This was my first Dire Straits album. In June of 1985, they released their “Money For Nothing” single and it was everywhere for the rest of the year. I remember dancing to it and playing air guitar at a high school dance. (I didn’t get laid in high school.) It was an awesome song and I enjoyed some of the other singles from the record so when my older sister asked, around xMas time, what bands I was into, I mentioned Dire Straits, among some others. I was really hoping for the Brothers In Arms album. Maybe she figured I already had it or maybe she thought she’d buy me a double-album (cassette) that I might not have otherwise bought for myself.
Either way, when Santa Day rolled around, she gave me a copy of Alchemy. I said thank you, of course, but I didn’t really appreciate it at first. It was recorded in 1983 and released on March 16, 1984, which meant it had live versions of songs from all of their albums that came out before “Money For Nothing.” I didn’t know any of these songs.
Being that I was fourteen years old and just starting to have pop and rock records of my own, I didn’t have a ton of full albums like I do now. I really had just a handful, along with some cassettes of music that I’d taped off the radio. So, being that my choices were fairly limited, I ended up listening to Alchemy more than once and, gradually, it grew on me. Now it is one of my all-time favorite live albums, up there with Stop Making Sense.
The first song that really caught my attention was “Two Young Lovers” a throwback rocker from their ExtendedancEPlay EP released six months before this performance. It’s reminiscent of Chuck Berry‘s “You Never Can Tell.” A guest appearance by “Sir Mel Collins on the saxophone…” along with Alan Clark‘s Jerry-Lee-Lewis-style of piano rockin’ turn this cut into a swinging stomper that is pure ear candy. It opens the second half and for a teenage non-initiate it was a welcome respite from the first half of the album which, in 1985, was five mid-tempo numbers averaging nine minutes apiece (the CD release has since been expanded to include “Love Over Gold” on Disc One).
Repeat listens paid off huge returns. Mark Knopfler‘s guitar work is breathtaking on this album, his vocals spot on. With few exceptions, this album amounts to The Mark Knopfler Show, but it does so to great effect. The recording boasts five numbers over eight minutes in length, providing plenty of space for long, relaxed intros and sprawling improvised solo work in the midst of the songs. The highlight for most casual fans is probably the eleven minute version of the Straits’ calling card, “Sultans Of Swing.” Between that and the thirteen minute version of “Once Upon A Time In The West” that opens the set, I ended becoming a lifelong Dire Straits fan.
Finally, one small complaint. There were three songs recorded at the show that haven’t been released: “Industrial Disease,” “Portobello Belle,” and “Twistin’ By The Pool.” The CD release is only 93 minutes long, and with the digital formatting available out there, there’s no reason that these are still relegated to the realm of bootlegs and collectors. Warner Brothers, kindly get your shit together and rerelease this album properly.
This isn’t a Greatest Hits Live album , so don’t go into it expecting that. But you can go in expecting virtuoso guitar work, Knopfler’s familiar and comfortable rasp, and extended versions of some early Dire Straits standouts with which you definitely need to refamiliarize yourself. I recommend putting it on in the car and taking a long drive on roads without any traffic and just letting the music wash over you. While live albums are, by definition, a time capsule capturing a specific moment in a band’s history, this is one of the few that is actually timeless.