The intros to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Wham!’s Club Tropicana, to name a couple, musically build a vivid image that almost tell a story on their own. If you took away the vocals from Dire Straits’ dramatic 1982 hit Private Investigations and closed your eyes the entire backing track would tell you a story.
When asked who the music inspiration might have been, Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits’ lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter replied, “Ennio Morricone. It’s that slightly comic, melodramatic thing I call spaghetti music. Private Investigations is almost tongue-in-cheek and deliberately exaggerated.”
Dire Straits were formed in 1977 by brothers Mark and David Knopfler, with their friends John Illsley and Pick Withers. Mark had been a part-time teacher and part-time musician and was sharing a flat in Deptford, south London. He had played in a couple of local groups and managed to scrape together the £120 he needed for a demo tape. Their name was suggested, originally as a joke, by Pick Wither’ flatmate which Mark found too close for comfort but later ironic in the extreme.
That demo included what became their first hit, Sultans of Swing, which they wanted to play to legendary DJ Charlie Gillett. Mark said, “I liked Charlie and just wanted to get nothing more than his advice on the track, but he loved it so much he played it on his BBC Radio London show called Honky Tonk and within two weeks we were signed by Phonogram records.”
Their third album, Making Movies, sold over a million copies and was helped by the heroic hit single Romeo And Juliet which was badly edited for radio purposes. The original six minute track was cut down to four minutes and lost a lot of its meaning. This isn’t the first time this occurred; in fact it happened with most of their singles including Sultans of Swing which had a whole verse chopped.
Their next album was Love Over Gold which only contained five tracks, all mini masterpieces that opened with the epic 14 and a half-minute track Telegraph Road. The only single released from it was Private Investigations, which Mark said he didn’t want edited, but at six minutes and 47 seconds, it was too long for radio play. So an agreement was reached to edit a bit of the intro and the long outro down and a mere 55 seconds was removed. Thankfully, radio realised its potential and usually played the single version in full without DJ’s rabbiting over the beginning or end. I remember at my days at Radio 1, some of the DJ’s used the length of the track as a worthwhile toilet break.
The song begins with a sinister, deep pitched synthesizer orchestration, leading into a slow piano progression accompanying a classical guitar and a pulsing bassline. With the words whispered, rather than sung, Knopfler expresses the disillusionment and bitterness of a betrayed lover, likening his position to that of a private investigator uncovering scandal. “It’s just about a real private investigation,” Mark recalled, “What have you got at the end of the day? – Nothing more than you started out with…”
In Michael Oldfield’s 1984 book The Illustrated History of the band, Mark revealed, “The song was sparked off by something I read about Philip Marlowe. You hear different interpretations of it, but to me it’s deliberately movie. Philip Marlowe was the private detective created by the American novelist Raymond Chandler. The Marlowe novels could have been tailor made for film noir, a style of cinema that evolved in the United States after the Second World War, low budget gangster films and such made in black and white and portraying the underside of the American dream.” If it had been written thirty years earlier it would almost certainly have won an Oscar for a film noir soundtrack.
The song builds in tension with shrilling electric guitar chords towards the end, before the gradual diminuendo featuring interplay between Mark Knopfler’s acoustic guitar and marimba played by Mike Mainieri. The song reached number two giving them their join biggest hit to date, it was only kept off the top by Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger.
Private Investigations was used in the 1984 film Comfort And Joy which Mark Knopfler modified himself as certain scenes required only certain parts of the song. In 1994 and instrumental part was used for the BT television commercial and the title was used for their Greatest Hits compilations in 2005.
Two years after Private Investigations was a hit Mark wrote a song for Tina Turner called Private Dancer. “I was going to play on it but couldn’t. Tina got the whole Dire Straits band on it, but I was busy doing the Bryan Ferry sessions. So she got Jeff Beck to play the second ugliest guitar solo you’ve ever heard on it.”