Dire Straits "Money for Nothing and Jams for Free"
By Kevin Hogan
In the midst of Punk's 2nd wave in England, a band called Dire Straits released their eponymous debut, one that embraced everything punk didn’t. The musicianship was excellent, the songwriting strong, focusing on creating mini stories that demanded repeated listenings. Mark Knopfler is a guitar player’s guitar player. Flawless in his execution, he anchors the band's rolling rhythm while being the most unlikely frontman.
But does this excellent songwriting and musicianship make them a jamband?
Studio recordings seem to betray a jambands true potential. What makes a jamband a jamband is how they interpret those songs in a live setting. So let’s start there as a jumping off point and look to Dire Straits second LP.
Once Upon a Time in the West is the lead off cut on the band’s second offering Communiqué. It clocks in at 5:25 on the album. If we trace its development as a live vehicle, beginning on 02/16/79, the earliest version I could find, we see a replication of the album cut, at 5:25. Like Phish or The Dead, the earliest versions of songs can be tentative and haven’t had the chance to ripen as is the case here. By 1980 it was already clocking in at almost 10 minutes, with all the spaces and nuances of the melody given a chance to breathe and be explored. By 03/19/83 it had grown to almost 12 minutes. It would tighten up on subsequent tours, but still showcased their ability to improvise. If the ability to take a song, expand and explore it is a criterion for being a jamband, this is exhibit A.
Exhibit B would be the way the band began to play songs ‘into’ each other. Think the way the Dead do China/Rider or Phish with Horse/SITM. The combination So Far Away >> Romeo and Juliet was often over 18 ½ minutes, while their Alchemy album contains a 14:38 Tunnel of Love that includes a Carousel Waltz Jam from the musical of the same name by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Another hallmark of a ‘jamband’ is the weaving together numerous musical influences into their songwriting which is something Dire Straits has always prided themselves on. As they bucked the Punk Rock trend in the late 70s, combining the best parts of jazz, roots rock and the singer songwriter genre that was so popular in the 70s, they also dove in and improved as musicians with each passing album, never resting on past achievements. The biggest knock on bands that aren’t jambands is that their setlists are often static from night to night, but even the Allman Brothers Band would repeat 80% or more of their setlists from night to night in the 90s. The same was true for Dire Straits. Once MTV made them one of the biggest bands in the world, their setlists didn’t vary from night to night, but that wasn’t always the case. The first 10 years of their career was split between the pubs of London and theaters, allowing them the freedom to play with the setlist and song arrangements. This left us a band on their final tour that could take a pop radio ready tune like Money For Nothing and make it into a 10 minute groove extravaganza. If The Dave Mathews Band or The Allman Brothers are a jamband, then so is Dire Straits.