Why the biggest-selling British rock band of the 80’s deserve to be rescued from the dustbin of history.
At 10.10pm on October 9, 1992, Mark Knopfler bid goodnight to 40,000 people and walked off stage in Zaragoza, Spain. It was the last time he did so as the singer, guitarist and undisputed leader of Dire Straits. It brought to an end a 15-year journey during which time the band had risen from the pubs and sweaty clubs of London to the very biggest stages in the world.
The simple facts are these: Knopfler formed Dire Straits in London in 1977 with his younger brother David on rhythm guitar, John Illsley on bass and Pick Withers on drums. Emerging from the city’s fertile pub-rock scene at the dawn of the punk era, they were an overnight sensation. The white-hot success of their first single, Sultans Of Swing, and self-titled debut album was founded on the elder Knopfler’s fluid, finger-picked guitar style, which sounded as lovely as a bubbling stream. Theirs was no fleeting moment, either, with three more hit records following before they reached their apogee on their fifth studio album, Brothers In Arms.
That record was unstoppable from the moment of its release in May 1985. It made Dire Straits superstars, but it also warped the popular perception of both Knopfler and his band. Dire Straits became a byword for a certain sort of safe, homogenised music, and Knopfler was turned into a caricature of the middle-aged rocker, with jacket sleeves rolled up and wearing a headband.
What was forgotten in the wake of its stellar success was just how striking and sometimes radical Dire Straits had seemed from their inception. The bare-boned economy of Knopfler’s songs and his dizzying guitar fills were a breath of clean air amid the lumbering rock dinosaurs and one-dimensional punk thrashers of the late 70s. He was peerless as craftsman and virtuoso, able to plug into rock’s classic lineage and bend it to sometimes wild forms. He wrote terrific songs, too: from Sultans Of Swing to Romeo And Juliet, Tunnel Of Love to Private Investigations. These were taut mini-dramas of dark depths and dazzling melodic and lyrical flourishes. In quick time Knopfler was feted by the rock aristocracy. Bob Dylan invited him to be his band leader and producer, and a parade of other icons also beat a path to Knopfler’s door, among them Phil Lynott, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Tina Turner.
It would be hard to conjure a less likely rock star than Knopfler. Balding and outwardly taciturn, he seemed born to the role of sideman. Yet his formidable talent was yoked to an iron will. He drove Dire Straits on, expanding their boundaries right up to the point Brothers In Arms became too all-consuming to contain. It wasn’t even as if he had contrived to make a blockbuster. In large part it was hushed and melancholy, a sigh rather than a roar. But it was damned by having its signature single explode out of context. At its core, Money For Nothing was an old-school boogie, but a dash of studio polish, Sting’s mannered backing vocal and a computer-generated promo video were enough to turn it, and Dire Straits themselves, into the very embodiment of 80’s naff.
Small wonder that Knopfler once told Rolling Stone: “Success I adore. It means I can buy 1959 Gibson Les Pauls and Triumph motorcycles. But I detest fame. It interferes with what you do and has no redeeming features at all.”