Electric guitar music touches a membrane deep inside me that seems to exist for the purpose of resonating this sound alone (the only thing that touches it even more strongly is if the guitar chords are paired with a truly unusual voice). I'm sure every lover of great guitar music knows what I am talking about. Ever since I discovered that membrane years ago, I have been on the look for that special sound; be it straightforward rock, blues or folk music. However, growing up in a time when the radio airwaves were flooded with either disco or punk, depending on what station you were listening to, it wasn't always easy to find. Then one day I heard "Sultans of Swing," and my membrane resonated - all the more because this was not only a great guitarist playing but also one of the most unique voices I'd heard in a while, and the musical style seemed to defy classification, too ... it was somewhere between rock and blues, but I wasn't sure what exactly to call it.
However you define their sound, though, listening to Dire Straits' self-titled debut album almost 25 years after its publication, it is still amazing how rounded and accomplished their style was even then. The band's composition would change over the course of the years and Mark Knopfler would take them to the heights of the ambitiously-conceived "Love Over Gold" and the bestselling diversity of "Brothers in Arms," but the basic elements of the typical Dire Straits sound, recognizable throughout all those later developments, were there right from the start: Knopfler's rough, dark vocals, his signature style as a guitar player, the unique Fender sound soon associated with his name, and even little details like his tendency to introduce songs by a couple of solo guitar slides - seemingly just tossed out casually but immediately catching the listener's attention, even before the band joins him for the "real" start of the song; a feature present from the very first track on this first album, "Down to the Waterline." Their debut release was Dire Straits' most sparsely-produced record; musically it did not yet involve the more elaborate elements of Knopfler's later compositions, and it was the only release featuring only the band's original four musicians. This, in addition to the album's equally firm anchoring in rock, blues and folk music (with a little bit of country here and there) and the particularly raw tinges of Mark Knopfler's voice gave it a "down to earth" feeling not always present in the band's later recordings. Besides, Knopfler had not yet discovered the limelight of a really large concert arena (the band's name was no coincidence, after all) - he obviously always knew he was good, but many of his early songs almost became different pieces of music over the course of their live performances throughout the years; most notably, "Sultans of Swing:" just listen to the version recorded on the "Alchemy" live album five years later. Perfection? Absolutely and undeniably ... but also incredible showmanship, ignited by the cheers of the audience and by his pure joy in playing.
"Dire Straits" is much more than just a well-done debut album; it is as essential a component of the band's and Mark Knopfler's body of work as any of its successors. I disagree with those who are saying that this is the "real" Dire Straits; to me, this band (and Knopfler in particular) still defies categorization, and every one of their records first and foremost expresses the state of their musical development at the time it was recorded. But regardless where you place this particular album in their catalog, one thing is for sure: It is one of those few timeless and definite classics that will forever have a validity of their own and whose importance, if anything, only grows with the passage of the years.