Daily Trojan Magazine

‘Telegraph Road’ forever changed the way I think about music

It’s a song about the rise and fall of Detroit. But more so, it’s a song about how art is made, and the road taken to get to a masterpiece.

(Arielle Rizal / Daily Trojan)

Dire Straits was a band not meant to exist. It began as a troupe of men in their late 20s led by Mark Knopfler, a Geordie who sang folk and blues when the rest of music was young and loud. It was uncool. It was dad rock. They sang of walks through West London while the music industry was riled on lust and drugs. But they chose to reject the prevailing model. They chose idiosyncrasy. They chose to be the band they wanted to be.

Two Grammy Awards and 120 million album sales later, Dire Straits is proof that one can achieve relevance through irrelevance. Even from the most seemingly mundane scenarios, Knopfler spins tales so deeply personal that humanity is revealed in their larger tapestries. Within the personal there is an irresistible universality. 

Knopfler understands that we all have these rich inner worlds — kaleidoscopes of obsession, wonder and feeling. There are things that we love and keep to ourselves, pleasures that we have to escape crowds to enjoy, private lives that we all live. His music works, because it brings us to those places.

It’s because of Dire Straits that I have embraced irrelevance in this article. Invading a “Top 15” university’s esteemed newspaper with analyses of 40-year-old songs to be read by college-aged students is not what anyone expected anyone to do. And that’s fine. I just want to share something I love. It may not be anything that anyone has ever thought about, but that’s the beauty about reading something that is so personal. It’s an invitation to learn something, to share in this dream we call art. 

Mark Knopfler had this much to say about it: “We have just one world / But we live in different ones.”

No one asked for this, but that’s what makes it all the more fitting. I’m going to analyze a 42-year-old song spanning over 14 minutes about a road in southern Michigan. Because relevance was overrated anyway. Because art is everywhere, so long as we can feel its presence. Mark Knopfler knew that when he wrote it.

Welcome to “Telegraph Road.”

The genesis of “Telegraph Road” began at the front of a tour bus. Dire Straits were touring after the release of their wildly successful album “Making Movies,” whose release marked a shift in the direction of the band. Knopfler had assumed the role of the creative leader, and it was his leadership that guided Dire Straits’ vision and the making of the band’s fourth album: “Love Over Gold.” 

Up until that point, Straits were most famous for their single, “Sultans of Swing,” which can still be heard on classic rock stations. But the success of “Making Movies,” whose singles “Romeo and Juliet” and “Tunnel of Love” ooze profoundly of love and heartbreak, allowed Knopfler the freedom to test new waters. Dire Straits bassist John Illsley recalled in an interview with Vulture, “After having three successful albums, we felt we could do whatever we wanted to do.” And so they did.

Which brings us to the bus. In a 1994 interview, Mark Knopfler illustrated the moment the song came to him.

“In fact I was driving down that road, and I was reading a book at the time, called ‘Growth of the Soil’ and I just put the two together … [the road] just went on and on and on forever, it’s like what they call linear development … I wondered how that road must have been when it started, what it must have first been like … I just put that book together and the place where I was. I was actually sitting in the front of the tour bus at the time.”

The road in question is Telegraph Road, a stretch of pavement spanning almost 80 miles from Toledo, Ohio, to Detroit, Michigan. It was little more than a modest dirt path since it was beaten in the mid-19th century, growing and widening as it became the backbone for infrastructure such as telegraph poles and roadways as the decades rolled onward. In the 1910s, it exploded in usage with the booming auto industry in Detroit, and towns grew off of it as people sought to capitalize on this influx of wealth into the region. But at this point, the story grows achingly familiar. The communities dependent on the road still bear the deep scars of the exodus of the automobile industry. The road has become the scar of progress that the community now bears. Its history is a drama played over a century.

“Growth of the Soil” parallels this history quite directly, telling the story of Isak, who carves out a life of his own in the wilderness. As the story progresses, the once faraway village consumes the nature that had been his land, sending his life into disarray as modernity consumes it. 

The Nobel Prize-winning book echoes the concerns of the public in the 1920s that industrialization would rob humanity of its roots and place in nature. The argument goes that society removes us from this essential element of our being.

These two histories of Telegraph Road and “Growth of the Soil” were paths merged in the mind of Knopfler when he wrote the song. The song details the rise, fall and destruction of the community Telegraph Road supported over the course of a century. It invites us to travel along with Knopfler as he whizzes through the endless plains and townscapes the road both carved out and nurtured. As we travel along this musical road, a sort of metaphysical timeline, before our ears a budding town with a dirt path is painted, which courses through the landscape with increasing intensity as development blossoms. As the song climaxes, a storm brews — my favorite thematic element of the song — and the road is taken back by a force more powerful than humanity.

“Telegraph Road” is immensely rich in depth, nuance and musicality, cultivated by the intricate harmonies and arrangements that only Dire Straits could execute. It’s a reflection on the development of humanity, our relationship with nature, and the paradoxical reality of progress. It’s of its time yet extremely modern. It’s a wild ride that requires a road map with countless landmarks. Fortuitously, I have taken the trouble to draw one up.

The song begins with a single note, high and unwavering. It feels almost linear, piercing the quiet of a noiseless blackness. Perhaps it is the reflection of the linear road to come or a kind of musical timeline, laying the foundation for the chronology soon to follow. It is at 00:19 that this note is first interrupted, cut by an ominous crash of thunder. At 00:28 it evolves into whistles of low and high notes, evoking a vast expanse. There is a kind of innocent purity to the whistle, despite its electronic origins. Its slight vibrato has the delicacy of birdsong. Music journalist David Fricke likens it to a sunrise; it’s fitting that the first sounds we hear are the delicate rays of light illuminating the dewy grasslands of southern Michigan.

It is nearly a minute before any other instruments are heard, as the resonator guitar makes its first appearance in the song at 00:55. It is soon accompanied by a melodic piano, and the two dance to the other’s rhythms. The slower, pared-down nature of the introduction educes images of a land untouched, pure and unspoiled. The resonator guitar — a favorite of Knopfler’s — emerged from bluegrass and roots music, and has spiritual ties to the organic nature of the music that originated it. The piano accompaniment is thus tied to this idea of nature and its purity, accentuated by how it sings with the resonator guitar. This segment is perhaps more folk than it is rock ’n’ roll, intentionally so. 

Note that another thunderclap can be heard at 01:27. A storm is brewing. What the storm is, we do not know.

This beautiful introduction is cut by the thunderous strum of an electric guitar at 01:35, introducing an element thus far foreign to the piece. With it comes thumping drums, adding a sense of pace previously unfelt in the song’s languid buildup. The guitar is still timid but much louder and more expressive than anything else previously heard. 

It sings for a bit, and another thunderclap at 02:09 transitions into a piano motif heard when the song shifts in direction. The motif is crucial to the narrative development of the song due to its association with change. At 02:16, we have our first lyrics. Man has arrived.

The lyrics themselves are narrative and to-the-point. They relate the progression of events to the listener and drive the story. While not as rich in depth and metaphor as in other songs in Dire Straits’ catalog — see “Brothers in Arms” or “On Every Street” — they serve to construct the canvas onto which Knopfler flings his musical paint. 

Mark Knopfler writes songs in two languages: in English and in tones. His technical ability on the guitar is so great that he is able to supplement his raspy ramble with notes so beautiful and nuanced they carry the same meaning as a belted lyric. You could sing to the notes delivered on his guitar. The reasons for this euphony involve technique, tonality and theory far beyond me. But the undeniable result is that Knopfler’s guitar has evolved beyond an instrument to a vocalist, singing in a language that speaks to our hearts. Here, the guitar sings the part of humanity, its introduction tied to the arrival of the first settler. 

This buildup introduces the two forces that will drive the song: nature and man, piano and guitar, each playing a respective role in this magnificent opera.

The first verse tells of the first settler and his arrival to the location that would soon become Telegraph Road. The music is initially sparse, building in synchrony with the growth of the town.

The guitar, growing evermore enlivened, sings more notes around the chords than in previous instrumental sections, densifying the musical space, reflecting the increasing pace at which the growth of the town is occurring from 03:10 to 03:35. This interlude ends at 03:27 with the refrain of the piano motif discussed earlier, reflecting another shift in the song’s direction. The following lyrics, “Then came the mines, then came the ore / Then there was the hard times, then there was a war,” contextualize the interlude as a jump in time to the early 20th century; “hard times” and “a war” are allusions to the Great Depression and World War II, respectively.

After the “then there was a war” line is sung, Pick Withers — the band’s drummer — slams his drumstick onto the snare at 03:43, imitating the kind of explosion that would be heard on the battlefield. These kinds of details enrich the song, adding a kind of textural layer created as the music reacts to the meaning. It’s amazing. 

The lyrics then jump into a continuation of the chords heard during the chorus from 03:52 to 04:09, racing along like the proverbial river Knopfler describes the road as having become. Its growth is rapid and inevitable, the lyrics seem to suggest, and the powerful, thundering chords from the rhythm guitar that backdrop the piano in this section support that suggestion. 

The piano, the voice of nature, then quickly transitions into an ascending guitar at 04:10: the voice of man. The guitar soars as progress erupts, leaving behind the nature that had once nurtured the settlement. “Development is unstoppable,” it seems to cry. This upward climb only slows at 04:45 to heed the return of the piano, our prophet. It begins its motif at 04:52 to indicate a new direction for the song. One that will prove fatal to the mankind that has outgrown his home.

The lyrics “And my radio says, tonight is gonna freeze / People driving home from the factories” indicate another jump in time. But more significantly, there is a shift in narratorial perspective. While the previous five minutes of the song were delivered from the perspective of an omniscient, third person — perhaps the perspective of a collective humanity, or even nature herself — the song now follows one man as he experiences the modern Telegraph Road: a road supporting blue-collar jobs in a bustling industrial community. The next set of lines, “There’s six lanes of traffic / Three lanes moving slow,” succinctly illustrate the modern incarnation of the Telegraph Road: a highway supporting a manufacturing economy.

But as the lyrics are sung, the music itself slows down to an almost halting degree, a tonal shift contrasting the exploding development of earlier. After near silence from 05:16 to 05:24, carried only by a soft bassline, synth and light piano, a more somber piano sings a kind of melancholy tune from 05:25 to 05:50, lilting and undulating delicately. Perhaps it is lamenting the relentless expansion of the cityscape.

Then cuts in the guitar at 05:51, less powerful and more mournful than when it had soared minutes ago. Its delicate notes drift softly from low to high until it begins a determined ascent at 06:17, almost in refrain to the climb it had so effortlessly executed when progress seemed inevitable. But this ascent is not as cheerful or graceful as its predecessor. No, it is gritty, steely and laborious. The guitar trudges upward until 06:41, nearly halfway through the song, until it falls, drifting downward like the last leaf of an autumn maple. The climax of progress has been reached. Mankind has fallen.

Its delicate and lamenting tune transitions into the lyrics “I used to like to go to work, but they shut it down / I’ve got a right to go to work / But there’s no work here to be found.” The protagonist has been laid off, as what was once a temple of industry begins to turn to ruins. 

The next set of lyrics indicates that this fall was inevitable. “Yes, and they say we’re gonna have to pay what’s owed / We’re gonna have to reap / From some seed that’s been sowed.” They draw a line from the first seeds, literally sowed by the first settler, to the growth and decay of the industry that is now plaguing the townscape. Humanity, bloated with hubris, believed it could defy nature through its abuse, ignorance and estrangement, only to be slapped across the face when its own creation consumed it. Knopfler, in accordance with “Growth of the Soil” writer Knut Hamsun, derides civilization for the abandonment of its own humanity. The paradox of progress is that it only seems to take us further from ourselves. These seeds of progress reap rewards of growth, but are they worth every component of the crop?

The following chorus employs images of nature as a vehicle to express the narrator’s increasing frustration with his living conditions. The lyrics “And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles / They can always fly away from this rain and this cold” are accompanied by the booming sound of a snare drum, which fills the musical space and adds increased energy to the section. The narrator wants a way out as his anger and frustration build.

The following instrumental section has a sense of eerie foreboding. Gone is the expressive guitar; it is now more quiet and restrained. The piano motif returns briefly at 08:06 but does not finish and is followed by near silence. It suggests the song is shifting in direction only slightly. The guitar then fills the soundscape. Humanity is now driving the story. A thunderclap is heard at 08:16. The storm is on the horizon. Humanity will taste the fruits of its labors — the ripe and the rotten.

The narrator then reminisces on when the times were good, when he and his lover were close, before the downturn had hit. The music picks up with more instruments to fill the musical space. The narrator is seething, the lyrics energized by the music, recalling the destruction he witnessed in the town and the promise he made to his lover that they would escape. The lines “’Cause I’ve run every red light on memory lane / I’ve seen desperation explode into flames / And I don’t want to see it again” have him recall others’ frustration with the depreciating quality of life, bringing to mind scenes of riots and fire. He is escaping.

One figures that he is driving, which is reinforced through the lines “From all of these signs saying, ‘Sorry, but we’re closed’ / All the way / Down the telegraph road.” These lines allude to the narrator hurtling down Telegraph Road, speeding by countless lines of signs of defunct businesses as he makes his way to the horizon, vying to never see this place that had taken him down with it.

Mark Knopfler belts out a powerful chord from his guitar, and we are left in near silence. It is the calm before the storm. This is the moment those thunderclaps were alluding to. The destruction of man’s project. The reckoning of blind hubris. Nature’s last judgment. 

The soundscape is sparse, the music quiet. The guitar, once again weary and muted, is only supported by the tapping of high-hats and the sighs of an organ from 09:35 to 10:03. This segment is building tension, as the moment prophesied through the song has yet to arrive. Thunderclaps are heard at 10:00; the storm is nearly overhead. I can just smell that humid air, see the dark clouds swirling above me. It’s an intoxicating tension.

At 10:04 the guitar lets out a cry, and the chord structure shifts. The rhythm is more energetic, more dynamic. The music feels as though it is in motion, gathering pace. It’s almost as though we the listener are sitting shotgun in the protagonist’s car as it barrels down Telegraph Road, wind and rain smearing the windshield during a frigid Michigan thunderstorm. Thunder is heard again at 10:15.

John Illsley on bass enters at 10:21. The music is tighter, tenser, nearing climax.

When I spoke to Nick Stoubis, chair of the studio and jazz guitar programs in the Thornton School of Music, about the song, he commented on how this section particularly feels like a live set of Dire Straits. By this point in their touring, they had developed a signature breakdown followed by the buildup of instruments, each member spurring the other on to the eventual mind-melting explosion of utter musical prowess.

 “The dynamics are increasing, the amount of notes is growing … [Knopfler is] wanting to get [to] a higher level where the solo starts,” Stoubis explained. 

Just look at the “Alchemy: Dire Straits Live” rendition of “Sultans of Swing” to see what Stoubis is talking about — specifically between 06:04 and 08:28. The buildup is organic, improvised, yet was outlined with the goal of building up and releasing tension.

Guess what happens at 11:06 back in “Telegraph Road.”

Knopfler’s guitar wails as all musical hell breaks loose. All members of Dire Straits are creating a symphony of pure harmonized chaos as the storm wreaks havoc on everything that had been built. Pick Withers’ drums beat out flashes of lightning from 10:54 to 11:03, Alan Clark’s piano — nature manifest — is striking percussive rhythms like heavy rainfall from 12:53 to 12:59. It’s a rain so dense that not even high beams can penetrate it.

But the star of the show is Knopfler’s guitar. It writhes and wails under the weight of the storm but bears its merciless battering with bravery. The chord structure is still unchanged from when it was last switched, its underlying consistency continuing the impression of charging movement. The highs and lows the guitar hits rival that of any vocalist, as it screams in a way that can only be described as à la Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky.” It’s scary. It’s awesome. It’s beautiful. And then, it’s over.

The song fades out unceremoniously, which Stoubis attributes to being a recording practice of the time. But, damn, was it good while it lasted. Somehow Mark Knopfler has written a 14-minute-long song that I wish lasted longer. It’s a feat of genuine musical wizardry.

And somehow “Telegraph Road” is more than a song, greater than the sum of its parts. In one song, Knopfler meditates on the entire human condition: He describes humanity’s relationship with its environment, how civilization can develop and decay, the double-edged nature of progress, love, fear, despair and the perseverance of the human spirit. I would dare any philosopher to encompass such simultaneous breadth and depth in such a relatively tight timeframe. And yet the music is allowed to breathe, build and fall with the narrative and emotional timeline.

That timeline extends to today, too. Many of the concerns fleshed out in the song have yet to be addressed in the modern day. We are still disconnected from our environment, still mercilessly razing forests, poisoning lakes and rivers, and choking out our fragile atmosphere. We spend 90% of our time indoors, in manufactured realities promised to protect us, yet we still feel lost.

For whom was the storm? For Detroit? Or for us?

I keep coming back to this song because of this depth, this layering of meaning and sound. Nick Stoubis felt similarly. 

“I generally have a pretty good ability to hear form and structure, but with this one, after listening to it a couple times and having heard it a number of times before, I’d probably [still] have to jot down [the structure],” Stoubis said. 

It’s a piece that begs for analysis, to be heard on repeat, to be experienced anew. Every time Telegraph Road is destroyed, you want to hear it built over again.

It does not matter that the song takes place on a road accessible to 0.2% of the population of the United States. Mark Knopfler imbued far too much humanity to not relate to the song. He is an artist, first and foremost, and uncompromisingly uses music as a medium of self-expression, of his musings and observations. He both wrote and produced the album, not seeking commercial success but satisfaction in what he does.

Knopfler rides the Tube — London’s metro — to get to his own shows. He collects vintage cars and roots for Newcastle United. He’s never been in it for anything other than the love of the medium. Stoubis commented that his music is what’s in his heart. 

“He plays what he loves,” Stoubis said. 

It’s no wonder his music feels like a mirror in which we can see ourselves — and everybody else behind us. He looks at life and sees a song.

This article was a labor of love months in the making. Whenever I could get a friend in my car for some kind of outing, I would practice my interpretations as we charged down whichever highway would bring us to ice cream. Along the 5, the 110 and the 101 Freeway, this song would take center stage as I attempted to unfurl its constituent layers.

It was these journeys that revealed to me the true meaning of the song. As we were crossing the Coronado Bridge, Mark Knopfler’s guitar wailed under the rain, and my friend Kimmi beamed as they said ‘Wow.’ My friend Connor told me along the northbound 5 Freeway that it was one of the best pieces of music he ever heard. My girlfriend, on the southbound 73 Freeway, was shocked that this song was not under seven minutes. I recall that my buddy Ricky, after the song faded out on the southbound 110 Freeway, told me “At first I didn’t understand why you were talking about Dire Straits all of the time. I get it now. They really care about their music.”

Because beyond the lyrics, story and music, this song was made for the audience. It was a piece crafted to be played live, to be felt and experienced and blow minds. While the interpretation may not be immediate, the emotion is. It hits you like lightning. Stoubis felt that it was one for the fans. 

“They’re also reacting to what the audience is like … [When Mark Knopfler is] writing new compositions, he’s also like, ‘When we played those shows, the audience got really energized by these things,’” Stoubis said.

And you needn’t look further than Dire Straits’ live performances to understand the effect. The “Alchemy: Dire Straits Live” rendition of “Telegraph Road” is nearly unchanged from the studio version as it’s already been crafted for the spectacle. If you’ve ever heard the live version, you can hear the clapping and screaming of the audience as they go wild for this symphony of emotion. This song touches them like it touches me, like it does my friends. 

Sharing music is an expression of love and a privilege, one Mark Knopfler knew when he wrote “Telegraph Road.” It’s a privilege I feel when I bring a friend somewhere and turn up the volume dial in my sedan and hear that whistle from the synth. I feel it having written this piece. 

“Telegraph Road” is all that music is meant to be. I’m chuckling to myself writing this because Mark Knopfler has since said he’s not a huge fan of the song. But he plays it at live shows anyway, even as he is well into his solo career. Because the fans still love it. Because it’s all that music is meant to be. A road straight to the heart.

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