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The Knopfler effect

Mark Ellen

How one song by Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits broke free of punk’s shackles in the late Seventies and brought back musicianship.

Dire Straits

In late 1977, news spread around London of a song called Sultans of Swing, about to be released by the new act Dire Straits. Anyone who heard it was hooked.

Its fond and wistful lyrics had been written in a café in Ipswich by the group’s leader, Mark Knopfler, after watching a ‘trumpet-playing band’ soldiering on with their unfashionable jazz for an audience wanting rock’n’roll.

In fact, Dire Straits were in exactly the same position, struggling against the tide of popular taste. When I first saw them, in January 1978, they were bottom of the bill at London’s Roundhouse, below the punk rock act Slaughter and the Dogs – who only knew three chords and smashed a microphone stand.

This was not the time for well-crafted, faultless musicianship, loping low-key rhythms and breezy Americanised pub-rock. But Sultans of Swing and its stinging guitar lines began to work their magic, a sound way beyond the vagaries of fashion and in another realm entirely: it was timeless.

Twelve months later, of course, punk rock had fizzled out, but the album Dire Straits was a Top Ten hit in every European country, even crashing into the lucrative radio playlists of Canada and America.

Sensing a pot of gold, the band’s record label installed them in a studio in the Bahamas with Aretha Franklin’s producer Jerry Wexler and – absurd but true – had prime beef and lobster flown in daily from the American mainland to ensure Knopfler had all he could possibly require to create an even more commercial sequel. Which he did and continued to do, peaking in 1985 with Brothers in Arms and its worldwide smash Money for Nothing.

After various shape-shifting line-ups and colossal cash-pumping success, the group quietly disbanded in 1995. Bass-player John Illsley survived until the end and then formed a Celtic-flavoured rock group. Drummer Pick Withers left in 1982 to play jazz. Knopfler’s younger brother David, the rhythm guitarist, now records solo and runs songwriting workshops. Mark Knopfler OBE plays occasional nights at London’s Garrick Club where he’s a member and noted wine connoisseur. Keyboard player Alan Clark formed the band The Straits who toured until relatively recently. And in a sublime ruse to reach the nostalgia market, all six of the original Dire Straits studios albums have been re-released.


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