This is the seventh in a series of posts that will feature detailed analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums.
In the late ’70s, things weren’t looking so great for rock music fans. Those who grew up on the blues-based rock of the ’60s and early ’70s were finding slim pickings on the airwaves, as first disco, then punk, then techno New Wave sounds dominated.
The veteran rock bands were still recording and performing, but most seemed to be running out of gas, and there were precious few new young studs coming along to breathe life into the once-sturdy world of rock guitars and intelligent songwriting.
Thankfully, there were exceptions. Although I was among American buyers who were a little tardy on the uptake, I soon became knowledgeable about a sensational songwriter/guitarist who I strongly believe ranks right up there with the very best of the last forty years: Mark Knopfler.
Early interest in music and journalism paved the way for the kind of literate songwriting Knopfler would favor as an adult. Born in Scotland and raised in Northumberland, England, as the oldest son of a teacher/mother and architect/father, Knopfler showed enthusiasm for a broad range of music from Celtic folk songs to Chuck Berry’s rock classics, and he was particularly fond of his uncle’s blues harmonica and boogie-woogie piano playing. He has said he was inspired by the likes of Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, B.B. King, Django Reinhardt, Hank Marvin and James Burton. Guitar became his instrument of choice, and he played in various school bands while also working as an intern and copy editor at the daily Newcastle newspaper.
In 1977, Knopfler, his brother David, and two schoolmates (John Illsley and Pick Withers) comprised the original lineup of the London-based group Dire Straits, named, says Knopfler, “because that’s what were in, financially, at the time.” They struggled in pubs and small clubs, sometimes warming up for The Talking Heads and others, and cut a couple of demos of their earliest songs, all written by Knopfler. Vertigo Records, a division of Phonogram Inc, took a chance on them and released their debut LP, “Dire Straits,” in the fall of 1978.
Karin Berg, an A&R representative at Warner Bros. Records in New York, recalls when she first heard the album. “I thought it was the kind of music that audiences like my friends were hungry for, but it took some work to convince my colleagues,” she said. Dire Straits were signed to Warner, and by the spring of 1979, “Sultans of Swing” was the #4 single on the US charts, with the album perched at #2. Both the single and the album became international successes, and Dire Straits was in dire straits no longer.
Critics went crazy for Knopfler’s spare, fluid guitar sound. It was “infectious” and “sounded like no other guitar anywhere on the radio,” said one writer. “It’s very tasty guitar playing, almost like jazz for the layman,” said another. He was praised not only for his guitar prowess but for his catchy songwriting and intellectually stimulating lyrics. “Sultans of Swing,” for instance, “paints a vivid picture of an overlooked, underappreciated pub rock combo,” wrote Rick Moore of Songwriter magazine.
I couldn’t help but notice “Sultans of Swing,” which got saturation airplay, but I was slow to warm to Knopfler’s oeuvre. Most of the tracks on that first LP just didn’t grab me, except “Down to the Waterline,” so the album mostly sat ignored on my shelf. I didn’t even bother to buy the follow-up album, “Communiqué,” later in 1979 (which proved to be an oversight later corrected), despite such worthwhile tunes as “Lady Writer,” “Single-Handed Sailor” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
But boy, did I sit up and take notice when Dire Straits’ third LP, “Making Movies,” arrived in late 1980. Knopfler had been writing more sophisticated, more personal songs, and had taken a shine to the Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith collaboration “Because the Night,” on which recording engineer Jimmy Iovine had put his imprimatur. Knopfler signed up Iovine, who brought with him E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, and the result was a more cinematic approach to recording that gave us Dire Straits’ first masterpiece.
Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke recognized it immediately: “‘Making Movies’ is the album on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences, and Dire Straits comes out from behind Knopfler. The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances, and the band’s cutting-edge rock and roll soundtrack is breathtaking — everything the first two albums should’ve been, but weren’t. If ‘Making Movies’ really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.”
Bittan’s piano added an important new element to the Dire Straits sound in the studio, but it was the songs themselves that made all the difference, with four of the seven tracks clocking in at well over five minutes. “Tunnel of Love,” a crowd favorite on every tour thereafter, has the audacity to begin with an extract of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Carousel Waltz” before heading off on a Knopfler amusement-park metaphor: “And the big wheel keep on turning, neon burning up above, I’m just high on the world, come on and take a low ride with me, girl, on the tunnel of love…” Seems likely to me that the song played a role in Springsteen’s 1987 album title song of the same name.
I’m partial, too, to the grand romantic sweep of “Romeo and Juliet,” an impeccable song about a failed love affair that truly astonishes, and it remains an important piece in Knopfler’s setlist to this very day. His journalistic training made him a keen observer of people and their professions, and the lyrics of “Skateaway” use wonderfully potent phrases to tell the tale of a girl who roller-skates throughout Manhattan, dodging dense traffic as she delivers packages and important papers to the city’s movers and shakers.
“Espresso Love” and “Solid Rock” show the group rocking out as never before, and “Hand in Hand” gives forceful evidence of Knopfler’s ability with a ballad. The only dud on the album is its closer, a lightweight piece on the European gay culture called “Les Boys” that, while interesting lyrically, doesn’t come close to measuring up musically to the rest of the album…
I suppose I should mention here that Knopfler is not exactly the best vocalist I’ve ever heard. His is an acquired taste, like so many rock vocalists who aren’t singers as much as expressive and passionate. And besides, I’m here to praise his songcraft and guitar playing.
Knopfler reinforced his exemplary songwriting reputation in 1982 with Dire Straits’ fourth LP, “Love Over Gold,” which some fans think is their best work, and I’m almost inclined to agree. It includes what I believe is the group’s finest recorded moment, the 14-minute tour de force “Telegraph Road,” as well as the furtive mood piece “Private Investigations,” a sleeper hit single in England. Bittan had returned to his post with the E Street Band, but keyboardist Alan Clark joined the band on stage and in the studio, proving his mettle admirably.
“ExtendedancEPlay,” a four-song EP released in ’83, included the retro-rockabilly rave-up “Twisting By the Pool” and a marvelous jazz workout called “Badges, Posters, Stickers and T-shirts” featuring a boogie-woogie piano arrangement that would have no doubt made Knopfler’s uncle giggle with delight. “Alchemy,” a double live LP full of excellent documentation of the group’s live shows, kept the quality Dire Straits products coming in 1984.
Then came “Brothers in Arms,” the group’s commercial apex by far. It’s a remarkable record full of vintage Knopfler compositions, and the world responded at the cash registers, where upwards of 30 million copies have sold. The monster single “Money For Nothing,” which perfectly captures the music video era through the eyes of an envious blue-collar worker, sat at #1 in the US for seven consecutive weeks in 1985, and “Walk of Life” and “So Far Away” also both made the Top 20. The title track has since emerged as one of the most perceptive set of lyrics ever written describing the difficult experiences of soldiers at war. Me, I put the deep album track “Your Latest Trick” at the front of this pack, carried by the sexiest sax riff this side of Junior Walker.
As much as I enjoy “Brothers in Arms,” there’s another that outranks it for me in the Dire Straits catalog. Following hugely successful international tours throughout 1985 and 1986, Knopfler and the band took a break for a few years, recharged their batteries and re-emerged in 1991 with the nearly perfect “On Every Street.”
It seems that no matter what you do after a multi-platinum runaway success, the critics will be underwhelmed and decide the new LP just doesn’t measure up. I was beyond thrilled with it, a cornucopia of Knopfler and Company at their best, killing it on everything from straight rock (“Calling Elvis”) to gentle country (“Ticket to Heaven”), from radio-friendly Nashville pop (“The Bug”) to provocative late-night jazz-blues (“Planet of New Orleans”).
Through it all, Knopfler showed he had somehow improved his guitar proficiency, laying down gorgeous riffs and chord changes with seductive intimacy in his usual lean, clean way. Check out “Fade to Black” and the incredible title track for all the evidence you’ll need.
The group dove right back into touring over the next two years, topping attendance records around the world. I saw them play an arena in Cleveland, a big echo-y barn of a place where I’d heard other bands fail miserably at providing decent sound quality. Dire Straits found a way to bring their pristine studio production values to the big venue, making it by far the best sounding show I’d ever seen there (and I’d seen about 40).
By 1995, though, Knopfler had had enough. “I still enjoy playing some of those early Straits songs, and I’m proud of what we did, and certainly we had some great times. It’s what we all wanted when we were kids. But you’ve got to have the resilience to ride that thing, to pick up that ball and run with it… After awhile, though, the group was no longer a good vehicle for the songs I was writing. That, and my lack of interest in being a part of the arena rock show experience any longer, meant it was time to disband for good.”
It didn’t mean, however, the end to Knopfler’s musical career. To the contrary, he always aspired to work outside the confines of the Dire Straits template, and in fact was involved in several side projects during the Dire Straits years. He wrote music for the soundtrack albums of six different films, most notably “Local Hero” and “The Princess Bride”; he played a key role in the one-off British/bluegrass collaboration known as The Notting Hillbillies, and in “Neck and Neck,” a collection of instrumental duets with the late great Chet Atkins; and he produced albums and contributed guitar parts for other major artists like Bob Dylan (“Infidels”) and Randy Newman (“Land of Dreams”).
Since beginning a solo career in earnest in 1996 with the debut LP, “Golden Heart,” Knopfler has since churned out eight more solo studio records (including “Down the Road Wherever,” released this month), a popular pairing with Emmylou Harris (2006’s “All the Roadrunning”), and still more music for film soundtrack albums.
Knopfler is equally at home with British roots folk music and American blues. “My idea of heaven is a place where the Tyne meets the Delta, where folk music meets the blues,” he said, and his solo albums in particular reflect that dichotomy.
And where did his singular guitar style come from? Knopfler spoke of one night back in
1973 when he gathered with friends, and the only available guitar was an old acoustic with a badly warped neck that had been strung with extra-light strings to make it usable. “Even so, I found it impossible to play unless I finger-picked it. That was where I found my ‘voice’ on guitar.”
Far from the ego-driven rock star you might think, Knopfler is a self-effacing artiste more than anything else. He actually thinks he’s only an average guitarist. “In my band, I’m probably the weakest link. I’ve got a lot of admiration for musicians who excel because they are really deep into their instruments, but that’s a whole universe away from what I do. I see the guitar as something to write songs with. It’s a lifelong love affair, but the song is king.”
After more than 15 years of eligibility, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally saw fit to induct Dire Straits this past year. Knopfler chose to bypass the ceremony, which irked some of his fans. But he offered no apologies, nor any hopes for a Dire Straits reunion. “I really don’t want to start getting all that stuff back together again,” he noted. “I would only do that for a charity event. I’m very glad I experienced it all, and we had a lot of fun with it. It was hard, it was exciting, and it was traumatic. There was a lot of insanity, believe me. I like things the way they are now.”
The Spotify playlist includes every track from the two Dire Straits LPs I’ve singled out as my favorites, but I couldn’t resist also including a few other stellar songs from their catalog.