Dire Straits on MoFi Vinyl

March 2020

In 1978, when Dire Straits released their first album, Dire Straits, punk and new wave were rising, and disco’s days were numbered. A glance at the albums released that year, however, shows that there was still interest in the roots-based music that was Dire Straits’ specialty. Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits’ songwriter and lead singer, wrote songs that took in jazz, folk, blues, and more, and his lead-guitar playing was imaginative and elegant. Guitar heroes by then were unfashionable, but Knopfler’s emphasis on melody over flash and his skills as a composer made his band -- younger brother and rhythm guitarist David Knopfler, bassist John Illsley, and drummer Pick Withers -- stand out from the pack.

Dire Straits didn’t become popular overnight. A five-song demo tape that included what would become their first big hit, “Sultans of Swing,” had reached the ear of BBC radio presenter Charlie Gillett, who put it in rotation in his show. Vertigo Records signed the band, and released their first LP in October 1978. “Sultans of Swing” was released as a single, but it didn’t chart until the band’s US label, Warner Bros., reissued it in January 1979. Its success here inspired UK stations to return it to their playlists, and song and album both became huge hits.

I doubt anyone could have predicted that Dire Straits would be only the first of a series of albums that have now sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Brothers in Arms (1985), the band’s fifth studio album and its most popular by far, has so far sold 30 million copies, most of them CDs. In 2015, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, aka MoFi, released editions of that album on hybrid SACD/CD and two 45rpm LPs, and now has reissued their first four albums in those formats: Dire Straits (1978), Communiqué (1979), Making Movies (1980), and Love Over Gold (1982). Here I listen to the vinyl versions of those four albums.

Dire Straits

Dire Straits began recording its first album at London’s Basing Street Studios in February 1978, with Muff Winwood producing and Rhett Davies engineering. While it’s hard to say how much input Mark Knopfler had on the album’s sound, it’s worth noting that every album released by Dire Straits or Knopfler solo sounds very good.

My copy of Dire Straits is a 1978 Warner Bros. copy pressed at Capitol Records’ plant in Winchester, Virginia. “Down to the Waterline” begins the album with guitar volume swells that mimic the sound of a foghorn. As Mark Knopfler begins to play a series of notes, David Knopfler lightly strums rhythm guitar behind him, and bassist John Illsley adds his own volume swells to add to the intro’s ominousness. The notes of Mark’s lead are more fleshed out on the MoFi, with more pronounced echo and delay, as are the amounts of vibrato and attack on individual lines.

When the band kicks in abruptly, the MoFi edition lets me hear all sorts of things more clearly: Illsley’s bass has more force and bottom-end impact, Withers’s cymbals shine out on the soundstage more strongly, and the effects on David’s guitar are more pronounced. Most notably, Mark’s voice is much more three-dimensional, and the multitracked vocals in the third verse are more layered.

The claves that begin “Water of Love” register with more force and echo longer on the MoFi. The sounds of Withers’s drums are more nuanced and tonally varied, whereas on the Warner Bros. they’re a bit too forward. Krieg Wunderlich, who mastered all of these reissues with assistance from Shawn R. Britton, has given the music more room to breathe -- David’s rhythm guitar is easier to hear, Mark’s slide-guitar notes sustain longer, and it’s more obvious that he’s playing a National Steel.

The guitar tones in “Sultans of Swing” are more clearly rendered on the MoFi, and Mark’s fills throughout the song sound fuller, more substantial. It’s easier to hear that an effect has been added to David’s rhythm guitar, probably a chorus. On the original pressing, those small touches aren’t as sharply presented; the MoFi makes for a more satisfying listen. Illsley’s bass notes are more solid and full-bodied, and the subtlety of Withers’s drums is easier to appreciate. Here and throughout the album, voices are three-dimensional and out front.

The MoFi edition makes “Wild West End” so much more nuanced and revealing. The chords on the nylon-string acoustic guitar in the left channel are more harmonically complete than in the earlier pressing, Mark’s picking technique on electric guitar in the center channel has greater focus and realism, background vocals are vastly richer, and the deeper, wider soundstage allows the music to come alive in a way the earlier pressing doesn’t approach.

Communiqué

In November 1978, Dire Straits entered Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas, to record the follow-up to Dire Straits. Legendary producer and record executive Jerry Wexler coproduced the album with keyboardist and producer Barry Beckett, of the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Warner Bros. and Vertigo released Communiqué in June 1979, just eight months after the release of Dire Straits, which was still charting well, and the new album sold briskly. Critics have long considered it a pale also-ran, but I hear no evidence of sophomore slump in an album that includes “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Portobello Belle,” and “Communiqué.”

The sound of the guitars on my 1979 Warner Bros. LP of Communiqué, pressed at Capitol’s plant in Los Angeles, has always impressed me -- but when I switched to the new MoFi pressing to compare “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Mark’s guitar lines in the intro cut deeper, David’s finger-strummed rhythm guitar had more texture, and Illsley’s bass stepped out to fatten and push the music. As I continued to listen to the MoFi, I realized that the original vinyl makes the drums sound far too reserved. When Withers plays a roll on the toms, its tone and power are expansive on the MoFi, and his kick drum has a pleasing, air-moving thump that the earlier pressing lacks. The rhythm guitars in both channels are more substantial and deeper toned, giving the music more life.

Mark’s distinctive vibrato adds color to the rhythm guitar in “News,” the MoFi putting it in greater relief. His volume swells and fills have more edge and transparency, and his brother’s upstrokes on rhythm guitar hit harder. Withers’s hi-hat work is in the background on the earlier pressing, but here emerges from the murk to make a subtly more important contribution. Mark’s acoustic guitar in “Where Do You Think You’re Going?” sounds fuller, warmer, and more natural on the MoFi, and the chord progression, which is further developed at the close, is much more satisfyingly complex and layered in the remastering.

The reverb surrounding the signature guitar riff that establishes the tone of the title track is more audible in this pressing and gives the riff a slightly funkier quality. Barry Beckett’s honkytonk piano is highlighted and better integrated into the rest of the mix. Mark’s arpeggios are brighter, and I could better hear his fingerpicking technique. The distinctive tone of the National Steel guitar’s resonator in “Portobello Belle” has a more accurately metallic sound, and Beckett’s piano emerges farther into the open. Throughout Communiqué, the contributions of Withers and Illsley are much easier to appreciate because they’re more focused, and Mark’s voice is more immediate.

Making Movies

Mark Knopfler coproduced Dire Straits’ third album, Making Movies, with Jimmy Iovine, who’d worked with Bruce Springsteen and who asked Roy Bittan, of Springsteen’s E Street Band, to play keyboards. Shelly Yakus engineered the album, which was recorded at the Power Station, in New York. David Knopfler left the group early in the recording of this album, leaving Mark and Sid McGinnis to play the rhythm-guitar parts (McGinnis is not credited in the album credits). Making Movies was released in October 1980 -- it rocks more consistently than the first two albums, and Bittan’s piano provides a strong romantic tone.

In fact, Bittan begins the first track, “Tunnel of Love,” with a quote from “The Carousel Waltz,” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical Carousel, which he plays on piano and organ. I listened first to my 1980 Warner Bros. pressing, cut at Sterling in New York. When I switched to the MoFi, the two keyboards were better separated, and as the volume of Bittan’s piano arpeggios increases, the effect was more dynamic and dramatic. When the guitars enter, Bittan’s piano circling around them, the MoFi gives them more room to let guitar tones and effects make their mark -- Knopfler’s guitar lines and fills cut through more solidly.

The drums that begin “Skateaway,” which was in heavy rotation on MTV in 1980, are meatier on the MoFi, and become even more impressive as the volume increases, and the echo added to the kick drum has greater punch and color. Bittan’s piano chords in the background are firmer, and Knopfler’s picking technique is more finely etched.

The tones of the acoustic guitars in “Romeo and Juliet” are more organic, enveloping, and resonant on the MoFi. The guitar in the left channel, barely audible on the earlier pressing, is now out in the open, making the track fuller. Bass and drums are also mixed farther back in the original, but here are brought forward into the music, and the players’ skills in reacting to changes in dynamics are much easier to appreciate. The tambourine now has a greater physical presence and intensity.

Making Movies rocks harder than its predecessors, and is more layered and multitracked. Wunderlich and Bittan have brought out details I can’t hear from my earlier pressing. The guitar riff that begins “Expresso Love” (sic) has more bite on the MoFi, and when Bittan’s piano enters it holds on without fading into the background, as it does on the 1980 pressing. Knopfler’s guitar riffs in the right channel cut through more sharply, and the doubled, harmonized lead-guitar lines in the two channels are easier to follow.

In the delicate opening notes of “Hand in Hand,” the percussion that briefly accompanies Bittan’s piano echoes and lingers, and when the guitars enter they’re open and alive. Each note of Knopfler’s subtle accompaniment makes a clear impression, and the guitar riffs and piano throughout the track are carved out sturdily on the soundstage. Withers’s cross-sticking and hi-hat work are well presented, and the track’s drama and drive comes out cleanly.

In many of the seven songs on Making Movies, Knopfler relies on changes in mood and dynamics to develop their narratives. Changes of chording and instrumentation add to this album’s unique beauty, and the MoFi vinyl lets elements of the arrangements develop effectively, with the result of helping me appreciate them better. When songs change in intensity, the MoFi does a far better job than the earlier pressing in letting me appreciate the power of those moments.

Love Over Gold

Mark Knopfler produced Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold himself. The band returned to the Power Station to record, with Neil Dorfsman engineering. Their fourth album, released September 1982, is one of the band’s most ambitious, with a 14-minute opening track comprising various sections, and other tracks that show Knopfler’s growth and ambition as a composer. My copy, a 1982 Warner Bros. pressing, was cut at Masterdisk and mastered by Bill Kipper. I’ve always thought it sounded a little bright, in the manner of many 1980s recordings, and the best thing the MoFi pressing does is tame that edginess to make the album a more enjoyable listen throughout its 41 minutes.

The atmospheric opening of “Telegraph Road” features Alan Clark on keyboards, and on the MoFi his synth lines are brighter and better delineated. When Knopfler and Withers enter, the guitarist’s solo is edgier and more textured, and Withers’s cross-sticking snaps harder. Clark’s piano is more expansive and larger in scale, and Knopfler’s voice has greater emotional power. His solos sound more assertive, and I had a much closer view of how he was playing. Clark’s piano interlude leading into the track’s middle section was more enveloping and potent, and the swells and diminuendos of Knopfler’s guitar were more audible. I also found it easy to hear the tones of the different acoustic guitars used by Knopfler and rhythm guitarist Hal Lindes, who joined the band beginning with this album.

The classical guitar in “Love Over Gold” has much more sparkle, impact, and roundness of tone on the MoFi, and what I assume are synthesized plucked violins sound convincingly real. The song’s narrative development is more gripping because of the wider dynamic range of this remastering, and Mike Mainieri’s vibraphone reaches out of the mix more. “Industrial Disease” rocks harder, and I could hear percussion, multilayered guitars, and keyboard effects with less effort. Clark’s signature organ line in this track is carved out better, echoing soundly.

Each of these two-LP sets boasts more vivid and transparent sound than my far older pressings, and makes me appreciate even more the strengths of Mark Knopfler’s songwriting, singing, playing, and arranging. The increased attention to detail also led me to reappraise the importance of John Illsley’s bass and Pick Withers’s drums to these recordings’ overall impact. And while I’ve always thought that Roy Bittan’s piano was a key element in the overall impact of Making Movies, hearing it with such clarity now suggests that Bittan had a strong influence on Knopfler’s writing and his overall musical vision for that album.

The MoFi discs are beautifully pressed by RTI on flat, clean, quiet vinyl. The covers are MoFi’s usual heavy cardboard, the art from the original inner sleeves printed on the gatefold interiors. The discs are housed in high-quality inner sleeves, with a protective outer cover. The reproduction of the cover art looks very close to the original -- in fact, the inner gatefold photo of Dire Straits looks better than the original.

Dire Straits’ first four albums chart Mark Knopfler’s growth as a songwriter and his beginnings as a producer. Brothers in Arms, as good as it is, was a commercial bid, one that paid off. On Every Street (1991) has its moments, but feels too reserved overall.

But even those later albums were released three decades ago. Mark Knopfler’s masteries of songwriting, guitar playing, and production continue to this day, and these four reissues reveal their beginnings -- these pressings present with utter clarity his vision and talent, and those of the musicians who accompany him.

. . . Joseph Taylor
josepht@soundstagenetwork.com

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