In August of 1981, MTV was officially launched for good or for ill. “MTV’s effect was immediate in areas where the new music video channel was carried. Within two months, record stores in areas where MTV was available were selling music that local radio stations were not playing, such as Men at Work, Bow Wow Wow and the Human League. MTV sparked the Second British Invasion, with UK acts who had been accustomed to using music videos for half a decade (some of which appeared on the BBC’s Top of the Pops), featuring heavily on the channel.”
I always had mixed feelings about MTV. On the one hand, it took the visuals out of my head and put them on screen, lessening the use of my imagination. On the other hand, some of the videos were fun and clever like Michael Jackson, A-Ha, ZZ Top. Even Stevie Ray Vaughn got into the action. It also seemed to favor videogenic pretty boys like Duran Duran. On balance, if MTV had never existed it would have been all the same to me.
In late 1982, Dire Straits released an album called Love Over Gold* which over the course of its 41 minutes had exactly 5 songs. I would call that a pretty ballsy move especially given the band’s prior propensity for shorter, punchier tunes. And yet the album was a pretty big smash worldwide. (Frankly, this is an album I don’t recall hearing much on the radio here. I had to go back and listen to it just to remember what was on it.) I don’t exactly recall what I was listening to. Maybe I just had Flock of Seagulls on endless replay.
“Telegraph Road” is a 14-minute epic that frankly, to the band’s credit, doesn’t seem that long. It was inspired by a bus trip Knopfler took down said road. If you’re reading this from overseas and you think, “Wow, Telegraph Road must be some cool highway like Route 66,” well, sorry, no. Never heard of the fucking thing.
Turns out it’s a. major, kinda lonely-looking north-south 70-mile thoroughfare in Michigan. Well, good song anyway with some scorching guitar by Knopfler on the fade-out. Keyboardist Alan Clark and guitarist Hal Lindea joined the band on this album and Withers left after it.
Knopfler got involved in side projects including doing the score for the excellent movie Local Hero and producing and playing on Dylan’s Infidels album. Knopfler was increasingly becoming one of “those guys,” as much an overall force in music as just a band guy.
The band went to George Martin’s Air Studios in Montserrat for what would become their blockbuster album, Brothers in Arms. Numbers? “Released on 13 May 1985, it charted at number one in several countries, spending a total of 14 non-consecutive weeks at number one on the UK Albums Chart (including 10 consecutive weeks between 18 January and 22 March 1986), nine weeks at number one on the Billboard 200 in the United States and 34 weeks at number one on the Australian Albums Chart.
Brothers in Arms was the first album certified 10-times platinum in the UK and is the eighth-best-selling album in UK chart history, is certified nine-times platinum in the United States, and is one of the world’s best-selling albums, having sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.” Tip ‘o the hat to fellow blogger Christian for pointing out that it is one of the first albums recorded on a Sony 24-track digital tape machine.
Mark Knopfler: “The lead character in “Money for Nothing” is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television/custom kitchen/refrigerator/microwave appliance store. He’s singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him because it was more real.”
Knopfler says he was going for a Bily Gibbons sound. Didn’t exactly get it but still one of the greatest opening licks of all time. And then, of course, Sting from another pretty good band:
I’ve always loved “Walk of Life.” It’s kinda happy and upbeat and even kinda cheesy in its own loveable way. I suppose if some other MTV-era band had released it we’d all mock it. But since it’s Dire Straits, well, it’s ok! Another song about a performer, this one is about a busker trying to make a few quid:
Here comes Johnny singing oldies, goldies
Be-Bop-A-Lula, Baby What I Say
Here comes Johnny singing I Gotta Woman
Down in the tunnels, trying to make it pay
The band went on a massive worldwide tour which included a 13-night (!) residency at Wembley Arena in London and even managed to squeeze in a slot to play at Live Aid. They played “Money for Nothing” and “Sultans of Swing,” fortunately managing to play just before Queen rather than after.
And with that, you could say Dire Straits went out on a high note. The band didn’t break up right away but after the tour, after it got – to quote Knopfler – “too big,” they all needed a break. Knopfler played a birthday tribute to Nelson Mandela in June 1988 and the band broke up in September of that year.
In the grand tradition of musicians who make it big but then want to hide inside another band (see: Derek and the Dominos), Knopfler formed a band called the Notting Hillbillies. This was a more country-oriented band and it brought Knopfler’s old bandmate Steve Phillips back into the fold.
And I am going to break with ME tradition here and post a song that is NOT by the band I’m writing about. But this song – from the Hillbillies’ one and only album – is so good you need to hear it. It’s a Knopfler tune called “Your Own Sweet Way.” The album is called Missing… Presumed Having a Good Time and it’s got some nice JJ Cale-ish, country and bluesy stuff:
After a few years off, in early 1991, Dire Straits reunited and recorded their final album called On Every Street. There was some good stuff on it but Brothers in Arms had come out in 1985 and six years in the pop world is an eternity. It sold well but as bassist John Illsley said after the tour, “Whatever the zeitgeist was that we had been part of, it had passed.
Personal relationships were in trouble and it put a terrible strain on everybody, emotionally and physically. We were changed by it.” The last stop and final touring concert of the group took place on 9 October 1992 in Zaragoza, Spain,
I really dig the song “Calling Elvis” from this album. And Knopfler – at about 2:08 – pulls off one of the all-time great guitar breaks:
Dire Straits were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. The whole thing was very strange as neither Mark nor David Knopfler showed. Nobody really knew why Mark didn’t attend. Illsley said it was a “personal thing.” But he then went on to say it’s about “more than one person. It’s a collective.” I see.
Since Mark wasn’t appearing, no musicians would induct the band. (Apparently both Keith Urban and Neil Young declined.) So they effectively inducted themselves. Fucked up or what?
Mark Knopfler has continued putting out solo albums, notably Sailing to Philadelphia and albums with Chet Atkins and Emmylou Harris. And there’s actually a band called Dire Straits Legacy that appears to be somewhat still functional.
Well, here’s hoping that at some level the band – even Mark and David – are still Brothers in Arms:
*”Private Dancer” was written for this album but as I mentioned in my post on Tina Turner, Knopfler thought it would be better with a female voice and so gave it to her.