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.
Dire Straits seems to have ended as an active concern largely because Mark Knopfler grew tired of fame (“If you can think of anything good about fame, I’d like to know what it is” he remarked in this fascinating interview – he draws a line between success and fame and rather likes the former). He declined to attend when Dire Staits were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (“it just didn’t appeal to him” according to bassist John Illsley). On the other hand, Knopfler has had a very active and diverse solo career featuring a number of fine solo albums and movie soundtracks. Much like David Byrne’s post Talking Heads career, Knopfler has eschewed pop success in favor of following his own artistic path. Indeed, he’s been doing that longer now than he spent leading Dire Straits.
10. Water of Love
Second single from Dire Straits (1978), released as a single in 1978
“Sultans of Swing” kind of overshadowed most of the other songs on Dire Straits as far as casual fans were concerned (and I was a pretty casual fan until Making Movies). Part of this is because much of the rest of the album didn’t sound quite like that song (though “Down to the Waterline” comes pretty close, though it wasn’t a single). Indeed, “Water of Love” is perhaps a little more typical of the album’s sound, which I’d describe as something akin to the English version of Jimmy Buffett (somewhat tropical, but without the actual presence of the sun). See also “Wild West End” (#17) from the same album. Legend is that several songs on the debut album were Knopfler’s reaction to the dissolution of his marriage – a theory supported by the lyrics of “Water of Love.” Anyhow, I find this song to be enormously appealing with some really excellent lyrics (balanced with a few clunky lyrics) and a thoroughly excellent performance from the whole band. There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing outstanding adult contemporary rock even if it’s not especially cool.
9. Why Worry
Brazilian promotional single from Brothers in Arms (1985), released as a single in 1986
Let me just write that I like the AABCCB rhyme scheme of the verses of “Why Worry.” Back at Bates College in the mid to late 80’s, there were three albums that you could find in almost any dorm room. Singles: 45’s and Under by Squeeze, Graceland by Paul Simon and Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits. I only owned the first of the three, but I think my freshman and sophomore year roommates both had the latter two so I spent plenty of time listening to them. I didn’t object – they’re all perfectly good records. Anyhow, “Why Worry” was released as a single in Brazil only, but I’m glad it was released as one somewhere because it’s a lovely song with some especially affecting guitar work from Knopfler. Almost a lullaby, “Why Worry” is, in my opinion, Knopfler’s perfect moment of adult contemporary beauty as the leader of Dire Straits. I feel like he’d spent his whole career leading up to this composition (and then nailed this form even harder with his lovely title theme from Princess Bride, “Storybook Love” – R.I.P. Willie DeVille).
8. Industrial Disease
Second single from Love Over Gold (1982), released as a single in 1983
DJs across New England rejoiced at the release of “Industrial Disease” because it gave them a second song to play after “Sultans of Swing” on Two for Tuesday. I have no idea why the songs from Making Movies were more MTV hits than radio hits in the U.S.A. but there you go – until this clever, bitter song about industrial life in Thatcher’s England with an absolutely infectious (I meant to write that) keyboard line was released. Honestly, when I was a kid, I had no idea what the song was about – indeed, I was a little unclear about whether Dire Straits were from the U.S, the U.K. or Australia – I just knew it was kind of funny and a lot of fun. I used to sit by the radio waiting for certain songs to come on so I could home tape them and listen to them whenever I wanted (that was our illegal file sharing in the early 80’s and a subject of much record industry hand wringing) and I knew with absolutely certainty that every Tuesday, some DJ on I-95 would bust out “Sultans” and this tune (usually “Sultans” first) and I’d be able to record this track if I just waited long enough. And, I mean, I was right.
7. Walk of Life
Fourth (?) single from Brothers in Arms (1985), released as a single in 1985
While this was something like the fourth single from Brothers in Arms, it was the first one I was aware of. In fact, I bought the 45 from Caldors (I worked in the Sports section until I rage-quit one day). The lyrics tread a path fairly similar to “Sultans of Swing” – it’s another song about an unappreciated musician. As with “Industrial Disease,” the main hook here is played on the keyboard (Knopfler plays this delightful little shuffle rhythm ) which is, of course, ironic since the lyrics are about an Underground busker playing guitar. “Walk of Life” is tied (with “Private Investigations”) for Dire Strait’s highest charting single in the U.K. and I think that sounds about right.
Second single from Making Movies (1981), released as a single in 1981
There weren’t a lot of videos available to MTV for the first few years, so they played what they had. One of the videos they had was “Skateaway” by Dire Straits so that got a ton of airplay back in the day. Making Movies didn’t necessarily get a ton of radio airplay when it came out, but it made Dire Straits early video stars and at that time in history, that made them cool. One can understand why their relationship with MTV and music videos was sort of complicated by the time they were recording Brothers in Arms – Knopfler wanted to be known for the music, not the images. The thing I love most about “Skateaway” is the description of how Rollergirl (the main character of the song) creates movies in her head when she’s listening to the radio on her headphones. That was exactly how I listened to music when I wore my headphones on the go – it still is. I sometimes walk or jog an extra mile or two just to hear one more song or finish whatever daydream I have going on connected to the music. When I heard this song, I felt like Mark Knopfler “got” me and when you’re 15 and sort of introverted, that is a really huge thing.
I want to mentioned that The Hold Steady’s song “Slapped Actress” – built around a similar theme – is the song that made me love that band.
5. Private Investigations
First single from Love Over Gold (1982), released as a single in 1982
How much airplay do I remember “Private Investigations” receiving on my local rock station in 1982? Zero. Zero airplay. I get it, I do. The front-loaded lyrics are delivered so far back in the mix that you’d be forgiven for not noticing them on your first couple listens. When the music really kicks in, it kicks in loud, but it’s a wonderful example of musical economy – minimalism even. American radio hates that kind of thing (though they don’t necessarily shy away from long songs about detectives – “The Friends of Mr. Cairo” by Jon and Vanegelis got a bunch of airplay and it’s possibly even a weirder song). I discovered “Private Investigations” by doing my own, yes, private investigation into Dire Straits’ back catalog after I belatedly fell in love with Making Movies (via Douglas Adams’ endorsement of the band in his 1984 book So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish). The song is a delight and is only eclipsed in quality on that 5-song album by the epic “Telegraph Road.” Knopfler took his movie making seriously, and this was before he actually got into the business of making music for movies.
4. So Far Away
First single from Brothers in Arms (1985), released as a single in 1985
I’ve ranked “So Far Away” above all of the other songs on Brothers in Arms, and I think that’s an accurate assessment of the song’s quality. It was (perhaps unwisely) released as a the first U.K. single from that album (and the fourth in the U.S.A.) where it fared all right, but it’s hardly the sort of song that would chart as high as the hook laden power rock song that “Money for Nothing” or “Walk of Life.” It is, however, exactly the sort of song that Mark Knopfler loves to play – patient, slow building and almost somnolent. Knopfler wrote about a whole variety of flavors of heart ache in his career with Dire Straits but this one – the pain of being away from somebody you love with little or no chance of being reunited – really scratches some kind of romantic itch for me. It’s one of those songs I break out when I’m feeling sad and lonely and somehow, I feel like Knopfler feels those things worse than I do on this track. Like seriously, he’s so sad he’s almost numb. Then the guitar kicks in because what else are you going to do when your heart is breaking but play a solo that expresses your pain more than words can? Man, Knopfler makes me wish I learned to play guitar (more on that in a moment).
3. Romeo and Juliet
First single from Making Movies (1981), released as a single in 1981
Man, how is this, you are a rising singer named Holly Beth Vincent from a band called Holly and The Italians, you get involved with Mark Knopfler briefly and then he writes a song about he’s still in love with you (but he feels like you done him wrong) and it becomes a beloved song about heartbreak. Dude. At least my stalker in my lifetime never composed a beloved song about it. Not saying Knopfler is a stalker, just that wow having an ex immortalize you in song has got to be a surreal experience for anyone. Whatever went down between Vincent and Knopfler, it inspired his most crushing lyrics and some of his most inspired guitar work. When my heart was at it’s most broken, this was the song that spoke to it. I’ve been critical of some of his lyrics, but every phrase in this song is kind of perfect. Somehow, writing a perfect song about heartbreak wasn’t enough to get this song on my local radio stations, but it apparently got it’s fair share of airplay on MTV.
2. Sultans of Swing
First single from Dire Straits (1978), released as a single in 1978
So, my parents generously gave me an electric guitar one Christmas and I was determined to learn how to play it. I went out and bought a couple of basic books on playing chords and, oh yeah, the sheet music to “Sultans of Swing,” because I was pretty sure after a few days of strumming the G, C and D chords, I’d be ready for that solo. Sadly, after a few weeks of strumming the G, C and D chords and a couple of frankly pathetic attempts at figuring out how to pick the opening of that solo, I learned that I had neither the aptitude or the patience to teach myself guitar. It traveled with me to college for my freshman year where it was more of a prop than an instrument. I don’t recall what ultimately happened to that guitar which is probably just as well. Anyhow, “Sultans of Swing” is about a pub band in London that apparently actually existed and that were, in Knopfler’s estimation, really quite excellent but entirely unappreciated (see also Wilco’s delightful “The Late Greats” for a song with a similar theme). It is the song that brought Dire Straits to international attention and remains probably their best-loved track. I love it too, it’s just that there’s one more song I love more.
1. Tunnel of Love
Third single from Making Movies (1981), released as a single in 1981
There’s a saying in musical theatre that when the emotion gets too big for talking, you sing and when the emotion gets too big for language, you dance. Something similar can be said, I think, for the best solos in popular music. “Tunnel of Love” would be a very good song without the concluding solo, but it is the solo that makes it a profoundly beautiful tune. The lyrics tell a story of a random encounter of two “perfect strangers” at an amusement park who spend the night enjoying themselves at the park and part with just a kiss, leaving the narrator searching amusement parks and boardwalks hoping to one day see her again. Does he ever find her? That remarkable solo says “never, but he’s going to keep trying.” This is Knopfler’s greatest set of Dire Straits lyrics (lines like “And I don’t know where I’ll be tonight but I’d always tell you where I am” and that whole last verse just blow me away) and the band as a whole just sounds fantastic. I don’t think I ever heard this song on the radio even once which is insane because what 80’s young person hadn’t had an analogous experience at an amusement park or rock concert or somewhere (mine was at an REM concert in 1985)? Were I to take all the songs I’ve ranked at #1 and make a list ranking them, this would surely be in the top five. Maybe even top three. Indeed, 6 of the 7 songs on Making Movies are among my favorite songs of all time (and the 7th is one of the worst songs ever recorded, just to remind us I guess that Knopfler is human). Indeed, this song is the main reason that I leapfrogged Dire Straits ahead of a number of other bands whose singles I’ve been ranking.
Coming Soon: Green Day