In 1977, punk was at the peak of its popularity. For the last year, bands were being formed all over Britain. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was a musician. That was all very well. However, there was a problem. 

Many of these bands weren’t very good. The problem was, many of this new breed of musicians could neither sing, nor play their instrument. This wasn’t meant to matter. The DIY ethos of punk meant anyone who wanted to become a musician, could be. René Descartes, the founding father of philosophy, it seemed, was right when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” That, however, wasn’t the case.

The truth lay in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. It summed up punk perfectly. Playing the swindlers in The Emperor’s New Clothes, were punk groups and their managers. Dawning the role of the Emperor were critics and cultural commentators. They genuinely believed that this wall of discordant sound was the future of music. What made this worse, was while these critics and cultural commentators wrote puff stories praising punk, they wrote disparaging reviews of perfectly good albums. There was a reason for this.

These albums were by punk’s “supposed” enemies. The enemies of punk were many. This included the prog-rock and rock. They were perceived as the musical establishment, and therefore, enemies of punk. It was a case of them and us. The battle-lines, it seemed, were drawn, and a battle for music’s future was about to take place. However, one of the winners were formed in 1977. They were everything that punk wasn’t, and would become one of the biggest groups of the seventies, eighties and nineties, Dire Straits.

The Dire Straits’ story began in 1977, when Mark Knopfler left his job as a journalist with the Yorkshire Post, to pursue a career in music. Next stop for Mark, was London, where he moved into his brother David’s flat. 

David’s flatmate was another future member of Dire Straits, bassist John Ilsley. With the three future bandmates sharing a flat, Mark got a job teaching at Loughton College. At night, the college lecturer dawned the role of musician.

By then, Mark had formed what would become Dire Straits. He was the lead vocalist and guitarist. His brother David became rhythm guitarist and John Ilsley played bass. The final piece in the Dire Straits jigsaw, was drummer Pick Withers. With the band’s lineup in place, all they needed was a name.

Having been christened Dire Straits by a flatmate of Pick Withers or Mark Knopfler, the newly christened band started playing alongside Brewer’s Droop and Cafe Racers on the London pub circuit. This would stand them in good stead, for the tortuous tours Dire Straits would soon undertake. In the early days, the music they played an eclectic mixture of musical genres. Everything from blues, folk, jazz, rock and roots music influenced Dire Straits’ early sound. Their music was stripped down, understated and totally at odds with punk. However, within a year, Dire Straits would have the last laugh.

After establishing a reputation on the London pub circuit, Dire Straits by decided the time was right to record a demo tape. They chose five songs, including four written by Mark Knopfer, Dire Straits’ principal songwriter. He penned Sultans of Swing, Water of Love, Down to the Waterline and  Wild West End, which would feature on Dire Straits’ 1978 eponymous debut album. The other track on the demo, was a David Knopfler composition Sacred Loving. These five tracks were recorded and taken to Charlie Gillett.

Charlie Gillett was a well known Radio London DJ, whose show Honky Tonk was something of a musical institution in London. Dire Straits took their demo tape to Charlie, who straight away, started playing Sultans Of Swing. This resulted in two month later, Dire Straits signing to Phonograph Records.

Recording of what became Dire Straits took place at Basing Street Studios, London, between 13th February 1978 and 5th March 1978. That’s where the nine Mark Knopfler penned songs were recorded. Mark Knofler played lead guitar and sang lead vocals. David Knofler played rhythm guitar, while drummer Pick Withers and John Ilsley provided Dire Straits’ rhythm section. Producing what became Dire Straits, was Muff Winwood. Once Dire Straits was completed, it was released seven months later on 7th July 1978.

Before the release of Dire Straits, Dire Straits set off on a fifty-five date tour. It began on 6th June 1978 at the Lafayette Club, Wolverhampton, and ended on 18th November 1978 at the College of Education in Hitchin. After that, Dire Straits embarked upon a European tour. By then, Dire Straits had released their eponymous debut album,

On the release of Dire Straits, on 7th July 1978, the album was well received by critics. That’s despite Dire Straits being the polar opposite of the post punk music that filled the charts. Critics enjoyed Mark Knopfler’s autobiographical lyrics, where humour, bitterness and irony shawn through. Having struck a chord with critics, Dire Straits proved popular with record buyers. It took some time though.

It wasn’t until Sultans Of Swing was released as a single in the spring of 1979, that Dire Straits made a commercial breakthrough. Sultans Of Swing became a staple of American radio. It reached number four in the US Billboard 100 and number eight in Britain. Water Of Love was then released as a single in some countries. By then, Dire Straits was a hugely popular album.

In America, Dire Straits reached number two in the US Billboard 200 and number five in Britain. Across the world, Dire Straits was a huge success. From Australia to France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden, reached the top ten in the album charts. Dire Straits was a glittering success.

By February 1979, Dire Straits was certified silver in Britain. Eventually, it was certified gold in November 1979 and double platinum in February 1986. Over the Atlantic, Dire Straits was certified gold in America in February 1979 and double platinum in January 1987. Elsewhere, Dire Straits was certified platinum in Australia, France Germany and New Zealand. By 1979, Dire Straits had sold over six million copies worldwide. Dire Straits had the last laugh. Quietly, this unfashionable quartet had taken the world by storm. Meanwhile, punk was but a distant memory. The former punk heroes were back to the mundane reality of everyday life. Their fifteen minutes of fames was all but over. For Dire Straits, a musical adventure was about to unfold, starting with their eponymous debut album.

Down To The Waterline opens Dire Straits. It has an almost, eerie, moody, introduction. A foghorn sounds and sets the scene for the crystalline sound of Mark Knopler’s guitar playing slowly. Then all of a sudden, the rest of Dire Straits join forces, and the arrangement bursts into life. As the rhythm section provide the heartbeat, Mark paints pictures with his autobiographical lyrics. He remembers distant teenage assignations, walking along the quayside with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, he unleashes dazzling, chiming licks. They flit in and out of the arrangement, giving the listener a tantalising taste of what’s still to come from Dire Straits.

Water Of Love has a much more understated, laid-back sound. Mark’s slide guitar takes pride of place in the in the country tinged, shuffling arrangement. It’s reminiscent of Ry Cooder, early seventies albums. Meanwhile, Mark’s wistful vocal describes the breakup of his marriage. Hurt, heartbreak and regret are omnipresent. That’s apparent from the lyric “once I had a woman I could call my own, once I had a woman now she is gone.” Mark delivers it wistfully, longing for what he had, and has lost.

Setting Me Up sees the tempo and temperature rise. Mark’s relationship has gone wrong. He’s not pleased, as he sings “you’re setting me up to put me down, you’re making me up to be your clown”. As Mark bitterly describes a relationship gone wrong, he delivers some blistering, scorching licks. David his brother proves a perfect foil. As guitarists, they’re like yin and yang. Pick and John play their part too, driving the arrangement along, before this country-tinged tale of romantic woe reaches a crescendo.

The tempo drops and Six Blade Knife takes on a melancholy, but laid-back sound. It comes courtesy of Dire Straits’ rhythm section and a sprinkling of chiming guitars. Soon, Mark’s worldweary, lived-in vocal enters. He longs for one thing, freedom. “I’d like to be free of it now-I don’t know no more.” Everyone he realises a slave to something: “a needle a wife or something you can’t see.” His longing for freedom shines through as he delivers the lyrics deliberately and emotively. However, deep down, Mark knows this is just a dream. 

Crystalline guitars and the rhythm section join forces on Southbound Again. They provide a jaunty backdrop for Mark’s gravelly vocal. His vocal is tinged with frustration and melancholy, as he sings “southbound again got no money, I’ve got no place to go.” The way Mark delivers the lyrics, he’s been there and experienced the despair and hardship. This however, was before the rise and rise of Dire Straits.

Sultans Of Swing is a song full of imagery and contrasts. Inspiration for the song came from Mark seeing a jazz band play in an empty bar. The musicians were scruffy, but at the end of the set, announce that they’re the Sultans Of Swing. After seeing this scenario  unfold, Mark went home and wrote the song. The lyrics fell into place and tell the story of the Sultans Of Swing. Straight away, the crystalline guitar sits above the rhythm section, which powers the arrangement along. Mark and his guitar play starring roles, as he tells the story of the Sultans Of Swing, who forever, will remain contenders. Of all the songs on Dire Straits, the cinematic delight of Sultans Of Swing is the best.

In the Gallery tells the story of Harry, a coal miner, who at nights, becomes a sculptor. Despite his undoubted talent, he’s “ignored by all the trendy boys in London and in Leeds.” This is just one, of many stories of people with Britain’s long lamented industrial heartland, were hugely talented, but were victims of circumstances, and never fulfilled their potential. That’s why, when Mark delivers the lyrics, frustration, and sometimes, anger fills his voice. His guitar chimes and glistens, while the rhythm section provide the perfect backdrop for this tale of talent scorned. 

Wild West End has a much more pared back, understated, country-tinged sound. Here, Dire Straits have been influenced by Americana, country and roots music on what’s akin to another short story. Mark’s literary background shines through. His lyrics paint pictures. So much so, that it’s possible to imagine the scenes unfold before your eyes. One minute, he’s im walking down Shaftesbury Avenue, the next getting on the number nineteen bus and falling in love with the conductress-“she was a honey, pink toenails and hands dirty with money.” The result, is a kitchen sink drama, Mark Knopfler style.

Lions brings Dire Straits to a melancholy close. There’s a particular English quality to Lions. Maybe it’s the mention of “Evensong” and “flags on poles.” They’re a remnant of what England once was. However, the characters in Lions are just as relevant today, as always. Some are damaged, damaged by the ravages of alcohol, others living in hope for a “stranger in the night.” Slowly, and wistfully, Dire Straits tell these stories. Mark’s weeping guitar, and a slow, thoughtful rhythm section provide the backdrop for his weary vocal. His cerebral, perceptive lyrics are akin to social commentary set to music.

Back in 1978, when Dire Straits released their eponymous debut album, it was a welcome distraction from the remnants of punk. Punk was on its last legs. It had become a parody of what was essentially a musical paradox. What had once been hailed a musical revolution, descended into commerciality and violence. Novelty punk songs were released, and concerts descended into chaotic scenes of violence. At least Dire Straits offered a welcome alternative and distraction.

After two years of music from bands who could barely play their instruments, the release of Dire Straits in July 1978 came as a welcome release. Here were a band of talented musicians, lead by a musical wordsmith. That describes Mark Knopfler perfectly.

Mark Knopfler came from a literary background. A former journalist, who was working as a teacher when he formed Dire Straits, words were Mark’s stock in trade. He was observer of daily life, who eavesdropped on the comings and goings of ordinary people. Almost seamlessly, he translated their lives into song. Their lives come to life. You empathise and sympathise with their stories. Other times, especially during the tales of love and love lost, you share their pain and hurt. It seems real. Especially when delivered by Mark’s lived-in, worldweary vocal. Mark has the uncanny  ability of being able to bring this pain and hurt to life. Partly, that’s because Mark has lived the lyrics. He’s experienced the pain and hurt. However, there’s more to Dire Straits than Mark Knopfler’s lyrics and vocals.

Apart from having the ability to write and deliver cerebral and perceptive lyrics, Mark Knopfler was one of the most talented guitarists of his generation. Mark’s guitar complimented and augmented his poignant lyrics. Aided and abetted by his brother David’s guitar, bassist John Ilsley and drummer Pick Withers, Dire Straits were a hugely talented quartet. They would dominate British music for the next seventeen years.

Right through until 1995, Dire Straits were one of the biggest British bands. Each of their six studio albums and two live album were certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum worldwide. However, Dire Straits’ most successful album was 1985s Brothers In Arms. It was certified platinum nine time over in America alone. Right through until Dire Straits split-up in 1995, they could do no wrong. For three decades this proudly unfashionable quartet ruled the musical roost. The album that started this uninterrupted run of commercial success and critical acclaim was Dire Straits, an album of autobiographical and cinematic music, from the pen of musical wordsmith Mark Knopler. 



1 Comment

  1. A great post–intelligent and comprehensive about the beginnings of Dire Straits, especially for recent MK fans..

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