For a while there in the late 80s/early 90s Dire Straits were a byword among rock critics for corporate blandness. After Brothers in Arms achieved massive success as a vehicle for introducing the new-fangled digital compact disc to the market, the band came to be ranked alongside Phil Collins as the absolute antithesis of the spontaneous, gritty adventure rock music was supposed to be.
Yet how many hip young types, of the sort who would have screwed up their noses if you said "Dire Straits", have I seen after several pints in the pub on a Friday, tapping their feet and grooving as the house band broke into "Sultans of Swing"? Or--perhaps a few pints later--looking misty-eyed over their Guiness as the jukebox played "Romeo & Juliet" and slurring "ahhh, this is a great song"?
Eventual corporate monsters or not, Dire Straits produced some undeniable classics. There's never been another song quite like "Romeo & Juliet", with Mark Knopfler's Renaissance troubadour acoustic guitar riff evoking a hot Verona night under the wisteria, while he mumbles bitterly about the girl who dissed him (apparently she was an actress called Holly something; after they broke up she was quoted in an interview as saying "Oh yeah, Mark Knopfler--yeah, I used to have a scene with him").
Yet, much as I love that song, I have to go for "Tunnel of Love" as the one that's had the greatest impact on me. Strangely, while many rock stars (and non stars) struggle to restrain their histrionic tendencies, Mark Knopfler seems to have the opposite problem. While he's always been one of the most unique and skilful musicians around, much of his and Dire Straits' music suffers from being restrained, disengaged, and ultimately therefore forgettable.
Only an external impulse such as having his heart broken ("Romeo & Juliet") or needing to produce a stirring movie soundtrack (the Celtic-tinged theme to Local Hero) has injected a sufficient amount of emotion and urgency to his songwriting to make it really interesting.
In the case of "Tunnel of Love", the story is that the impetus came from Mark Knopfler's brother David. A much less talented rhythm guitarist, David Knopfler was efectively in the band for being Mark's brother. After the success of their debut album, which combined sophisticated musicianship with some of the driving energy of punk, Dire Straits went away to the Caribbean and ended up recording a fairly meandering album called Communique. David had become bored, and told Mark he was sick of all the downbeat, jazzy stuff.
"Why don't you write something that makes your heart beat faster, you know, like on the rides at the fairground when we were kids?" he said. Shocked into action, Mark went away and came up with "Tunnel of Love", an eight-minute whirling ferris wheel of a song that captures the energy, excitement and mystery of the carnival.
The song opens with a snippet of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel Waltz", then the band bursts in, with a guitar riff which sounds like an engine revving, and never looks back. For the Making Movies album, Dire Straits had brought in Bruce Springsteen's virtuoso pianist Roy Bittan, and he certainly adds a lot, with extra melodic threads filling out Dire Straits' previously somewhat dry sound.
"Tunnel of Love" is the tale of an encounter in the shadows of the fairground. The protagonist meets a mysterious girl, they hang out, kiss, and then she walks off into the night. Unobtainable and therefore perfect, as he realises:
I coulda caught up with her easy enough, but something must have made me stay...
Just by itself, that makes a rollicking song--but it's only the half of it. What follows is the best guitar lead-out, bar none, in the history of rock n' roll. It starts off slow, with a few plaintive notes, builds up as the band come back in, then reaches a somersaulting, tumbling climax of guitar and piano before fading out and leaving you wanting more.
This is the song that made me want to play the guitar. So enraptured was I by the expressive possibilities of the instrument demonstrated by Mark Knopfler on "Tunnel of Love", that the first time I heard, at about age eleven, I decided then and there that I had to learn.
Hmm, and it may also have been a subconscious factor in my decision to work and travel in a carnival many years later. That, I can assure you, did not turn out to be much like the song.
Categories: Dire Straits, Tunnel of Love