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 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 less relevant. With a core band of Knopfler, Illsley, and keyboardists Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher, they’re reliant on outside musicians; On Every Street could have been branded as a Knopfler solo album. It suffers from 1990s CD bloat, running for an hour. On Every Street has its moments – 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 mainly worthy, 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’ 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. The four-piece format is limiting despite Mark Knopfler’s prowess as a writer and guitarist – the group’s slow tempos and literate songs sound better with more detailed arrangments. 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 was the first album to sell one million copies in the new format. Brothers in Arms is their first album without founding drummer Pick Withers; without him, 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 solo. 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 while recording 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 solos, 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?