By Mike Greenblatt
In the midst of 1978’s Saturday Night Fever mania, a little London band came out with its self-titled debut to no fanfare…until people on both sides of the Atlantic started listening. That self-titled Dire Straits ’78 debut wound up selling over three million copies in the U.S. and another 11 million worldwide. Dire Straits, led by Mark Knopfler, an unassuming singer-songwriter with a sandpapery Dylanesque voice and the kind of lead guitar chops most electric ax men would sell their souls for, proved one didn’t have to listen to what else was going on in the music business to be successful. Now inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band has sold an astonishing 100-plus million albums and counting (despite breaking up for good in 1995). Every generation since ’78 has apparently latched on to their understated genius. “Sultans of Swing,” from the debut, became a radio staple (still is) and the scene was set to open doors for like-minded revivalists like Mumford & Son, Dave Matthews and The Avett Brothers.
Knopfler’s tone, rhythmic thrust, unerring curly-cues of spiraling and stinging solos, born from a love of Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale, provided a different soundtrack the following year with the release of 1979’s Communiqué (as produced by the legendary Jerry Wexler). While Americans were mostly getting down to the disco of Donna Summer and Chic, Knopfler (with rhythm guitarist brother David, bassist John Illsley and drummer Pick Withers) added the late Muscle Shoals keyboardist Barry Beckett to the mix (credited as B. Bear). Communique has grown in stature as the decades have moved on. How many albums from 1979 now sound dated? Plenty! Not this one.
A year later, they were Making Movies, which yielded the hit “Romeo and Juliet.” While Pink Floyd, Bob Seger, Blondie and Billy Joel ruled the 1980 album charts, Knopfler enlisted Jimmy Iovine to produce a sound that again had absolutely nothing in common with what was on the radio at the time. In interviews, Knopfler told reporters he picked Iovine upon hearing the producer’s work on Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” hit. Sibling rivalry might have reared its ugly head, though, as David Knopfler mysteriously and abruptly left the band even before sessions for the album were complete. E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan filled out the sound.
In 1982, Michael Jackson’s Thriller obliterated all other music but Dire Straits, on Love Over Gold, marched to their own beat while adding keyboardist Alan Clark. Synthesizers creeped into the mix for the first time and Knopfler self-produced, arranged and orchestrated the 14 minutes of “Telegraph Road” and the eight-minute closer “It Never Rains.” He also enlisted the aid of jazzman vibraphonist Mike Mainieri. They had no way of knowing how their next album would change their lives forever.
It took three years but when Brothers In Arms came out in 1985, it turned Knopfler’s career upside-down. With the advent of the CD in full throttle, the album became that format’s first million-seller. Inundated with awards and reaching the coveted No. 1 slot in more countries than you can count on both hands including America and England, its single, “Money For Nothing” (a song Knopfler co-wrote with the Midas Touch of Sting) just happened to also coincide with the rise of MTV. It was a perfect storm for the song with such incongruous lyrics as “see the little faggot with the earring and the make-up/Yeah buddy, that’s his own hair/That little faggot got his own jet airplane/That little faggot he’s a millionaire.” Knopfler told reporters he wanted to sound like ZZ Top on his guitar intro to the song. He self-produced 17 musicians including vocalist Sting, Brecker Brothers Michael and Randy on tenor sax and trumpet as well as four more horns, and more synths than ever before (used with subtlety). It proved to be a stand-out album in the year of Bruce, Prince, Madonna and Phil Collins.
For an individual who eschewed the trappings of celebrity but took high-profile jobs like producing Bob Dylan’s 1983 Infidels, Knopfler became something of a blue-collar everyman cult hero after Brothers In Arms. His stance as an anti-celebrity certainly worked in his favor. “Walk Of Life” made it to No. 7 in the U.S. and No. 1 in Great Britain. Its songs had a loose political feel with lyrics about the absurdity of militarism. The flute-synth on “Ride Across The River,” as well as its slight reggae drum feel and weirdo background noise, shows an artist in the throes of constant reinvention. It’s an old axiom within music that true artists always change. Knopfler is no exception. The only difference is that now he was using his music-biz power for global change. Thus, Dire Straits headlined the Nelson Mandala 70th Birthday Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium in England where Clapton joined the band for a rendition of his “Wonderful Tonight.” Knopfler easily and comfortably fell into the role as sideman in his own band out of deference to Clapton. The two superstars reconvened in 1990 at Europe’s prestigious Knebworth Festival.
Six years later, the final Dire Straits album featured Toto’s Jeff Porcaro on drums. It was 1991. Vanilla Ice and Mariah Carey ruled the charts. Discerning listeners, though, latched on to “On Every Street” as if it was manna from heaven, and, in a truly awful year for music, it was. This overlooked and underrated project, when listened to 27 years later, has not lost an inch of its charm and its bite from “Calling Elvis” to “Planet Of New Orleans.” Its world tour lasted to 1993. In 1995, Knopfler laid his Dire Straits down to rest for the last time, embarking on a successful solo career to the surprise of no one.