Dire Straits - Biography
By David Downs
Blues-inflected, mellow rockers Dire Straits formed in 1977, bucking the trends with a quiet, literate, accomplished type of pub rock that managed to find millions of fans worldwide. Named after their career prospects, Dire Straits gained followers who were fanatics for the band’s laid back, wistful narratives. At the core of the group’s magic is gifted songwriter Mark Knopfler – a gruff-voiced, finger-picking electric guitarist who chose authenticity over the popular punk anarchy of the time. As punk, metal, and glam rose and fell, Dire Straits steadily sold tens of millions of albums worldwide. Of their 11 major releases, 1985’s Brothers in Arms (Warner) managed to go platinum nine times and reinvent the music video with the Grammy-winning single “Money for Nothing.” Songs like “Sultans of Swing,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Walk of Life,” “So Far Away,” and “Brothers in Arms” are immediately recognizable to a generation of radio rock listeners. Knopfler dissolved the band in 1995, and now plays and records as a solo artist.
Knopfler is a bright, literate, Scotland-born blues-lover who brought a serious and private temperament to the music industry. He was born on August 12, 1949 and moved to England at the age of seven. His uncle played harmonica and boogie-woogie piano, which fascinated young Mark. Growing up in the 1960s, he played guitar in school bands and enjoyed Jimi Hendrix as much as he did Django Reinhardt. At the age of sixteen, he sang on television. Knopfler went on to study journalism and became a reporter in Leeds while earning a degree in English at Leeds University. Mark wrote about music and played in the band The Duolian String Pickers. Bluesman Steve Phillips taught him the complicated lead guitar riffs of Lonnie Johnson, as well as country blues guitar. He began to finger-pick and found his sound while making his first early recordings.
In 1973, Knopfler graduated Leeds University at twenty-four and moved to London to play rock music. He ended up in the blues band Brewer’s Droop where he met future Straits’ drummer Pick Withers. He quit the Droop to lecturer in Essex and then moved back to London with his brother David Knopfler and formed the Café Racers. After years of local playing and struggling, Knopfler met Leicester-born bass player John Illsley, a friend of David’s, in 1977. The three began to gig and brought in old Droop drummer Withers. A friend of Withers’ suggested the name Dire Straits based on how poor their prospects were. The first gig occurred in the back yard of Illsley’s apartment. Dire Straits’ demo tapes followed, including future hits “Sultans of Swing” and “Down to the Waterline.” The unreleased “Sultans of Swing” found BBC Radio London airplay on DJ Charlie Gillett’s show “Honky Tonk” and 60 days later Straits signed with Phonogram Records.
The band’s 1978 debut, Dire Straits (Warner), features Knopfler, Illsley, Withers, and Knopfler’s brother David on rhythm guitar, and was produced by Muff Winwood in West London. Subdued, bluesy, and literate, the album was anathema to the punk-focused A&R reps of the time, yet Knopfler’s taste found fans. The album climbed to the number two spot on the Billboard 200 and “Sultans of Swing” became an improbable number four hit single on the Billboard Hot 100.
The following year’s Communiqué (1979 Warner) continued with the same line-up and musical style, and charted at a lower number 11 spot on the Billboard 200. 1980’s Making Movies (Warner) went gold with early MTV hits “Romeo and Juliet” and “Skateaway.” Love Over Gold (Warner), released in 1982, delved into prog rock territory with more experimental passages and achieved gold status in 1986. After Love Over Gold, drummer Terry Williams replaced Withers.
Brothers in Arms (Warner), released in 1985, became a Billboard 200 number one. Propelled by a pioneering computer-animated music video, the iconic track “Money for Nothing” reached number one on the Mainstream Rock and Billboard Hot 100 charts. “Walk of Life” made it to number two in the UK in early 1986. “So Far Away” represented one of the truest visions of Knopfler’s sound, with its muted finger picking, mid-tempo drumming, and crystalline production values and overdubs. The recording was nominated and awarded a Grammy for its engineering. The album also earned a Grammy for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for “Money for Nothing.” The album would go platinum nine times by 1996. Brothers in Arms managed to outsell Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982 Epic) and was also the first compact disc to sell a million copies. Recorded digitally from start to finish, it exhibited Knopfler’s extremely high production. The Brothers in Arms tour consisted of 234 shows with a total combined audience of roughly 2.5 million. Knopfler began producing Tina Turner and eventually Bob Dylan, and then put the kibosh on the band.
Dire Straits returned in 1988 for Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Concert featuring Eric Clapton standing-in for former guitarist Jack Sonni. “Money for Nothing” again found placement on the charts, hitting number sixty-two on The Billboard 200. In 1991, Dire Straits returned again with On Every Street (Warner), which went platinum in America. After years of grueling touring, Knopfler officially disbanded the group in 1995.
In the ‘90s, Knopfler’s solo career began in earnest and continued into the 21st century. Knopfler has worked with such music luminaries as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, Sting, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings. In May of 1993, Newcastle University gave him an honorary degree in Music. Knopfler has scored numerous films including 1987’s The Princess Bride and 1998’s Wag the Dog. Rather private for a public figure, Knopfler has been married three times and has two sons and two daughters.