Credibility has never been much of a barrier when it comes to reaching the upper echelons of the charts. Lots of point-and-laugh bands have made it. Scraping into the Top Ten, or indeed any position on the charts, does not require cool, or sophistication, or talent, or anything else. It requires, as we know, popularity alone. The place of the “credible” as opposed to the “popular” reaches its zenith in the 90’s, when the Authenticity Wars would leave many a causality in its wake but it’s a process that exists here, too, in the 80’s.
There are dozens, hundreds probably, of cool, fashionable and hip bands in the early 80’s, where the dominant styles of the decade battle it out for dominance in the charts. Most of those bands and acts are all-in on the prevailing trends, and they’re the ones that always come to mind whenever anyone mentions the early 80’s. But, while most bands may be happy to embrace those styles, it’s not quite all of them. And few bands quite manage to encapsulate the difference between “credibility” and “popularly” like Dire Straits. Because, let’s be honest, nobody thinks Dire Straits are cool. Popular? Yes. Talented? Well, even detractors will admit Mark Knopfler is a gifted guitarist. Decent songwriters? Well, OK, there’s a case that can be made there for sure. But cool? Na.
Even at the height of their cultural relevancy – that would be Brothers In Arms, “Money For Nothing”, and associated MTV paraphernalia – “cool” just wasn’t a word that would stick to Dire Straits. In among a sea of New Romantics like Culture Club, new wave successes like Elvis Costello and faux-sophisticated 80’s pop like Spandau Ballet, Dire Straits look… well, ordinary. There’s no fancy make-up or dance moves, there’s no glamourous girls and exotic foreign video shoots that look like travel documentaries, there’s no trendy gender-bending or outrageous fashions. What there is, though, is a few blokes who look suspiciously like a pub snooker team just getting on and writing music that a lot of people seem to like. They may not ooze credibility but Dire Straits stand out in the early 80’s charts precisely because they look ordinary.
This is in no way a demerit – in fact, quite the reserve. Managing quite such a degree of commercial success in the face of the dominant forms of the era is quite the achievement, and that’s where “Private Investigations” comes in. Dire Straits had some commercial success prior to the release of the single – both “Sultans Of Swing” and “Romeo And Juliet” had climbed to Number 8 in the UK charts and a few other singles had puttered about somewhat further down (and “Sultans Of Swing” actually performed better in the US, where it reached Number 4). But the success of “Private Investigations” was something a bit different. Both “Sultans Of Swing” and “Romeo And Juliet” are fairly standard songs – the former shows off some impressive guitar flashiness, the latter is a typically-constructed romantic ballad – and neither obviously pave the way for a rambling, nearly-six-minute long slice of neo-noir containing barely any verse structure, no chorus, and where half the song is a lyric-free extended instrumental.
To describe that as “unusual” in 1982 is ridiculously underselling it. To cast an eye over the competition, “Private Investigations” was held off the top spot in the UK by Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger”. The Number One prior to that was Irene Cara’s “Fame” and the Number One after it was, erm, Musical Youth’s “Pass The Dutchy”. So in other words, a song from a movie soundtrack, another song from a movie soundtrack and, with the best will in the world, something of a novelty hit. The Number 2 slot itself is bookended by two none-more-era-appropriate songs, Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” (preceding, not great) and The Jam’s “The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)” (succeeding, one of the best singles ever). Take a look at that list of songs. One of these things is not like the other.
That Dire Straits were able to have a hit with a song so clearly and markedly out of step with everything else is a genuine accomplishment. It would be a mistake to think of them as being completely unique and isolated – the success of bands like Status Quo, who had three top-forty hits in 1982, demonstrated that there was still space left in the charts for bands who were perfectly fine with denim being the dress choice du jour and just standing up and playing guitar more than sufficient as a musical statement. But Status Quo write songs which one might charitably describe as “traditional” – you know, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle-eight, chorus and close. They never released anything remotely like “Private Investigations”.
Because if there is one adjective to describe “Private Investigations” that adjective would be “cinematic”. It’s an incredibly evocative piece of music, relying on the creation and sustaining of a mood to drive the piece. And that mood is clearly derived from Raymond Chandler novels and movies like The Maltese Falcon. But there’s no allure to the lifestyle here – this is the dirty underbelly that’s being exposed. The lyric – snatched, curt phrases rather than any kind of narrative – is a million miles away from dames and Bogart glamour. This is a weary, burned-out man sick of his profession but apparently unable to do anything else. We hear that protagonist is “scarred for life” because of what he does. He’s embroiled in a life of “treachery and treason” for which there’s always a reason, and the only thing he’s left with is whisky, deceit and pain.
Mark Knopfler’s affectless voice is a perfect match for this kind of material – by default he sounds neutral and leaning into this rather than fighting against it produces one of his strongest performances. In truth Knopfler can struggle a bit trying to bring across the passions of a Romeo and Juliet romance or the excitement of an all-out rocker (take “Solid Rock” as an example) but faced with evoking the late-night, neon-drenched pain of this protagonist he suddenly finds his place and it fits the song perfectly.
It’s a carefully constructed song too – for all that Dire Straits are primarily a guitar band, the keyboard lines – again so excellently evoking noir – are just as important in generating the mood as Knopfler’s acoustic guitar flourishes during the instrumental section of the song. This isn’t to take away from what Knopfler does – his acoustic work here is absolutely outstanding and he also produced the song, a real achievement – but Alan Clark’s keyboard lines really add colour and dimension to the piece. John Illsley’s bass, too, provides much atmosphere, especially the bass line that stalks and haunts the song immediately after the vocal section. It’s a whole presence on its own, a pulsing, sinister note that leads us into the atmospherics that follow. And that instrumental section is intense – the video has this portion illustrated by a woman and man in a compromising situation being voyeuristically watched but it doesn’t need that illustration. The music is more than capable of wordlessly evoking what’s going on without the need to resort to a scantily-clad woman or a dangerous-seeming boyfriend. That’s the power of the piece – it may be cinematic in its sweep but it doesn’t require a visual representation to be successful.
“Private Investigations” was the lead single from Love Over Gold, arguably Dire Straits’ best album, and certainly their most ambitious. The album opens with “Telegraph Road”, which sits at over fourteen minutes in length and which, like “Private Investigations”, is not a natural fit for a word like “commercial”. Nor, indeed, “credibility”. But it worked – Love Over Gold went to Number 1 in the UK, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway. It got to Number 19 in the US. That’s pretty impressive, given how relentlessly uncommercial most of the material is and how out of step with the times it was. Of course, successful though the song and album are, it’s not remotely going to be their peak. Brothers In Arms is, to this day, the eighth-biggest selling album in UK chart history, it was the first CD to sell a million copies and, with “Money For Nothing”, was at what was then the bleeding edge of video sophistication with its jaw-dropping computer-generated imagery. Dire Straits may never have been cool, or credible. But that’s OK. Turns out they didn’t need to be anyway.
What Else Happened In 1982?
One of the only good songs with rock ‘n roll in the title ascends to the top of the singles charts with the mighty “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the third biggest selling single of the year. It’s fucking great. Perennial misery peddlers The Smiths are formed and both Abba and Blondie call it quits. Iron Maiden release arguably their best album, The Number Of The Beast, and Prince wants to party like it’s 1999. The Jam release their final album and split up, while R.E.M. give us Chronic Town, their first release, as do Sonic Youth with their eponymous debut. Billy Joel releases his best album, The Nylon Curtain, and New Romantic mainstays Culture Club release their first album, Kissing To Be Clever. Queen torpedo an otherwise-going-well career with the dismal Hot Space (it will take Live Aid to revive their fortunes), and, speaking of dismal, Cats premiers. Of course, this is the year of Thriller, which comes out in November and decimates everything in its path, though more on this next time. Kraftwerk score a hugely unlikely Number 1 with “The Model” (recorded back in the heady days of 1978, as reality finally catches up with the German four-piece) though the biggest selling single of the year was “Eye Of The Tiger”, perhaps inevitably. The UK win the Eurovision Song Contest with Bucks Fizz and “Making Your Mind Up”, and one of the worst songs in the history of recorded music, Toto’s “Africa”, is inflicted on a frankly undeserving-of-this-pain world. Blues legend Lightning’ Hopkins dies in January and, not far behind, jazz genius Thelonius Monk plays his last chord in February.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
“The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)” by The Jam made it to Number Two in September of 1982 and, apart from being quite, quite magnificent in its own right, shows off everything that’s so great about The Jam. But I’m holding back on The Jam because, should We’re Number One happen, that’s where I want to talk about them. Elsewhere, though, it’s a strong year in the UK – Yazoo’s “Only You” was certainly in contention, as was The Strangler’s “Golden Brown”, because there’s just not enough harpsichord in the charts. Toni Basil’s squeaky-voice classic “Mickey” is in there too, and Dionne Warwick’s “Heartbreaker” sneaks up towards the end of the year as well. In the US Noted JG Nemesis Toto show unseemly interest in “Rosanna” and John Cougar “Hurts So Good”, apparently. So what did we nearly end up discussing? Plenty.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Ultravox – “Vienna”
6. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
7. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
8. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
9. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
10. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
11. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
12. Queen, “Killer Queen”
13. Blondie, “Denis”
14. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
15. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
16. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
17. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
18. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
19. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
20. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
21. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
22. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
23. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”