Just for the record: You want to get a shiver in the dark?
A bi-weekly vinyl review
Mark Knopfler, all-round mensch and blokiest of balding bloke guitarists, releases his ninth solo album this week. Down the Road Wherever (Universal), described by the London Sunday Times as “another captivating accumulation of vividly told, consummately played narratives spun from real life”, will be available as a double LP set on 180g vinyl.
It was his band, however, that started all the trouble. Dire Straits began life as a 1970s English pub rock outfit but were global superstars within a decade, with their fifth album, 1985’s chart-topping Brothers in Arms (Vertigo Records/Warner Bros), becoming the first ever album to be certified 10 times platinum in the UK (nine times in the US). It was awarded two Grammys in 1986, the 1987 Brit Award for the Best British Album, and in 2011 was placed at 51 in Q magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever.
Brothers in Arms was also the album that signalled the (somewhat premature) end of vinyl as a medium for recorded music. It was one of the first albums specifically made for the emerging compact disc market, and was recorded with digital technology at a time when most popular music albums were made with analog equipment. It was the first album to sell a million copies in the CD format, and the first to outsell the vinyl version. Incidentally, the vinyl version had to be trimmed back by almost eight minutes – down to 47:26 from 55:07 — in order for it to fit on a single LP.
They loved it in the US, but British critics were generally negative about the album. The NME’s Mat Snow was particularly scathing: “Dire Straits are so tasteful as to be entirely flavourless, so laid back as to bore me horizontal,” he wrote. “So do you seriously want to hear about the further adventures of Mark Knopfler’s mawkish self-pity, his lugubriously mannered appropriation of rockin’ Americana, his thumpingly crass attempts at wit? Can anybody really be moved, stimulated or entertained by the tritest would-be melodies in history, the last word in tranquilising chord changes, the most cloying lonesome playing and ultimate in transparently fake troubadour sentiment ever to ooze out of a million-dollar recording studio?”
The answer, some 30 million sales later, was “yes”, apparently. But we do get the point. The single off the album, Money For Nothing, became the group’s first US number one single, thanks largely to the high rotation of the song’s video on MTV. There was some irony in this. According to Knopfler, Money for Nothing’s sour, sneery monologue was transcribed almost verbatim from a New York electrical shop owner’s rant about the “yo-yos” and “faggots” with guitars on MTV.
If you must have only one of their albums, their 1978 debut, Dire Straits (Vertigo Records/Warner Bros), featuring breakthrough smash hit Sultans of Swing, is indispensable. Driven by Knopfler’s tasteful guitar lines and his husky vocal delivery, it’s a smoky, low-key collection of bluesy rockers that dips into country, folk and jazz at times.
Knopfler’s lyric writing here showed an inclination towards Dylanesque imagery – he would even later appear on Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and Infidels albums – which would later take second place to the long, atmospheric instrumental sections on subsequent albums. Their second album, 1979’s Communique (Vertigo/Warner Bros), rush-released nine months after the surprising success of its predecessor, is the one to avoid.
BACK TO THE GOLD RUSH
Good news for Neil Young fans. The singer-songwriter has had another trawl through his archives and later this month will release Songs for Judy (Warner Bros), a collection of live acoustic performances from his November 1976 North American tour with Crazy Horse. The 22-song collection includes a previously unreleased song, No One Seems to Know, alongside such perennials as Heart of Gold, Sugar Mountain and After the Gold Rush. The bad news (of a sort) is that the vinyl version, a double LP set, will only be released on December 14.
The album was curated by journalist-turned-screenwriter Cameron Crowe and concert photographer Joel Bernstein, both of whom were embedded with Young on the tour as Rolling Stone magazine staffers.
According to Crowe, the shows on the tour were both “reckless and beautiful”. Speaking to Ultimate Classic Rock magazine last month, Crowe said, “The evenings began with an hour-long acoustic solo set from Neil. The acoustic portion of the evening morphed nightly, often fuelled by a smoke or two just behind the curtain. After a break, Neil and Crazy Horse would return for a barn-burner of an electric set designed to level the place. They succeeded nightly.”
It was Bernstein’s idea to record the concerts, which he did on cassette tape, as a personal souvenir of the tour. “I immediately realised that making these tapes was in fact a great idea," Bernstein said. “I was soon raiding malls for whatever blank C-90 cassettes I could find along the way. The US leg of this tour was brief (18 shows in 12 cities, in 24 days), but the performances were at their best intense and thrilling. As the tour continued, the cache of cassette-tapes grew, all of them filled with gems.” According to Spin magazine, bootlegged copies of these tapes have long been traded among fans under the informal title The Bernstein Tapes. 1976 was a busy year for Young. He spent most of it touring with either Crazy Horse and the ill-fated Stills-Young Band. He also found time to record Hitchhiker (Warner Bros), the legendary “lost” solo acoustic studio album that was finally released last year. In April this year, he released ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live, the tequila-steeped collection recorded over a series of dates in Los Angeles in 1973.
You can hear Campaigner, a track off Songs for Judy, here.
THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION
Following the surprise success of Blue & Lonesome (Polydor Records), their 2016 collection of covers of 1950s Chicago blues classics, the Rolling Stones return to their roots – by curating a boxed set of the original blues classics that inspired the group when they were teenagers. Confessin’ the Blues (BMG), released last week, features songs by such blues pioneers as Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson.
As Keith Richards puts it: “If you don't know the blues ... there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.” This, then, remains an excellent introduction to the form. Confessin’ the Blues is available as a two CD-set, but for vinyl junkies it’s out in two double LP sets (Volume One and Volume Two) as well as a five-disc 10” vinyl bookpack set, which mimics the original 78RPM releases. All versions include liner notes by music journalist Colin Larkin and the bookpack contains removeable art card prints by noted blues illustrator Christoph Mueller. Ron Wood did the cover artwork.
More importantly, 10% of BMG’s net receipts from the sale of the album go to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. In a statement expressing her gratitude, Jacqueline Dixon, the blues singer’s daughter and president of the foundation, said: “It means so much that my father’s dream of creating an organisation that promotes, protects and preserves the blues for future generations is being recognised and supported by artists that have achieved so much.”