Retrospective: “Telegraph Road” is Mark Knopfler’s Magnum Opus

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Let’s look at retrospective in a unique way – searching for the artist’s peak.

Not the most popular song; something harder – something we might think of as the Platonic peak. A song that conveys the essence of their good. Won’t reasonable people disagree?

Let’s hope so. 

Mark Knopfler is a challenge because he does so many things so well. He embodied the essence of American rock and roll as the 70’s turned to the 80’s. . . . I know, but hear me out. 

If you gave generative AI copies of 70’s era Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Lindsey Buckingham, it would give you Mark Knopfler. The voice… it’s freakin’ Dylan, come on. And he shares lyrical facility with both Bob and Bruce. He had his band rocking like E Streeters in those days too. And he could finger pick his axe like nobodies’ business. Well, unless nobody was Lindsey Buckingham.

Knopfler differed from these guys, of course, in that he wasn’t American. He grew up in Scotland, coming of age in Leeds and London. And unlike Bob, Bruce, and Lindsey, Mark wasn’t a music or bust guy. Bob and Bruce both famously walked away from college after less than a year.  Lindsey took things a step further, making his girlfriend work as a waitress to support him. To his credit, he returned the favor, a few million times over.

Mark worked as a reporter for an English newspaper and then attended the University of Leeds, where he earned an advanced degree in English.

He didn’t need the music. It needed him.

When Mark moved to London, he banged around in a few bands, most famously the Café Racers. He should have stuck with that name. In 1977, he moved into a London flat with his brother, David, and the two joined by Mark’s former roommate John Illsley formed, Dire Straits. 

It’s difficult to identify a Knopfler peak because he did so many things so well. In addition to Dire Straits, he’s had a nearly three-decade solo career. He’s scored numerous films, which could be a retrospective on their own. He also produced Dylan’s Infidels and wrote the massive hit “Private Dancer” for Tina Turner. 

In 2012, Knopfler toured with his band, the 96ers, opening for Dylan. They were supporting a new double solo album, Privateering. I was there. It was not peak. To his credit, Mark has consciously and intentionally left all that behind. But hey, that just helps us narrow things down.

Either of the two most obvious places would be unfair to Mark Knopfler. Many artists never exceed their first effort, and why should they? All their formative years culminated in it. How could they ever top it? One could certainly argue for the first Dire Straits record and the song “Sultans of Swing.”

But they’d be wrong.

The other obvious potential peak – the Brothers in Arms album and the song “Money for Nothing.” To be sure, this was Knopfler’s commercial zenith. But “Money for Nothing” is a joke song. Throw a little savvy on the brilliantly irreverent “Twisting by the Pool” and you get, well, your chicks for free. No, it is not fair to Mark Knopfler to deem a song with a juvenile hyper-distorted guitar riff his peak. Shame on you.

OK, side one of Knopfler’s third album, the 1980 release Making Movies, remains unqualifiedly one of the greatest album sides in rock and roll history. If you’ve never heard it – you lucky dog – go listen now. You are in for a treat.

Just three songs – “Tunnel of Love,” “Romeo & Juliet,” and “Skate Away” – none shorter than six months. I’ve loved them for 40 years, and I fell in love again today when I listened for the first time in (let’s call it) awhile. When he sings about how Juliet loved him so, but now she’s like “oh, Romeo, yeah, I used to play a scene with him.” Ahh. Gotye is just somebody that we used to know. But Knopfler already knew how to tell that story.

Sounds like a peak? Well, yes, but maybe, just maybe, Mark was channeling mid-70s Springsteen a little too much. Check out a little album called The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. If you loved that one, why can’t you have it again, maybe even done a little better? West Side Story redid the whole Romeo & Juliet thing, and it was pretty good.

Alright. I already said I love it. But the intro to “Romeo & Juliet,” is pretty much note for note the intro to “Jungleland” played on guitar. One wonders if Roy Bittan, Springsteen’s pianist who was working with Knopfler on Making Movies, said to Mark, “are you sure you want to do to that?” 

In the end, it works. Probably more people have heard “Romeo & Juliet” at this point than have heard “Jungleland,” though the covers often don’t include Knopfler’s homage to the Springsteen classic. So, we’re not finding peak Knopfler on Making Movies, even thought it was, in some ways, his greatest moment in the sun.

The peak would come two years later on Love Over Gold’s lead track, a 14-minute opus called “Telegraph Road.”

This album presented a mature Mark Knopfler, expanding his pallet and showing how deeply he could examine the human condition. Who could have guessed that he’d be making fun of guys for “banging on the bongos like a Chimpanzee,” just three years later. “Money for Nothing” indeed.

“Telegraph Road” begins with a haunting whistling and crack of thunder, devolving into a beautiful keyboard and acoustic guitar instrumental. About 1:30 in, it shifts to a guitar solo over drums and a solo piano. At 2:17, when many a hit would be almost over, the vocal begins.

It’s a sort of James Michener historical fiction. A pioneer travels deep into, presumably, the American frontier. The track he cuts through the wilderness comes to be known as the Telegraph Road. 

Then came the churches, then came the schools
Then came the lawyers, then came the rules

The verses tell the story of the growth of the area from the early settlers to the discovery of “ore,” leading to the rapid growth of the population. Just before 4:00, Mark plays one of his greatest tight and melodic solos.

At the five-minute mark, we hit a vocal bridge that brings history to present and would have ended any song that was, well, just extraordinary.

And my radio says tonight it’s gonna freeze
People driving home from the factories
There’s six lanes of traffic
Three lanes moving slow

Ending there, “Telegraph Road” would have been a 5:30 epic. 

But “Telegraph Road” was just getting started.

After an instrumental of guitar and piano interplay, Knopfler shifts from the third-person narration to first-person. The place isn’t what matters now. It’s the people in that place. I can’t think of another song that has ever made that transition so seamlessly. And yes, I’m familiar with “Tangled Up in Blue.”

What follows is a personal history of a man with a job and a girl. A man who, on any Telegraph Road, had it all. But not anymore.

Well, I’d sooner forget, but I remember those nights
Yeah, life was just a bet on a race between the lights
You had your head on my shoulder, you had your hand in my hair
Now you act a little colder like you don’t seem to care

It harkens to “Romeo and Juliet,” but it’s not that. “Romeo and Juliet” is Buckingham/Nicks . . . or maybe Davies/Hynde, depending on who you believe. “Telegraph Road” is The Grapes of Wrath

The message of “Telegraph Road” is that we must respect the power of place. But it need not define us. We can look inward to find the purpose, the values, the unspoken truths from which the outside world, the Telegraph Road, has led us astray.

But just believe in me, baby, and I’ll take you away
From out of this darkness and into the day
From these rivers of headlights, these rivers of rain
From the anger that lives on the streets with these names
‘Cause I’ve run every red light on memory lane
I’ve seen desperation explode into flames
And I don’t want to see it again

Every store on Telegraph Road may be closed tonight. But we aren’t. There’s always another town. There’s no other you.

I once listened to this song while – of all things – waiting hours to get my car inspected. I was in a relationship that was teetering on the edge.

And I realized, I just heard peak Mark Knopfler.

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