One glance at Mark Knopfler’s bandana will tell you that Dire Straits have never been a fashionable band. Emerging in 1978, at the height of punk, their literate bar-band rock appealed to conservative listeners not enamoured by the upstart sounds of The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
Despite their lack of critical cachet, Dire Straits are accomplished album artists – almost all of their albums have their own identity, from the stripped down four-piece sound of their debut to the hi fi blockbuster Brothers in Arms. I’ve only ranked their studio albums, but fans often vouch for the 1984 live album Alchemy.
Mark Knopfler grew up in Newcastle, and formed Dire Straits in London in 1977. The original lineup also featured Pick Withers on drums, Mark’s brother David on rhythm guitar, and John Illsley on bass, the band’s only other constant member. The lineup grew over time, and the addition of keyboards from 1980’s Making Movies helped to flesh out Knopfler’s slow-paced songs. Knopfler was always the focal point, with his distinctive finger-picked lead guitar and his songs tinged with folk, blues and country.
After Knopfler wound down Dire Straits in 1995, he’s continued making music but he’s often gravitated to low key work like instrumental soundtracks. It seems evident that Knopfler loves making music, but didn’t appreciate the pressure of fronting one of the world’s most popular bands.
Dire Straits Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best
#6 On Every Street
In 1985 Dire Straits were huge. By 1991, reformed after a hiatus, they were far less relevant. On Every Street is more like a Knopfler solo album, and suffers from 1990s CD bloat. Nonetheless it’s a respectable swansong – the riff of ‘Heavy Fuel’ recalls ‘Money for Nothing’ and the title track is pretty.
Shortly after their debut was released, Dire Straits were back in the studio recording a follow-up. The songs are largely fine, but it’s so close in tone to its predecessor that it feels like a facsimile; I enjoy ‘Lady Writer’, but it’s very reminiscent of ‘Sultans of Swing’. The bluesy ‘Where Do You Think You’re Going’ and the folkish ‘Portobello Belle’ do break some new ground for the group.
#4 Dire Straits
It’s a little churlish placing the group’s successful debut in the bottom half of the list, but the four-piece sound is limiting despite Mark Knopfler’s prowess as a writer and guitarist. The lack of diversity dulls the impact of well-written songs like ‘Six Blade Knife’ and ‘Southbound Again’. The breakthrough hit ‘Sultans of Swing’ still sounds great, despite the efforts of buskers and amateur bands, with its smooth riff and solos.
#3 Brothers in Arms
Dire Straits’ fifth album was an unexpected blockbuster in the early CD era. It’s their first album without drummer Pick Withers, and they sound more like a studio project than a band. There are terrific tracks like the riff rocker ‘Money for Nothing’ and the elegiac title track with Knopfler’s emotive guitar soloing. There’s also a rough stretch on the first side with the played out ‘Walk of Life’ and the cheesy lounge of ‘Your Latest Trick’.
#2 Making Movies
Knopfler kicked his brother, rhythm guitarist David Knopfler, out of the band during the recording of their third album. Guest keyboardist, Roy Bittan of the E-Street Band, fills out their sound with his piano. As the title suggests, the record is full of cinematic songs that recall Springsteen’s romantic 1970s epics. Lengthy workouts like ‘Tunnel of Love’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are among the band’s most beloved tracks. Points are deducted for the closer ‘Les Boys’, a misguided homophobic shuffle.
#1 Love Over Gold
Dire Straits peaked with their fourth album, consisting of five lengthy songs. The key track is ‘Telegraph Road’, a fourteen minute historical epic with plenty of space for Knopfler’s guitar soloing, but there are treasures everywhere. The film noir atmosphere of ‘Private Investigations’, with its spasms of guitar noise, and the dark humour of ‘Industrial Disease’ are also excellent. My favourite Dire Straits song, though, is the pretty title track.
Do you have a favourite Dire Straits album? Or song?