Dire Straits Biography

Few groups can claim to be synonymous with a lifestyle, but Dire Straits are an exception, whether they like it or not. Brothers In Arms, released in 1985, established them as the first real darlings of the compact disc 20-something generation that grew out of the boom years of the 80s. 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 readily digestible. The album was number 1 in the US charts for nine weeks and spent three years in the UK chart.

Surprisingly, Dire Straits first surfaced during a period that was the antipathy of what they were to become - the London punk scene of 1976/7. Mark Knopfler (12 August 1949, Glasgow, Scotland) and his brother David Knopfler (b. 27 December 1952, Glasgow, Scotland) were the sons of an architect who moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, when the boys were young. Mark Knopfler studied English literature at Leeds University, and for a short while worked as a junior reporter with the Yorkshire Evening Post and with an Essex local newspaper. After university he played in a part-time pub band called Brewer’s Droop but his main income was drawn from teaching. The Knopflers moved to London during the early 70s and Mark met bass player John Illsley (b. 24 June 1949, Leicester, England) and drummer Pick Withers (b. 4 April 1948, Leicester, England; ex-Magna Carta). Illsley, a sociology graduate, was working in a record shop and Withers had been a session drummer for many years. The climate was not right for the group as punk took a grip on music and almost every UK record label passed on the offer to press up Dire Straits’ polished music. One song began to stand out from their repertoire, a basic blues progression with dry, affectionate lyrics, entitled ‘Sultans Of Swing’, it contained the line ‘check out guitar George, he knows all the chords’, allegedly referring to jobbing guitarist George Borowski. It was picked up by Radio London DJ and Oval Records proprietor, Charlie Gillett, and by the end of 1977 the group was recording their debut, Dire Straits, for Vertigo Records with producer Muff Winwood. ‘Sultans Of Swing’ was a hit first in Holland and later made the UK Top 10. The powerful Warner Brothers Records took over distribution in the USA and aggressively backed the album until in March 1979 it had reached number 2 in the Billboard chart. ‘Sultans Of Swing’ also reached the US Top 5. Their second single, ‘Lady Writer’, was a relative failure but it did not impair their attraction as an ‘albums band’.

Dire Straits’ second album Communiqué, produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, sold three million copies worldwide. It missed the commercial edge of the debut but developed Knopfler’s trademark incisive, cynical lyricism. Before the recording of Making Movies, David Knopfler opted out to begin a solo career and has since released acclaimed records with various small independent labels. He was replaced by Hal Lindes (b. 30 June 1953; ex-Darling), with Alan Clark (b. 5 March 1952) joining on keyboards at the same time. Knopfler was heavily criticized for not varying his songwriting formula but the album still spawned a UK Top 10 single with the poignant love ballad, ‘Romeo And Juliet’. Love Over Gold fared better than its predecessor in the USA and the single from it, ‘Private Investigations’, reached number 2 in the UK during September 1982.

Following the Love Over Gold album, Knopfler took time off to produce Bob Dylan’s Infidels (1983), and wrote Tina Turner’s comeback hit, ‘Private Dancer’. Now respected as both a songwriter and an exceptionally gifted guitarist, it looked for a while as if Dire Straits might not record again because of Knopfler’s other production commitments with artists as diverse as Aztec Camera, Randy Newman and Willy DeVille. They reassembled, however, in 1983 with ex-Man drummer Terry Williams replacing Withers, and completed an arduous world tour. The Twisting By The Pool EP and a live double album, Alchemy, filled the gap before the band’s next studio album release, Brothers In Arms. Like many others, Dire Straits’ appearance at the Live Aid concert boosted sales and their own 200-date tour helped it become one of the decade’s biggest-selling albums. Many die-hard fans would shake their head and ask; why? It was an album that by no means could justify such huge sales, especially in view of the fact that the debut and Making Movies were superior collections. Knopfler used Brothers In Arms to make several wry observations on his own position as a rock star, laughing at the folly of videos and the MTV channel on ‘Money For Nothing’ - a number 1 in the USA, thanks in no small part to constant rotation on MTV, an ironic turn of events later acknowledged by Knopfler. Three other songs from the record, ‘Walk Of Life’, ‘So Far Away’ and the title track, also charted on both sides of the Atlantic, with ‘Walk Of Life’ reaching number 2 in the UK.

With Brothers In Arms still riding high in the charts, Knopfler turned once again to other projects. Having already written three film scores in 1983 and 1984 (for Local Hero, Cal, and Comfort And Joy), he wrote the music for the fantasy comedy film, The Princess Bride in 1987. With Dire Straits on extended sabbatical, bass player John Illsley also took the chance to release two solo albums, Never Told A Soul in 1984 and Glass in 1988, neither of which sold in significant quantities. In 1990, Knopfler formed an ad hoc and low-key pub band with Brendan Croker and Steve Phillips, called the Notting Hillbillies. Their self-titled debut album was a disappointing, soporific release and the group disbanded after one UK tour.

During the summer of 1991 Dire Straits announced a massive ‘comeback’ tour and the release of a new album, On Every Street. The line-up now comprised Knopfler, Illsley, Clark and guitarist/keyboard player Guy Fletcher. The latter had been appearing with the band since the mid-80s. While Knopfler strived to find new challenges in various other music-related spheres, his group was able to leave a six-year gap between album releases and still maintain their incredible popularity. This was owing, in no small measure, to masterful global marketing and the unflinching mainstream appeal of their music. Their world tour, taking two years to complete, marked their first concerts since their 1988 appearance as part of the Nelson Mandela birthday concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, and was captured on their second live album, On The Night. With Dire Straits on indefinite hold, Mark Knopfler embarked on a solo career in 1996.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.