When people ask, “What was the worst decade for modern music?” I respond instantly and with full conviction, “The Eighties.” For some reason known only to some aging-obsessed losers who hit puberty during the Morning in America years, Eighties music is in vogue right now and it’s just as sickening now as it must have been back then to anyone with taste.
People! There was a reason we needed Nirvana and Oasis! It was that saccharine, overproduced shit of the 1980’s!
For me, just about the only things worth listening to in the 1980’s came from Purple Rain, Chrissie Hynde, one or two songs by Tanita Tikaram, an occasional flash of brilliance from The Ramones and some of the early Pixies stuff. The album that symbolized the 1980’s for me was not Thriller, but Paul Simon’s Graceland, a typically cutesy-wutesy self-marketing package from the highbrow version of Neil Sedaka. All air, no substance: the 1980’s in a nutshell.
Dire Straits were part of the scene, skimming along at the top beside the thoroughly horrifying productions of Duran, Duran. Dire Straits were technically better musicians but to me they seemed a Claptonesque knock-off . . . and Eric Clapton puts me to sleep.
So, once again it was with great skepticism that a friend insisted I listen to Neck and Neck, 1990 collaboration between Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins. I had a vague recollection of seeing one of those old kinescopes of some bony figure plucking the notes of “Mr. Sandman” on a big mother fucker Gretsch, but that was about all I knew about Chet Atkins. Mark Knopfler? Clapton Light.
Well, golly and gee whiz, wuz I sur-prahzed! Neck and Neck is a hoot! Not only is it a hoot but it contains some of the finest examples of musicianship I’ve ever heard!
It was only about one minute into the opener, “Poor Boy Blues” that my haughty snottiness crumbled like brittle Styrofoam. I learned later that Chet Atkins had a strong reputation as a producer, and does it ever show on this snappy little number. Talk about a toe-tapper! The song also introduces the back-and-forth guitar sequences between Atkins and Knopfler that dominate the record, passages that never fail to make me smile. You wanna hear some clean licks? These are clean licks par excellence! Chet had a very simple, warm, human voice and it’s used to great effect here and throughout the record.
Next comes “Sweet Dreams,” the Patsy Cline classic. While I still think Roy Buchanan’s take is the gold standard, this is a mellower, sweeter version that works beautifully with the surprisingly subtle string background.
What comes next can only be described as “Chet Atkins does comedy with Mark Knopfler playing straight man.” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” is a delightful ride through an aging musician’s tongue-in-cheek fantasyland:
There’ll be a change in the weather and a change in the scene,
I’m gonna start wearin’ leather and change my routine,
I’ll wear dark glasses, maybe a toupee,
I’ll get down and boogie and become risqué.
I’ll start wearin’ makeup, like Jackson and Prince,
You’ll see me riding in my Mercedes-Benz.
Nobody wants you when you just play guitar:
There’ll be some changes made tomorrow; there’ll be some changes made tomorrow.
In between the comedic interplay are more great guitar passages as the two trade center stage, trying to outdo each other with their lickin’ and pickin’. A hoot!
Next, Knopfler takes the lead vocal on “Just One Time,” with Chet adding soft Nashville harmony. A lovely song, played and sung with great sincerity. This is followed by the instrumental “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” which is so perfectly cinematic I’d be shocked if it hasn’t found its way into the soundtrack for a feature film. This softer, slower number is followed by the toe-tapping “Yakety Axe,” a paean to starving guitarists everywhere.
Acoustic guitar dominates the Django Reinhardt feel you hear in “Tears,” where the violin takes you back to the years between the world wars. This is another remarkable aspect of Neck and Neck: the sheer versatility of style. This versatility is reinforced in the steel-punctured feel of “Tahitian Skies,” where the easiness of the song is supported by astonishing precision in holding and bending notes. Reminiscent of “There’s Be Some Changes Made” in terms of its easy feel and flow, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is another opportunity for these two superb guitarists to strut their stuff. They make picking and bending sound seem effortless—something that most of us who gave up trying to learn guitar when they showed us the F chord know is untrue.
The album ends perfectly with, “The Next Time I’m in Town,” dominated by perfectly executed vocal harmony. Listening to this song, you get the impression that you had invited these guys into your home for an evening of pickin’ and strummin’, and darn, it’s time for them to leave. Too early, too early! Just one more, please!
I wish Neck to Neck had been two or three songs longer, because I didn’t want my good time to end. Between the wasteland of the 1980’s and the releases of Nevermind and Definitely Maybe there were a couple of guys who with a whole lot of talent who loved to play and had the graciousness to share it with the rest of us.