Thursday, November 25, 2004

Rockin' on Ray Kroc

Musicians seldom feel moved to sing about everyday commerce. No great loss, that; they hardly play fair when they do deign to address the people who create and run businesses. See, for example, the self-righteously anti-commercial lyrics of the Five Man Electric Band's song, Signs. I was thus thrilled with Mark Knopler's newest album, Shangri-La, which includes several songs that offer a fair but tough take on the day-to-day drama of turning a buck.

Knopler, you might recall, once led the rock band, Dire Straits. Since that group's demise, he has put out a number of excellent solo works characterized by his excellent guitar work and increasingly well-crafted lyrics. Knopler has a particular knack for conveying the view from inside of someone else's head. On several of Shangri-La's songs he applies that talent to various sorts of entrepreneurs, hustlers, and independent proprietors.

Each of Knopler's character studies has its charms. Here, though, I'll focus on my favorite of the lot: Boom, Like That. Why that one? For one thing, it rocks. It mixes an anthemic chord progression reminiscent of Green Grass and High Tides with a street-wise, rough-edged guitar. You can listen to it here or here.

So much, so good, but driving tunes come a dime a dozen. The lyrics of Boom, Like That mark it as something truly special. Reading Ray Kroc's autobiography, Grinding it Out, inspired Knopler to describe how the founder of McDonald's launched his fast food empire. Boom, Like That uses Kroc's own words to describe how he got the idea for a hamburger franchise after delivering milkshake mixes to a popular hamburger joint:

The folks line up all down the street,
And I'm seeing this girl devour her meat, now.
And then I get it—wham!—As clear as day.
My pulse starts to hammer and I hear a voice say:
"These boys have got it down!
Oughtta' be one of these in every town.
These boys have got the touch.
It's clean as a whistle and it don't cost much.
Wham, bam! You don't wait long.
Shake, fries, patty, you're gone.
And how about that friendly name?
Heck, every little thing oughtta' stay the same."

Knopler hardly portrays Kroc as some sort of Randian hero. Rather, he shows the hamburger magnate as a fellow just as happy to offer a friendly buy-out as to throw a sharp elbow into a competitor's ribs. Knopler makes Kroc out not an idealized titan of commerce, nor an blandly evil capitalist pig, but rather as a hard-driving, rough-hewn, hamburger hustler. The refrain of Boom, Like That, which follows immediately after the verse quoted above, neatly captures Kroc's character:

Or my name's not "Kroc"—that's "Kroc" with a "K."
Like "crocodile" but not spelled that way, now.
It's dog eat dog, rat eat rat.
Kroc-style. Boom! Like that.

Here and elsewhere on Shangri-La, Knopler offers a fascinating and realistic view of the human side of business. Though sympathetic to his subjects, he cuts them no slack. So much the better, to my taste; I like music with an edge to it. Knopler accomplishes what few artists even attempt: he makes commerce sound gritty, dramatic, and, in an all-important word, cool.


Steven Horwitz said...

Two quick things Glen.

1) It's Dire STRAITS. :)

2) On the role of commerce in music lyrics, check out Heresy by Rush, first section:


All around that dull grey world
From Moscow to Berlin
People storm the barricades
Walls go tumbling in

The counter-revolution
People smiling through their tears
Who can give them back their lives
And all those wasted years?
All those precious wasted years
Who will pay?

All around that dull grey world
Of ideology
People storm the marketplace
And buy up fantasy

The counter-revolution
At the counter of a store
People buy the things they want
And borrow for a little more
All those wasted years
All those precious wasted years
Who will pay?

Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks for the spell-check, Steve. (And, by the way, Glen's out of town just now and not blogging.)

I like Rush, to be sure. But I find their lyrics awfully vague--sort of bird's eye view of the market. Knopler gets specific, examining the nitty-gritty details of particular characters and incidents.

Steven Horwitz said...

Oops, sorry Tom. I just spent a bunch of time with Glen at the SEAs this past few days, so I had him on my mind. ;)

And yeah, that lyric isn't very specific, but I do love the line about the counter-revolution at the counter of a store, and that portrayal of the simple act of commerce as somehow revolutionary. Hope you and yours are having a great holiday.

Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

Tom, it's Knopfler, with an "f."

Glen Whitman said...

Dire Straits has a history of songs about the life of the common man, including his working life. "Money for Nothing," probably their most famous song, is sung by a couple of blue-collar appliance workers.
"We gotta install microwave ovens / Custom kitchen deliveries / We gotta move these refrigerators / We gotta move these color TV's..."

Anonymous said...

As said before, his name is Mark Knopfler. He has a musician brother, David, who was a member of Dire Striats the first couple of LPs

Mark Knopfler has made most of his songs about the normal people. 'Sultans of Swing' is about a band playing in London. In the same LP, 'In the gallery', talks about an artist. The list is long; just look through his solo albums or with Dire Straits.

In my opinion, the fact that he talks about day-by-day things is what makes his lyrics so special. Add to them how he plays the guitar and it doesn't matter at all if some songs are longer (or much longer) than the standard 4 minutes

Anonymous said...

I make my living as a writer (a technical writer, but still...) and have been writing since the eighth grade, or 1985, as the rest of the world knows it. I have long been aware of the writers who influenced me; E.L. Doctorow, Michael Chabon, Douglas Adams, Mario Puzo, Jesse Hill Ford, Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, and Jack Kerouac are the authors whom I usually cite as primary influences (and if that strikes you as a motley assemblage, you should see what I produce as a result). I recently checked out "Shangri-La" (the album which yielded "Boom, Like That") from my library, and was reminded that Mark Knopfler has been as much of an influence on my writing as any of the gents above. I was in the 8th grade when "Money For Nothing" was a gigantic hit for Dire Straits; my dad, being what marketing types call an "Early Innovator", got us a CD player for Christmas that year--and "Brothers In Arms" was one of our first CDs. I remember being impressed then with Knopfler's ability--other than his skills as an axman, which would be enough on their own--to create phenomenal word-pictures and deft turns of phrase. As an example, here's the first stanza from a song on that album, "Your Latest Trick":
All the late night bargains have been struck/
Between the satin beaus and their belles/
Prehistoric garbage trucks/
Have the city to themselves/
Echoes and roars of dinosaurs/
They're all doing the Monster Mash/
And most of the taxis, most of the whores/
are only taking calls for cash

Wanting to copy that begat bad but sincere 8th-grade poetry, which begat improved poetry, then prose, then--after a few decades--my current reality.