All I do is miss you, and the way we used to be.
All I do is keep the beat, and the bad company.
All I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme.
Juliet, I'd do the stars with you, anytime.
- Romeo and Juliet (1980)
Dire Straits1 was founded by guitarist Mark Knopfler, who had travelled down from his native Tyneside to London, originally in search of a journalism career. Recruiting his brother, David, on rhythm guitar, John Illsley2 on bass, and veteran Pick Withers on drums, Knopfler immediately embarked on a series of singles influenced by his upbringing on folk, country and blues.
Knopfler's guitar style was unique and extraordinarily lyrical, due to his ability to play a melody with his fingertips (ie, without a plectrum) while playing chords on the lower strings. This made for some stunning solos and instrumental breaks, a feature characteristic of all the band's works.
Coming, as they did, amid the punk revolution of the late 1970s, singles such as the upbeat 'Sultans of Swing' and the melancholy 'Down To The Waterline' immediately set alight the public's desire for a gentler alternative to the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. It is rare that a debut album has been so well received as the eponymous Dire Straits (containing the two aforementioned songs, plus the oh-so-smooth 'Wild West End'), and Knopfler's name was made in weeks. His dynamic, almost vocal style with the guitar was pronounced unique, and has remained unsurpassed today in terms of sheer expression.
The follow-up to Dire Straits was the more introspective Communiqué. Something of a disappointment, given the impact of the debut album, Communiqué nevertheless spawned the drive-rock (and later live-show) staple of 'Once Upon a Time in the West'.
After two years, and two albums, Knopfler decided that the band had exhausted most of the roads open to guitar-led folk/blues bands. Not wanting to becoming a tired act in the Status Quo mould, Knopfler instead recruited keyboard players Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher (ex-Roxy Music), and began work on a smoother sound, incorporating ideas from the then-fashionable New Romantic style.
The resultant album, Making Movies, was a work of outstanding beauty, and one that could teach Tony Hadley3 et al a lot about romanticism. The opening two tracks, 'Tunnel of Love' and 'Romeo and Juliet' are among Dire Straits' most moving. One a depiction of fleeting love among the touring fairgrounds of Knopfler's native Tyneside, the other a frustrated paean of a returning boyfriend, the two together are touching in their simplicity and their passion. Making Movies has still more to offer, though, in the form of the upbeat sing-along style of 'Solid Rock' and the barbed lyrics of 'Expresso Love.' In short, it is the perfect introduction to Dire Straits - the band's multifarious talents all on display through a dazzling array of styles.
Love Over Gold, Dire Straits' fourth album, bemused fans and critics alike, and still has the power to do so today. Kicking off with 'Telegraph Road': the 15-minute, Bruce Springsteen-esque, blue-collar epic of the American Dream, the album initially reduced many fans to boredom and many critics to slurs of 'progressive rock'4. The second track5, 'Private Investigations', the whisky-trodden story of a private detective, was overlain with bursts of piano, marimba and overdriven guitar, and provoked much the same reaction. Due to the minimal artistic competition in the public eye at the time, the 'concept album' sneers gradually became muted, though, and Love Over Gold is today a much-treasured artefact.
Around this time, Dire Straits gained a reputation as exemplary live performers, particularly as Knopfler was keen to tour with an extended band and guest soloists. The live double-album, Alchemy, did little to destroy this reputation, and the band's reputation for live excellence finally peaked in the early 1990s when they were joined on tour by Paul Franklin, renowned as easily the best pedal-steel guitar-player in the world6.
...The Finished Article
Unusually quiet for three years, other than the half-hearted upbeat EP release 'Twisting By The Pool', Dire Straits were in fact composing what was to be their most successful album, Brothers In Arms. Since its release, every conceivable aspect of the album has been analysed to death, including the cover art, the National steel guitar supposedly representing war veterans ascending to heaven.
All that needs to be said about Brothers in Arms is that it is the definitive album of two sides. On the first, Knopfler runs the band through a full musical workout, from the smooth bass-led funk of 'So Far Away', through the irresistibly catchy keyboard riff of 'Walk of Life' and the equally addictive guitar riff of 'Money For Nothing'7 to the relaxed jazz ballad of 'Your Latest Trick' and the touching ballad of 'Why Worry', all underlined with Knopfler's, by now, trademark gravelly vocals.
The second side of the album was something of a plea; a cry out against the futility of war. All four tracks are markedly different and memorable, the militaristic drumming of 'The Man's Too Strong' being particularly hard to forget. All that remains, in a departure from past form, is for the ultimate title track to pass the message: 'Brothers in Arms' being a fitting, yet unostentatious, memorial song to every political war that has since passed across the face of the Earth. Ending on a sea of synthesised sound, the power of such a closing track cannot be underestimated.
After many years touring, the band's fans had assumed that Dire Straits were through with new music. However, somewhat out of the blue, came a new album in the spring of 1991. On Every Street was perhaps summed up best by Rolling Stone magazine, when they said:
Knopfler is an impeccable guitarist, a musician of exquisite taste...it shows why impeccability in rock is often a minor virtue and tastefulness a smooth path to tedium.
For the British public, the dream was over. The new wave of Britrock had firmly begun, and Knopfler's dinosaur rock8 was consigned to the scrap heap. In truth, the album lacked solid material, although the nostalgic 'Calling Elvis', and the almost grungy 'Heavy Fuel' became big hits in Scandinavia - for the last fifteen years, home to Dire Straits' biggest fanbase.