Rock music has always been haunted by its founding artists. The raunchy guitars and defiant vocals of '50s rock 'n roll, the coarse rhythms of R&B and the primal emotions of the blues represent a semi-mythical spring from which many musicians feel that they might capture (or recapture) eternal youth.
This "back to basics" mentality has surfaced several times. Eric Clapton generated a movement of basic rockers when he joined forces with Delaney and Bonnie in 1970, and his record "Layla" became the anthem for that movement. More recently, Punk and its evolutionary offspring, New Wave, have attempted a similar musical "regression."
Both of these styles, while different in content, were attempts to regain a perspective and a sense of freshness. Clapton was reacting against the complexity and sophistication of Blind Faith, just as the Punks were attempting to break out of the musical mundanity of the late '70s. To the extent that each was a creative digression, they were valuable and necessary (Punk, even at its most grotesque, fostered the New Wave, which is becoming a viable and vital musical force). What they subtracted from rock's vocabulary, they added in renewed power and energy.
When a more simplistic view of rock takes over, however, the "basic" approach begins to falter. All too often, the three-chord progressions and 4/4 beats become safe havens for mediocre musicians who produce music that lacks any rebellious excitement or inspiration. Without imagination and wit, rock's devices become ponderous cliches, and innovation gives way to derivation.
Such is the case with the group Dire Straits. Their new record, "Dire Straits" (Warner BSK 3266) is a lackluster collection of bluesy rock songs that stumble along without purpose or direction, rehashing musical ideas that were worn out eight years ago.
The group seems curiously out of place in the current scheme of rock music. They aren't rock 'n' roll revivalists or New Wave urban robots, but merely an assortment of pedestrian musicians ambling aimlessly from early rock to middle Clapton to later Dylan, without finding a style of their own.
Saying that Dire Straits borrows ideas is like suggesting that the Great Train Robbery was a minor heist. Songs like "Six Blade Knife," "Southbound Again" and "Wild West End" are taken directly from Clapton's work in the early '70s, from his precisely inverted phrasing to his patented guitar sound. "Water of Love" is a mirror-image of Gordon Lightfoot's middle-of-the-road, soft-rock pablum, while "Sultans of Swing" is such a bland mimicry of Dylan's vocal style that a strong argument could be made for defamation of character.
It's not that the musicians are particularly inept, nor is the group unlistenable. What is most annoying is the stultifying sense of mediocrity that pervades this record. The musicians are so forthright in their imitation and so completely devoid of new ideas that they add nothing to the efforts of those artists they supposedly admire. Instead of enriching the style of music they have adopted, Dire Straits has brought it to a resounding dead end. As a result, their playing mocks the music rather than supporting and enhancing it.
While establishing once and for all that imitation is the insincerest form of flattery, the group is also proving that such music, nonetheless, has the potential for popular success. The record is reportedly selling well and is receiving a certain amount of radio airplay.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that Dire Straits might be considered an adjunct to the Punk fallout of '78. Muff Winwood's tasteful production offers a sparsely effective setting that smooths out the rough areas while adding a tension that the music itself does not have. While Winwood has not produced a "Punk" record, he has taken the crispness of sound and the Spartan philosophy of Punk's recording techniques and molded them to suit his purposes. The result is a sound that is a milder and more palatable form of rock, one that is attracting many of those who were repulsed by the abrasiveness of the Punks.
Dire Straits, apparently not content with emulating Clapton's style and Punk's recorded sound, has also managed one more irritating parallel. With Mark Knopfler as composer, lead vocalist and lead guitarist; his brother, David, on rhythm guitar and a drummer and a bassist, the group has the exact same musical lineup as yet another of the well-known rock groups, Credence Clearwater Revival. This is a minor point, to be sure, but while CCR was never any great shakes musically, at least they "cooked" when they played. Dire Straits offers nothing more than soggy leftovers.