In a day when the most noticeable battle of the bands is between Elvis Costello’s jeremiads and the Doobie Brothers’ bland-out, Dire Straits sneak onto the stage as an anomaly, casually ignoring the apparent terms of pop ideology. Led by singer, guitarist, and writer Mark Knopfler, they might have emerged from a Soho basement after listening to gunfighter ballads for 10 years. This is the sort of music that will always sound out of time, and always catch your ear; you may have heard it before, but you didn’t expect to hear it again today. The sources of Dire Straits are undistinguished, but the end result is whole and coherent—and narrow. It’s that wholeness—and perhaps that narrowness—that creates a sense of archaic but realized identity, and makes Knopfler and his perfectly trained rhythm section seem odd, a small shock on FM. Slow grid sinuous, Knopfler peers out of the murk of the radio, effortlessly trashing the pomposities of Toto, even undermining Costello’s anxiousness, and then fades away before you can call his bluff.
In truth, about half of his songs are no more than mood pieces, and the music isn’t all that far from what Eric Clapton would be making if he had a whiskey voice and weren’t so into cryonics. Take a step back, and Dire Straits appears as the best of all possible J. J. Cale albums, if J.J. Cale is the ghost rider of “Going Down” and “Traveling Light,” not the sleepwalker of “Cocaine.” Go one step more, back 20 years and down from Cale’s Oklahoma into East Texas, and you might catch the echo of Cale’s likely inspiration, the biting, world-weary rockabilly of Sonny Fisher (only lately rescued from total obscurity with a superb reissue, Texas Rockabilly, an import on the Ace label). In spirit if not geography, it’s the trail the Charlatans took when, dressed like silver-rush dandies out of the 19th century, they came off a gig at the Red Dog Salon in Virginia City, Nevada, and kicked off the glory days on the San Francisco Sound—a trail Bob Dylan found early on with “Buffalo Skinners,” a trail crossed when the Grateful Dead sang “Me and My Uncle.”
Which is to say that, along with a menacing drifter’s roll, there’s a lot of frontier iconography in the music of Dire Straits, and Knopfler has a good time with it, fooling with his transplanted persona and dramatizing his hometown. For him, “The Wild West” is also the “wild West End” of London; in “Sultans of Swing,” that hymn to Dixieland, Knopfler’s sly chant of “Way on down south, way on down south,” turns New Orleans, “The Birthplace of Jazz,” into South London, where the Sultans play. The sizzling “Down to the Waterline” (introduced by some guitar noodling that builds tension you don’t even notice until the band, charging into the main theme, releases it) evokes Mississippi riverboat gamblers, even though the water is the Thames or the Tyne. The Mink DeVille gruffness in Knopfler’s singing carries the story out of his fantasy and into yours—and with far less self-consciousness than Spanish Harlem’s street-poet normally displays. (In Knopfler’s worst moments, there’s more: his persona gets stuck in his throat.)
“Sultans of Swing” is a true pop epiphany: without ever referring musically to trad (or Dixieland, or “Chicago School,” or whatever you want to call it), Knopfler has caught the mystique of the music with the same bizarre force the Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky summons in his newly published The Bass Saxophone, an account of secret culture even more entrancing and mysterious the Mezzrow’s Really the Blues. Skvorecky’s tales include Nazis passing through occupied territory with Ellington scored hidden in their uniforms, swing hidden in the clunky chords of polkas performed in tiny Czech hamlets, banned music and harmonious insurrection: a last stand against the philistinism of ordinary life and the nihilism of much of European history since the ’30s. Knopfler is after nothing so grand. In a few verses, he simply asks why certain aging, day-job Englishmen have devoted their lives to playing a music no one wants to hear. It’s a folk-music idea, but there’s nothing remotely folkish about the way the idea turns into rock and roll. Impossibly, using good images and ominous melody, he makes “Sultans of Swing,” the absurd name these men have given themselves sound convincing, magical, and fated: the proper name for the last to speak a lost tongue.
Village Voice, February 1979 (TBC)