The enduring carnival-as-life metaphor suggests that life is a path that offers infinite opportunities and enticements: amusing highs and confusing lows, imagery of bearded ladies, ghost trains and chance-taking carousel rides to know you’re alive. Intercut with an air of nostalgia and regret, suggesting better times, these sentiments are beautifully displayed on these two classic fairground-themed tracks from the early-80’s.
And I been riding on a ghost train, where the cars they scream and slam
And I don’t know where I’ll be tonight but I’d always tell you where I am
Falling somewhere between their early pub-rock origins and becoming eventual arena-sized MTV stars, Dire Straits enlisted big-league producer Jimmy Iovine and E-Street Band pianist Roy Bitton for their third LP Making Movies (1980). The album encapsulated the band’s most wide-screen tendencies, and the album opens with Tunnel of Love’s organ arrangement curiously from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel Waltz”.
And girl it looks so pretty to me, like it always did
Oh, like the Spanish city to me, when we were kids
More than just a song about meeting a girl with a carnival backdrop and faultless guitar tone, the track references the seaside theme park Spanish City and carnival rides of Whitley Bay, part of the North Sea coast to the north-east of Newcastle upon Tyne. Throughout the post war years Whitley Bay had provided a holiday break for workers away from the heavy industry of Tyneside, where the Scottish-born Knopfler grew up, recalling the fairground rides at this popular place of teenage escape, and one train stop along nearby Cullercoats.
Now I am searchin’ through these carousels
And the carnival arcade, searching everywhere
From steeplechase to balustrades
In any shooting galleries where promises are made
To rockaway, rockaway
From Cullercoats to Whitley Bay
It’s a song of longing and bittersweet romance, sentiments that run through a lot of the band’s best work. It is also one of the finest songs guitar virtuoso Mark Knopfler ever wrote, with a memorable and moving guitar solo outro, and despite it being one of the band’s most popular numbers, it inexplicably bombed as a single in October 1981, reaching only number 54 in the UK Singles Chart.
Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Meanwhile in 1980, Richard and Linda Thompson had recently been dumped from their record label, Chrysalis, and were on the verge of divorce. Somehow they overcame these miserable circumstances and managed to make a brilliant album of emotional depth called Shoot Out the Lights (1982), a masterpiece of despair and possibly Richard Thompson’s greatest album. It would spell the end of their collaboration and relationship, as by the time the album was released Richard and Linda’s marriage was over.
Well you’re going nowhere
When you ride on the carousel
The album closes out with one of his finest songs, the bitter optimism of the wonderfully melodic circus-saga Wall of Death, a love song with a spin, literally and figuratively on romance as a scary and wild fairground ride. It’s an ode to carnivals and side shows that compares the death-defying ride to the risks and hardships of life, with an air of hope, even as danger lurks in the background.
The Tunnel Of Love might amuse you
Noah’s Ark might confuse you
But let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
I love the optimism of both of these beautifully written songs, both career highlights from these brilliant songwriters and guitarists. To me, they’re about all of life’s possibilities where Mark Knopfler and Richard Thompson use the concept of carnival in relation to life: Everything in life is a risk, sometimes the outcome is positive, and sometimes it’s not. It all depends on how you look at it.
♥ Watch: Brian Johnson interview Mark Knopfler on Life on the Road