Private Investigations

In 1984 I had a Saturday job at Sluman's television cum hi-fi cum video-library shop. Dealers in Panasonic, Sony, and Bang & Olufson they prided themselves on quality products and a quality service. 1984 was also the year Sony brought out their first 'affordable' CD player, from memory costing around £700, and Sluman's had one. This was a major coup for the shop, and they laid on a special drinks evening for loyal customers to demonstrate the magical qualities of the silver-gold disc. In the shop there were around five CDs for demonstration purposes. I remember three. One was Journey's Escape – with the first song's simple piano riff launching into:

Just a small town boy, living in a lonely world...

The second was Sky 2 by the classical-rock super-group Sky (led by guitarist John Williams). Sky's rendition of Bach's Toccata was always the favourite for a full-volume, late afternoon demo.

The third was Love over Gold, released 23 years ago in 1982, and the breakthrough album for Dire Straits. The crisp and delicate sound quality and the bold use of dynamics dovetailed perfectly with the new technology. For many it became the demonstrable proof that CDs were better than LPs providing a benchmark for audio enthusiasts to show-off their newly-bought hi-fi systems with.

In October 1986 when CD technology was becoming more generally accepted (though still only gradually), the first issue of Q magazine contained a free supplement detailing 'the best music' that was then available on compact disc. They wrote:

"You don't have to be a hi-fi fetishist to appreciate that 1986 is a watershed year for the recorded music business... the customer is finally getting to hear what the artist always intended them to hear. Essentially crude recordings like Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited or Buddy Holly's early hits are a revelation on CD."

Under the entry for Dire Straits is one entry, the album Brothers in Arms:

"At one stage it was estimated that everyone in the UK who owned a CD player had a copy of this disc."

Patent nonsense of course, they meant Love over Gold.

The first, eponymously titled, Dire Straits album was released in 1978. Mark Knopfler's gently Geordie, talking-singing voice - sometimes barely above a whisper - couldn't have contrasted more with the snarling, foaming-at-the-mouth aggression of a sweeping punk revolution. For all that, the authentic working-class voice, coupled with sophisticated musicianship, provided only a reactionary answer to Punk's anti-muso pretensions. The album would now be forgotten if it were not for Sultans of Swing.

Check out guitar George, he knows all the chords

The second album Communique, hurriedly released in 1979, had nothing memorable about it whatsover and is now lost somewhere in the rock history books. But in 1980 things began to look up with the release of Making Movies, their third album. The sound palette had begun to widen with a crafted, spacier feel to the music; more obviously pieced together in a recording studio. The subject matter was also changing, receiving a more cinematic treatment. The opening track is the expansive rock and roll of Tunnel of Love clocking in at over 8 minutes, a sign of things to come.

And in the roar of dust a diesel I stood and watched her walk away,
I could have caught up with her easy enough
but something must have made me stay

My first contact with Love over Gold came through the single Private Investigations, still the album's best song. It was a bold step to release a single almost seven minutes in length and with no obvious chorus hook, indeed with little identifiable structure to it and middle-aged, angsty subject-matter to boot. But it paid off, Love over Gold sold millions. The iconic purple lightning LP cover, now hackneyed online photo-library material, graced the home of almost every serious rock-music fan at the time. Annie Nightingale introduced the single on her Sunday evening Radio One show as an exclusive (an exclusive in playing the entire length of the track I presume). The words are easily remembered:

Confidential information
it's in a diary,
this is my investigation,
it's not a public enquiry

The albums opener, Telegraph Road, stands in the same relation as Stairway to Heaven had done to Led Zeppelin IV ten years before, and the same as Paranoid Android would do to Radiohead's OK Computer ten years later. A rock epic crafted from gradually progressing parts, it tells a compressed story of English social history; from man walking along road to out-of-control urban jungle. From agricultural to industrial revolution and beyond; pastoral beauty to messed up modern life. The song clearly draws on Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, but is wider in scope focusing not, as Springsteen had done, on the thrill and false promises of youth, but on tracing the roots of industrialised society.

A long time ago came a man on a track,
walking 30 miles with a sack on his back,
and he put down his load
where he thought it was the best
made a home in the wilderness

If you can forget the laboured rhyming of 'track', 'sack', and 'back' or the rather awkward 'best' and 'wilderness' there is an interesting tale somewhere here – Dick Wittington high-tailing it back from the city; the individual choice of the working man looking for a way out. He looked around and saw a piece of land he liked. So he put down his bags and never went any further. Now, just how likely is that?

With a cabin and a winter store
He ploughed up the ground by the cold lake shore

Other people began to arrive who, naturally, liked the same spot so much they, too, put down their bags and never went back. The people led to the society, which is where the problems started.

and then came the lawyers
and then came the rules

Most of the album has this pastoral / industrialisation contrast running through it. The album title urges love over gold; the working-class idea of true love, feted in Making Movies, over the new money of the capitalist. The world had been ruined by technology, machinery, traffic, repetitive labour, by the steady removal of choice, honesty, nature, and, significantly, love. The vision is all Rousseau; the man on a track has turned into six lanes of traffic, (three lanes moving slow).

If Telegraph Road adumbrated the cause, Private Investigations, Industrial Disease, and It Never Rains detailed the consequences. Lost in a too-complex-to-understand world, and dumped by a lover for another, the protagonist in Private Investigations starts an inquiry into the self: who am I? what am I doing here? why am I like this?

This is my investigation, it's not a public inquiry

Although the music suggests smoky, alcohol hazed, Raymond Chandler drama, the lyric is more statically personal, suggesting turmoil after a failed relationship. Someone thinking about themselves, alone in a room. A character from an Edward Hopper painting lost deep in thought; a Colonel Kurtz looking into his heart of darkness. It is a theme continued into the title track Love over Gold, burried half-way through side two:

It takes love over gold
and mind over matter
to do what you wanted to do
when the things that you hold
can fall and be shattered
or run through your fingers like dust

The dark tone of the album is built from its distopian view of the early 1980s and probably the union discontented late 1970s: confrontations with government, unmet demands resulting in strikes, from guzzling London cocking a snook at the poor North East. In Industrial Disease the finger points at a vague 'they':

They give you Rule Brittania, gassy beer, page three
two weeks in Espana and Sunday striptease

The 'they' are the capitalists placating the working classes, keeping them too busy to notice that the world has changed around them; making them vote Margaret Thatcher back for a second term.

There is also another vaguely drawn 'they' - woman-kind, the sort that in It Never Rains 'screw people over on the way up' because they 'think that they're never coming down'. The sort that leave you alone and make you ask questions of yourself you'd rather not have to face.

Blinds on a window, and a pain behind your eyes.

In 1983 Private Investigations also appeared on a now-forgotten landmark edition of Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show. "The first radio show to be broadcast using only CDs." I'm not sure of the truth of this claim, but at the time I believed it whole-heartedly, and made sure the tape-recorder was running [2]. Tommy Vance played each two song selection back to back, fading one song slowly into another. Private Investigations was the second song. Apart from that I recall four other songs: The glum Eye in the Sky by the Alan Parson's Project, Fly Like and Eagle by The Steve Miller Group, Countdown by Rush, and Welcome to the Machine by Pink Floyd [3].

Listening to Love over Gold again in 2004 - after buying the CD in a duty free shop at Schiphol airport - and despite a few contrived comedy moments in Industrial Disease, I'm surprised the tone is so unremittingly bleak, both at the personal and social level. There are no solutions either - no lights at the end of the tunnel or happy endings - which makes it seem bleaker and even more puzzling that it did so well. Telegraph Road is a thrilling ride, but it ends in red lights and traffic jams, Private Investigations reprises with:

scarred for life, no compensation...

It's as if we wanted reminding, in that particularly British fashion, of how hollow it all is, this thing we call love and gold.

In 1993 Sheffield hosted the world student games and, to accommodate the event, a slew of new venues were built on a number of disused factory sites that had themselves succumbed to late 70s industrial disease. Pond's Forge hosted the swimming, the Don Valley stadium hosted the track and field events, and the Sheffield Arena hosted the gymnastics and basketball. (The newly opened Meadowhall shopping mall hosted leisurely consumption between events.) After the games the Arena reverted back to its original function of a concert venue, and I, looking for a way to boost my meagre PhD student grant, took a job in the box office selling tickets. The first sales were for Sting, New Kids on the Block (the barriers were brought in for that one), the Halle Orchestra, and Dire Straits (now on their On Every Street tour) who were booked to play five consecutive nights.

I was on ticket-office duty the night of their first performance and was allowed by a kindly security guard to see the opening minutes of their show. It was impressive stuff; the long, low drone that introduces Telegraph Road leading to five curtains being whipped away and the band magically appearing, steaming into their first song... Calling Elvis.

I watched again the second night, and the third. Each time only allowed the first couple of minutes. The same magical appearance, the same opening song. I heard the rest of the show echoing through from the cavernous hall to the empty box-office, where I sat, already half-way through my own private investigation.


[1] Maybe it's the spot described in the beautifully understated song Brothers in Arms from the following album of the same name:

These mist-covered mountains are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands and always will be
Some day you'll return to your valleys and your farms
And you'll no longer yearn to be brothers in arms

Unlikely as it may seem, my flat-mate Danny and I used to pay good money to put this on the juke-box at the union bar (this was the mid-80s). It always seemed to come on after drinking up time was finished, when plastic beer glasses lay broken on the sticky and sweating rubber floor. Maybe it was a craftily contrived soporific to lead us rowdy students quietly into the night. If it was, it worked.

[2] the tape was unceremoniously dumped, along with many other 'outmoded' cassettes, in a skip outside 70 Denmark Street in Bedford, 1997.

[3] digging around a little bit more I managed to remember a few other songs from the show: Wildest Dreams by Asia, Neuva York by Santana, Die Hard the Hunter by Def Leppard, and Dweller on the Threshold by Van Morrison (Tommy Vance initially introduced it as "Dealer on the Threshold"). I wrote to Tommy Vance, now DJ-ing at Virgin Classic Rock. to see if he had kept a play list of the show. This is what he wrote back:

"dear peter.
thanks for the e-mail. to be honest i do not remember doing that show though it sounds like it could have been good. we never kept list of what we did we just did [it] and had fun. very best wishes.
tommy vance."


August 2004