Mark Knopfler was born into a middle-class household in Glasgow in 1949. His brother and future Dire Straits bandmate David followed three years later. Their father was an architect expelled from his native Hungary on account of his firebrand socialism. When the family moved to Newcastle in the 50’s their English mother became a headmistress, and both boys attended a local grammar school in Gosforth.
Music was a fact of life in the Knopfler house. The brothers latched on to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and, later, The Shadows. Hearing the latter, and in particular their bespectacled lead guitarist Hank Marvin, opened up a future filled with possibilities for Mark Knopfler. He traced the arc of Marvin’s distinctive sound back to American wizards like Chet Atkins, Elvis’s guitar slingers Scotty Moore and James Burton, and blues greats such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. At 15 he persuaded his father to buy him his first guitar, a £50 copy of Marvin’s red Stratocaster. Soon he’d taught himself the basics and was playing in school bands and on the city’s club circuit. Brother David followed suit, performing at working men’s clubs in a folk duo.
“On one hand our parents were horrified that we wanted to make a career of pop music,” David Knopfler says now. “On the other they had a liberal bias for letting us follow our own path. But they would have preferred us to be architects or lawyers, not ‘My son the unemployed strummer’.”
Mark was first to flee the nest, when he got a job as a cub reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post in Leeds. One of his first tasks for the paper was to write Jimi Hendrix’s obituary in September 1970, handed to him on account of him being the only person in the office young enough to know who Hendrix was. Another was to interview a local blues guitarist, Steve Phillips. The two of them hit it off and began performing together as an acoustic duo called Duolian Stringpickers, and spent the next few years playing gigs in the north-east.
“Mark was already a very capable guitarist at eighteen or nineteen, way above the norm,” notes Steve Phillips. “But he hadn’t developed his own style. He was far more withdrawn then as well. He didn’t have the confidence he acquired later as a musician, and didn’t see himself as a singer at all. His idea was that he would be the guitar player behind somebody else.”
During that time Knopfler left the paper to take a degree in English at Leeds University, and married his school sweetheart, Kathy White. As soon as he graduated in 1973 Knopfler headed for London. He answered a classified ad in the Melody Maker to join jobbing pub-rock band Brewers Droop. The group had a record deal with RCA but were in the process of falling apart. Two months later Knopfler was out of a job, destitute and newly divorced, the move to London having brought about the end of his marriage.
He returned to Newcastle. Later he took a post as an English lecturer at Loughton College in Essex, and put together his own pub-rock band, the Café Racers. The teaching job gave Knopfler a lifeline and disposable income. He bought a motorbike and his dad’s car, allowing him to transport his growing collection of guitars from one pub gig to the next. In 1976 he struck out on his own on a trip to America, travelling the country on a Greyhound bus and starting work on what would become Dire Straits’ first set of songs.
At the same time, David Knopfler moved to London to work as a social worker in Deptford, a down-at-heel neighbourhood south of the Thames. He moved into a council flat shared with 26-year-old John Illsley, a bass player who’d grown up in rural Leicestershire and was then studying sociology at nearby Goldsmith’s College. The senior Knopfler became a regular visitor to the flat, bringing along his guitar for jamming sessions that took off after last orders at the pub.
“We got along well from the start,” Illsley recounts now. “I did a couple of gigs with Mark’s band because the bass player’s girlfriend was having a baby. After that we were sat in the pub one night and decided to start our own band. There was always a strong consensus between Mark and me about how things should be. We rarely disagreed about anything.”
Knopfler introduced his brother and Illsley to Pick Withers, a propulsive drummer he’d first met while doing an aborted session with Rod Clements of Lindisfarne. The four of them began rehearsing together in the poky flat, padding the walls and trusting to the benevolence of the neighbours.
“We didn’t talk about it, we just got on with it and it evolved,” says David Knopfler (below, with Mark). “But then I think both Mark and I had a different vision of what we were up to. I was building a democracy, and Mark was making an autocracy.”
It was Pick Withers, the only member of the fledgling band without a day job, who suggested the name Dire Straits. The newly christened four-piece played their first gig together in the summer of 1977. It was at a makeshift festival that took place on a patch of grass out the back of the Deptford council block, and they ran a power cable from their flat to the small stage. Illsley recalls sharing the bill that afternoon with a bunch of snarling punk bands, though in fact it was the more approachable Squeeze who headlined.
Using £500 Illsley had inherited from his grandmother, the band cut a demo at the tiny Pathway Studios in north London. Among the five Mark Knopfler originals on the tape were Sultans Of Swing, a loose-limbed account of watching a hapless jazz combo flailing in a London pub, and a languorous shuffle titled Down To The Waterline. Lyrically evocative, beautifully played and sung by Knopfler in a laconic drawl, the tracks sounded fresh and different. DJ and rock historian Charlie Gillett got hold of the tape and began airing it, alerting Phonogram Records A&R man John Stainze, a rockabilly buff who snapped the band up to the major label.
Stainze reached out to a booking agent contact of his, Ed Bicknell, inviting him along to see his new band playing at the Dingwalls club in Camden. Bicknell had taken his first steps into the music business at Hull University in the 60s, where as social secretary he booked gigs by the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who and Pink Floyd before joining the prestigious NEMS agency that handled such heavyweight clients as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Elton John. Fortuitously, Bicknell too had had his road-to-Damascus moment with music through The Shadows.
“I listened to two songs that night and turned to John and said: ‘He’s got a red Stratocaster like Hank Marvin’s. Who’s managing this group?’” Bicknell recalls. “If Mark would have had a blue Gibson I’d have walked out, but he encapsulated everything that was my dream. I remember I was wearing a long suede coat with a nylon fur collar that night. When I went into the dressing room to meet the band, the hem of the coat caught the red Stratocaster and knocked it off its stand to the floor. That went down like a lead balloon.”
Bicknell cemented his credentials by booking the band onto a 23-date UK tour with Talking Heads in December 1977. By the end of it he was their manager and within two months Dire Straits were recording their first album at Island Records’ Basing Street studios with producer Muff Winwood, elder brother of Stevie and former bassist with the Spencer Davies Group.
“Or Spluff Windbag, as we called him,” says Bicknell, laughing. “He pretty much recorded a live record but without the audience. It cost £12,500, including the sleeve, and it sold eight million within nine months of coming out. We were reeling: ‘Fuck me. What’s happening?’”
The Dire Straits album was released in October 1978. At a point when such second-generation punk and new-wave acts as The Jam, Boomtown Rats and Generation X were making an impression, it stood apart. Knopfler’s songs were characterised by the intricacies of his guitar playing, the rolling gait of the band’s rhythms and by their open spaces, as uncluttered as prairie lands. It was a rich musical terrain that drew comparisons with Dylan, JJ Cale and Ry Cooder.
But in spirit it was closest to another great record released that year, Bruce Springsteen’s symphony to the working man, Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Like that record it had the same connection to time and place. In Dire Straits’ case this was to the back streets of Newcastle and the bright lights of London, with Knopfler narrating his journey from one city to the other.