When Dire Straits Made a Springsteen Record

There has been a lot said about the importance of Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was a transitional album for Bruce, taking him from beachside drifter to working class hero. The sound that he would carry forward was established here. The origins of how that evolved and the influence that Jon Landau had in shaping what we now know as “Bruce” are best captured in the masterful book, Mansion on the Hill. It’s a terrific tale.

What isn’t talked about often is the influence that Darkness had on a number of other artists. There of course were the castaways, the songs that guys like Southside Johnny and Gary US Bonds made their own. But then there was Patti Smith. Her cover of “Because the Night” took the Springsteen sound and made it something she could own; that she could co-op. There’s an epic aspect to the production. At the same time there is a haunting simplicity to the song’s structure. It feels like a Springsteen song and yet you begin to believe that it’s really Patti’s. It was perfectly performed and instantly became her biggest hit. The single caught the attention of Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler and he reached out to Jimmy Iovine –the architect behind the song – to produce the band’s next record.

Jimmy Iovine has said publicly that third albums are a charm. That’s what excited him most about the opportunity to produce this third Dire Straits album. The band’s self-titled first release was an amazing record, selling over six million copies. Its follow-up, Communiqué, like most follow-ups was rushed to market by the record label and didn’t get the kind of attention it needed to be commercially viable. Iovine has contended that the third record is always so important that bands need to treat it with the kind of care that almost insures that they arrive at the studio with some of their best work. Having written songs for over six months after touring in support of Communiqué, Mark Knopfler did just that.

To help Dire Straits capture the sound the Patti Smith Group had achieved on their Easter album (which yielded “Because the Night,”) Jimmy convinced Springsteen’s E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan to join with Dire Straits as they began to record at the Power Station in NYC. It was at this time that Mark’s brother David decided to leave the band. The void that Bittan filled on keys would forever restructure the band and keyboards would be part of their lineup moving forward.

Together Bittan and Iovine led the band to the powerful sound that comes across throughout the record. As the album opens with “Tunnel of Love” it explodes with a fiery guitar solo that is reminiscent of Springsteen’s song “Badlands.” The guitar slides into the track and the vocals launch. Often compared to Bob Dylan because of his singing style and tone, Knopfler here bridges the narrow divide between Bruce and Bob. The band delivers the kind of energy that you find in Springsteen songs like “Prove It All Night” with vocals that connect to Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming.”

As a fan of Dire Straits, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have heard this record, Making Movies, for the first time. It’s such a departure from the first two releases. Ironically the band would never record anything that sounded like this again. Somehow by simply adding Iovine and Bittan, drummer Pick Withers begins to sound a lot like Springsteen’s powerhouse drummer Max Weinberg. John Illsley starts to anchor the rhythm like Springsteen bassist Gary Tallent. And Knopfler himself, much more the accomplished player, more technical and skilled, loosens up the strings a bit and plays with a different kind of authority. Just when you think, “OK, here’s that Dire Straits sound I’ve come to know,” Bittan steps forward and it’s as though we are in the booth at the Record Plant listening to outtakes from the Darkness sessions.

I’d also suggest that lyrically this is some of Knopfler’s best work. The songs are beautifully written. The first four tracks, “Tunnel of Love,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Skateaway” and “Expresso Love” alone being worth the price of admission.

The single, “Romeo and Juliet,” an instant hit, is best known for the lyric:

A love struck Romeo sang the streets of serenade
Laying everybody low with a love song that he made
Finds a streetlight steps out of the shade
Says something like, “you and me babe, how about it?”

In fact, this verse may be moment that the band is best-known for among loyal fans. Sure, Dire Straits would soar to even greater heights with Brothers in Arms. But that record is such a departure from what they did here that you may as well consider them a different band by then. Here, Knopfler writes with a confidence and style that is both clever and profound. You can also make connections to the topics, themes and references found in songs by Bruce at that time. “Tunnel of Love” references an amusement park named Spanish City that Knopfler frequented as a child in Newcastle. It was his personal Jersey Boardwalk.

And the big wheel keeps on turning neon burning up above
And I’m just high on the world
Come on and take a low ride with me girl
On the tunnel of love

Knopfler’s “Tunnel of Love” has all of the amusement park, Ferris wheel ride, carnival arcade, carousel and shooting gallery references of Bruce’s own “Tunnel of Love” but this story is that of a romance about to begin, about to bloom, that’s innocent and new.

This is a fun ride. I’m not sure that Dire Straits ever really rocked again. This record tracks a moment in time when Springsteen not only charted his own course but also impacted the work of so many others.  Putting the right people in a room together doesn’t always mean that you are going to make history. But in that two month window during the summer of 1980 Dire Straits did. As David Fricke of Rolling Stone said at the time:

Making Movies the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler. The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances and the band’s cutting-edge rock and roll soundtrack is breathtaking – everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t. If Making Movies really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.

There’s not much more that needs to be said. The record is as big and expansive as a major motion picture. It’s also as lasting.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Heinrich Klaffs.