Tunnel of Love

he dome of the Spanish City, 73 feet high and 52 feet in diameter, was second only in size to the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
The dome of the Spanish City, 73 feet high and 52 feet in diameter, was second only in size to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

In May of 1910, in the seaside town of Whitley Bay in northeast England, the chair of the local council formally opened The Spanish City and Whitley Bay Pleasure Gardens.  The complex included a promenade, a restaurant, a roof garden,  a 1,400 seat theatre, and a funfair (amusement park) featuring  arcades and rides like waltzers, a ghost train, and a corkscrew roller coaster.

spanish-city-largeIn the ensuing years, the Spanish City was a popular destination for generations of Britons, including, at some point in the 1960s, a teenager named Mark Knopfler.  In 1977, Knopfler and his brother David co-founded a band they named Dire Straits.  “Tunnel of Love”, the first track on the group’s third album, Making Movies (1980), references the Spanish City as it tells the story of a boy crossing paths with a girl at the fair, spending the evening with her there, watching her walk away, and then regretting letting her go.

Front: David (L) and Mark Knopfler.  Rear: John Illsley (L) and Pick Withers
Dire Straits.
Left to right: John Illsley (bass), David Knopfler (guitar), Pick Withers (drums), Mark Knopfler (vocals, lead guitar)

I haven’t written about it much in earlier posts, but I’m a sucker for great guitar work, and there’s a lot of it in this song, with the clear highlight being Mark Knopfler’s extended outro guitar solo; if I had a dollar for every time I’ve listened to it over the years, I’d be in good shape.  What qualities make a great guitar solo anyway?  Ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers.  For some, it’s pyrotechnics and frantic fretwork; for others, lots of power chords, or sheer volume.  For me, the best guitar solos are the ones that tell a story, that convey emotion through expressive phrasing and carefully chosen pauses, as though someone were talking.  The electric guitar’s ability to bend and then s-u-s-t-a-i-n notes while maintaining volume adds an entire emotional vocabulary not available to other instruments.  (I wish I could bend notes on the piano).  As ridiculous as it might sound, a great guitar solo is one that pulls me toward it, as though I’m the string(s) being plucked…and in this solo it happens a lot.

In his review of Making Movies for Rolling Stone magazine in February of 1981, David Fricke calls “Tunnel of Love” “a riveting, eight-minute romance”, and notes that “the evocative moan of [Knopfler’s] guitar suggests a truth much deeper than the carnival-as-life metaphor has revealed.”

See what you think; the solo begins at 5:59.

Getting crazy on the waltzers but it’s the life that I choose
Sing about the sixblade sing about the switchback and a torture tattoo
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

In a screaming ring of faces I seen her standing in the light
She had a ticket for the races just like me she was a victim of the night
I put my hand upon the lever, said let it rock and let it roll
I had a one arm bandit fever there was an arrow through my heart and my soul

And the big wheel keep on turning neon burning up above
And I’m just high on the world
Come on and take a low ride with me girl
On the tunnel of love

It’s just the danger when you’re riding at your own risk
She said you are the perfect stranger she said baby just keep it like this
It’s just a cakewalk twisting baby step right up and say
Hey mister give me two give me two now cos any two can play

And the big wheel keep on turning neon burning up above
And I’m just high on the world
Come on and take a low ride with me girl
On the tunnel of love

Well it’s been money for muscle another whirligig
Money for muscle another girl I dig
Another hustle just to make it big
And rockaway rockaway

And girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did
Like the Spanish city to me when we were kids
Oh girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did
Like the Spanish city to me, when we were kids

She took off a silver locket she said remember me by this
She put her hand in my pocket I got a keepsake and a kiss
And in the roar of dust and diesel I stood and watched her walk away
I could have caught up with her easy enough but something must have made me stay

And the big wheel keep on turning neon burning up above
And I’m just high on the world
Come on and take a low ride with me girl
On the tunnel of love

And now I’m searching through these carousels and the carnival arcades
searching everywhere from steeplechase to palisades
In any shooting gallery where promises are made

To rockaway rockaway from Cullercoats and Whitley Bay out to rockaway

And girl it looks so pretty to me like it always did
Like the Spanish city to me when we were kids
Girl it looks so pretty to me like it always did
Like the Spanish city to me when we were kids


Trivia tidbit:  The keyboardist on the track is The E Street Band’s Roy Bittan, who quotes “The Carousel Waltz”, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, in the opening measures.

Another layer of trivia: the lead in the original Broadway production of Carousel was John Raitt, father of Bonnie Raitt, a fine guitarist in her own right
Another layer of trivia: the lead in the original Broadway production of Carousel was John Raitt, father of Bonnie Raitt, a fine guitarist in her own right.

6 comments

  • Though not a huge Dire Straits fan, I’m with you on this song. It’s a beaut. So is the solo you highlighted.

    Bending notes on a piano is a very funny image. Of course one of the attractions of electronic keyboards in the analogue 70s was the ‘pitch wheel’ which allowed just that.

    Or, JDB, there’s always Keith Emerson’s approach with his organ of jamming daggers between the keys. Get working on that knife wielder’s flourish!

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  • I found this post very interesting. Do you suppose it influenced Bruce Springsteen when he created his Tunnel of Love album?

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  • I was looking for info about the Spanish City when I found this blog. Very interesting, thanks for sharing! Do you have the book, and is it good? Totally agree with your opinion about what the ‘best’ guitar solos are about. Although I love all Dire Straits material, this is my favorite song and album.

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    • Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Jos. I don’t actually have the book; I found the image of the cover on line and used it because I wanted to emphasize that the Spanish City Knopfler sang about was a real place. And I’m particularly happy to know there’s another wise soul out there who values the same kind of guitar solos I do!

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