It was a success from the off, going Top 10 all across Europe. When it was released in America six months later it vaulted to No.2 on the Billboard chart. The band drove themselves around the States on their first tour of the country at the start of 1979. Dylan came to see their show in LA, popping backstage afterwards to ask Knopfler to play on his next album, Slow Train Coming. Knopfler, who had seen Dylan at Newcastle City Hall on his first electric tour in 1966, would later recall hiring an open-top convertible and driving down Santa Monica Boulevard to the session, getting sunburnt on route and thinking to himself: “This is it.”
“Mark was our standard bearer and ticket to being exceptional rather than merely good,” acknowledges David Knopfler. “He was actually rather humble at that point – hard for me to imagine now. John Illsley and I pretty much dragged him to the altar all the way.” Before they even got to America, the band’s UK record company hurried them for a follow-up record, winging them out to the Bahamas to make Communique with producer and impresario Jerry Wexler, the man who had signed Led Zeppelin and recorded Ray Charles. Wexler smoothed the rougher edges of their sound.
The album was rushed out less than a year after their debut, to a cooler response and slower sales. In retrospect it sounds like a logical step forward: Wexler’s sheen bringing Knopfler’s textured melodies into sharper focus, heard to best effect on Once Upon A Time In The West and the quick-stepping Lady Writer, each as coolly embracing as a Bahamian sunset. As their whirlwind schedule intensified, the first strains began to show. Tensions within the band were brewing, intensified by the claustrophobia engendered by being constantly on the road or in the studio, and arising most damagingly between the two brothers.
“Everything put a strain on us,” says David Knopfler. “It was just through being exhausted: drinking too much every night, partying and wrecking your physical and mental health in the way that rock bands did then to excess.”
“Nobody involved is prepared for success like that,” adds Bicknell. “Everything changes, of course, but you stay the same. You’re probably still in your horrible little flat eating bacon sandwiches because none of the money has flowed through. Or if it has, you’re so terrified of it that you don’t spend anything, which is what happened with us. You think the tax man is going to take it away or that this is going to stop tomorrow.”
Bicknell suggests that the tension between the Knopflers ran deeper than Dire Straits. “David’s problem was he thought that the band should be a democracy, and it was more like a brutal dictatorship – as far as he was concerned. The issues between him and Mark, which for public consumption have been packaged up as musical issues, they weren’t. As John Illsley said to me at the time: ‘This has been going on since David was born.’ I’m stating the obvious, but David was in the group because he was Mark’s brother, not because he was the greatest rhythm guitarist that Mark could have found.”
John Illsley and I meet at a coffee shop in Notting Hill on a bright spring morning. The moment he walks through the door, Dire Straits’ 1980 hit Romeo And Juliet begins playing on the radio. Illsley smiles at the coincidence and suggests – entirely accurately – that the 35-year-old song sounds as if it had been made just yesterday.
At the time of its release it represented a crossing of the Rubicon for Mark Knopfler as a songwriter and for the band in general. Knopfler always was a prolific writer, but as he approached Dire Straits’ third album he had new horizons in mind. He envisioned the band’s sound being enhanced by keyboards, and of this freeing him to explore more complex terrain. Romeo And Juliet was the first signpost to his intentions: a near six-minute roller-coaster ride rumbling through the wreckage of a shattered love affair.
“I remember him coming into the office and playing it to me for the first time,” says Ed Bicknell. “I didn’t know what to say: I just sat and stared at the ground in complete disbelief. By then Mark had cottoned on that this was his group and he edged himself into pole position.”
The act of Knopfler conclusively seizing control would have been provocative enough, but it was exacerbated by other issues bubbling to the surface as the band gathered in New York to record their third album, Making Movies. According to Bicknell, three years of constant work had left them in a parlous state. It transpired that Romeo And Juliet was drawn from very personal experience.
“There were issues with various band members that related mostly to the girls in their lives and were calamitous,” says Bicknell. “We went into that record off the back of three out of four of them going through break-ups. Certain people also didn’t like certain people. It got very fractious. I thought the band was about to break up.”
To begin with, nothing was helped by them being in the studio with producer Jimmy Iovine. A brash New Yorker just off the back of making hit records with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, Iovine had a painstaking way of working; the first week of recording was spent attempting to get the perfect drum sound. In this hothouse atmosphere the Knopflers were soon at each other’s throats.
“Before we started recording, Jimmy took Mark to watch a Springsteen session and his jaw was on the floor,” says David Knopfler. “Everyone was calling Springsteen ‘Boss’ and he completely called the shots. But Bruce had spent thirty years learning to be boss and he’s very good at it. Mark had not long come from being a college lecturer and hadn’t been schooled in people skills. By that point the Knopflers’ relationship was as bad as it could be. “By the time of Making Movies he was king,” recalls David. “But he was the bloke I’d shared a bedroom with. How could I be deferential to him?”
When the blow-up came it was swift and brutal. The brothers had an explosive argument and David Knopfler quit. He returned to the UK, where he would begin a solo career. Three years later his elder brother guested on his debut solo album, but the two of them were estranged.
“David’s going wasn’t nice but it was absolutely inevitable,” says Ed Bicknell, who says that same issue of control led to Pick Withers’s departure within two years. “Mark’s got a strong personality and he’s very determined, and quite ruthless. But you need to be ruthless if you’re going to climb the greasy pole, and democracy in groups never, ever works.”
With David Knopfler gone, the pace of recording picked up and Making Movies took shape. Iovine brought in Springsteen’s E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, and his heart-stopping fills gave wings to another epic, Tunnel Of Love, on which Knopfler located the sweet spot between the E Street Band’s hulking engine and Dylan’s rolling thunder. Hearing the track come into being, says Bicknell, “it felt like a jet plane taking off”.