Posts Tagged ‘Dire Straits’

We have a new entry in the Stupid Band Name Sweepstakes: Alvvays. This Canadian group pronounces it “Always.” Why won’t they pronounce the vees? If they did, they’d sound like my maternal grandmother, Bella, who grew up in Austria, was a refugee in Italy after World War I, and arrived in New York City as a teenager. Bella lived to be 93, or possibly 94 – her older sister, Paulie, claimed that Bella was a year older, which made my grandma furious! She won that argument only when Paulie passed away.

Bella never lost her sense of fun. She engaged in titanic poker battles with her pals, Charlotte, Sylvia, and Bubbles, usually at a nickel per hand. We grandchildren raked in the winnings. One of her biggest scores came when Charlotte and Sylvia each had two pairs but Bella was holding “tree kveens.”

My first encounter with music criticism, and my lifelong disdain for the music of the masses, came courtesy of Bella. She was baby-sitting me on a Sunday night when we had a battle over Lawrence Welk (“Velk”) vs. Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Guess which side I was on. Disney had probably lined up another exciting adventure of Spin and Marty whereas Mr. Welk had certainly fired up his champagne bubble machine. Bella won – I was only 6 – and even in my bedroom with the door closed I was tortured by Lawrence Welk and his parade of antiseptically scrubbed young people singing “My Old Kentucky Home” and other hits of the 1840s.

Bella is gone but this blog rocks on – now rocking our fifth year! Thanks for reading along and not sending me to my room.

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Random Pick of the Day
Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (1971)
It begins with “What’s Going On” and ends with “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” two of the greatest songs of the 1970s. Excuse me, two of the greatest songs.

Random Pan of the Day
Dire Straits, On Every Street (1991)
“Calling Elvis” awakens old glories. Alas, the rest of the album sends them back to bed.

 

When I reported that I’d found a job, I threw together a list of 19 songs about work to celebrate. Thanks to the educational efforts of Accused of Lurking, spinflipmag, Tttwitchy, Jerry Kaufman, mikenr, Special D, Mr. Seaside, Number 9, and further research by all of us here at the Bureau, I have expanded this list to 37 songs with some reference to working for a living in the title. And what a long strange trip it’s been.

The primary thing I’ve learned about songs about work is that almost no one who writes songs about work actually likes work. The secondary thing I’ve learned about songs about work is that work is usually a jumping-off point for something else. Heading the list: sex, parties, emotional misundertandings (see “sex”), and striving for a better life (“a better life” meaning a life that doesn’t include work).

I could easily have hit 40, but I had to draw the line somewhere, and that somewhere was anything that came too close to David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It” (a hit for Johnny Paycheck). For example, I didn’t include Sam Cooke’s “Working on a Chain Gang” because, well, chain gang. “Work Song” isn’t any better, as it involves chain gangs whether it’s performed by Nina Simone or Paul Butterfield. I like my new job. Chain gangs are right out.

“The Working Man” by Creedence Clearwater Revival found itself in the no-fly zone, as the spare lyrics hold enough hurt for a lifetime. Ditto “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. (Why does Tennessee Ernie Ford always sound like he’s lecturing me? If ever a singer needed to be backed by bongos or an accordion, it was him.) “Working for the Man” by Roy Orbison stopped me with this line about the boss: “I oughta kill him but it wouldn’t be right.”

These were tough choices. I love Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Paul Butterfield, CCR, and especially Roy Orbison. But I get paid to make the tough choices. OK, I don’t get paid. Only Domino’s gets paid when they stick their stupid pizza ads in my blog. But I still gotta be tough.

Here we go:

“9 to 5,” Dolly Parton
I didn’t want to include country, but this one is obvious. “You’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder,” Ms. Parton wails in that voice that makes me want to push her off one.

“5 O’Clock World,” The Vogues
“Tradin’ my time for the pay I get/livin’ on money that I ain’t made yet.” The narrator is not on a promising career path. Fortunately for him, when he gets home “there’s a long-haired girl who waits, I know/to ease my troubled mind.” I can totally relate. Bowling for Soup does a good Smithereens-style cover of “5 O’Clock World.” You can avoid T-Pain’s similarly named “5 O’Clock.”

“A Day in the Life,” The Beatles
More about commuting than working. My commute is not as dreamy. Possibly the second-greatest song ever recorded, after “Rock Lobster.”

“Birth, School, Work, Death,” The Godfathers

“Business Time,” Flight of the Conchords
It’s about sex, not work, but too bad.

“Career Opportunities,” The Clash
“Career opportunities are the ones that never knock.” I’m not sure these boys ever had a job. They certainly take a dim view of employment.

“Clockout,” Devo
“Clockout” is code for sex. Starts in an office, at least.

“Dirty Work,” The Rolling Stones, Halestorm, Steely Dan, and probably others
The only thing notable about the Stones’ version is the photograph on the cover of the Dirty Work album (1986). They’re dressed up like they think they’re The B-52s. Halestorm’s “Dirty Work” is melodic hard rock with a tough woman singer. I hate to say anything good about Steely Dan, but their “Dirty Work” is by far the most mature song with this title. However, none are about actual work.

“Don’t Bug Me When I’m Working,” Little Village
One of the perks of writing a music blog is that people tell you about music you never knew about. Little Village was Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner. Not a bad start! Their only album, Little Village (1992), is a bit reminiscent of Los Lobos, though Little Village doesn’t play at that level. Sill, they were a respectable unit and this album has some fun rock ’n’ roll moments. “Don’t Bug Me When I’m Working” is about a man who keeps bugging the narrator while he’s working, sleeping, and when he’s with his baby. Probably somebody calling from the Romney campaign. Also on Little Village we have a pretty stiff anti-work song, the Hawaiian-flavored “Do You Want My Job?”, which features this classic rhyme: “I hump the stuff, I take the cash/So my kids can wear Adidas.”

“Factory,” Band of Horses
For people who thought the film Up in the Air wasn’t sad enough. I like the line “It’s temporary, this place I’m in/I permanently won’t do this again.” The song sounds like it could’ve been recorded by Badfinger if they had stayed together for 40 years and gotten really slow. No factory, though.

“Factory,” Bruce Springsteen
The usual Springsteen concerns of the ’70s: Early morning, Daddy going to work, death.

“Factory Girl,” The Rolling Stones
One of the weaker songs on Beggars Banquet (1968), and that’s not a slam. Songs on this galactic landmark appear weak or strong only when compared to each other. Compared to most other songs, they spontaneously ignite. The singer on this one is waiting for his factory girl to come home, from work or from something more sinister, we don’t know. Bonus: Congas!

“Finest Worksong,” R.E.M.
R.E.M. gets on my nerves. I like this stirring call to arms, though in accordance with the R.E.M. tradition you don’t know what they’re calling you to. Plus Michael Stipe and his colleagues prove yet again that they don’t quite understand their native language (“Another chance has been engaged”). Anyway, “Finest Worksong” is not the sound of the men working on the chain gang.

“Found a Job,” Talking Heads 

“Happy Work Song,” Enchanted soundtrack
I’ve been informed by my alert readership that “Happy Work Song” is a parody of “Whistle While You Work”:

Trill a cheery tune in the tub
As we scrub a stubborn mildew stain
Lug a hair ball from the shower drain
To the gay refrain of a happy working song

I like Amy Adams, but on this number she sounds as if she’s gone running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper. I like my Stepford wives to be rebellious rather than snarky.

“Hard Work,” John Handy
The only words in this jazz tune are “hard” and “work.” It’s a souvenir of the jazz-fusion movement of the ’70s. “Fusion” as a critical term means nothing now, but “Hard Work” is a fine stretch of jazz.

“Heigh Ho,” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs soundtrack
The Dwarfs cheerfully dig up diamonds and rubies all day long, but “we don’t know what we dig ’em for.” They don’t know what to do with Snow White, either. Tom Waits took a shot at this, trying to turn the song into a Dickens novel of working-class horror. Nope. Louis Armstrong also tried it; he’s barely awake. No one can save this thing.

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” composed by Frank Loesser
Though it’s plain that life in an office is like Europe on the verge of World War I, our narrator is enthusiastic and up for the challenge:

How to apply for a job
How to advance from the mail room
How to sit down on a desk
How to dictate memorandums
How to develop executive style
How to commute
In a three-button suit
With that weary executive smile.
This book
Is all what I need
How tohow to…succeed!

“I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” traditional
According to Wikipedia, this is several songs bashed together. All things considered, the railroad seems to be a good place to work, even though they make you rise up so early in the morn.

“Livin’ for the Weekend,” The O’Jays
“5 O’Clock World” updated for the disco era. Work sucks, but on the weekend you get to party with the people who really know how to get down.

“Manic Monday,” The Bangles
This is a song about commuting, about earning a living in tough times, about holding a job you don’t like, and about supporting your partner. So it combines most of the themes the men use plus housekeeping and maintaining an appropriate wardrobe all in one song. Bravo, ladies!

“Millworker,” James Taylor
I’m not a James Taylor fan, but I found myself moved by this song, perhaps because I’m from New England and my father worked in the mills for 30 years.

But it’s my life has been wasted
And I have been the fool
To let this manufacturer
Use my body for a tool

Kudos to Taylor for being the only person on this list who wrote his song from the point of view of the other gender.

“Minimum Wage,” They Might Be Giants and The Expendables
Does the TMBG version even qualify as a song? It only lasts 47 seconds. Someone yells “Minimum wage!” at the beginning, a whip cracks, and then we get about 40 seconds of roller-rink music. I guess we’ve all had jobs like that at one time or another. The Expendables turn in a pleasant, temporarily reggae tune with lyrics right out of the Jean-Paul Sartre playbook: “But it’s time to go to work now/Maybe I’ll call in sick/or maybe heaven will fall to earth/better make it quick.” God abandons the singer just as the song jumps into metal mode. He never does go to work.

“Money for Nothing,” Dire Straits

“Nice Work If You Can Get It,” composed by George and Ira Gershwin
This one’s about love, not work. Clever for its era, but today it’s a Republican rallying cry: “The only work that really brings enjoyment/Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant.”

“Takin’ Care of Business,” Bachman Turner Overdrive
BTO was a gang of idiots, but this song rocks. A band we knew in Seattle, The Way-Backs, turned this number into a Santana-style 10-minute slugfest. “Takin’ Care of Business” is actually a big bowl of smug from a band that was riding high when they wrote it.

“The Work Song,” Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Cannonball Adderley, and of course Cinderella
Herb Alpert knew how to make a song swing, plus he intuitively recognized a good tune buried under dumb lyrics. Cannonball Adderley turns in a blistering 7-minute performance on Bon Voyage – Live in Paris (2012, taken from concerts in 1960 and ’61). Disney is Disney.

“The Working Song,” Richard Stepp
I don’t know who this gentleman is, but he can boogie. His voice is adequate but his guitar is superb. The song is about perfect attendance and the importance of being punctual. Also, of course, making a living. “I work to pay my bills/keep my stomach filled” doesn’t quite rhyme, but it’s fun.

“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” composed by Irving Berlin
Oh come on. There are plenty of businesses like show business. All you need are egos and large sums of money.

“Wild Sex (in the Working Class),” Oingo Boingo
There’s just one thing that keeps our hero going while he’s “greasin’ the wheels in a noisy factory,” and you guessed it from the superlative title. Musically, this is second-tier Oingo Boingo. Lyrically, the title deserved better.

“Work to Do,” Average White Band
A workaholic threatens to torpedo his relationship by coming home late every night. Can’t tell how he feels about his job – he’s mostly irritated that his mate doesn’t understand what he’s trying to do for her. An unexpectedly adult topic from one of our dumber bands.

“Working Day and Night,” Michael Jackson
This song has aged poorly, but the whole Off the Wall album (1979) has aged poorly, except for “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” which still rocks all night and parties every day. Poor Michael is working around the clock because his lover has figured out that’s the best way to keep him occupied while she sees her lover. Kind of a bad love deal there.

“Working for the Weekend,” Loverboy
Loverboy: The lite beer version of Def Leppard. On this track they take the thematic material of The O’Jay’s “Living for the Weekend” and eliminate all mention of a job.

“Working on the Highway,” Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen sets up a song like he’s writing a short story for The New Yorker:

Friday night’s pay night, guys fresh out of work
Talking about the weekend, scrubbing off the dirt
Some heading home to their families, some looking to get hurt
Some going down to Stovell wearing trouble on their shirts

Even though our hero’s job offers no advancement, and even though his poorly planned romantic interaction with a “pretty little miss” ends in jail time, “Working on the Highway” sounds like fun all the way through. “Darlington County,” on the same album, is similarly joyous even thought the finisher there is “Wayne handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford.”

“Working Man,” Rush
Working for a living ain’t easy:

I get up at seven, yeah,
And I go to work at nine.
I got no time for livin’.
Yes, I’m workin’ all the time.
It seems to me
I could live my life
A lot better than I think I am.
I guess that’s why they call me,
They call me the workin’ man.

Let’s review. The poor man has to get up at seven. Rough. He goes to work at nine and later in the song we learn that he’s home by five. That means he’s gone almost eight hours. OMFG! However, I do find this song interesting for sounding like Cream, Black Sabbath, and Alvin Lee all at once.

“Workin’ in a Coal Mine,” Devo
This song predates Devo by decades, but they had the hit. Mining coal is the most exhausting job there is, after motherhood.

“Whistle While You Work,” Snow White soundtrack
This one’s about housework – what Ursula K. LeGuin once called “the art of the infinite.” It’s not much of a song without the movie in front of it. Even then it’s still not much.

It’s Sunday. Tomorrow I go back to work, whistling or not. Found a job. Yes!

MTV went on the air in 1981 and immediately rewrote the musical map. It’s easy to see how round-the-clock music videos made stars of talented people with outlandish personalities, like Michael Jackson and Madonna. I thought it would be more interesting to see what MTV did for a band with loads of talent but no personality. That band would be Dire Straits.

You probably remember their first album, released in 1978, if only for their Top 10 single “Sultans of Swing.” Guitarist Mark Knopfler wrote offbeat songs in an observational style somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger; he and his bandmates could play pop, jazz, and country. Their follow-up, Communiqué (1979), was less of the same, but it established the Dire Straits pattern:

  • The good songs were on the odd-numbered albums.
  • All of their albums sold well in their native UK.
  • Dire Straits made hard rock for people who liked soft rock. If you wanted something tougher than The Doobie Brothers or more authentic than Steely Dan, Dire Straits was the band for you.

Dire Straits’ third album, Making Movies (1980), was easily the band’s best and one of the best albums of the decade. And I say this as someone who doesn’t like soft rock or Knopfler’s voice. “Skateway” and “Romeo and Juliet” are lovely and haunting, and as for “Les Boys,” how often do you stumble across a song about German transvestites?

That ain’t workin’…that’s the way you do it
Because Dire Straits had a profitable history, their label, Warner Bros., was willing to bankroll a venture into the New World of music videos. And they didn’t just slap something together to fill the sudden demand for content, either. The videos for “Skateway” and “Romeo and Juliet,” particularly the former, remain stylish and interesting 30 years later.

Dire Straits was still selling records and MTV was still running their videos in 1985 when they released Brothers in Arms. This was the band’s commercial blockbuster (though the album runs out of gas well before it’s over), and I’m convinced they had MTV to thank. Their big hit, “Money For Nothing,” was perfect for MTV. It had a killer guitar line, you could pick up all the words on the first listen, it was an anti-MTV song for the snobs in the audience, and the insanely popular Sting sang the falsetto “I want my MTV” to the tune of The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” (In my mind, attaching Sting to a project means burn before listening, but in 1985 he was a god.)

The “Money for Nothing” video is as fun as it ever was; the computer animation looks like the distant past’s vision of the far future. You just have to overlook the matching 20 Minute Workout sweat bands the boys are wearing.

Success isn’t just being in the right place at the right time. Even if the planets line up for you, you have to recognize that they’ve done so. And you must possess the skill and the desire to produce a positive outcome. Even though the Dire Straits express ran right off the rails after Brothers in Arms, let’s give them credit. When opportunity knocked, they gave her a big old smooch.

Now look at them yo-yo’s: A few of Dire Straits’ contemporaries
Elvis Costello debuted about the same time as Dire Straits, with My Aim Is True (1977). But Costello was unable to use MTV the way Dire Straits did. (Whether he wanted to is another question.) By 1981 he’d released five albums on four labels and the four of them together didn’t have the resources of Warner Bros. His biggest hit, “Veronica” (in collaboration with Paul McCartney), was six years off. His early albums had a smallish following and he had an undeserved punk reputation.

Costello is far more talented than Knopfler, which is saying a lot. Lots of people are better than Coldplay. Not many are better than Mark Knopfler. Costello’s songs were too angry and angular to fit in the sanitized environment of the early MTV. Plus you can’t categorize Elvis Costello. That to me is a virtue but I don’t run my own network.

The B-52s
Regular readers and people who put up with me socially know that I love this band. They produced two dance-club faves in 1979 and ’80: The B-52s and Wild Planet. Like Costello, their only Top 10 hits, “Love Shack” and “Roam,” were years away.

In 1981 The B-52s were too weird for MTV, which is a weird concept now. When Special D and I saw them in 2007, people brought their grandchildren. Warner Bros. was behind The B-52s but apparently they saw no need to pay for fancy videos early on, even though this is the band that gave us “Rock Lobster,” the greatest song ever recorded.

The Talking Heads
The Talking Heads had four albums in play by 1981, but like The B-52s they were viewed as weird. (Here’s how to tell the difference between the two bands: Talking Heads are Rene Magritte. The B-52s are an inebriated Norman Rockwell.)

Talking Heads’ sole foray into the top of the charts, “Burning Down the House,” appeared in 1983. That song had an elaborate – and boring – video. The most interesting artists sometimes made the least-interesting videos. Talking Heads were one example; David Bowie was another.

The Pretenders
A tough woman singing about sex? Not in 1981!

The Allies
The Allies were a Seattle band that made their own video and won MTV’s “Basement Tapes” competition in 1982. “Emma Peel” is a little creaky now but was amazing then, given its backwoods origins. Also, I was almost in it. Unfortunately, the band lacked the material to follow up on this success, even though they sound very similar to our next contestants, The Romantics.

The Romantics
The Romantics are a rare example of a band that succeeded despite MTV. These power poppers had a hit in 1980 with “That’s What I Like About You.” The video was the laziest kind, a performance, and frankly, these guys are not visually appetizing. The Romantics had another hit in 1983, “Talking In Your Sleep,” but the video, in true MTV tradition, is too stupid to be believed. (If you don’t believe anything could be that stupid, watch the first 25 seconds.)

That’s my idiosyncratic tour of the protoplasmic MTV. Money for nothin’…chicks for free.

Goodbye: Gil Scott-Heron, 1949-2011
I wish MTV had existed in an earlier time. They wouldn’t have touched Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with a barge pole, but what a video that song would’ve made! Rest in peace.