Continuing up the list of the Top Ten Albums, as determined by a very unscientific study (n=1) by yours truly….
#7. Dire Straits, Making Movies (1980)
In a post I wrote in the early days of this blog about the song “Skateaway,” I indicated that I wasn’t sure where to put this album in terms of a High Fidelity-style top five list. Was it good or great? I still go back and forth on that, but either way it’s gotta be on this list.
Mark Knopfler was one of the many anointed “new Dylans” when Dire Straits first emerged on the scene in 1978. The song “Sultans of Swing” got the attention of FM programmers, and the similarity of Knopfler’s singing style to Dylan’s was obvious. But we can’t ignore the Bruce Springsteen connection as well: once Knopfler got to work on the songs that would become Making Movies, he got in touch with Jimmy Iovine. Knopfler loved the sound of Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town (also from 1978) and wanted that sort of sound for his next project. Iovine brought E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan along to provide his touch for this album. As someone who has long been both a Dylan and a Springsteen fan, this might explain why I’ve always held this particular LP in high regard.
Chartwise, there’s not much of a story to tell. “Skateaway” was the only single to make the American charts, and stalled at #58. FM airplay boosted the ranking on the album charts to #19, but compared to the band’s eponymous debut (which reached #2) and the second effort, Communique (#11), it seemed a bit disappointing. It’s the content of this one, though, that makes it a classic.
Side One of the LP contains only three songs, totaling almost 21 minutes, but they are a fantastic trilogy. “Tunnel of Love” borrows a bit from Rogers and Hammerstein, but the pounding keys provided by Bittan signal that this ain’t no show tune. “Romeo and Juliet” is one of the band’s most beloved songs, especially in Britain, where it was a Top Ten single. It also serves as perhaps the most Dylanesque track on the LP, especially given the conversational style that Knopfler uses to communicate the lyrics as more of a story than a song. And, of course, there’s “Skateaway,” which was the reason that I first bought the album in 1985 after discovering the song.
Side Two features four tracks and runs a few minutes shorter. I’ll admit that “Hand in Hand” and “Les Boys” have never been strong favorites, but the other two – “Expresso Love” and “Solid Rock” – kept the album from being one of those that you buy and only listen to a single side. There’s influences of Dylan all over the album, but the production value makes it fantastic. I had the album on vinyl for several years – that copy is long gone, I think, replaced eventually – and later got the remastered version on CD. It’s there that I was able to hear the intricacies used in the final mix.
Dire Straits were a pioneer in digital sound; Making Movies was first available on CD in 1984, and the hugely-successful Brothers in Arms was among the first fully digital recordings made, and certainly the first to top the charts. (Thanks to reader Rich Strong for the note that Ry Cooder recorded a digital project in 1979, six years before Brothers.) It advances the argument that what’s being made here is really art and not just a collection of songs, and it’s for that reason, I think, that I’ve always kept this album near the top. Not only that, Knopfler was very interested in a phenomenon that would take the world by storm in the 1980s: the music video. Early videos were usually nothing more than films of the band standing around pretending to play. Knopfler wanted to create conceptual pieces to go along with his songs. The title Making Movies reflects this, and the songs on Side One each had these conceptual films behind them. I’ve attempted to locate those versions for you, so that each of the links here allows you to see the concept and hear the songs. This was a band ahead of its time.
“Hey la, my boyfriend’s back,” said Juliet. You can hear “Romeo and Juliet” – which should have been a much bigger hit – by clicking here.