Photo courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Dire Straits were among the nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2018. Despite being eligible since 2003, this is the first time they’ve made the shortlist. If we had our way, they’d be inducted next year.
When “Sultans of Swing,” their debut single, first hit the airwaves in the spring of 1978 , it sounded like nothing else on radio at the time. Guitarist Mark Knopfler ditched the sound and style of what had become the standard of rock at the time, and there wasn’t a Les Paul or Marshall stack in sight. His tone was clean, yet still powerful, piercing yet brittle and thoroughly engaging to the ears.
Dire Straits was formed in 1977 by Knopfler along with his brother David on second guitar, bassist John Illsley, and drummer Pick Withers. They employed elements of the British pub rock scene from the early ’70s with its back-to-basics, rootsy approach more in line with folk, blues and or folk-rock acts like Bob Dylan, Fairport Convention, the Band or the Byrds. Though they were coming to life during the punk era, they were almost a throwback to a previous generation, and at the same time, they sounded positively fresh and unique.
Knopfler’s lyrical guitar style was unique, but so was his vocal approach. Understated yet commanding in its presence, he had a warmth in delivering a song that was absent from much rock at the time. All these factors made Dire Straits stand out and almost immediately, people took notice. “Sultans of Swing” would go on to check into the U.S. Top 10 and across the globe. The same hit status would apply to their self-titled debut album, which would eventually hit double-platinum status.
With each album the band would expand on their sound. Their third album, the classic Making Movies was a hit despite the length of many of the songs, while Love Over Gold, their fourth, was a cinematic tour de force. Dire Straits would finally bust into mega success in 1985 with the release of their fifth album, Brothers in Arms. The album’s first single, “Money for Nothing,” shot to No. 1 and the video for the song (which poked fun at the whole MTV era) went on to become one of the most successful and talked about videos of that era. Brothers in Arms would go on to sell over 30 million copies, but it was also the end of the band. They regrouped in 1991 for one final album, On Every Street, but their story really ends with Brothers In Arms.
Mark Knopfler has gone onto an interesting and varied solo career which includes working with Bob Dylan, Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman and others, as well as doing soundtrack work for several films.
Mark Knopfler’s Guitar
In a decade full of guitar heroes, Mark Knopfler distinguished himself with a clean, lyrical tone and a fingerpicking style that owed as much to country as to the blues. Like David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, he’s a master of the less-is-more approach, building solos economically until the natural point was to cut loose, as evidenced on the codas of “Sultans of Swing” and, even better, “Tunnel of Love.”
A Road Less Travelled
In 1978, when the first Dire Straits album was released the radio airwaves were awash in the arena rock sounds of bands like Boston and Foreigner, the slick L.A. vibe of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac and the ever-present sounds of disco. The underground was vibrating with the sounds of the Ramones, the Clash, Elvis Costello and so many more. Into this scene wandered Dire Straits, not fitting in anywhere. Despite that, or maybe because of that, they quickly found themselves at the front of the line, selling records and garnering airplay with their distinct approach that strayed from any present formula of the day. They truly carved their own niche.
‘Making Movies’ Is Their Masterpiece
There is no doubt that their debut kicked the door open, and the classic “Sultans of Swing” will live forever as the band’s defining song. It is also true that the mega hit “Money for Nothing” put them on more televisions and radios beyond their wildest dreams. All that being said, the band’s third album, Making Movies, was their true masterpiece. “Tunnel of Love,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Skateaway” are all massive, epic songs. The band were in top form and, while Knopfler would continue to write great songs, he was at his peak here. For this album alone, you could make a case for induction.
Biting the Hand That Feeds
The act of writing a song about the music business was nothing new, but the slap in the face to the then-new creature known as MTV was. So Knopfler came up with “Money For Nothing,” which gave voice to an average Joe’s take on the whole idea of music videos. The last laugh, of course, was that not only did the song become a huge radio hit, but the video went on the become one of the most identifiable videos on MTV with its early use of computer animation, ultimately being crowned “Video of the Year” at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1986.
Pulling the Plug
At the height of their success, Dire Straits ceased to exist, pulling the plug on the band just as it had entered that upper echelon of fame and fortune. “A lot of press reports were saying we were the biggest band in the world,” Knopfler told Rolling Stone back in 1988. “There’s not an accent then on the music, there’s an accent on popularity. I needed a rest.” It takes guts to pull the plug on something so big and so deeply entrenched in the money-go-round of the music business, but Knopfler pulled that plug and, outside of a brief attempt to regroup the band in 1991, has never looked back.