A glut of boldly ambitious records came out in 1980 – Springsteen’s The River, John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, Sandinista! by the Clash and Talking Heads’ Remain In Light to name but four. Making Movies stood at least shoulder to shoulder with each of them. Fired by the extra dimension Bittan brought into play, Knopfler subverted his guitar to the songs, and in doing so extracted from them greater heft and a new-found emotional resonance. Romeo And Juliet and Tunnel Of Love initially towered over the rest, but repeated listening revealed more jewels in Solid Rock, Espresso Love and the surging ballad Hand In Hand.
For the ensuing tour Knopfler brought in American guitarist Hal Lindes to fill his brother’s shoes and fellow Geordie Alan Clark on keyboards. Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan were among those turning out to pay their respects at one triumphal show at the Roxy on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip.
As the 80s unwound Mark Knopfler was like a man released. He wrote a thoroughly fitting soundtrack for the bittersweet British film Local Hero, produced Dylan’s Infidels album and, in 1982, reconvened Dire Straits for the grandiose Love Over Gold. That album featured just five songs – all of them long and involved, and two of them stone-cold classics. Fifteen-minute opener Telegraph Road was pieced together during sound-checks on the Making Movies tour and unfolded like a literary novel, documenting America’s industrial revolution. Private Investigations was even more outlandish, a somnolent musical noir that Knopfler insisted be released unedited as a seven-minute single. Remarkably it reached No.2 in the UK.
Next up was the live double Alchemy, taped on the Love Over Gold tour and showcasing a band at the peak of its powers. Free from the confines of the studio, Dire Straits were able to stretch out and take flight, nowhere more so than on Sultans Of Swing and Telegraph Road. Both were longer and far more powerful than their studio counterparts. Knopfler saw this as the end of an era for the band. “I’d like to try something else now,” he said at the time. “It could be acoustic guitar, or it could be all brass instruments, I really don’t know.” Perhaps least of all he anticipated making one of the defining albums of the decade.
Towards the end of 1984 Knopfler assembled a new line-up of Dire Straits in London to rehearse their next record. He appeared more single-minded and attentive to detail than ever, rigorously putting the group through their paces for a month before whisking them off to Air Studios on the Caribbean island of Montserrat to cut Brothers In Arms.
Air Studios, later razed to the ground by a hurricane, was an idyllic location, and the tranquillity of island life seemed to relax Knopfler to his task. There was an ease to much of Brothers In Arms, as if the music had seeped from his fingertips unbidden. The mood of much of it was low-key and reflective, shifting from the late-night whispers of Why Worry and Your Latest Trick to the near-whispered title track. When it was roused, as on the crashing chords of The Man’s Too Strong, the effect was that much more magnified.
Yet one of Knopfler’s new songs immediately stood out from the rest. It began with a fuzzed guitar riff that Ed Bicknell suspects was inspired by ZZ Top, and proceeded to recount verbatim a rant at MTV that Knopfler had overheard a deliveryman making in an electrical goods store in New York. Sting added his distinctive vocals to the intro section of the track – singing the single sorrowful refrain: ‘I want my MTV.’
“Sting used to come to Montserrat to go windsurfing, and he came up for supper at the studio,” says John Illsley. “We played him Money For Nothing and he turned round and said: ‘You’ve done it this time, you bastards.’ Mark said if he thought it was so good why didn’t he go and add something to it. He did his bit there and then.” Knopfler had another song, the gambolling boogie Walk Of Life, set aside as a B-side, until Ed Bicknell happened upon it while it was being mixed and persuaded him to include it on the album at the last minute. In the event it was an even bigger-selling single than Money For Nothing.
Upon its release, Brothers In Arms met with lukewarm reviews, but it arrived at precisely the right time. MTV was about to launch in the UK, and the music station leapt upon the animated promo for Money For Nothing, choosing it as the first video to be aired on the channel. The compact disc had also arrived, and Brothers In Arms’ exquisite production was tailor-made for the new format. The album sold more than a million copies on CD alone, taking Dire Straits to a new generation of consumers who saw music a status symbol. It took up a four-year residency in the UK chart and spent nine weeks at No.1 in the US, elevating Knopfler and his band to the top table of 80s megastardom alongside Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna.
In its wake, Dire Straits set off on an 18-month world tour that took in 247 sold-out stadium and arena shows in 100 cities. By the end of it the endless attention and the sheer weight of numbers had lost all meaning for the band members, and for Mark Knopfler most of all.
“I would do a report for them every week which was then shoved under each of their hotel room doors,” says Ed Bicknell. “It would give world chart positions, and album and singles sales figures. I’m absolutely sure in my own mind that Mark would take his copy and put it straight in the bin.”
After Brothers In Arms Knopfler retreated from the spotlight for the best part of five years, but was eventually tempted back. In 1991 he gathered Dire Straits once more, for the On Every Street album. It sounded worn and tired, but still racked up 10 million sales. They embarked on another mammoth tour on the back of it, playing close to 300 shows in two years. It was a vast undertaking and also a ruinous one. Knopfler’s second marriage disintegrated, and he recoiled from the dehumanising nature of existing on such a grand scale. It was all over after that last gig in Zaragoza, but he formally laid the band to rest in 1996 and has barely spoken of them since.
“The last tour was utter misery,” says Ed Bicknell. “Whatever the zeitgeist was that we had been part of, it had passed.”
“Mark and I agreed that was enough,” recalls John Illsey. “Personal relationships were in trouble and it put a terrible strain on everybody emotionally and physically. We were changed by it. Neither of us wants to go back to those days. Mark described it to me just the other day as being too much ‘white light’ – too much in the spotlight, and he was never very comfortable with that.”
With the band laid to rest, John Illsley settled down to indulge his love of painting and is currently preparing an exhibition of his work in London. He also continues to record and tour with his own band. Ed Bicknell managed Mark Knopfler for several years after the split but has now retired.
Having run his race with Dire Straits, Knopfler has since contented himself in a quieter, more comfortable niche – composing soundtracks, collaborating with the likes of Chet Atkins and Emmylou Harris, and making a succession of roots-based solo albums, of which the latest, and possibly best, is this year’s Tracker. He was married for the third time, to actress Kitty Aldridge in 1997, and continues to indulge his lifelong passion for motorbikes and collecting classic cars. He and his brother are still not speaking.
“I spent a lot of time doing therapy and dealing with my issues and ghosts and demons,” says David Knopfler. “Maybe Mark has too. I don’t know what he does. Of course, it casts a huge shadow on both our lives and on our families. We’ve got cousins who don’t know each other.”
Ed Bicknell says that people ask him regularly when Dire Straits are going to get back together. His answer remains the same. “I tell them the same thing: why would they? None of them needs the money. Peter Grant once said to me: ‘When you’ve had an experience like I had with Led Zeppelin and you had with Dire Straits, there is no point trying to reproduce it.’ And he was exactly right. That was the one.”