Dire Straits

 Dire Straits

 Mark Knopfler – circa 1982

 “Check out Guitar George / He knows all the chords” – ‘Sultans Of Swing’ (Mark Knopfler)

‘An exceptionally gifted guitarist’, ‘virtuoso guitar playing’, ‘plays a Stratocaster with the understated emotion of a young Eric Clapton’ and ‘one of the new guitar heroes’.  These are all comments on the work of guitarist Mark Knopfler of the British group Dire Straits.  The band themselves recognise the importance of this part of their music; their logo has the group’s name cursively scribed across a Fender Stratocaster guitar.

Mark Knopfler (born 12 August 1949) is not just the guitar player in Dire Straits.  He is the vocalist, the songwriter and, in the latter stages of their career, the record producer.  ‘In essence, Dire Straits is a one-man show’.

Mark Knopfler is born In Glasgow, Scotland.  His father, a Hungarian immigrant, is an architect, and his mother is a school teacher.  The couple have a younger son, David Knopfler (born 27 December 1952).  When the boys are still quite young, the family moves to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England.

Mark studies English Literature at Leeds University.  For a short while, he works as a junior reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post and with a local Essex newspaper.  After completing his degree, Mark teaches at Loughton Technical College.  David too becomes an English teacher.  Mark marries his high school sweetheart, Kathy White.  But the marriage is over before Mark moves to London in the early 1970s.  In the nation’s capital, he continues teaching, but also plays in a part-time pub band called Brewer’s Droop.

David Knopfler moves to London around the same time as his brother.  David shares a flat with John Illsley (born 24 June 1949), who is a timber-broker studying for a sociology degree.  Mark Knopfler decides to form a new group with his younger brother, David’s flatmate, and, to complete the line-up, Pick Withers (born 4 April 1948), a session musician.  Mark dubs the group Dire Straits because the songs he has been writing are about people in impoverished or risky circumstances, in other words, people in dire straits.  The members of the band are: Mark Knopfler (vocals, guitar), David Knopfler (guitar), John Illsley (bass) and Pick Withers (drums).

Dire Straits is formed in 1977.  At this time, the British music scene is dominated by punk rock or its emerging cousin, new wave.  Dire Straits are in the ‘wrong time, wrong place’.  Their style of music seems to come from somewhere else altogether.  Rather than frenzied rants against the authorities, Dire Straits offer restrained portraits of those in quiet desperation.  Mark Knopfler’s voice owes something to Bob Dylan’s nasal inflections, while some see J.J. Cale’s laid back guitar-picking as an influence on Mark’s stinging fretboard runs.  While this approach may initially see them being out of step with the times, this individuality serves them well in the long run.

The group scrapes together enough cash to record a five song demo tape.  They submit it to Charlie Gillett, whose BBC radio program has often championed unknown acts, influencing public opinion.  All Dire Straits are really after is some feedback from the disc jockey, but Gillett plays one of the songs, ‘Sultans Of Swing’, and Phonogram Records offers the group a recording contract.

Muff Winwood, elder brother of Steve Winwood and fellow alumni of the 1960s band The Spencer Davis Group, is given the role of producer, a task he performs ‘with commendable restraint and understanding’.  The debut album is ‘Dire Straits’ (1978) (UK no. 5, US no. 6, AUS no. 1).  The raw and gritty sound of this disc makes it superior to any other Dire Straits product.  The first single is ‘Sultans Of Swing’ (UK no. 8, AUS no. 6), a sympathetic sketch of a jazz group trying to eke out a living: “And Harry doesn’t mind if he doesn’t make the scene / He’s got a daytime job, he’s doing alright / He can play the honky tonk like anything / Saving it up for Friday night / With the Sultans, The Sultans Of Swing.”  It is Mark Knopfler’s guitar, riding the waves of rhythm from the other musicians, that captures the attention.  It darts in and out like a brightly coloured fish through seaweed.  There are seemingly impossible feats of speedy fingers across the guitar neck as the song climaxes and fades.  It may just be the shock of the new, that it was so unexpected, but ‘Sultans Of Swing’ still stands as the best Dire Straits song.  The follow-up, ‘Water Of Love’ (AUS no. 54), is somewhat under-rated, its steady rhythm framing a tale of a man “High and dry in the long hot day / Lost and lonely every way.”  The guitar strains at the leash like it too wants the cool relief of the ‘Water Of Love’.  The water metaphor is also present in the moody opening track, ‘Down To The Waterline’.  Emerging from a sonic fog like the light atop an incoming ship, Knopfler’s guitar illuminates a couple on the wharf with “No money in our jackets and our jeans are torn / Your hands are cold, but your lips are warm.”  The slow and languorous hush of ‘Wild West End’ has Knopfler licking his lips over “The conductress on the number nineteen / She was a honey / Pink toenails and hands all / Dirty with the money / Greasy, greasy, greasy hair / Easy smile / She made me feel 19 for a while.”  ‘In The Gallery’ raises some eyebrows with its tale of a sculptor who only finds fame after death: “And now all the vultures are coming down from the trees / He’s gonna be / In the galla, galla, gallery.”  Did Knopfler see this as a parallel to his own group’s fortunes?  Probably not.  His writing is rarely personal; he excels at third person narratives.

The album ‘Dire Straits’ is a slow burn success.  It first breaks in Holland, then Germany, then Australia.  Warner Brothers releases the album in the U.S.A. and it is only after it is a hit in that country, that Dire Straits succeed in their homeland.

Dire Straits’ second album, ‘Communique’ (1979) (UK no. 5, US no. 1, AUS no. 5), is recorded at Compass Point studios in Nassau, in the Bahamas, with Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett co-producing.  Beckett plays keyboards on some songs, prompting Mark Knopfler to begin thinking about having a permanent keyboard player in the band.  ‘Lady Writer’ (UK no. 51, AUS no. 95) is the ‘relatively unsuccessful single’.  The title track, ‘Communique’, shows Mark Knopfler being wary of the band’s new found high media profile, though, characteristically, he phrases it in the third person: “Maybe he could talk about the tricks of the trade / Maybe he can talk about himself / Maybe he could talk about the money that he made / Maybe he be saying something else.”  That ‘something else’ could be a portrait of “a long gone Irish girl,” another person in dire straits, a ‘Portobello Belle’: “Bella Donna’s on the high street / Her breasts upon the off bet / And the stalls are just a side show / Victoriana’s old clothes.”  The tropical setting of the recording sessions seeps through in tracks like ‘Single-Handed Sailor’ and the lapping waves of ‘Follow Me Home’.

On 13 September 1980 it is reported that David Knopfler has left Dire Straits.  This may be due to him feeling overshadowed by big brother Mark.

At the end of the year comes ‘Making Movies’ (1980) (UK no. 4, US no. 4, AUS no. 6).  Roy Bittan, on loan from Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, plays piano and an unheralded session musician, Sid McGinnis, plays second guitar.  Neither become official members of Dire Straits.  Mark Knopfler co-produces the album with Jimmy Iovine, who gives the group a more sharp-edged rock sound.  The album consists of seven comparatively lengthy tracks.  The first single and longest song (8:09), ‘Tunnel Of Love’ (UK no. 54, AUS no. 62), is prefaced by an excerpt from ‘The Carousel Waltz’ by Rodgers & Hammerstein.  This tale of romance in a seaside carnival is interpreted by some as a metaphor for the story of Dire Straits own rise to fame: “And the big wheel keeps on turning / Neon burning / Up above / And I’m just high on the world.”  ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (UK no. 8, AUS no. 57) is perhaps the closest thing to a ballad yet assayed by Dire Straits.  Knopfler’s vocals are more hushed and the guitar-picking is quietly reflective.  ‘Skateaway’ (UK no. 37, US no. 58), the tale of a “roller girl” skating around the big city gives the album its title: “She’s making movies / On vacation / She don’t know what it means.”

Following this album, Dire Straits expands to a five-piece with the addition of keyboardist Allan Clark.  Hal Lindes is appointed David Knopfler’s replacement as second guitarist, his more chord-based guitar washes contrasting nicely with Mark Knopfler’s note-based precise finger-picking.

The new boys debut on ‘Love Over Gold’ (1982) (UK no. 1, US no. 2, AUS no. 1).  Produced by Mark Knopfler, this disc furthers the formula from the previous effort, scaling down from seven tracks to a mere five (lengthy) pieces.  ‘Private Investigations’ (UK no. 2, AUS no. 21) comes across as Knopfler’s audition for writing a movie score since it portrays a world-weary detective: “It’s a mystery to me / The game commences / For the usual fee / Plus expenses.”  A steely-stringed semi-acoustic guitar accompanies the narrative, which is punctuated by sound effects like footsteps and a key turning in a lock.  ‘Telegraph Road’ (14:15) chronicles no less than the birth and growth of a city.  As it nears its climax, it sounds like Knopfler is borrowing from Bruce Springsteen, Roy Bittan’s boss, for lines like: “But believe in me baby and I’ll take you away / From out of this darkness and into the day / From these rivers of headlights, these rivers of rain / From the anger that lives on these streets with no names / ‘Cos I’ve run every red light on memory lane / I’ve seen desperation explode into flames / And I don’t wanna see it again.”  ‘Industrial Disease’ (US no. 75) is a humorous ditty with a nod to Knopfler’s old band, Brewer’s Droop, as a doctor (played by Knopfler) remarks: “You’ve got smoker’s cough from smoking / Brewer’s Droop from drinking beer.”  The title track, ‘Love Over Gold’, suggest that art is more valuable than commerce and Dire Straits try to prove it with these massive compositions.

The ‘Twisting By The Pool’ EP in 1983 tries to adjust the balance a bit.  Terry Williams replaces Pick Withers as drummer and does his best to impart an up-tempo party vibe to the purposefully silly ‘Twisting By The Pool’ (UK no. 14, AUS no. 2), though it sounds rather old-fashioned.

In November 1983, Mark Knopfler marries his second wife, Lourdes Salomone.  They have twin sons, Benji and Joseph, born in 1987.  The marriage comes to an end in 1993.

‘Brothers In Arms’ (1985) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) sees more line-up changes for Dire Straits.  Hal Lindes is replaced by two more guitarists, Jack Sonni and Guy Fletcher.  The first single is the low-key ‘So Far Away’ (UK no. 20, US no. 19, AUS no. 22).  More startling is ‘Money For Nothing’ (UK no. 4, US no. 1, AUS no. 4).  Mark Knopfler explains that “the lead character in ‘Money For Nothing’ is a guy who works in a hardware department in a television / custom kitchen / refrigerator / microwave appliance store.  He’s singing the song.”  It is this character who derides a pop star, enviously saying, “That ain’t working / That’s the way you do it / Money for nothin’ / And your chicks for free.”  At one point the character sneeringly claims, “See the little faggot with the earring and the make-up? / Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair / That little faggot’s got his own jet airplane / That little faggot, he’s a millionaire.”  Not every listener understands that Mark Knopfler is writing in character and there are some accusations of homophobia.  Sensitive to the comments, the offending lines are edited out in later editions of the song.  Two other factors distinguish this piece.  Rather than his original Fender Stratocaster or the later semi-acoustic models he favours, on this track Knopfler plays a Les Paul for an uncharacteristic fat and fuzzy tone.  This is appropriate for the character narrating the song.  Secondly, Sting, formerly of The Police and just starting his solo career, sings high harmony on the song, including the opening wail of “I want my MTV.”  This is a reference to the U.S. cable television network MTV that plays non-stop music videos.   Knopfler’s lyrics also poke fun at the pop star, “You play the git-tar on the MTV.”  Ironically, the computer animated video for ‘Money For Nothing’ is a ‘huge MTV hit’.  ‘Brothers In Arms’ also includes another cheesy pseudo 1950s song, in the spirit of ‘Twisting By The Pool’, called ‘Walk Of Life’ (UK no. 2, US no. 7, AUS no. 11).  The title track, ‘Brothers In Arms’ (UK no. 16, AUS no. 57), is a tone poem soldier’s lament.

‘Brothers In Arms’ is one of the albums that helps compact discs (CDs) replace vinyl records as the medium of choice for rock music in the marketplace.  Mark Knopfler becomes ‘the darling of a new generation [of] relatively well-to-do compact disc buyers’.  ‘Brothers In Arms’ becomes ‘the first million-selling CD’.

After a lengthy time-out, Dire Straits regroups for ‘On Every Street’ (1991) (UK no. 1, US no. 12, AUS no. 1).  ‘Calling Elvis’ (UK no. 21, AUS no. 8) invokes the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  ‘Heavy Fuel’ (UK no. 55, AUS no. 26) tries to reheat ‘Money For Nothing’.  It is written in the voice of a roadie, the hard-labouring individuals who set up transport and stages for rock stars.  After a mammoth tour to support this album, Dire Straits quietly disbands in 1995.

Mark Knopfler marries for a third time on 14 February 1997 with Kitty Aldridge as his bride.  The couple have two daughters.

Dire Straits, in songs like ‘In The Gallery’ and ‘Love Over Gold’, displayed a keen awareness of the possible disconnect between artistic achievement and commercial success.  So it was a fateful happenstance that they appeared to fall victim to the same occurrence.  As their recordings became bigger hits, it only seemed to undermine their creativity.  ‘Brothers In Arms’ seems the crucial turning point.  It was a massive hit but the weight of it looks to be a substantial cause of the group’s eventual end.  It was no real fault of their own that the album became virtually a yuppie soundtrack, but it nonetheless eroded their credibility.  Having acknowledged that, there are still many listeners who regard that album as the band’s peak.  ‘In an era of strong images and the quest for new sounds, Dire Straits defied the odds, dominated by its non-pop star leader Mark Knopfler and low-key blues music clearly rooted in the past’.  ‘Their accessible, traditional blues-based music made them perfect for the massive, mature, relatively wealthy strata of the public that likes its music tightly performed and relatively digestible’.

Sources:

  1. sonicnet.com as at 28 August 2001, p. 1, 2
  2. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 147
  3. ‘The Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 296, 316
  4. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 63
  5. wikipedia.org as at 7 January 2013
  6. ‘Dire Straits’ – Sleeve notes by Charlie Gillett (Vertigo/Mercury Records Ltd, 1996 reissue) p. 2
  7. ‘Communique’ – Sleeve notes by Mark Cooper (Vertigo/Mercury Records Ltd, 1996 reissue) p. 2
  8. ‘Dire Straits’ – Sleeve notes by John Tobler (Vertigo/Mercury Records Ltd, 1996 reissue) p. 2
  9. Mark Knopfler interview by Bill Flanagan reproduced on tripod.com as at 7 January 2013
  10. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 66
  11. ‘The History Of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 317

Song lyrics copyright Rondor Music (Australia) Pty Ltd. with the exception of ‘Money For Nothing’ (Rondor Music / Virgin Music)

Last revised 19 August 2014

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