Almanac Music: Dire Straits Inducted Into Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame

 

Over the weekend just passed, rock band Dire Straits were inducted into the Hall Of Fame in Cleveland, but their creative maestro wasn’t there to accept it. Mark Knopfler instead stayed away for reasons unknown at this stage, letting best mate and fellow Straits’ member, John Illsley accept on his behalf. It was a curious decision by Knopfler, but wholly unsurprising.

 

Unsurprising because for close to 40 years the band has usually let their music do the talking. Knopfler, hardly a recluse as has been suggested, baulked at detailed answers in questions and was always suspicious of questions revolving around the autobiographical content of many Straits songs, especially those from debut album, Dire Straits. As the band’s songwriter that was always telling. By 1985 and the release of monumental hit album Brothers In Arms, many of the songs on a Dire Straits record were not about Knopfler or his experiences at all. They were snapshots, over-heard conversations and observations. Like Money For Nothing, a massive hit in American where a hit song usually meant a hit album, and MFN was no exception. Written while sitting at the front of a New York appliance store surrounded by television sets all tuned in to MTV, Knopfler simply sat, listened and watched as a delivery driver gave a running commentary on what he was seeing on the row of MTV-playing television sets. While recording the track in Montserrat in the Caribbean, Sting happened to be on holiday on the island and was drafted in to provide that “I want my MTV” refrain that runs throughout the song. It was a monster hit and was backed by an impressive animated video, very much cutting edge for the time that ironically received high rotation on the very network the song was dissing.

 

In 1977 when Dire Straits kicked off punk was exploding throughout London and was a barren time musically, with many established artists now seen as distinctly passé. Dire Straits, with Mark Knopfler on lead guitar and vocals, his brother David on second guitar, Illsley on bass and Pick Withers on drums found themselves playing and writing music that was very much against the grain of punk. It was like the band swung on the coat tails of the punk movement without ever playing anything resembling punk music. Right from the beginning Knopfler would craft lovely stories like Sultans Of Swing about a down and out jazz band he saw playing one night, or In The Gallery about an art gallery he visited in London. Single Handed Sailor, written for the Communique album in 1979 has a wonderful guitar line running throughout, and images of the Cutty Sark moored next to the band’s rehearsal room on the Thames conjured up so beautifully. Knopfler would have known that it was the quality and timelessness of these earliest songs that would propel the band to success.

 

In 1980 with Knopfler now living in New York, the Dire Straits sound changed, with added keyboards that gave the music more scope and depth. Alan Clark and later Guy Fletcher were tasked with the layering of Knopfler’s songs – Love Over Gold in 1982 a perfect example. Fletcher joined Dire Straits properly for the Brothers In Arms album recording and year-long tour and has remained a Knopfler collaborator since.

 

Making Movies was a success and songs like Tunnel Of Love and Romeo & Juliet became enormous world-wide hits, and live set staples for years to come. The outro of TOL is a supreme lesson in dynamics and building tension until the sweeping end. It’s a brilliant track.

 

But it was during the recording process that the relationship between Mark and David fell apart. David left to pursue a solo career which he has been doing since. But what was clear then, and now was that that brother relationship never recovered. While Mark did play on David’s first solo album in 1984, the two brothers would never play in Dire Straits again, and the bad blood would simmer under the surface and occasionally boil over. In an interview with Australian television in 1983 while the band were on tour down under, Mark was asked about David, and if he would be re-joining the group. Knopfler senior’s reaction was telling; no, he generally plays keyboards now and has his own career. When pushed further and asked if he’d consider David playing keyboards with the band, the subtext from Mark was he just wasn’t good enough a musician.

 

It was the relationship falling apart that perhaps gave Knopfler and Dire Straits their biggest kick along. No longer was little brother in the band, and the leadership of the group was never again in question (if it ever truly was from the start). Mark Knopfler was songwriter, lead singer, guitarist, producer and there was no room for any other material from anyone else. From 1980 onwards, the bands’ success was going to be down to Mark and Mark alone.

 

Never the most prolific of bands having released six studio albums and two proper live albums, there was always large gaps in time between a Dire Straits record or tour. After the mammoth BIA tour in 1985/6, which ended in Sydney in April the band went on a six-year hiatus with Knopfler concentrating on producing Randy Newman, Willy De-Ville and contributing or writing soundtracks like The Princess Bride, The Colour Of Money and Last Exit To Brooklyn. In 1990 he formed the blues and roots band the Notting Hillbillies with two old Leeds mates he’d grown up with and toured the subsequent album Missing…Presumed Having A Good Time.

 

By the end of 1990 preparations had already begun for a new, and last Dire Straits album On Every Street that came out in September 1991. Again the band set off on a world tour that took them through to the middle of 1992. A live album, On The Night was released the following year and since things have been exceptionally quiet. While technically officially broken up, the band occasionally do a charity show, or a Notting Hillbillies show with a few extra band members joining the gig. Knopfler has a successful solo career now, along with Illsley and any chance of getting back together seems slim.

 

Which brings us back to three days ago and the Hall Of Fame induction, which clearly Knopfler felt was a step back in time that he really didn’t feel like facing. An equally taxing problem would have been which band members would be invited, and indeed come. Over the years some of the best musicians in the world have been stage in in a studio with Dire Straits, like Omar Hakim of Weather Report, a brilliant drummer with a great sensibility. Chris White on sax, playing that lovely intro to Your Latest Trick, and drummer Terry Williams previously from Rockpile who having been demoted for the BIA recording was placated with the intro to MFN and then spent 12 months on the gruelling tour.

 

Can you even invite past members of the band, even if you’re really either not in touch much anymore or don’t particularly like? Probably not. At best it might have been awkward and at worst a disaster. According to reports, David Knopfler was indeed set to attend the recent ceremony only to baulk at having to pay his own costs there and back after the Hall Of Fame people supposedly reneged. That’s sad, but those complaining about rich rock-star-lifestyles probably don’t realise that apart from some meagre early Dire Straits royalties, David wouldn’t have that sort of money that is expected of someone who spent even a short time in a successful rock band. Illsley, Clark and Fletcher went and spoke well and with gratitude, but it did seem a little underwhelming for a band that has had such success, and such influence.

 

There was no obligatory live performance, and no one who did the inducting; Illsley took the role on late in the build up to the proceedings.

 

Back in the mid to late 1980s Dire Straits for a short time held that poisoned chalice of being the biggest band in the world. But unlike Prince, Michael Jackson or Madonna it was achieved on the back of outstanding music, writing and production values as opposed to the fluff surrounding the artist. Many were mocked for liking Dire Straits at their peak because some saw the band as middle of the road, making safe easy-listening music. Again, those people must have cloth ears. A band that counts JJ Cale, Ry Cooder, BB King and Chuck Berry as influences, and has the wordsmith ability of Mark Knopfler writing their tunes could never be dismissed so easily, so churlishly. As grunge took over the world, and music became angry and isolating, Dire Straits quietly and with dignity, stepped back and left in their place a body of work. A list of songs that have probably been played on every major and minor radio station on the planet. And left songs like Walk Of Life, Calling Elvis and Telegraph Road for a whole new generation to enjoy.

 

As Illsley said during his speech at the awards ceremony when speaking about the songs – “I believe they will stand the test of time”.

 

So do I.

 

Dire Straits were a fantastic band, a collective, and front and centre was a guitarist who had few peers.

 

CHRIS MICHAELS

Twitter – @chrismwriter

 

Comments

  1. Tony Tea says:

    I’m not a huge fan, but why weren’t they already in the HoF?

  2. Great reading. Thanks Chris. I loved a lot of the Dire Straits songs, but the grandiosity of Stadium Rock never seemed to fit with the modest humility in their lyrics and Mark Knopfler’s finger picking guitar style.
    Watching Robert Plant with Denton last night he seemed to say that people like Jagger and Elvis are so famous that on-stage they become caricatures of themselves imitating themselves. The demand and financial return from playing their hits is so great that they end up frozen in rock and roll aspic.
    Plant, Springsteen and Knopfler escape into different genres and constant reinvention. Dylan plays what he likes, how he likes with no regard for fans yearnings.
    Knopfler as a Geordie troubadour transplanted in time and place from the Mississippi to the coaly tyne. I love the solo records like Sailing to Philadelphia, Ragpickers Dream and the All the Roadrunning collaboration with Emmylou Harris more than the DS Greatest Hits. The sound of a man growing, expressing and enjoying himself.

  3. DBalassone says:

    Excellent article Chris. I love Dire Straits, particularly the Communique/Making Movies/Love Over Gold albums. It’s a bit sad Knopfler wasn’t there to collect his gong, but scandals seem to go hand in hand with these Hall of Fame dinners e.g. Paul McCartney & Levon Helm non-appearances, John Fogerty not allowing other Creedence members to perform, Mike Love’s speech, Paul Simon dissing Art, etc.

    But I’m inclined to agree with Peter, I think Knopfler got better as a songwriter and his solo stuff is superior. I have a handpicked CD from the web called Kopfler 1996-2015 which captures all his best stuff: Darling Pretty, Done with Bonaparte, What It Is, Sailing to Philadelphia, Our Shangri-La, All the Roadrunning, Get Lucky, Piper to the End, Haul Away, Lights of Taormina, etc. And it is a delight to behold. Haul Away is a most beautiful meditation on death and helped me no end after my father passed away a few years ago.

  4. Thanks for this piece, Chris.
    I was aware that Dire Straits were to be inducted into the HoF, but unaware that the ceremony had already taken place. I cannot believe that there was no musical tribute by other artists – these are always a highlight. There is a level of controversy surrounding the RnR HoF, who they induct, and who make up the committee. Was Knopfler philosophically opposed to the HoF in some way?

    Dire Straits will always hold a special place for me, as they were the first band that I ever saw live (Festival Hall 1980). Knopfler is one of the guitar greats. And I agree that his solo stuff is superb

  5. Tony Tea – Yeah it did take a while.

    Peter_B – Thanks heaps for the feedback. Such a joy to listen to their music, and Mark’s solo work.
    He’s really become a great poet almost over the years and taken on many new musical directions.

    DBalassone – Thank you appreciate it. I also love the first three – four albums. Just brilliant. Very reminiscent of JJ Cale – sort of porch music late at night just chillin. The guitar work on those early albums is brilliant, and the four piece band really left a lot of space for great guitar lines.

    Smokie – I really just think it was not of interest to Mark. Basically just had moved on from that time and era. Very doubtful if they would ever get back together really, and who would actually be in the band. I’ve been lucky enough over the years to interview David Knopfler, John Illsley and have a few guitar chats with Jack Sonni who played second guitar so well on the BIA tour.

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