“Burst on the scene” may be too strong a phrase, but Dire Straits certainly made an indelible first impression with their 1978 single, “Sultans of Swing.” It was that rare song that could satisfy both fans of Top 40 radio (which was by then in its death throes), and FM radio (which had yet to switch over to a tight, constrained format that would make Top 40 radio seem like a bastion of musical diversity by comparison). The self-titled, debut album from whence the song came was a solid debut effort, but on repeated listening, a tad dull. Clearly evident, however, was the band’s promise, and specifically Mark Knopfler’s promise as a songwriter (there was never any doubt about his guitar playing).
None of the songs on the second album, “Communique,” broke out on radio at all, and I didn’t even buy the album. At the time, once could have been forgiven for thinking that the band was a flash in the pan, and that Knopfler’s main claim to future fame would be as a session player on albums by other artists.
In the fall of 1980, the band released “Making Movies,” and truth be told, I wouldn’t have bought that album either, except for the fact that Greil Marcus had listed it in the #1 spot on his “Real Life Top Ten” for the month of October. Back in those days there were a handful of critics whose word was gold for me (Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau and Paul Nelson being among the others), so I figured that I didn’t have a lot to lose.
The album begins with the strains of “The Carousel Waltz,” and almost immediately you hear something that you’d never heard before on a Dire Straits album (and would not hear again) – the piano of Roy Bittan, which is a key factor in the album’s musical success. The next thing you hear is another key factor – a much fuller, deeper sound, courtesy of a sterling production effort by Jimmy Iovine. The band’s debut, for all its strengths, had a very “thin” sound, and Iovine corrected that error by enhancing the sound of both bass and drums. Credit is also due to Iovine for creating a sound perfectly suited for this band – it doesn’t sound like his work with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (a little crisper and clearer), because that approach may not have worked for Dire Straits.
But even with the contributions of Iovine and Bittan, what lifts “Making Movies” to heights the band had never reached (and would never reach again) is the songwriting and singing of Mark Knopfler. Side one is a masterpiece of narrative epics, none of which, stylistically, sounds exactly like the other. “Tunnel of Love,” the opener, probably comes closest to the style of the first two albums, but Knopfler’s muscular vocal and layered-guitar help it reach levels not even matched by “Sultans of Swing.” It’s a long song, clocking in at almost 8 minutes, but it never lags, and the sense of drama never lets up.
“Romeo and Juliet,” the second song, is probably the best song that Knopfler has ever written. Like the tragedy from which it takes its title, the song tells the story of a romance that isn’t going to work, and you can hear the pain in Knopfler’s vocal and lyrics. The end of the song, when the first verse is repeated, features a vocal from Knopfler that is downright soulful. And when the last line comes – “you and me babe, how about it? – Knopfler allows his guitar to tell the end of the story, and it becomes the perfect representation of tears streaming down his face.
“Skateaway,” the first side closer, creates a sound that is nothing like the band had done up to that point. I have no way of knowing this, but I’m sure that Iovine deserves a good amount of credit for that. For a band rooted in the traditional sounds of rock music, “Skateaway” is a major departure. In this particular movie, Knopfler’s guitar plays a distinctly supportive role, allowing Bittan’s keyboards, John Illsey’s bass, and Pick Withers’ drums to play center stage. The song isn’t exactly danceable, but you could certainly imagine it playing somewhere in a club (or a roller rink?). And it’s another strong lyric, including the line that gives the album its title:
She gets rock n roll a rock n roll station
And a rock n roll dream
She’s making movies on location
She don’t know what it means
But the music make her wanna be the story
And the story was whatever was the song what it was
Roller girl don’t worry
d.j. play the movies all night long
In comparison with the magnificent first side, the second side of the album is more standard fare – although “Expresso Love,” “Hand in Hand,” and “Solid Rock” are all standout songs in the classic rock mold – and would have made a huge impression on any other Straits album. The record’s only flaw comes with the closing song, “Les Boys,” which is, truth be told, pretty stupid. Take that song off the album and replace it with one as strong as the three which immediately preceded it, and “Making Movies” may well have ended up in my top twenty.
But let’s not quibble – “Making Movies” is a great album, and deserves to be in this heady company.
Making Movies (1980) • Produced by Jimmy Iovine and Mark Knopfler
Tunnel of Love/Romeo and Juliet/Skateaway/Expresso Love/Hand in Hand/Solid Rock/Les Boys