“Dire Straits” derived its name in the same way as Led Zeppelin from a joking comment by a fellow musician. Rather than just crashing like a lead balloon, “Dire Straits” were in a financial deficit when they began performing. Mark Knopler formed the group in the late 1970s in London during the post-punk era as a pub rock band. They played melancholy rock in a stripped down and minimalistic style that is linked to the roots rock revival that was beginning at that time.
The original lineup of the band was Mark Knopfler on guitar and vocals, his brother David playing rhythm guitar, John Illsley playing bass and Pick Withers on the drum stool. They produced six studio albums during the time that they were together in two different time periods. The first from 1977 to 1988 and the second from 1990 to 1995.
Mark Knopler had a successful solo career as well and produced nine solo albums and nine soundtrack albums along with collaborations with and appearances on albums by everyone from Bob Dylan to Chet Atkins.
Here are Blues Rock Review’s top 10 Dire Straits songs.
10. “Private Investigations”
Love Over Gold was “Dire Straits’” fourth album and was released in 1982. “Private Investigations” was written and performed in a cinematic style best described as film noir, deviating from the band’s normal sound. It could be the soundtrack for a cinematic version of a Raymond Chandler private detective novel. After Mark’s brother David quit the band during the recording session for Making Movies the band became a trio. Two new members were recruited prior to the next album augmenting “Dire Straits” to a quintet with the addition of Alan Clark playing keyboards and Hal Lindes on guitar. The sound is tense and atmospheric as Knopfler recites the lyrics over a background where the thumping bass blends the composition together with a flamenco sounding guitar interplaying with a marimba and piano.
9. “Money for Nothing”
“Money For Nothing” was a number one hit for “Dire Straits’” from their 1985 album Brothers in Arms. The album was nominated for a “Grammy” as “Album of the Year” and won the “Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.” The music video produced by Steve Barron for “Money For Nothing” won the 1986 MTV Video Music Award for “Best Video.” The song was co-written by Mark Knopfler and Sting and the lyrics were based on comments that Mark overheard employees at an appliance store making as they watched MTV videos. His experience as a journalist influenced him as he reported their words verbatim.
8. “Telegraph Road”
The first time that I read the title of the “Dire Straits” song “Telegraph Road” I immediately thought of my original home where I grew up in Greater Detroit, Michigan. Telegraph Road was also known as Hwy. 24 and was on the far west side of Detroit. Mark Knopfler was sitting in the front of the tour bus when they drove to a Michigan gig on Telegraph road which inspired the song. The song appears on Love Over Gold which was released in 1982 and tells the story of how the industrial age transformed what was a rural railroad road into a major highway in the midst of an industrial metropolis, with some great guitar jamming.
7. “Down to the Waterline”
“Down to the Waterline” is another gem from Dire Straits the band’s debut album. The song is about one of Knofler’s teenage romantic episodes in his hometown of Newcastle in northeast England on the Tyne River, which is the waterline. The song begins with the line “Sweet surrender on the quayside” and describes walking on the shipping docks with his then girlfriend watching the lights and listening to the foghorns.
6. “Water of Love”
“Water of Love” was another one of the five songs on the demo tape that “Dire Straits” gave to DJ Charlie Gillett, who played it on his radio show which resulted in the band landing a recording contract. It appeared on their eponymous debut along with the other four tunes and “Country” demos were made by Knopfler’s publisher without his knowledge which resulted in “Country Music” covers. The “Judds” recorded “Water of Love” for their River of Time album in 1989 and had Knopfler play guitar on their mysteriously seductive rendition.
5. “Once Upon a Time in the West”
“Once Upon a Time in the West” was on the Communique album that was released in 1979. At the time I had a friend who had connections with “Capitol Records” and he was given a hundred or more albums that were leftovers from the ones that they provided to radio stations. The ones with a hole in one corner or an embossed stamp declaring “Not For Sale.” When he had doubles he gave them to me and one of them was Communique. When I read the title for the first time I immediately thought of the 1968 Sergio Leone epic “Spaghetti Western” of the same name. When I began writing about the song I decided to watch the film again for the first time since I first saw it a lifetime ago to compare them. My conclusion is that without a doubt the two of them are unrelated.
Making Movies was released in October 1980 and “Skateaway” was a visually and lyrically cinematic song. At the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, before the advent of in-line rollerblades, regular roller skating became a popular means of transportation for a couple of years because of the fuel hikes at the time, in urban areas like Los Angeles and New York for a couple of years. The album was their third and by then “Dire Straits” became a trio after David Knopfler left the band to pursue a solo career. It preceeded MTV but the band had three videos directed by Lester Bookbinder which included “Skateaway,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Tunnel of Love.” Bruce Springsteen’s “E Street Band” Keyboardist Roy Bittan was a session player on the album as a result of his connection with record producer Jimmy Iovine who engineered Springsteen’s Born to Run album.
“Hallelujah here she come’s queen roller ball
Enchante what can I say don’t care at all”
3. “Romeo & Juliet”
It was during the sessions that produced Making Movies in 1980 that the Knopfler brothers went their separate ways because of a communication breakdown. Sibling rivalry and communication barriers have been the cause of the demise of quite a few acts over the years from the Everly Brothers to the Fogerty Brothers and Gallagher Brothers to name a few. Fortunately, Mark Knopfler managed to continue “Dire Straits” as opposed to the other examples. The song “Romeo and Juliet” is about another broken relationship between Mark and his then girlfriend, punk & new wave singer Holly Vincent using a Shakespearian model. A line in the song has Juliet singing to Romeo “Hey, la, my boyfriend’s back” which is a line from the “Angel’s summer of 1963 girl group hit “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
2. “Wild West End”
“Wild West End” is another cut from “Dire Straits” debut album and like the rest of the album the subject matter is about the band’s everyday life issues at that time ranging from money to girls. Knopfler moved to London after he graduated from Leeds University with a degree in English. The west end of London included the Soho district and was the most popular area for tourists and visitors. It was an entertainment center as well as the fashionable district with unique shops and lots of pretty girls. The song begins with a homage to “Angelucci’s,” a famous coffee bar that specialized in blending its own coffee beans.
“Stepping out to Angelucci’s
For my coffee beans.”
1. “Sultans of Swing”
The first time that I heard this song I thought that it was a new Bob Dylan song because of the voice similarity. Ironically Dylan asked Knopfler to play guitar on his first “Jesus Rock” album, Slow Train Coming in 1979 after seeing “Dire Straits in concert. Mark Knopfler was inspired to write the “Sultans of Swing” as a result of taking shelter in a local bar in Ipswich, a town in Suffolk, England one rainy night. It was nearly closing time and an unexceptional bar band was finishing up its set for a crowd of not more than a half dozen disinterested drunks. When they concluded their performance for the night the lead singer told the audience “Goodnight and thank you, we are the “Sultans of Swing.” Knopfler said that it was laughable since they were anything but the “Sultans of Swing.” The song was on the five songs on the demo tape that got them their record deal and it became the first “Dire Straits” single from their eponymous 1978 debut album.