Dire Straits emerged during the post-punk era of the late '70s, and while their sound was minimalistic and stripped down, they owed little to punk. If anything, the band was a direct outgrowth of the roots revivalism of pub rock.
Dire Straits were a British rock band, formed by Mark Knopfler (vocals and lead guitar), his younger brother David Knopfler (rhythm guitar and vocals), John Illsley (bass guitar and vocals), and Pick Withers (drums and percussion), and managed by Ed Bicknell, active between 1977 and 1995. Although the band was formed in an era when punk rock was at the forefront, Dire Straits played a more bluesy style, albeit with a stripped-down sound that appealed to audiences weary of the overproduced stadium rock of the 1970s. In their early days, Mark and David requested that pub owners turn down their sound so that patrons could converse while the band played, an indication of their unassuming demeanor. Despite this oddly self-effacing approach to rock and roll, Dire Straits soon became hugely successful, with their first album going multi-platinum globally. Throughout the band's career Mark Knopfler was the songwriter and driving force behind the group. The band's best-known songs include "Sultans of Swing", "Money for Nothing", "Brothers in Arms", "Walk of Life", "So Far Away", "Romeo and Juliet" and "Tunnel of Love". Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler have sold in excess of 120 million albums to date.
Early years and first two albums (1977–1979)
Mark Knopfler, his younger brother David Knopfler, John Illsley, and Pick Withers formed the band in 1977. Dire Straits (a name given to the band by a musician flatmate of drummer Pick Withers), recorded a five-song demo tape which included their future massive worldwide hit single "Sultans of Swing" during 1977. The now famous demo tapes of five songs were "Wild West End", "Sultans of Swing", "Down To The Waterline", "Sacred Loving" (a David Knopfler song) and "Water of Love". They took the tape to DJ Charlie Gillett, who had a radio show called "Honky Tonkin" on BBC Radio London. The band simply wanted advice, but Gillett liked the music so much that he played "Sultans of Swing" on his show. Two months later, Dire Straits signed a recording contract with Phonogram Records. The band's success came too late for original drummer Patrick Scott, who quit the band in the mid-1970s, believing that they would never break through. In October 1977 they recorded demo tapes of "Southbound Again", "In The Gallery" and "Six Blade Knife" for BBC Radio London and in November demo tapes were made of "Setting Me Up", "Eastbound Train" and "Real Girl". The group's first album, Dire Straits, was recorded at Basing Street studios in West London in February, 1978, at a cost of £12,500. Produced by Muff Winwood, the album had little promotion when initially released in the United Kingdom on Vertigo Records, a division of Phonogram, and was not well-received. However, the album came to the attention of A&R rep Karin Berg at Warner Bros. Records in New York City. She felt that it was the kind of music audiences were hungry for, but only one person in her department agreed at first. Many of the songs on the album reflected Mark Knopfler's experiences in Newcastle, Leeds and London. "Down To The Waterline" recalled images of life in Newcastle; "In The Gallery" is a tribute to a Leeds sculptor/artist named Harry Phillips (father of Steve Phillips); "Wild West End" and "Lions" were drawn from Knopfler's early days in the capital.
That same year, Dire Straits began a tour as opening band for the Talking Heads after the re-released "Sultans of Swing" finally started to climb the UK charts. This led to a United States recording contract with Warner Bros. Records and, before the end of 1978, Dire Straits had released their self-titled debut worldwide. They received more attention in the United States and landed at the top of the charts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Their debut album eventually went top 10 in every European country. The following year Dire Straits embarked on their first North American tour. They played 51 sold-out concerts over a 38-day period. "Sultans of Swing" scaled the charts to number four in the United States and number eight in the United Kingdom. The song became one of Dire Straits' biggest hits and was a fixture in the band's live set. Bob Dylan, who had seen the band play in Los Angeles, was so impressed that he invited Mark Knopfler and drummer Pick Withers to play on his next album, Slow Train Coming. Recording sessions for the group's second album, Communiqué, took place in December 1978 at Compass Point Studio in Nassau. Released in June 1979, Communiqué was produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, and went to number one on the German album charts with Dire Straits simultaneously at number three. Featuring the single "Lady Writer", the second album continued in a similar monochromatic vein as the first, if somewhat more polished, and displayed the expanding scope of Knopfler's lyricism on the opening track "Once Upon a Time in the West". In the coming year, however, this approach began to change, along with the group's lineup.
Increased musical complexity (1980–1984)
Dire Straits set about recording tracks for their third album, Making Movies, from July to August 1980, for release in October of that year. During the recording sessions guitarist David Knopfler left the band to pursue a solo career. The sessions continued with Sid McGinnis on rhythm guitar and keyboardist Roy Bittan from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. The album was produced by Jimmy Iovine with Knopfler also sharing credit. After the recording sessions were completed, keyboardist Alan Clark and Californian guitarist Hal Lindes joined Dire Straits as full-time members for tours of Europe and North America.
Making Movies featured longer songs with more complex arrangements, a style which would continue for the rest of the band's career. The most successful chart single was "Romeo and Juliet", while the album's lengthy opening track, "Tunnel of Love", with its intro "The Carousel Waltz" by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was featured in the film An Officer and a Gentleman and became one of the group's best loved songs as well as a favorite at live concerts. Making Movies reached number 4 on the UK album charts. Dire Straits' fourth studio album Love Over Gold was well-received when it was released in September, 1982, and reached # 1 in the United Kingdom. The title was inspired by graffiti seen from the window of Knopfler's old council flat in London. Comprising long songs with lengthy, atmospheric instrumental passages, it was also the first Dire Straits album produced solely by Mark Knopfler. Its main chart hit, "Private Investigations", gave Dire Straits their first top 5 hit single in the United Kingdom, where it reached the number two position despite its almost seven-minute length and became another of the band's most popular live songs.
In other parts of the world, "Industrial Disease" was the main single from the album, particularly in Canada, where it became a top 10 hit. As well as the title track, Love Over Gold featured the 14-minutes-long "Telegraph Road", the lyrics of which tell of the boom and bust of the American city of Detroit. Love over Gold reportedly sold two million copies during the first six weeks after its release.
Shortly after the release of Love Over Gold, drummer Pick Withers left the band. His replacement was Terry Williams, formerly of Rockpile and a range of other Welsh bands including the legendary Man. In 1983, a four-song EP titled ExtendedancEPlay was released while Love Over Gold was still in the album charts. It featured the hit single "Twisting By the Pool" which reached the Top 20 in the UK and Canada. Dire Straits also embarked on a world tour.
This was followed in 1984 by the double album, Alchemy, a recording of two live concerts of the group at London's Hammersmith Odeon in June, 1983. It reportedly was released without studio overdubs. The concert was also issued on VHS and susequently remastered and released on Blu-Ray – the only performance on the new format to date. During 1983 and 1984 Mark Knopfler was also involved in other projects outside of the band. He wrote the music scores for the films Local Hero and Cal, which were also released as albums.
The Brothers in Arms era (1985–1986)
Dire Straits began recording tracks late in 1984 at Air Studios Montserrat for their fifth studio album, Brothers in Arms, produced by Knopfler and Neil Dorfsman. There were further personnel changes, with the addition of a second keyboardist, Guy Fletcher, who had previously worked as a session musician with Roxy Music and on the Cal soundtrack. Guitarist Hal Lindes left the band during the recording sessions. New York guitarist Jack Sonni took his place although he was not credited as an official band member for the new album release. American jazz fusion drummer Omar Hakim joined Terry Williams on drums. Both are credited on the album. Brothers In Arms went on to become the best-selling album of 1985 in the United Kingdom and was a huge hit internationally. It spawned several chart singles: "Money for Nothing", which reached number one in the United States and number four in the United Kingdom, "So Far Away" (#19 U.S.), "Brothers In Arms", "Walk of Life" (#7 U.S.), and "Your Latest Trick". "Money for Nothing" was the first video ever to be played on MTV in Britain and featured guest vocals by Sting from The Police. It also won Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with a Vocal in 1985 at the 28th annual Grammy Awards.
The album's title track is reported to be the world's first CD single. It was issued in the United Kingdom as a promotional item distinguished with a logo for the tour, Live in '85, while a second to commemorate the Australian leg of the tour marked Live in '86. Containing just four tracks, it had a very limited run. Meanwhile, "Walk of Life" was the band's most commercially successful single in the United Kingdom, peaking at number two. "Money for Nothing", "Walk of Life", and "Brothers In Arms" immediately became live concert favorites. The commercial success of Brothers in Arms was greatly aided by the fact that the album was the first compact disc to sell a million copies and is largely credited for launching the CD format, as it was also one of the first DDD CDs ever released, leading early adopters of the new technology to consider it a "must buy" album. The Brothers in Arms CD was one of the first to contain material not found on the LP equivalent; it featured the full version of the "Money for Nothing" cut, rather than the version that appears on the LP. In fact, the CD includes extended versions of all tracks featured on the first side of the original LP, with the exception of "Walk of Life". The new compact disc offered a showcase for Knopfler's meticulous production values on the group's previous albums, leading some existing fans to repurchase the group's entire back catalogue.
The 1985–86 world tour which followed the album's release was phenomenally successful. The tour began on 25 April 1985 in Split, Yugoslavia (now Croatia). While playing a 13-night residency at Wembley Arena (and the 10 July concert was issued in 2005 on Wembley does the Walk DVD), the band moved down the road to Wembley Stadium on the afternoon of 13 July 1985, to appear in a Live Aid slot. Their set included "Money For Nothing" with Sting as guest vocalist. The tour ended at the Entertainment Centre in Sydney, Australia, where Dire Straits still holds the record for consecutive appearances at 21 nights. The last show of this extended stay in Sydney in April 1986 was recorded and broadcast on Australian and New Zealand television and is well-known for the one-off calypso rendition of "So Far Away". The band also made an impromptu attempt at the famous Australian folk song "Waltzing Matilda". In a two-year span, Dire Straits had played 247 shows in over 100 different cities. Additionally in 1985, a group set out from London to Khartoum to raise money for famine relief led by John Abbey, was called the Walk of Life. Dire Straits donated the Brothers in Arms Gold disc to the participants in recognition of what they were doing. In the United States, Brothers in Arms was similarly successful, peaking at No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Top Pop Albums Chart for nine weeks, going multi-platinum, and finishing at No. 5 for 1986.
In 1987 Mark Knopfler concentrated on solo projects and film soundtracks. Dire Straits regrouped for the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert in 1988 at Wembley Stadium, in which they were the headline act. They were joined for their set by Eric Clapton who performed his hit "Wonderful Tonight" with the group and played rhythm guitar on "Romeo and Juliet" and "Sultans of Swing". Soon afterwards, Williams left the band. In September 1988 Dire Straits disbanded, at least temporarily. The tremendous success of the Brothers in Arms album and the tour that went with it left the band members under a significant amount of stress, and Knopfler announced the group's official dissolution, saying that he "needed a rest". A greatest hits album, Money for Nothing, was released in October 1988 and reached #1 in the United Kingdom. Also in 1988, over a meal at a Notting Hill wine bar, Knopfler formed The Notting Hillbillies, a country-focused band whose lineup featured Guy Fletcher, Brendan Croker, and Steve Phillips. The Notting Hillbillies' one album, Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time with its minor hit single "Your Own Sweet Way". was released in 1990. The Notting Hillbillies toured for the remainder of the year, and also appeared on Saturday Night Live. Knopfler would further emphasize his country music influences on his 1990 collaboration with guitarist Chet Atkins, Neck and Neck. Dire Straits played three songs at Knebworth Festival in 1990, "Solid Rock", "Money for Nothing" and never heard anywhere else "Think I Love You Too Much", before reforming the following year.
Reunion and final albums (1991–1995)
In January 1991, Knopfler, John Illsley and manager Ed Bicknell decided to reform Dire Straits, which now comprised four members: Knopfler, Illsley and keyboardists Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher. The band members began recording tracks for a new album, this time accompanied by other session musicians including steel guitarist Paul Franklin, percussionist Danny Cummings, saxophonist Chris White and guitarist Phil Palmer. Highly regarded American session drummer Jeff Porcaro played drums for the sessions, but turned down an invitation to join the band full-time because of his commitment to Toto.
The result was the band's final original studio album, On Every Street, which was released in September, 1991, six years after Brothers in Arms. On Every Street was a widely anticipated release, but met with mixed reviews and moderate success. The opening track "Calling Elvis" was the first single release in the United Kingdom (the video for this song being based on the 1960s television show Thunderbirds), peaking inside the Top 30 in the singles charts. There were three further tracks released from the album as singles, the last of which was "The Bug", which contains backing vocals by Vince Gill, who was also invited to join the band full time and declined. The new album was regarded by some reviewers as an 'underwhelming' follow-up and did not sell anywhere near as well as Brothers in Arms; however it still reached the # 1 position in the United Kingdom.
Session drummer Chris Whitten joined Dire Straits when they embarked on a gruelling world tour which lasted until the end of 1992. The group's final tour, while musically more elaborate, was not as successful as the previous world tour in 1985–1986, and by this time Mark Knopfler had had enough of such massive operations. This drove the band into the ground. The last stop on the tour and the final touring concert of the group took place on 9 October 1992 in Zaragoza, Spain. In May 1993 a live album documenting the tour, On the Night, was released, again to very mixed reviews. Dire Straits released one last album in 1995 before disbanding. Live at the BBC was released as a contractual album release to Vertigo Records. The group's third and final live album was a collection of live recordings spanning the years 1978–81, which mostly featured the original lineup of the band.
Dissolution and reunions (1995–present)
Mark Knopfler quietly dissolved Dire Straits in 1995. He had previously expressed a desire to give up touring on a big scale which ultimately led to the band's final breakup. In 1996 he began his career as a solo artist. Brothers in Arms was certified nine times platinum in August 1996. During that same year, the entire Dire Straits catalogue was remastered by Bob Ludwig, and re-released on CD in most of the world outside the United States. The remasters were released in September 2000 in the United States. Knopfler, John Illsley, Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher reunited for one last time on 19 June 1999 with Ed Bicknell on drums, playing five songs including a performance of Chuck Berry's Nadine for Illsley's wedding. In 2002, Mark Knopfler was joined by John Illsley, Guy Fletcher, Danny Cummings and Chris White for four charity concerts. Brendan Croker joined Knopfler during the first half, playing mainly material composed with The Notting Hillbillies. Illsley came on for a Dire Straits session, towards the end of which, at a Shepherd's Bush concert, Jimmy Nail came on to provide backing vocals for Knopfler's solo composition "Why Aye Man". The most recent compilation, titled The Best of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler: Private Investigations, was released in November 2005. Featuring material from the majority of Dire Straits' studio albums as well as Mark Knopfler's solo and soundtrack material, it was released in two editions, a single CD with grey cover and a double CD in blue cover. The only previously unreleased track on the album, All The Roadrunning, is a duet with singer Emmylou Harris. The album was well-received as an underground hit. 2005 also saw the limited edition release of the 20th anniversary edition of Brothers in Arms, which was also a success, winning a Grammy award for Best Surround Sound Album. Since the 1995 breakup Mark Knopfler has shown no interest in reforming the band, although keyboardist Guy Fletcher has been associated with almost every piece of Knopfler's solo material to date. Danny Cummings has also made frequent appearances. In 2007 Knopfler said he did not miss the global fame at the height of the band's success, explaining that, "it just got too big". In October 2008, John Illsley told the BBC he would be interested in a reunion tour for Dire Straits. Yet he also suggested that Knopfler does not have any interest in reforming the group at present due to his continued success as a solo artist. Knopfler declined when Illsley asked him to reform Dire Straits. In December 2009, the band were commemorated with a Heritage Award from PRS for Music. A plaque was placed on a block of flats in Deptford, London, the location where Dire Straits played their first gig.
Dire Straits (1978) Communiqué (1979) Making Movies (1980) Love over Gold (1982) Brothers in Arms (1985) On Every Street (1991)