess I never really considered about Mark Knopfler as a songwriter before is how many of his songs are based on his life experiences. Just looking at songs that I’ve alread ranked, “Lady Writer” was based on something he saw on TV, “Money for Nothing” is based on a conversation he overheard and this song is based on his familiarity with London’s West End. “Wild West End” is, to my ear, kind of Dire Straits on their default setting. Knopfler digs playing slow tempo borderline-adult contemporary rock – a style that compliments his guitar playing nicely, but a style that didn’t necessarily get them a whole lot of airplay.
16. Heavy Fuel
Second single from On Every Street (1991), released as a single in 1991
The video features Randy Quaid, which seems strangely prescient in light of his subsequent life in the public eye. “Heavy Fuel” is a blatant (but fairly enjoyable) attempt to recreate the success of “Money for Nothing” in terms of both sound and lyrical content – grindy, distorted guitars and lyrics from the point of view of a hyper-masculine lout. It hit #1 on the U.S. Mainstream Rock chart which has never been a stranger to depictions of hedonism. Depending on your level of tolerance for men who overindulge in order to prove their manliness, this song might be either a hoot or a horror for you. I find it more amusing now than I did in 1991 in part because it now sounds like it is skewering rather than celebrating (much like how I didn’t get that the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right To Party” was parody for a number of years and liked it much better once I realized it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously). The song was inspired by the novel Money by Martin Amis
15. Once Upon A Time In The West
Promo (?) single from Communique (1979), released as a single in 1979
Communique might be Dire Straits’ weakest album but it’s not without it’s pleasures. “Once Upon A Time In The West” is another of those slow tempo almost adult contemporary rock songs that Mark Knopfler loves to play. I’ve mostly been focusing on Knopfler in these entries, but I have to give props to bass player John Illsley for this song – his bass work is strong, steady and feels like a major focus of the song. The lyrics seem like a critique (albeit an oblique one) of the United States. Reading them just now, I see they used a bit of movie-western Native American stereotype dialogue in the final verse – using “heap” as an adjective. This is something Monty Python did too so it must be a stereotype that has more traction in the UK than in the US. Stereotype none-the-less.
14. Ride Across The River
Promo single from Brothers in Arms (1985), released as a single in 1985
Listening to this right after “Once Upon A Time In The West,” I’m stuck by how much Mark Knopfler grew as a songwriter between 1979 and 1985. His adult contemporary rock noodling morphed into gorgeous soundscapes that would soon turn into some fine soundtrack work. “Ride Across the River” is, perhaps, an understated critique of war. Sonically, it shares some of the crisp mid-80’s production work with albums like Peter Gabriel’s So or Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles – that kind of straight-from-the-vegetable-crisper sound that makes you feel like you’re in the same studio with the band. I associate this style of production with a bunch of the slick mid-80’s rock acts that rocked, but not that hard. There’s nothing messy at all – like they played their parts seriously in the studio and smoking and coffee were banned because they left ash and rings on the recordings. Anyhow, this song is a delight in headphones.
13. The Bug
Fourth single from On Every Street (1991), released as a single in 1992
“The Bug” was the last-ever UK single by Dire Straits and an oddly appropriate one at that. Dire Straits had been huge in the 80’s and then during the 1991-92 reunion period, they never quite reached the height they had previously. In the lyrics, Knopfler essentially repeats variations on the theme of “some days you’re up, some days you’re down.” There’s absolutely no literary pretension and the music is similarly unadorned – a kind of jaunty, shuffling country tune that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the mouth and guitar of Johnny Cash (and sounded just about right when performed by Mary Chapin Carpenter). A fun (if atypical) send off to the band in their native country.
12. Your Latest Trick
Fifth single from Brothers in Arms (1985), released as a single in 1986
The saxophone solo by Michael Brecker (preceeded by the trumped work by Randy Brecker) is the undisputed star of “Your Latest Trick.” I’ve always thought that the down and out musician featured in this song is the same guy from the (much better) song “Tunnel of Love” or at least his thematic descendant. The song is pretty straight forward in it’s depiction of a john hooking up (and sort of falling for) a prostitute so despite a little bit of wordplay, the title essentially refers to the singer – he is her latest trick. The music and lyrics combine to conjure an image of a boozy, tired world where everyone is just trying to get paid and get home before dawn. I started this list with this song in the bottom five, but man I just can’t help but love the saxophone here. I recall Knopfler bragging in an interview that the sax part was used by musicians to try out saxophones in music stores the same way the opening of “Stairway to Heaven” is used by guitarists to test out guitars. Arguably, this is a dubious distinction.
11. You and Your Friend
Fifth single from On Every Street (1991), released as a single in France and Germany in 1992
This will be the final song from On Every Street making an appearance on this list so this is a case of saving the best for last (the value of “best” and “last” being relative to the album rather than to the band’s overall catalog). Yes, it’s probably a song about a threesome. I’m not sure there’s a more delicate way to put that. Knopfler – as I’ve already mentioned a couple of times – may be best known for his up-tempo tunes, but his heart really seems to be more into these slow, bluesy numbers that allow him to paint endlessly with his guitar. Fine little brush strokes, perfect little details. The reason to love Dire Straits despite all of the things I find troubling about the band’s lyrical history is Knopfler’s guitar work and music composition. When he is in the zone (and he’s not the kind of guy who’d release a piece of music to the world if he wasn’t in the zone when he recorded it) he can create some gorgeous, evocative music. So what I’m saying is, forget that the lyrics are about a guy hoping that his lover is going to bring their friend around for some kinky romance. Listen to that guitar.
Coming Soon: Basically every single from Making Movies.