Dire Straits (Part One of Two)

And you’ll no longer burn
To be brothers in arms
Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire

The late ’70s were an especially interesting time rock music-wise. Classic guitar-driven rock music was still very much all over the charts. And while it was still dominant it was by no means the only contender.

The sludgefest known as disco had made inroads into the charts as had punk which used guitar as more of a sledgehammer than a soloing tool, had great disdain for progressive rock and had no time whatsoever for the blues. Year Zero the British punks called it. (Punk was popular here in the States but it did not have the same cultural stranglehold as it did in the UK.)

So it was fun to turn the radio on back in late ’78 and hear this great, unusual-sounding minor key song about a down-at-the-heels jazz band in London. (Terrestrial radio was still overwhelmingly great back then. Aja, for example, had been released the year before and Tom Petty was releasing great stuff. I had the misfortune of listening to FM the other day and it is all dogshit. I would happily go back in time to this period in the 70s and just fucking stay there. )

“Sultans of Swing” had it all – great chord progression, lyrics, world-weary nasally vocals and a couple of great finger-picked guitar solos by some guy we never heard of. (Guitar wizardry was still very much a thing. Van Halen had released their debut album earlier that year and guys like David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck were still very much plying their trade.) So who are these guys we all wondered?

Wikipedia: Mark Knopfler was born on 12 August 1949 in Glasgow, Scotland. His mother was a teacher and his father was an architect (and Marxist agnostic) who left his native Hungary in 1939 to flee the Nazis. Mark’s younger brother David was also born in Glasgow in 1952. 

During the 1960s, Mark formed and joined several bands and listened to singers like Elvis and guitarists like Chet Atkins, B.B. King and Hank Marvin. He worked for a time as a junior reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post. He formed a duo called the Duolian String Pickers with a blues guy named Steve Phillips. Phillips’ record collection was inspirational to Knopfler as had been some of the early blues and other music he’d heard around the house.

After finishing university in 1973, Knopflerler moved to London and joined a band called Brewers Droop. It was around this time that Mark got his hands on a cheap, almost unplayable guitar The only way he could play it was to fingerpick it. He said in a later interview, “That was where I found my ‘voice’ on guitar.” Knopfler took a job as a lecturer at Loughton College in Essex which he held for three years all the while performing with pub bands. (I always think of him and Sting in the same breath as Sting was a teacher.)

By the mid-1970s, three-quarters of what would become the original Dire Straits line-up were playing together after Mark’s guitarist brother David moved to London and shared a flat with guitarist-turned-bassist John Illsley. They initially called themselves Cafe Racers but with the addition of drummer David “Pick” Withers became known as Dire Straits, a name that could describe just any band that ever existed.

Dire Straits recorded some demos in 1977 which went nowhere. They took the demo to a British radio host who loved their stuff and who started playing it on his show. Two months later they had a recording contract. 

Released in October 1978, Dire Straits was a smash and the almost 30-year-old (ancient for a first-time rocker) Mark Knopfler was the talk of the guitar town. Since one of the unwritten rules of rock is that all songs must be written by one, or at most two band members, all songs on the debut album were written by Knopfler. Including “Sultans of Swing,” a song I never get tired of.

Dire Straits spent 132 weeks in the UK Albums Chart.

Spotify link

Interestingly, the band had started touring prior to the album’s release and spent much of the back end of 1978 traversing Europe on the cleverly-named Dire Straits tour.

They followed up by touring as the opening band for Talking Heads. (Talk about a show I would love to have seen.) Their status started to grow and even one Robert J. Zimmerman invited Knopfler and Withers to play on his Christian album Slow Train Coming.

The band followed up in 1979 with Communiqué from which they had a hit with “Lady Writer.” (As much as I like Dire Straits, one of my issues with them is sometimes they have songs that sound too much alike as if Knopfler kept re-writing “Sultans.” But still, a pretty good song.) Legend has it that the lady in question is an English novelist named Dame Marina Sarah Warner of whom I know nothing

Spotify link

While recording their third album, Making Movies, Mark’s brother David suddenly quit the band. David later said that Mark, who handled all the songwriting duties for the band, became too domineering.”He was the bloke I had shared a bedroom with,” says David. “How could I be deferential to him? Mark and I had a different vision of what we were up to. I was building a democracy and Mark was making an autocracy. Everything put a strain on us. I spent a lot of time doing therapy and dealing with my issues and ghosts and demons.”

Yes, well there it is ladies and gents. Substitute Ray and Dave Davies, Liam and Noel Gallagher, Tom and John Fogerty and you have it – the same fucking story every time. Do not get into a band with your brother. You will not be able to overcome the “but I shared a bedroom with him/who does he think he is anyway?” syndrome. Well, for one thing, that brother is the guy who writes all the songs. Minus those you would be working in a fish and chips shop in Witherington-upon-Margate or some fucking place. THAT is why you need therapy mate.

David’s name was taken off the album, the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan was recruited on keyboards. Of this album, Rolling Stone said, “Making Movies is the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler.

The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances and the band’s cutting-edge rock & roll soundtrack is breathtaking—everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t. If Making Movies really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.”

I don’t know about that but here’s “Skateaway.” Toro, toro, taxi.

Spotify link

By this time – 1980 – Dire Straits are pretty big, pretty well-established. But they were nothin’ compared to what they would be just a year or two down the road after the advent of MTV.

Sources: Wikipedia, Mark Knopfler website

18 thoughts on “Dire Straits (Part One of Two)

  1. I used to leave the radio on at night as I slept. “Sultans of Swing” was a song that woke me up. It had just been released and definitely was a breath of fresh air! Bought the album next day.

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  2. There are some good examples of brothers on bands too – the Wilsons in the Beach Boys seemed to respect each other despite the band’s tumultuous history, two Greenwoods have coexisted in Radiohead for years.

    My Dire Straits affection is very much centred on Making Movies (but not Les Boys….) and Love Over Gold. Listened to Brothers in Arms the other day – title track and So Far Away are great but I don’t find it satisfying as an album. Kind of goes in a blatantly pop direction and a snoozy jazz direction at the same time.

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    1. Good point on the brother thing. Exception to the rule, I would argue. But for the Beach Boys we may have to extend the rule to cousins. Mike Love is the Wilsons’ cousin and they all seem to hate him. I read an article about this a while back but now I forget why.

      I confess that I don’t think there’s any one great Straits album. Just a bunch of good songs. They are a Greatest Hits band for me. But boy am I overdo in writing about them. I’ve been wanting to for like, 2 years and I said, well get TO it already.

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      1. On my blog I normally have a rule about being polite and focusing on the positive in case the person is reading it. Doesn’t apply to Mike Love. A lot of his trying to bully Brian Wilson Into not writing arty stuff like Smile was his massive child support obligations.

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        1. It’s clearly a problem when there’s a big talent imbalance. All the Wilson brothers were talented, so they were able to coexist fine. Not the case for the Fogertys or the Knopflers. And maybe Dave and Ray Davies just didn’t get on.

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      1. If I ever see that CB guy again it will be to soon.
        Anyways. Good piece.Lots to comment on. I’ll take it into a different direction for a bit. Dylan kept up his getting great bands to back him with the DS guys. I think he used them a couple times and maybe had them tour as his band.
        Your admiration for the band is loud and clear but for me those first few albums are some of my favorite records. Apples and oranges between you and I. If we were true brothers the fur would fly.
        .

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        1. It gets interesting when we get to Part Two what with MTV and all. Dylan has good taste in backing bands. When I was in LA someone suggested we call ourselves Jim and the Midlife Crisis.
          Never had a brother for good or ill. Bill is a good substitute for that. CB seems a little more like somebody out of Deliverance.

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  3. I’m with you, Jim – I just don’t get tired of “Sultans of Swing.” While like Clapton, Mark Knopfler borrowed from J.J. Cale, I just dig his sound and melodic playing.

    BTW, another version I recall reading about Knopfler’s finger picking is that he kept losing his guitar picks. Eventually, he got tired and started playing with his fingers.

    While I have no idea whether it’s fact or fiction, I think the combination of a Fender Strat and Knopfler’s finger picking technique make for a perfect combination.

    In terms of Dire Straits albums, I think you can find gems on all of them. Overall, I would say the debut and “Making Movies” would be my top picks.

    “Brothers in Arms” has an amazing sound quality – wasn’t that one of the first all digitally recorded CDs (DDD)
    at the time it came out?

    I seem to recall that album was used to test stereo systems/loud speakers. The crystal clear sound of the drums, especially the hi-hat, is just astonishing.

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    1. Knopfler is unique for sure. How many rockers fingerpick? Jeff Beck does these days I believe. I fingerpick too, but mostly with acoustic songs that require it.

      As to fave albums of theirs, for me maybe debut and “Brothers.”

      I think yeah that that album was an early digital 24-track that really propelled the popularity of that technology. Ry Cooder’s “Bop Till You Drop,” of course, was the first digital LP just a few years prior. A fine album.

      I think people used ‘Aja’ for that kind of testing too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great piece, sir.

    Also, I think ‘sludgefest’ may just be the best way to describe disco but it’s not as perfect as the application of ‘dogshit’ to today’s radio fodder.

    I think my enjoyment of Dire Straits has been covered, they’re a regular feature on my stereo to this day. While I think there’s a lot of similarity between the first two albums it’s understandable given how closely in time they were written and put out, I tend to think of them as two-parts of a whole – Once Upon A Time in the West has one of my favourite Knopfler (a keen observer and diarist of daily, working-class life in his songs) lyrics: ‘Sunday driver never took a test’ – such a simple yet succinct vignette of a certain time.

    I either didn’t know or had forgotten that he was in a previous band called Brewers Droop. Given it’s reference in Industrial Disease it seems to have been a phrase on his mind. Perhaps it was something he’d experienced…

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    1. Thanks. We’ve talked about them before. I went easy on disco. It’s been 40 years and so I’m now able to put some distance between me and it. I thought about doing ‘West.’ We’ll see what my team of bloggers comes up with for the next post. As to brewers droop, I was unaware it was an actual thing until you pointed it out. Maybe his headband was just too tight on those days and the blood wouldn’t flow.

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