Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rock interlude: Alchemy

Alchemy is a live album by Dire Straits, possibly the band that made the most money in the crazy Eighties, when British pop/rock seemed to embrace thatcherism and conquered a sizeable chunk of worldwide record sales. Actually, the Straits' next tour would be a gruelling one year away from home, so designed, apparently, for tax purposes.

Today I don't really think Mark Knopfler, the bandleader, singer, guitarist, main soloist, sole composer, is a great songwriter, let alone a great lyricist, and I can't help thinking of Bob Dylan and JJ Cale when I hear him. No matter, Alchemy is still part of my sentimental education, and the same goes for many men from my generation. To be honest, it's not even a record I enjoy terribly, but the music we listen to in the hormonal storm of our teenage years remains in our brains forever, regardless of its quality, its cultural relevance or whatever parameter you may think of, like a private shed you have to visit every once in a while.

Alchemy is a record that closes the first and main cycle in the Straits story: the route from the quartet tightened by endless gigs at pubs and bars, to the quintet put together to tour their third album, Making Movies, a great line-up somewhat wasted in the recording of the fourth, the funereal Love Over Gold, from what can be listened in the many live bootlegs available of it. Here, the difference with that great line-up is the switch in the drummer chair, from the subtle and funky Pick Withers, to the 2-and-4 steamroller of Terry Williams. It's a matter of taste, but the fact is that this was the definitive break-up from the band's original sound.

When they recorded Alchemy, the Straits still kept a slight taste of a pub band, a distant whiff of carpet soaked in beer. Knopfler had already began to write interludes to tie songs together in concerts, but the band could still throw an honest punch. In spite of the leader's obsessive perfectionism, it felt as he was still one of the lads; others could play solos, even the second guitarist, the California-handsome Hal Lindes. All that would vanish in their next album, Brothers in Arms, which, of course, would sell beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

With a sober light-show, excellent sound, and impeccable execution, there was hardly any room for fakery, so much so, that except two or three tweaks of the tape, this live album is the last gig of that tour, verbatim. It has been well documented, from that early double vinyl album, which I borrowed, put in tape, and made it sound in a tent where a few of us listened in total silence, camped up in the mountains, a midsummer night, when I "accidentally" ended up curled around... but that's another story.

It has also been released in VHS, CD, DVD, BlueRay... but not all the music is there. Some of us suspected that between “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Expresso Love” there could be “Industrial Disease”. And something must go on right before “Tunnel of Love”, that synthetic steel drum must come from somewhere... Searching on the internet there can be found a recording made by someone at the actual concert, and, yes, “Industrial Disease” is where expected. On top of that, they played “Twisting by the Pool”, with its beginning lifted from Elvis's “Teddy Bear”, before “Two Young Lovers” and after that, the “Caribbean” and longish reading of “Portobello Belle”, where Knopfler introduces the members of the band (note: this is not the same take as the one in the Money for Nothing greatest hits CD). It must be said that these leftovers were rightly left over: “... Disease”, a dylanesque rant that wouldn't go with the band's upcoming yuppie detour, is too verbose; the band sounds too informal on “... Pool”; and “Portobello...” sounds deflated in comparison to what was to come in the gig. The sound of this recording is not perfect, but the audience's comments, beginning with "on time, fuckin' 'ell!", to their ecstasy at the end of “Solid Rock”, or those by Knopfler which were taken out of the final edit (“you wouldn't think it, but we've been here for two hours”) give an extra shot of melancholy to this recording, as if it needed one.

Alchemy was recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, right by the Piccadilly Line tube station; I could have never imagined that I'd end up walking past it hundreds of times.

And the date? July 23rd, 1983. Thirty years ago, today.

PS (August 2, 2013): Ripples of my own doing. I've been looking for info on the mystery players on Alchemy, the "extras" not included in the official line-up of the band, Mel Collins on sax, Tommy Mandel on keyboards, and especially Joop de Korte on percussion. Collins and Mandel can be seen on the Alchemy video and Knopfler acknowledges him at the end of "Portobello Belle", but nothing is said of de Korte. As you can read in this interview, de Korte was at the Straits' first ever gig (in Deptford - he was there with heading act Squeeze), and worked with Knopfler and co. from 1979 to 1988, in all of their tours, first as a roadie for the drummers, then as a percussionist. More interestingly (if you've read this far, this is interesting for you), he is the announcer that introduced the band at the beginning of every concert, including the one on Alchemy ("Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Would you please welcome to the stage, Dire Straits!"). He can also be seen, in the background, wearing red trousers and a baseball cap, in this video from Live Aid '85.

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