Peter Reed’s Top 10 Albums, Part 8: Dire Straits, Alchemy

One of the problems with live albums is that they record an experience and an event in a distinctly less-than-perfect way. It’s not really possible to recreate the real sound of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of other people, of varying heights, and, directly proportional to that, varying levels of annoyingness.

I’ve got one album on my top ten list that comes close, though. Alchemy, Dire Straits’ first live album, was recorded in the relatively intimate (relative to somewhere like Wembley Stadium) Hammersmith Apollo with an audience, all of whom are quite exuberant and many of whom sound more than a little bit pissed.

Dire Straits are probably the only musical inheritance I gained from my mother who has the cassette tape (!) of it, it being her Uni soundtrack in the early eighties. Gosh, time. How swiftly it flies. Dire Straits are a Geordie band (from the fookin’ TOON!!) whose songs tend to tell stories, which is something I really like. Lyrically it makes them so much more interesting. They have a kind of old-America-but-not sound to them. To be honest when I hear it I think of it as a Dire Straits sound, so it’s difficult to define.

The main star of Dire Straits is frontman, guitarist and… ahem… singer Mark Knopfler. Mark Knopfler is not really a singer. He’s a sort of, rhythmic, vaguely musical talker. If he was a proper singer, it wouldn’t really work. He’s not one of those perfect human beings that are normally thrust upon us in the music world, he sounds more like a normal bloke from down the pub singing. But, that’s the magic, because that bloke down the pub singing to his sweetheart is singing entirely from the heart. He really means it.

So, Alchemy. The main difference to the band’s sound comes from the prominent addition of pianist/keyboard player Alan Clark, whose organ is right at the front of the mix along with Knopfler’s guitar. Knopfler is, incidentally, an excellent guitarist; great at both lead and fingerpicking. During the opening the audience are screaming and whooping like they’re at a football mach (TOON! TOON! BLACK AND WHITE ARMY!! Sorry.) They go mental when the band are introduced and step onto the stage. The opening track is “Once Upon a Time in the West”, which, alright, I’ll be honest, I don’t tend to pay masses of attention to, because it’s just over thirteen minutes long and spends most of that time sitting in the same nice, but no better than nice, groove.

Things start properly with “Expresso Love”. (Yes I know it should be spelt “espresso”. I DON’T BLOODY CARE.) Fading in from nowhere with some crunchy guitars, like a biscuit going with the expresso (don’t worry, bad analogies are all free today!) it runs into a verse driven by a delicate piano line and guitar that runs along like someone on a giddy caffeine high, stopped only by the choruses, that compared to the verses, are huge and expansive, like someone on a caffeine rush suddenly stopping, looking up at the sky and going, “wowww.” Doesn’t keep them halted for long though. This song really races along.

A kind of reprieve next, with the archetypical Straits ballad “Romeo and Juliet”, which remains one of my favourite love songs ever. A slow, warm keyboard prelude (not so much an intro, the song doesn’t really start yet) fades us in gently, then the fingerpicked, flamenco guitar intro starts the song properly, refreshingly bright and sharp against the fuzzy keyboard background. “Romeo and Juliet” manages to be a fantastic ballad, with some of the best, most vulnerable lyrics I’ve ever heard, without sounding cheesy like so many of its eighties brothers and sisters. That, generally, was a strength of Dire Straits; they managed not to get caught up in all the silliness of the eighties so it’s much harder for their music to age badly.

“Romeo and Juliet” segues sneakily into a teasing intro to “Love Over Gold”. The audience respond accordingly. “Love Over Gold” is easily the shortest song on the album, and this version found its way onto Dire Straits’ greatest hits. It manages to pack similar emotion to “Romeo and Juliet” into less than half the time, managing not to noodle at the end like the studio version.

Do you like tension in a song? Look no further than “Private Investigations,” a song so tense that if it snapped it’d ping itself all the way to Estonia. It’s so tense that half the time I listen to the album I skip it because I can’t bear it. A pinnacle of Straits’ musical portrait-painting; as the title suggests, it’s about a lone private eye in a dangerous world (lovely use of a xylophone in the into by the way). In a dark, drizzly minor piano tone, it would make a fantastic soundtrack. Knopfler half-mutters, half-growls the lyrics, falling perfectly into character. The main feature though is the extended… breakdown? Solo? I don’t know what you’d call it. The audience screams with delight as the song drops into menacing bass footsteps, stalking closer and closer, broken by twirls of Spanish guitar, shattered by sudden, explosive, hammering guitar, like machine gun fire. The tension’s unbearable. It gets the hackles up on the back of your neck.

When the song ends, it’s a relief really. Not much of a reprieve is granted though. We get chucked headlong into an absolutely explosive rendition of Straits’ signature tune, “Sultans of Swing”, granted buckets of new energy with whirling organ behind the guitars. Knopfler’s soloing here goes off the scale, slower, faster, rising up, down and all around. It’s the best version of the song you’re likely to hear.

So concludes the first half. After a dash to the overpriced Theatre bar and a quick trip to the khazi, we all gather again for more tunes from Mark and the boys. We welcome Mel Collins on the saxophone. All very well, Mark. But is he any good? The band launch into fast-paced ballad-that-does-what-it-says-on-the-tin, “Two Young Lovers,” about two young lovers, funnily enough. Fun story, and great saxophone. This song sounds like it’s exploded straight out of the jiving fifties; like something Marty McFly would have had to dance to in Back to the Future.

At the end of the song it doesn’t really finish; the band kind of go off on one, displaying one of the album’s greatest strengths – the pre-thought-out filler jams between the songs. Three minutes of continuous music plug the gap before “Tunnel of Love,” almost as lovely as the song itself. “Tunnel of Love” is fantastic. It blends the emotional balladry of “Romeo and Juliet” but sets it to a moving, driving rootsy arrangement like “Sultans of Swing”, in a fairground at night. “And the big wheel keep[s] on turning/neon burning up above” Knopfler husks, and it sounds almost holy.

The thing about live albums is that in a setting like a theatre, you can sometimes hear the audience quite distinctly. And by the second half of “Tunnel of Love” some people in the audience are really rather drunk. During the very slow, reflective solo about three quarters of the way through, while Knopfler is playing with as much soul as he can muster (quite a lot) one chap rather spoils it by howling, “G’WON MAAAARK!” immediately followed by his girlfriend screaming “SHUT UUUUUUUP!” at him, quite distinctly. Ah well. Adds to the experience.

“Tunnel of Love” is a marathon, at fourteen and a half minutes long. So we get a short song to follow as a bit of a break- oh no, we don’t, we go into the equally long, verging-on-prog-rock track “Telegraph Road”. I do like “Telegraph Road”, it more or less tells the story of a town in America and the road leading to it, from its founding, through wars, unemployment and loves won and lost there. It’s a magnificent story-song and it’s a shame there aren’t more like it.

Not long to go now. “Solid Rock” is a rock-and-roll song. Another fast, come-on-take-my-hand-and-we’ll-go-running-into-the-middle-of-a-mototrway song. It moves along happily with staccato piano chords and a rolling rumbling guitar line. It feels a lot shorter than it actually is.

And so, to finish, with Mark Knopfler’s instrumental theme to Local Hero, “Going Home”. It sounds very Scottish. Knopfler has frequently thrown a celtic spin on his work and as the theme to a film set in a remote Aberdeenshire village, “Going Home” does rather require it. (It’s also a film starring Peter Capaldi when he was young. The shock nearly killed me) This absolutely is classic Knopfler. If you want to know, generally, what his guitar playing sounds like, listen to this. After teasing the audience a few times, he gets into the theme, after playing it once with minimal backing, he launches into a full, upbeat version with all the band with him as an outro. (Incidentally this is also the music that plays when Newcastle United come out the tunnel at St James’ Park. There, I swear I’ll never do another football fact again.)

Alchemy is a fantastic live album; probably the closest one can get to going to a concert, with all its little annoyances, without actually going to a concert. With some incredibly moving ballads and upbeat bluesy rockers, it definitely goes in my top ten.

Keeping the videos simple this time: here’s the band playing Sultans of Swing, direct from the album. …It looks a lot more eighties than it sounds. Sorry about that.

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