BBC Arena: Dire Straits

Dire Straits - BBC ArenaSynopsis: Arena is the BBC’s multi award-winning arts strand. Founded in 1975, Arena continues to produce gold standard documentaries for the BBC and world audiences

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BBC Arena: Dire Straits 7.5

eyelights: the band’s down-to-earth quality.
eyesores: the short takes on their songs.

‘Arena’ is a BBC television documentary programme that has been on the air since 1975. With over 600 episodes produced thus far, the show has spotlighted a large palette of important cultural landmarks and icons. In 1980, the show’s producers decided to feature a band that had recently exploded onto the music scene: Dire Straits.

This hour-long documentary was first broadcast on December 22, 1980.

I was clearly one of the few but, I  discovered Dire Straits with ‘Brothers in Arms’ – most notably via their smash single “Money For Nothing”. They were firmly established by then, but I was only taking my first steps into a larger musical landscape then. ‘Brothers in Arms’ would become one of my all-time favourite albums, and it remains in the top 10 to this day.

I was blissfully ignorant of the rest of their output, aside for the ‘Money for Nothing’ compilation album (which I had mixed feelings about), the ‘ExtendedancEPlay’ EP (which was a blast), and the ‘Alchemy’ live album (which, along with Jethro Tull’s ‘Bursting Out’ remains one of my all-time favourite live albums – it’s 90 minutes of pure bliss).

It would take me nearly two decades to finally explore their full discography, when a local chain started selling the remasters for 10$ a piece. I upgraded ‘Brothers in Arms’, bought all of the others and went on  Dire Straits binge. Although they started more like a blues-based bar band, their eventual progression was palpable and quite appealing to the ear.

I discovered that I was more of a fan than I ever could have imagined.

Unfortunately, there are very few Dire Straits home video releases out there: two live shows and a video collection. ‘Alchemy’ is worth seeing (I’ll get to it, I promise) and the other is a later-period tour I’m not interested in since it’s for the only album I’m not fond of. As for the video collection… do I really want to watch Dire Straits videos? Hmmm… not so sure.

This dearth of material makes the ‘Arena’ episode very enticing. It was recorded right before their third album was released and it features performances from their December 20-21, 1979 shows at London’s Rainbow Theatre as well as candid interview and behind-the-scenes footage. This programme was naturally heavily bootlegged up until recently.

It’s a no-frills production that alternates between concert material and the rest throughout the hour. For the interview and behind-the-scenes material, they pretty much used available lighting, and there was no attempt at staging anything. There is no narration and there are no also captions except at the very end, not even to introduce the songs that the band played.

The episode begins with make-shift introductions to the band members, with Mark talking about his first guitar, sounding very much like Nigel Tufnel. Mark mocks the pretentiousness of having a Fender Stratocaster, being that it’s supposed to be the sports car of guitars. You can tell that he’s not entirely at ease with rock star posturing.

John also talks about getting his first musical instrument, while David discusses how he and John started playing together. Pick talked about his love for the drum, how “the seed was fermented”. Asked about being the singer, writer and band leader, whether the band are a support for him, Mark struggles with his answer. Is he trying to be diplomatic, or humble?

As we watch them jam in a shack by the waterfront, it’s clear that he’s in control, coaching the others on their various parts. And, in the studio, while working on “Solid Rock”, and doing guitar overdubs, Mark is displeased with the mix and takes charge at the console. He already looks to be a perfectionist, a reputation that cemented with time.

One excellent part of the show is an exclusive look at the making of the title track to their third album, ‘Making Movies’ – which, ironically, never made the cut. Hearing it made me wonder why it was left out; it sounds pretty good, actually. And even then, why would they name the album after a track that remains unreleased (at least, officially – as it has been bootlegged)?

Their manager talks about the band’s massive instant success (6.5 million albums, 2 million singles, and now playing to up to 60,000 people a night). The whole band is stunned by this; they just got together to play music and never planned for stardom. John is cautious, talking about the trappings of such success, of potentially losing one’s way.

David talks about how much work and travel there had been in the previous years. It was like a whirlwind. John adds that it was too sudden, that there was no time to reflect. David says that the documentary is basically capturing them recovering from two years of the most grueling work ever, adding that he’d lost touch with 90% of his friends because of it.

And yet their manager admits that he would have pushed them harder, because he felt that they weren’t quite there yet, that they had put the brakes on a bit. naturally, he followed their lead (in fact, you see him turning down extra tour dates at one point). He’s pretty proud, though, and he shows off their awards – even the dubious distinctions.

As interesting as all of this is, for some fans the live performances are likely to be the meat of the matter.

BBC Arena features the original line-up together for the last time on the final nights of their ‘Communiqué’ tour. Less than a year later, before the end of the recording sessions for ‘Making Movies’ (after Mark admitted that he wished that they would continue indefinitely), David would leave the band, never to return.

The performances are interspersed throughout the hour:

1. Down to the Waterline: The leading track from their debut album, this groovy number features nice guitar work – it breaks through regularly, like multiple mini solos. Mark’s sound is slightly blues-based, but surrounded by a more rhythmic arrangement. Surprisingly, this was never released as a single – it was, in fact, the B-side to another single, the unfortunately-named “Water of Love”.

What I found striking about watching this performance was just how low-key it was; this was even before their headband days. I was also intrigued by the fact that Mark is pretty much the sole focus of the footage. 8.0

2. Once Upon a Time in the West: Astonishingly, this was also never released as a single. I don’t know what the record company was doing, but Dire Straits sold albums despite their promotion. Instead of this high energy number, which became a staple of rock radio and was played at their shows, the first and only single was “Lady Writer”, which is familiar to no one but fans of their sophomore album, ‘Communiqué’.

For some reason, this felt like a very short rendition. Maybe it’s just my impression, but it went by all too quickly. The footage is less focused on Mark this time: we actually see David a little bit. But not much. 7.5

3. Solid Rock: Clearly, the band were testing out their new songs on the road, as this track wasn’t released until months later (by the time of the show’s broadcast, however, the new album was out). It’s a very upbeat piece, with a nice bass rhythm, and they had the crowd clapping enthusiastically. This is very much blue collar music though, as is the band’s style.

This is the first time that we get a good look at the stage: Mark is front and centre, with Pick drumming behind him, John at his right and David at his right. We gets a few group shots for once. It’s a pretty small stage – not exactly arena rock (which is amusing, given the show’s title). 7.5

4. Where Do You Think You’re Going?: Back to ‘Communiqué’, this number starts with Mark on his own at first, in the spotlight, before the whole band kicks in. There’s a long instrumental jam towards the end, which is really excellent.

Mark is fully engaged during this number, giving it everything he’s got. Interestingly, this is the first time that the other band members are featured without Mark in the picture with them. 7.75

5. Les Boys: Another track from their then-upcoming ‘Making Movies’, this is a silly, country/western number. Thematically, it’s a precursor to “Money for Nothing”, but I’ve always hated it, found it too corny for my taste. It has terrific momentum, though: during the final passage the crowd claps along, leading to the band kicking it in a final time. 7.0

6. Sultans of Swing: Well, here is the big classic that everyone knows. It remains a super groovy piece, even after all these years. Personally, I haven’t tired of it (of course, I don’t listen to the radio, where it plays incessantly). It’s totally bass-driven; it makes you want to hop into a car and go. The instrumental passage towards the end is also really yummy. This is such a sweet-sounding song – no wonder it was a hit. Sadly, the opening guitar solo of this live performance is a bit sloppy, and the ending is abrupt. But it still rocks. 8.0

The show is very workman-like, with no signs of glamour to be seen; it was just four guys on stage, playing their music. There was no pretension. It was also amazing to see how grounded and self-reflective the band members were, all things considered. It’s not all what you would expect, especially given the era, when bands had a tendency for theatrics.

‘BBC Arena: Dire Straits’ is a superb document for fans of Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler. It captures the group at a very specific point in time, just as they were exploding onto the scene, trying to cope with it and fragmenting because of it. This is the portrait of musicians at a juncture in their career, something we don’t always get to witness.

Combined with this rare live footage, it’s essential viewing for any fan of this iconic band and/or of ’80s rock.

Nota bene: ‘BBC Arena: Dire Straits’ has finally been officially released on the 20th anniversary edition of ‘Alchemy’.

Date of viewing: July 19, 2014

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