Saturday, 20 February 2010

Keltner analysis of undiscussed Rock Hall Artists: Dire Straits

The site A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago, discusses various artists' credentials for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After finishing my analysis of the Rock Hall backlog, I always intended to analyse artists who have never been discussed by the Nominating Committee, but still might have credentials to justify induction. The aim of the process is to find out whether, on the basis of the Keltner list for a Hall of Fame, the Nominating Committee really is completely ignoring artists who have undeniable credentials to be in the Hall.

I do admit that there are some problems with the criteria, especially given known biases of the Nominating Committee and how they effect who is already in the Hall, but still I cannot see any better alternative.

I have so far done six Keltner tests on undiscussed artists:
My next artist, first eligible in 2003/2004, is Dire Straits. They were formed in 1977 by guitarist and lead vocalist Mark Knopfler, his younger brother David on rhythm guitar, bass player John Illsey and drummer Pick Withers. They toured in late 1977 opening for (surprisingly) the Talking Heads, and began recording their debut album Dire Straits at the beginning of 1978 with producer Muff Winwood, the older brother of Steve and once a bandmate in the Spencer Davis Group.

Owing to the success of the hit single "Sultans of Swing", both Dire Straits and its follow-up Communiqué were big sellers, and, with David Knopfler replaced on guitar by Hal Lindsey, their third album Making Movies was a huge hit in Europe and Australia even though it only reached number 19 on Billboard. Their 1982 album Love Over Gold was an even bigger seller, topping the charts in the UK and Australia, but again only reaching #19 on Billboard, probably because its songs were too long for radio - though Triple M in Australia still plays "Private Investigations", "Industrial Disease" and even the 14-minute "Telegraph Road" occasionally. After this, they released an EP Twisting by the Pool, which became a huge hit on the Australian singles charts but only reached number 53 in the States, and a live album Alchemy, which was only slightly more successful. During this period, mainman Mark Knopfler was also involved in a number of other musical projects such as the Local Hero soundtrack.

In 1985, however, aided by a sardonic attack on MTV in "Money For Nothing" (which I recall as a young boy devouring chemistry textbooks as "stannane working" instead of "that ain't working"), Dire Straits became the first superstars of the CD age with Brothers in Arms, which was at its peak the second best-selling album of all time in Australia after Best of ABBA and topped the charts worldwide. The band's success, however, seemed to affect Knpfler adversely, so that they took a long break after the world tour to support the album and did not reunite (with only Knopfler and Ilsey of the original line-up) until 1990 to record On Every Street. Though that album was a best-seller, Knopfler after that separated from Illsey for a solo career which - though not prolific - continues to this day. Illsey had released solo albums Never Told a Soul in 1984, Glass in 1988 and after a period of fifteen years entirely away from the music business, Live in les Baux de Provence in 2007 and a studio collaboration Beautiful You in 2008.

An evaluation of Dire Straits' Rock Hall credentials based on the Keltner criteria, which actually come from the Baseball Hall of Fame follows.

1) Were Dire Straits ever regarded as the best artist in rock music? (Did anybody, while Dire Straits were active, ever seriously suggest Dire Straits were the best artist in rock music?): No. Even when they were at their peak of popularity, Dire Straits never stood out over other giants of the 1980s like Bruce Springsteen or U2 - or, in different genres Michael Jackson or Madonna. More than that, whilst Dire Straits lyrics were almost all in the "populist" tradition of America roots-rock, they never were so effective at epitomising the cultural conflicts of the 1980s as Springsteen or even Mellencamp.

2) Were Dire Straits ever the best artist in rock music in its genre?: No. Even within the field of "populist" rock - as Knopfler's lyrics show him to be in their appeal to such sentiments as leisure and get-rich-quick schemes - Dire Straits were always behind Springsteen, Petty and Mellencamp.

3) Was any member of Dire Straits ever considered the best at his instrument?: Yes, Mark Knopfler was always regarded as an extremely good guitarist, and was in great demand as a session player for the duration the band was active. He may not make many critical lists, but he is extremely respected for his skill.

4) Did Dire Straits have an impact on a number of other artists?: One book I read said that "nobody was inspired by Dire Straits to start a career in music, but maybe they were in the field of making money". Another, more favourable book I recall from a long time ago said they were "strangely uninfluential". Though these books were written a long time ago, one cannot see that things have changed since. Thus, this question must get a "no".

5) Were Dire Straits good enough that they could play regularly after passing their prime?: No. As I have pointed out, after their first few albums Dire Straits were reduced to Knopfler and Illsey, and with the latter turning from music to art in the 1990s, there was never any hope of the band continuing beyond On Every Street.

6) Are Dire Straits the very best artist in history that is not in the Hall of Fame?: No, even though most of their rivals are already in the Hall of Fame, one has to consider so many bands of far greater influence and/or longevity.

7) Are most bands who have a comparable recording history and impact in the Hall of Fame?: Yes. Springsteen, Petty and Mellencamp are already in the Hall of Fame, as are U2 (who in a different way spoke to those disadvantaged by 1980s economic reforms). It is almost impossible to think of nearly so successful a roots-rocker who is not in the Hall of Fame.

8) Is there any evidence to suggest that Dire Straits were significantly better or worse than is suggested by their statistical records?: One can make little comment here. Dire Straits were a band who spoke to the working class of the 1980s very effectively, as shown by their ability to gain airplay with songs normally too long for radio.

9) Is Dire Straits the best artist in its genre that is eligible for the Hall of Fame?: Possibly, but only because most of their rivals on the charts of the 1980s are already inducted. It is striking how after Springsteen, Mellencamp and them, there is a complete drop off in the "populist" rock scene.

10) How many #1 singles/gold records did Dire Straits have? Did Dire Straits ever win a Grammy award? If not, how many times was Dire Straits nominated?: Dire Straits never actually had a number one single, but all six studio albums went gold in the US (and to higher status in the UK and Australia). So did their first live album Alchemy and first best-of Money for Nothing, which is a particularly impressive record by any standard. They won one Grammy for "Money for Nothing" and were nominated in 1980 for Best New Artist and for Best Rock Vocal Performance By a Duo or Group for "Sultans of Swing". They were also nominated in 1992 for "Calling Elvis".

11) How many Grammy-level songs/albums did Dire Straits have? For how long of a period did Dire Straits dominate the music scene? How many Rolling Stone covers did Dire Straits appear on? Did most bands with this sort of impact go into the Hall of Fame?: Dire Straits had only one Grammy-level song in "Money for Nothing" and one album in Brothers in Arms - which actually won a Grammy for its videos only. They appeared on only three Rolling Stone covers, which is a very modest number for so commercially successful a band and does not auger well for their credentials.

12) If Dire Straits were the best artist at a concert, would it be likely that the concert would rock?: Yes. They were a major concert drawcard throughout their career and released several noted live albums, the first of which sold very well. With Knopfler's epic guitar work, it is not surprising they, like earlier jam bands, could be so effective live.

13) What impact did Dire Straits have on rock history? Were they responsible for any stylistic changes? Did they introduce any new equipment? Did Dire Straits change history in any way?: Most definitely not in terms of changing rock history or equipment. Dire Straits cannot be said to have brought any new equipment to rock or new styles: their style was very much inherited from the roots music of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, in terms of musical technology, one can say they were the first to promote the CD. I would not view that as a critical issue, though.

14) Did Dire Straits uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?: There is relatively little to be said here, though the fact that Dire Straits never had the problems of drugs or other such issues may be in their favour.

All in all, Dire Straits can be best viewed as a case of "one too far" regarding their potential induction. Though of the 1980s roots-rockers they are the only major one not inducted, it cannot be said that they deserve it. Thus the verdict must be don't induct.


Anonymous said...

dont even talk about dire straits in comparing them to other genres of music, what they play is their own genre. tell me who else is similar to them. noone. dire straits hasn't had an impact on any band because noone else can play their style, their so unique and genuine in what they play. think again keltner

Allan said...

Dire Straits; 120 million albums sold worldwide. Countless soldout tours. The band was popular in the US, but they were more popular in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Europe.

jpbenney said...


their success in the States, where only Brothers in Arms was really big, does count against them. Success in the UK and Australia does not really matter to the Rock Hall.

Anonymous said...

Rarely have I read a more unfair post about a band.

As the matter of fact, Dire Straits were good enough for most of the things listed just as they WERE far more influentual then you give them credit for. Their guitar playing style was huge and technically beautiful. Great band that deserves to be included in there.

Anonymous said...

Dire Straits should be in easily. That is all.