Dire Straits were a British rock band formed in 1977 by Mark Knopfler (lead vocals and lead guitar), his younger brother David Knopfler (rhythm guitar and backing vocals), John Illsley (bass guitar and backing vocals), and Pick Withers (drums and percussion).
Dire Straits’ sound drew from a variety of musical influences, including jazz, folk, and blues, and came closest to beat music within the context of rock and roll. Despite the prominence of punk rock during the band’s early years, their stripped-down sound contrasted with punk, demonstrating a more “rootsy” influence that emerged from Pub rock. Many of Dire Straits’ compositions were melancholic.
They also became one of the world’s most commercially successful bands, with worldwide album sales of over 120 million. Dire Straits won four Grammy Awards, three Brit Awards—winning Best British Group twice, two MTV Video Music Awards, and various other music awards. The band’s songs include “Money for Nothing“, “Sultans of Swing“, “So Far Away“, “Walk of Life“, “Brothers in Arms“, “Private Investigations“, “Romeo and Juliet“, “Tunnel of Love“, and “Telegraph Road“.
According to the Guinness Book of British Hit Albums, Dire Straits have spent over 1,100 weeks on the UK albums chart, ranking fifth all-time. Their career spanned a combined total of 15 years. They originally split up in 1988, but reformed in 1991, and disbanded for good in 1995 when Mark Knopfler launched his career full-time as a solo artist. There were several changes in personnel over both periods, leaving Mark Knopfler and John Illsley as the only two original bandmates who had remained throughout the band’s career.
1977–1979: Early years and first two albums
Brothers Mark and David Knopfler, and friends John Illsley, and Pick Withers formed the band in 1977. 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 hit single, “Sultans of Swing“, as well as “Water of Love“, “Down to the Waterline“, “Wild West End” and David Knopfler’s “Sacred Loving”. After a performance at The Rock Garden in 1977, they took a demo tape to MCA in Soho but were turned down. Then they went to DJ Charlie Gillett, who had a radio show called “Honky Tonk” 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. In October 1977, the band recorded demo tapes of “Southbound Again”, “In the Gallery” and “Six Blade Knife” for BBC Radio London; 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 was first released in the United Kingdom on Vertigo Records, then a division of Phonogram. The album came to the attention of A&R representative Karin Berg, working 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 Leeds sculptor/artist 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 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; before the end of 1978, Dire Straits had released their self-titled debut worldwide. They received more attention in the United States, but also arrived at the top of the charts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Dire Straits 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 was one of Dire Straits’ biggest hits and became a fixture in the band’s live performances. 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 Studios in Nassau, Bahamas. Released in June 1979, Communiqué was produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett and went to No. 1 on the German album charts, with the debut album Dire Straits simultaneously at No. 3. In the United Kingdom the album peaked at No. 5 in the album charts. Featuring the single “Lady Writer“, the second album continued in a similar vein as the first 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 line-up.
1980–1984: Increased musical complexity and early success
In 1980, Dire Straits were nominated for two Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for “Sultans of Swing”. In July 1980 the band started recording tracks for their third album. Produced by Jimmy Iovine with Mark Knopfler also sharing credit, Making Movies was released in October 1980. During the recording sessions, tension between Mark and David Knopfler took its toll on the band, and David Knopfler left over creative differences with his brother to pursue a solo career; he was uncredited on the album. The sessions continued with Sid McGinnis on rhythm guitar and keyboardist Roy Bittan from Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band. 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 received mostly positive reviews and featured longer songs with more complex arrangements, a style which would continue for the rest of the band’s career. The album featured many of Mark Knopfler’s most personal compositions. The most successful chart single was “Romeo and Juliet” (number 8 in the UK singles chart), a song about a failed love affair, with Knopfler’s trademark in keeping personal songs under fictitious names. Although never released as a hit single, “Solid Rock” was featured in all Dire Straits’ live shows from this point on for the remainder of their career, 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. Although “Tunnel of Love” only reached the position of No. 54 in the UK Singles Chart when released as a single in 1981, it remains one of Dire Straits’ most famous and popular songs and immediately became a favourite at concerts. Making Movies stayed in the UK Albums Chart for 5 years, peaking at number 4.
Dire Straits’ fourth studio album Love Over Gold, an album of songs filled with lengthy, experimental passages that featured Alan Clark’s piano and keyboard work, was well received when it was released in September 1982, going gold in America and spending four weeks at number one in the United Kingdom. The title was inspired by graffiti seen from the window of Knopfler’s old council flat in London. The phrase was taken from the sleeve of an album by Captain Beefheart. Love Over Gold was the first Dire Straits album produced solely by Mark Knopfler, and its main chart hit, “Private Investigations“, gave Dire Straits their first top 5 hit single in the United Kingdom, where it reached the number 2 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“, a song that looks at the decline of the British manufacturing industry in the early 1980s, focusing on strikes, depression and dysfunctionality, was the main single from the album, particularly in Canada, where it became a top 10 hit. As well as the title track and “It Never Rains”, Love Over Gold featured the 14-minute-long epic “Telegraph Road“. Also written by Knopfler for inclusion on the album was “Private Dancer“, a song which eventually went to Tina Turner for her comeback album of the same name. 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 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 an eight-month-long world tour to promote Love Over Gold, which finished with two sold out concerts London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 22 and 23 July 1983. The double album Alchemy Live, was a recording of excerpts from these two concerts and was reportedly released without studio overdubs. It was mixed in November 1983 and released in March 1984, reaching the Top 3 in the UK Albums Chart. The concert was also issued on VHS and was remastered and released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2010 – 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. Also, during this time Knopfler produced Bob Dylan‘s Infidels album which featured Alan Clark on keyboards, as well as Aztec Camera and Willy DeVille. Also in 1984, John Illsley released his first solo album, Never Told a Soul, to which Mark Knopfler, Alan Clark and Terry Williams contributed.
1985–1986: The Brothers in Arms era and international success
Dire Straits returned to the recording studios at the end of 1984, and began recording tracks at Air Studios Montserrat for their upcoming fifth studio album, Brothers in Arms, produced by Knopfler with Neil Dorfsman. The sessions saw further personnel changes. The band added 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 and was replaced by New York guitarist Jack Sonni.
According to a Sound on Sound magazine interview with Neil Dorfsman, a month after the recording sessions began, drummer Terry Williams was temporarily replaced by jazz session drummer, Omar Hakim, who recorded the drums for the entire album during a two-day stay before leaving for other commitments. Both Hakim and Williams are credited on the album, although Williams’ only contribution is the drumming on Walk of life and the improvised crescendo at the beginning of “Money for Nothing“. The remainder of the album features Hakim on drums. Andy Kanavan joined briefly as a potential permanent drummer. Williams would be back in the band for the music videos and the subsequent world tour. Neither Kanavan nor Sonni were credited as official band members for the new album release.
Released in May 1985, Brothers in Arms entered the UK Albums Chart at number 1 and spent a total of 228 weeks in the charts. It went on to become the best-selling album of 1985 in the UK.Brothers in Arms was similarly successful in the US, peaking at No. 1 on Billboard 200 for nine weeks, going multi-platinum, selling nine million copies. The album spent thirty-four weeks at number 1 on the Australian ARIA Chart, making it the longest-running number one album in Australia. The album featured a more lavish production and overall sound than Dire Straits’ earlier work, and spawned several big chart singles:
“Money for Nothing”, which reached number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and number 4 in the UK Singles Chart, “So Far Away” (#20 UK, No. 19 US), “Brothers in Arms” (#16 UK), “Walk of Life” (#2 UK, No. 7 US), and “Your Latest Trick” (#26 UK). “Money for Nothing” was the first video to be played on MTV in Britain and featured guest vocals by Sting, who is credited with co-writing the song with Mark Knopfler, although in fact, it was just the inclusion of the melody line from “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” that triggered the copyright credit, no actual lyrics were written by Sting. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal at the 28th Grammy Awards in February 1986.
Brothers in Arms was among the first albums recorded on digital equipment due to Knopfler pushing for improved sound quality. The album’s title track is reported to be the world’s first CD single. It was issued in the UK 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. “Walk of Life” meanwhile was nearly excluded from the album when co-producer Neil Dorfsman voted against its inclusion, but the band members out-voted him. The result was Dire Straits’ most commercially successful hit single in the UK, peaking at number two. “Money for Nothing”, “Walk of Life”, and “Brothers in Arms” immediately became live concert favourites.
The album is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first compact disc to sell a million copies, and has been credited with helping to popularise the CD format. The Brothers in Arms CD 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 1985–86 world tour which followed the album’s release was phenomenally successful. Saxophonist Chris White joined the band, and the tour began on 25 April 1985 in Split, Yugoslavia (now Croatia). While playing a 13-night residency at Wembley Arena, the band moved down the road to Wembley Stadium on the afternoon of 13 July 1985, to appear in a Live Aid slot, in which their set included “Money For Nothing” with Sting as guest vocalist. The tour ended at the Entertainment Centre in Sydney, Australia on 26 April 1986, where Dire Straits still holds the record for consecutive appearances at 21 nights. The band also made an impromptu attempt at the famous Australian folk song “Waltzing Matilda“. In a two-year span, Dire Straits 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.
The band’s 10 July 1985 concert at Wembley Arena, in which they were accompanied by Nils Lofgren for “Solid Rock” and Hank Marvin joined the band at the end to play “Going Home” (the theme from “Local Hero“), was televised in the United Kingdom on The Tube on Channel 4 in January 1986. (Although never officially released, bootleg recordings of the performance entitled Wembley does the Walk (2005) have been circulated.)
In 1986 Brothers in Arms won two Grammy Awards, and also won Best British Album at the 1987 Brit Awards.Q magazine placed the album at number 51 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever in 2000. The album also ranked number 351 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2003.Brothers in Arms is also ranked number 3 in the best albums of 1985 and number 31 in the best albums of the 1980s, and as of April 2012, the album was ranked the seventh best-selling album in UK chart history, and is the 107th best-selling album in the United States. In August 1986, MTV Europe was launched with Dire Straits “Money for Nothing“.
1987–1990: First break-up
After the Brothers in Arms tour ended Mark Knopfler took a break from Dire Straits and during 1987 he concentrated on solo projects and film soundtracks. Dire Straits regrouped in 1988 for the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert staged on 11 June 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 the other songs performed by the band, while guitarist Jack Sonni was absent. Soon afterwards, Williams left the band.
Mark Knopfler announced the official dissolution of Dire Straits in September 1988. He told Rob Tannenbaum in Rolling Stone: “A lot of press reports were saying we were the biggest band in the world. There’s not an accent then on the music, there’s an accent on popularity. I needed a rest.” 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 that he wanted to work on more personal projects. A greatest hits album, Money for Nothing, was released in October 1988 and reached the number one position in the United Kingdom. Also in 1988, John Illsley released his second solo album, Glass which featured Mark Knopfler, Alan Clark, Guy Fletcher and Chris White.
In 1989, over a meal at a Notting Hill wine bar, Knopfler formed The Notting Hillbillies, a country-focused band whose line-up featured Guy Fletcher, Brendan Croker, and Steve Phillips and manager Ed Bicknell on drums. 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 emphasise his country music influences on his 1990 collaboration with guitarist Chet Atkins, Neck and Neck.
In 1990, Dire Straits performed alongside Elton John and Eric Clapton at Knebworth Festival, playing three songs: “Solid Rock”, “Money for Nothing” and a song which Knopfler prefaced as an experimental song, unsure if they should record it on a following record. The song, titled, “I Think I Love You Too Much”, a blues rock piece with solos by both Knopfler and Clapton; this song also appeared on the 1990 album Hell To Pay as a gift to Canadian blues/jazz artist Jeff Healey from Knopfler. This was prior to the time that Knopfler, Illsley and manager Ed Bicknell decided to reform the band the following year.
1991–1995: Resurrection, final albums and final dissolution
In early 1991, Knopfler and Illsley resurrected Dire Straits, bringing back with them former keyboardists Alan Clark, and Guy Fletcher. Retaining Bicknell as their manager, Dire Straits was trimmed down and comprised only four members once again. The band began recording tracks for a new album, integrating new session players who included steel guitarist Paul Franklin, and percussionist Danny Cummings. Saxophonist Chris White returned, and guitarist Phil Palmer filled the vacancy left by Sonni. During the recording sessions, American drummer Jeff Porcaro performed in place of Williams. Afterwards, he was invited to join the band full-time but declined because of a prior commitment to Toto.
Dire Straits released their final studio album On Every Street, in September 1991, which, although a highly anticipated release, met with more moderate success and mixed reviews, as well as a significantly reduced audience, despite Dire Straits’ previous international success. Some reviewers including the All Music Guide dubbed On Every Street as an ‘underwhelming’ follow-up to Brothers in Arms. However, it still managed to sell 8 million copies, reaching number one in the United Kingdom and number 12 in the United States.
The album failed to produce a major hit single in the United Kingdom. The first single release was the opening track “Calling Elvis“, which had a video based on the 1960s television show Thunderbirds. It charted at number 21 in the UK but dropped out of the charts within four weeks. The follow-up single, “Heavy Fuel“, failed to reach the Top 50 in the UK singles chart, however in the United States the track reached number one on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, their second song to do so (after “Money for Nothing”). Similarly, the album’s title track was also relatively unsuccessful, failing to reach the UK Top 40. The final single released from the album and from the band in the United Kingdom was “The Bug“, which contains backing vocals by Vince Gill, who was also invited to join the band full-time and declined.
Session drummer Chris Whitten joined Dire Straits as a side-man when the band embarked on an extensive two-year, 300-show tour, playing in front of some 7.1 million ticket-buying fans. While musically more elaborate than the previous 1985–1986 world tour, the band’s gruelling final tour was not as successful. It proved to be too much for Dire Straits, and by this time Mark Knopfler had had enough of such massive operations. This led to the group’s second and final break-up. Bill Flanagan described the sequence of events in Gentleman’s Quarterly: “The subsequent world tour lasted nearly two years, made mountains of money and drove Dire Straits into the ground. When the tour was over, both Knopfler’s marriage and his band were gone”. The last stop on the tour and the final touring concert of the group took place on 9 October 1992 in Zaragoza, Spain.
After the end of the tour, Mark Knopfler expressed a wish to give up touring on a big scale, and took some time out from the music business. A live album On the Night was released in May 1993, which documented the tour, again to very mixed reviews. Nevertheless, it reached the UK Top 5, a rare achievement for a live album. The four track Encores EP was also released and rose to number one in the French singles chart.
Dire Straits’ final album, Live at the BBC, was a collection of live recordings spanning the years 1978–81, which mostly featured the original line-up of the band. Released in June 1995, their third and final live album was a contractual release to Vertigo Records (now a division of Mercury Records). At this time, Mark Knopfler quietly disbanded Dire Straits and prepared to work on his first fully-fledged solo album (still signed to Mercury Records).
After disbanding Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler started his career as a solo artist, releasing his first solo album Golden Heart in March 1996 after nearly 20 years of collaborations.
Brothers in Arms was certified nine times platinum in the US in August 1996. During that year, the entire Dire Straits catalogue was remastered by Bob Ludwig and re-released on CD on Mercury Records, in most of the world outside the United States. The remasters were released in September 2000 in the United States, on Warner Bros.
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 2000, Ed Bicknell, who had managed Dire Straits, officially ended his professional relationship with Mark Knopfler and former Dire Straits members Illsley, Clark and Fletcher.
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, toward 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, The Best of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler: Private Investigations, was released in November 2005 and reached the UK Top 20. 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. Also in 2005 Brothers in Arms was re-released in a limited 20th anniversary edition, which was a success, winning a Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album at the 48th Grammy Awards ceremony.
Since the break-up of Dire Straits Mark Knopfler has shown no interest in reforming the band and is quoted as saying “Oh, I don’t know whether to start getting all that stuff back together again,” and telling reporters that “I would only do that for a charity. I’m glad I’ve experienced it all – I had a lot of fun with it – but I like things the way they are.” However, keyboardist Guy Fletcher has been associated with almost every piece of Knopfler’s solo material to date, and Danny Cummings has frequently contributed, notably to three of Knopfler’s most recent solo album releases All the Roadrunning (with Emmylou Harris), Kill to Get Crimson and Get Lucky.
In 2007, Knopfler said he did not miss the global fame that came his way at the height of the band’s success, explaining that “It just got too big.” In October 2008, John Illsley told the BBC that he wanted Knopfler to agree to reform Dire Straits for a comeback tour. Knopfler declined, saying that in the past he was often reluctant to reform the group and insisting that he “isn’t even a fan of Dire Straits’ early hits.” In the same interview, Illsley also suggested that Knopfler is enjoying his continued success as a solo artist, saying that “He’s doing incredibly well as a solo artist, so hats off to him. He’s having a perfectly good time doing what he’s doing.”Guy Fletcher stated on his website that Knopfler has no interest in reforming Dire Straits.
In December 2009, the band was 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.
In 2011, Alan Clark, Chris White, and Phil Palmer, along with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers‘ drummer Steve Ferrone, put together a band called “The Straits”, to perform at a charity show at the Albert Hall.