Friday, April 8, 2016

HISTORY/AGAIN : Mark Knopfler

Some artists clearly love a true story, if only and at least as a template from where to launch into fanciful forays of imagination. Knopfler is someone who seems forever digging around in the past as inspiration, uncertain whether he likes to research or has just a vast accumulated knowledge. Probably a bit of both, having trained and worked as a journalist, before a degree in english and working as a college lecturer, his career in music on a slow side simmer until the relatively advanced age of 28. Of course, Dire Straits became huge and possibly so ubiquitous that they and he became an easy target for the taste police, deeming him dull and anachronistic bombast, an irony given the majority of their/his songs retained a virtue of their lack thereof. I like him and always did, an early adopter, as Sultans of Swing soundtracked my student years in London. (Come to think of it, it's now so long ago it probably counts as history in its own right!) While Dire Straits dabbled in ye olde historical, meaning more WW1 than Italian familial vendetta, it is in his less acknowledged and still smouldering solo career that this side of his songwriting style has really found wings, now 9 albums strong, along with collaborations with, amongst others, Emmylou Harris and Chet Atkins.

Does the legend of Imelda Marcos' shoe cupboard count as history? I think it does, even if the song is a retread of that song indirectly referred to above. Arguably one of the weaker cuts from his first post Straits non soundtrack output, it wasn't until his 2nd record that he really found his narrative skills. The title track from that record follows, and I like to feel it alerted many a listener to the hitherto untapped world of cartography. A beautiful duet with James Taylor, himself no stranger to a shot at history*, it remains the high point of live performance.

Whilst his next record was largely a paean to his Northumbrian roots, it was 2004's Shangri-La that really outed his love of the biographic, with songs inspired by Elvis, by Sonny Liston and the UK King of Skiffle, Lonnie Donegan. And this one, about the developer of McDonalds, yes the meat patty people, Ray Krocs, with many of the lyrics, included below, lifted directly from his autobiography.

A distinct feature of successive output has been the greater immersion in traditional and rootsy forms, whether an anglo-celtic folk tradition or from country music. Lyrics increasingly based upon folklore perhaps, than hard evidence, but no less cinematic, like this whimsy around the Reivers, cross-border bandits really, who flitted between the english north and scottish south, sheep stealing, cattle rustling and generally causing havoc. (Hence the derivation of the word bereaved, meaning the fate of those who had been "reived".)

His next work substituted border cowboys for pirates, again using the metaphor of a band of marauding rogues for, maybe, the lifestyle of an itinerant rock and roll band. By this stage I fear the lyrical conceits get the better of his tune smithery, but it continued to add to his reputation as a reliable and authentic musician, selling respectably.

Finally we come up to date with last years 'Tracker', more confirmation of his comfort zone, but again featuring songs relating to real-life individuals, one to little known poet, Basil Bunting, and another musing on the legacy of novelist Beryl Bainbridge and her attempts at the Booker prize, the prestigious UK grail for novelists, and in style a tip of the hat to earlier musical memes.

So this is but a mere dip into the historical sources put to use by this gifted and self-effacing Northumbrian, clearly a well-read man, usually issuing these songs as either the title track or lead single. In concert he can seem embarrassed by his earlier successes, oft dashing off his hits with a grimace before another earnest folk-hued story unfolds. I suspect the audiences still come mainly for those hits, but overall, given the choice, I think I prefer the best of his solo work.

(*Machine Gun Kelly was written by Taylor guitar to go, Danny Kortchmar.)

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