Story Of A Song: Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ (1981)

Andy Beckett’s excellent new book ‘Promised You A Miracle UK80-82’ has got me thinking about the early ’80s a lot.

It was in many ways a bleak time in the UK (temporarily lightened by the Royal Wedding and Ian Botham’s cricket heroics against the Aussies), mainly defined by Thatcher’s deeply unpopular government, the Yorkshire Ripper murders, various terrorist attacks and fears of a nuclear war that were hardly appeased by the terrifying ‘Protect And Survive’ public information films.

dire straits

Contemporary pop generally railed against this attitude, wresting some much-needed fun and glamour from the gloom.

Although ‘Private Investigations’ shares almost nothing with prevailing musical trends of the period (and Mark Knopfler saved his reaction to the Falklands War for Brothers In Arms‘ title track), it continues to hold my fascination.

These days it’s hard to read the song as anything other than a portrait of a love affair gone wrong, emphasised by the slightly dodgy video.

The song’s protagonist is fixated on looking for clues of his paramour’s infidelities, so he goes ‘checking out the reports’ and ‘digging up the dirt’, finding some ‘confidential information in the diary’.

We never found out exactly what he finds but it definitely ain’t good; in this song, to discover the truth of a relationship is a fate worse than death, leaving one ‘scarred for life’ with ‘no compensation’.

Love Over Gold Tour, Zagreb, 1983

Love Over Gold Tour, Zagreb, 1983

I love the track’s sonic detail. The sense of drama and use of dynamics leaves other contemporary pop for dust.

The stereo spectrum is used as a kind of panaromic field across which various sonic events are ‘placed’ to fit the narrative, including Mike Mainieri’s intricate marimba and subtle bits of percussion.

The result is a kind of mini-movie set to music, best listened to with headphones. Ennio Morricone couldn’t have done it better. You could argue that ‘Private Investigations’ was the catalyst for all Knopfler’s film soundtrack work.

He also demonstrates a mastery of many guitar styles on the track, from the nylon-string acoustic main theme/mini-solos through to the power-chorded interjections towards the end, the latter frequently inspiring some of my uncle’s most spirited air guitar-playing back in the ’80s.

Then Knopfler’s volume-pedal swell perfectly imitates a cat’s nocturnal howl. The last section, with its picked-bass/kick-drum heartbeat and Alan Clark’s chiming piano chords, seems very influenced by the title track of Steely Dan’s ‘Royal Scam‘.

I love that glass (window?) breaking and the click of a suitcase opening, or is it the latch of a door being tampered with? The space in the track forces you to focus on these details. It all adds up to something akin to Knopfler’s version of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Intruder’.

Astonishingly, in a slightly edited form, ‘Private Investigations’ reached UK number 2 in September 1982 (sitting incongruously in the top 10 alongside ABC, Duran Duran, Dexys, Shalamar and The Kids From Fame!), a sure signifier as to just how much better the charts were back then.

The track’s accompanying album, Love Over Gold, is seen as somewhat of a disappointment in Dire Straits’ discography, and I can’t say that any of its other tracks have had much effect on me.

But now that the nights are drawing in and the blinds are being shut, it’s always fun to dim the lights and give ‘Private Investigations’ a spin. The game commences…


8 thoughts on “Story Of A Song: Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ (1981)

  1. Great song from my favourite Dire Straits Album – well, along with Making Movies anyway. . . When this came out I was just out of uni and sharing a flat with no TV, so we all used to listen to the radio. Radio 1’s great evening shows were Kid Jensen doing a sort of new grown-up rock show before John Peel at 10. When Kid Jensen played Private Investigations for the first time we all just sat and listened to every note until the end when it faded out to eerie silence, then David Allen Jensen said in that inimitable voice of his “A mood piece, certainly”. We loved the song but fell about laughing with the gravity of old Jensen’s delivery, and that became a stock phrase for a good few years.
    A mood piece it certainly is and Love Over Gold is still a great listen. Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that great memory. I can just imagine ‘The Kid’ saying that… It’s the kind of thing that really sticks in the head during those ‘impressionable’ years! Reminds me a bit of ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris’s comment after a Rush video on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ years ago. There was a long silence, the lights faded up on Bob, he raised an eyebrow and muttered, ‘Well, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Led Zeppelin are going to be bowled over by that…’ Ouch.


  2. An interesting and enjoyable read about my -by some distance – favourite Dire Straits song. However, I always assumed that the storyteller here is doing the job for a paying client. It’s not his lover he’s investigating. To him it’s theoretically just a job, one of many – ‘for the usual fee’, but the end result still leaves him feeling empty and alone.


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