It was the late 1970s in London. Two guitar-playing brothers from Newcastle, Mark and David Knopfler, had been active in the music scene. Sometimes they crossed paths with bass guitarist John Illsley and drummer Pick Withers. By 1977, the four of them joined forces, calling themselves the Café Racers. They soon changed their name to Dire Straits.
With Mark Knopfler as songwriter, they got busy making demos to send out to record labels. One of the first songs they recorded was “Sultans of Swing,” which perfectly demonstrated their blend of jazz, blues, country, and rock, not to mention Mark’s soulful and imaginative lead guitar style. The demo of “Sultans of Swing” got airplay when BBC’s DJ Charlie Gillett heard it and loved it. The band quickly signed with a small Phonogram label called Vertigo, which remained the band’s sole label for their whole career, a fact that makes Dire Straits unusual among successful rock acts. Warner Bros. handled their American releases.
The first album was Dire Straits (1978), providing a formal release for “Sultans of Swing,” which hit the top 10 in both the UK and US. The song would be nominated for two Grammys. The comparisons to Dylan, because of Knopfler’s complex and cynical lyrics as well as his voice, began immediately. Dylan himself loved the new band and invited Mark Knopfler and Withers to be session musicians on Slow Train Coming.
The last song on Dire Straits is “Lions,” which offers a snapshot of a woman in a big city, feeling isolated and poor, having to deal with the unforgiving hassles of city life. Jazz harmonies and Knopfler’s lonesome phrases on solo guitar help set the mood.
The second album, Communiqué (1979), did not enjoy the same praise from critics as the debut had. It sold well, though, and the single “Lady Writer” got some traction. The band were trying to emphasize the blues side of their work: They hired Barry Beckett and Jerry Wexler as producers (with Jerry’s son Paul Wexler mastering), associated with the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama.
“Single-Handed Sailor” has a funky, bass-heavy sound, full of motion if not in a style that typically evokes ocean-going vessels. As usual, Knopfler’s lead guitar artistry makes this song worth more than the sum of its individual parts.
The troubled sibling relationship of Mark and David finally cracked under the strain of recording their third album, Making Movies (1980). David quit the band before the album was done, never to return. (Since then, David has released ten solo albums and scored several indie films.) American guitarist Sid McGinnis stepped in to finish the sessions and play on the tour. The arrangements were bolstered by Roy Bittan, of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, on keyboards; that instrument became integral to the band’s sound, and they soon hired keyboardist Alan Clark as a regular player. Although there weren’t any huge hits from this record, “Romeo and Juliet” reached the US top 40.
To open the album, Mark Knopfler stepped outside his usual array of genres with an arrangement of an extensive excerpt of “The Carousel Waltz.” Rodgers and Hammerstein fans will recognize it as incidental music for orchestra in the musical Carousel, which gives the sense of turning and mimics the chords of a calliope. Knopfler segues into his own song, “Tunnel of Love,” starting with the lyrics “And the big wheel keep on turning.” After the intro was used in the film soundtrack for An Officer and a Gentleman, it became one of the band’s most popular numbers.
As if to make up for wandering into musical theater, Knopfler goes all-out blues on “Solid Rock,” calling up comparisons with one of his biggest influences, J.J. Cale.
The first album with no involvement from David Knopfler was also a departure from the norm in another way. Love Over Gold (1982) is a full-length album with only five tracks. All the songs are well over five minutes long, and the opening “Telegraph Road” is a whopping 14-plus. “Telegraph Road” quickly became a live-show favorite for its jamming potential. Hal Lindes played backing guitar on this record. The album has also become an audiophile favorite for its exceptional sound quality.
Despite coming in at nearly six minutes, the sarcastic single “Industrial Disease” did fairly well. On the other hand, there’s “It Never Rains,” a wistful, almost sweet ballad. Alan Clark’s contribution on keyboard is especially apparent on this one. Knopfler’s voice is easy to confuse with early-1980s Dylan. The fact that the lyrics mention an “organ grinder” makes me suspicious that this is a flat-out Dylan impression; how many other songwriters use that term? (Soon after the release of this album, Knopfler produced Dylan’s Infidels.)
While Knopfler was involved with other projects, the band took a break from the studio. By this point, the line-up had changed again. Guy Fletcher provided additional keyboards and vocals. Terry Williams toured with the band but was temporarily replaced by Omar Hakim. It’s Hakim who does most of the drumming on Dire Strait’s next studio album, Brothers in Arms (1985). That album was a monster. It reached No. 1 in every market, was their only No. 1 album in the US, and was the first-ever million-selling album on CD.
If you know any Straits at all, you know the mega-hits from this album: “Money for Nothing,” “So Far Away,” and “Walk of Life.”
A lesser-known track, “Ride Across the River,” is worth a listen. It sounds like a nod to Peter Gabriel’s passion for world music, opening with a breath on the pan pipes and using a wide range of percussive sounds.
Dire Straits’s last album was On Every Street (1991). Six of the 12 songs were released as singles, with “Calling Elvis” charting best.
“Planet of New Orleans,” one of the non-single tracks, is my favorite on the album. The aching guitar solos seems to be saying farewell, and Knopfler’s delivery of the lyrics has a Lou Reed-like offhandedness. Chris White plays saxophone, and Manu Katché is satisfyingly laid back on drums.
And that was it. Such an important group, but only six studio albums. Mark Knopfler has had a successful solo career since Dire Straits stopped touring in 1992. He’s been especially active in country music, collaborating with George Jones and Emmylou Harris, among others. But none of it comes close to his influence as guitarist and songwriter for that band he started with his brother over 40 years ago.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Heinrich Klaffs.