Story Of A Song: Dire Straits’ Private Investigations

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 unintentionally-terrifying ‘Protect And Survive’ public information films.

dire straits

Contemporary pop music generally railed against this attitude, creating some much-needed fun and glamour out of 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, ever since my Dire Straits-loving uncle played it to me sometime in the mid-’80s.

I would try to decipher the noirish lyrics in a typically teenage way (no change there, then) but 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…

Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms: 30 Years Old Today

dire-straitsVertigo/Warner Bros Records, released 13th May 1985

Recorded: AIR Studios, Montserrat

Produced by Neil Dorfsman and Mark Knopfler

UK Album Sales: 3,086,000

UK Album Chart Position: 1

Weeks On UK Album Chart: 195

Singles Released (and UK Chart Positions):

Walk Of Life (2)
Money For Nothing (4)
Brothers In Arms (16)
So Far Away (20)
Your Latest Trick (26)

Whilst enjoying Mark Knopfler’s considerable guitar skills and knack for writing cinematic ballads (‘Romeo And Juliet‘ and ‘Private Investigations‘ would probably make my top 20 songs of the ’80s), Dire Straits’ mega success has generally puzzled me. Knopfler always seemed a Bob Dylan/Randy Newman/Donald Fagen kind of guy – subtle, intelligent and wry/wary – but Straits’ mostly meat-and-potatoes rock music told another story.

But Brothers In Arms hit at exactly the right time on its release in 1985; its digital sheen, beautifully-crafted songs, tasty drumming (Omar Hakim, except on ‘Walk Of Life’ and ‘Money For Nothing’) and mastery of various styles (ZZ Top-style boogie, roots rock, jazzy pop) created an ’80s perfect storm. It’s so much part of the furniture that it’s almost beyond criticism.

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Knopfler’s laidback, post-Dylan vocals are a great antidote to all those oversingers of the ’80s (and right up to the present day). On ‘So Far Away’ and ‘Walk Of Life’, his pitching is not perfect and his phrasing throwaway, but the overall effect is pleasing possibly because it’s such a contrast to the super-slick production and playing.

And he shows himself again to be a brilliant ballad writer – ‘Your Latest Trick’ carries on from where ‘Private Dancer‘ and ‘Private Investigations’ left off, a noirish classic featuring a famous sax break by Michael Brecker just as memorable as ‘Careless Whisper’ (for better or worse!). ‘Why Worry’ and the title track (apparently Knopfler’s response to the Falklands War) are timeless epics. I found myself unexpectedly very moved listening again to the latter the other day. In fact, I was surprised how generally downbeat the album was, not having heard it for a good few years.

Brothers In Arms outsold both Michael Jackson releases (Bad and Thriller) to be the UK’s best-selling non-greatest hits album of the ’80s, spending 14 weeks at number one. Surely a big reason for its success was that it was heavily promoted as a digital recording and as such was perfectly suited to the new CD format.

The fact that it was the ‘test CD of choice’ for yuppies on the lookout for new hi-fi equipment must have been a delicious irony for Knopfler and Straits manager Ed Bicknell, given the lyrics to ‘Money For Nothing’. There were even rumours that at the time other artists were struggling to get their albums pressed onto CD due to the overwhelming demand for Brothers In Arms. Happy birthday, chaps.