40 Years Later: Revisiting Dire Straits Grand Third LP ‘Making Movies’

It’s a measure of the savvy Mark Knopfler commands as a musician and bandleader that Dire Straits’ Making Movies is so closely comparable in quality to the band’s previous two records. That said, the travails of dealing with personnel issues may well have been the source of a marked change in direction for the band that broke through  two years prior with the scintillating eponymous debut that contained “Sultans of Swing.” 

In the course of writing, recording, and co-producing this now forty-year-old album, Mark remained chief composer, lead vocalist and main instrumentalist. Yet, even in doing so, he reinvented the sound of the quartet itself: its established had become static in very short order with the release of the sophomore LP Communique. Given the cinematic nature of the following Straits studio effort, Love Over Gold, the title of this third one might well have been switched with it, particularly given the circumstances surrounding its evolution, not to mention exactly how the frontman retained his role as titular leader of the group during that sequence of events.

Sibling David Knopfler left Dire Straits in August 1980 during the recording of Making Movies. At that point, his guitar tracks were almost complete for the album but were re-recorded by his brother. Meanwhile, for the sake of the studio sessions, the band was supplemented  (if that’s indeed the right word, given his prominence and panache) by Roy Bittan, the keyboardist from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. In addition, Jimmy Iovine co-produced with Knopfler after the latter heard the former’s work on Patti Smith’s version of ‘The Boss” “Because The Night” (Iovine had also distinguished himself by his work on Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes released the prior fall as well as his contributions to Bruce’s Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town LP’s ).

In enlisting the presence of Bittan, Knopfler borrowed more from Springsteen than a musician. The keyboardist had been a member of the E Street Band for six years by this time and if his pianistics evoked anything, it’s the nocturnal cityscapes David Sancious conjured up on The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (especially its closer “New York City Serenade). Yet for his part as a composer, Mark’s earlier descriptions of English locale such as “Wild West End” are no less picturesque than travelogues of the Jersey shore or, more to the point, those aforementioned metropolitan environs nearby as depicted in much of this 1980 Straits material.

Perhaps due in part to the personnel changes, the guitarist/composer created an album of a density that belies not only its somewhat abbreviated running time (thirty-minutes approximately), but its somewhat abrupt ending on a non-sequitur that unfortunately reinforces that negative impression. “Les Boys” contains little if any substance and only slightly more distinction: the sole instance of background singing on the album. “Tunnel of Love,”and “Romeo and Juliet” are similarly rife with allusions and references to cultural benchmarks–the short snippet of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” on the former and the obvious nod to the Bard in the title of the latter—but they are, in contrast to that closer, of a piece with their modern surroundings.

These acknowledgments of sources remain far from derivative through the purposeful means the author uses them: the end result of his narrative compositions amount to short stories in song. And the respective characters and geographical vistas are no less vivid than the clipped, country blues of Knopfler’s guitar; for instance, the solos and fills he uses on “Skateaway” function effectively as non-verbal comments on his observations of the devil-may-care roller-girl swooping in, out and around traffic in the city streets.

Mark’s vocal phrasing can also be as elliptical as his fretboard work, sometimes to the extent, he sounds lost in thought. Hardly surprisingly, though, that’s not the case on the only direct expression here of his own emotions: “Solid Rock” is an altogether bracing performance, one that might better have concluded the album and with a decidedly emphatic flourish to boot, whether or not it was preceded by one of the outtakes from the sessions (ultimately released on the EP Twisting By the Pool) or as the denouement of the track sequence as originally released.

A reconfiguration of the cuts on Making Movies, even with some astute additions would still have left the dramatic curio of “Espresso Love” right where it belongs: its contemporary reference resounds in place next to “Hand In Hand” with its nod to blues icon Elmore James via the direct quote of  “The sky is crying.” That said, no altered track-list would lessen the impact of drummer Pick Withers’ precise use of his drumkit or the equally unobtrusive bass playing of John Illsley; Mark Knopfler was no doubt supremely grateful for the very stability of their presence as a means to buttress the ambitious lengths to which he took Dire Straits four decades ago.

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6 Responses

  1. Actually, it was Sid MacGuinnes who played the other guitar parts and he was asked to join the band but financial hurdles got in the way.

  2. Like EVERY Mark Knopfler offering, (Dire Straits/Solo). Epic musicianship. Lyrics, instruments and sound are second to none.
    EVERY Knopfler offering stands the test of time. And be at the front of anyone’s favorite playlist.

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