10 Best Dire Straits Songs

Dire Straits emerged at the height of punk in the UK, where Mark Knopfler’s smooth and accomplished guitar playing was at odds with the prevailing trends. Coupled with Mark Freuder Knopfler’s questionable taste in sweatbands, Dire Straits were never cool.

Most of these ten tracks are taken from 1980’s Making Movies and 1982’s Love Over Gold. This is my favourite Dire Straits era as they fleshed out their sound and Mark Knopfler’s songs became more ambitious. The band lost something when original drummer Pick Withers quit after Love Over Gold, as his subtle touch was a key part of the band’s sound.

For years my only Dire Straits record was the 1988 compilation Money For Nothing, which eight of these ten songs are drawn from.

10 Best Dire Straits Songs

#10 Espresso Love

from Making Movies, 1980
Rhythm guitar David Knopfler quit Dire Straits while recording Making Movies, clashing with his brother. Mark re-recorded David’s guitar tracks, while he also took the opportunity to expand the group’s sound, featuring The Street Band’s Roy Bittan on piano. The studio version of ‘Espresso Love’ was belatedly released as a single in 1992.

#9 Money For Nothing

from Brothers In Arms, 1985
‘Money For Nothing’ has its issues. It’s lengthy and the lyrics, taken verbatim from Mark Knopfler writing down a conversation he heard in an appliance store, are problematic. But the bluesy central riff is powerful enough to render such concerns immaterial. Sting received a writing credit for his “I want my MTV” hook, recycled from The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’.

#8 Private Investigations

from Love Over Gold, 1982
‘Private Investigations’ is the song equivalent of a film noir, reportedly inspired by Raymond Chandler’s novels. It features great guitar work from Knopfler, both the evocative acoustic finger-picking in the introduction and the hard-hitting electric chords in the climax. Atmospheric and slow-paced, ‘Private Investigations’ seems more like a beloved deep cut than a hit single, but it reached #2 on the UK singles chart.

#7 Tunnel of Love

from Making Movies, 1980
‘Tunnel of Love’ takes its intro from “The Carousel Waltz” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II – making it one of only three Dire Straits songs not solely written by Mark Knopfler. The “Spanish City” in the song is a leisure centre in Whitley Bay in England. With Bittan on piano, ‘Tunnel of Love’ is reminiscent of Springsteen’s romantic epics.

#6 Brothers in Arms

from Brothers in Arms, 1985
‘Brothers in Arms’ was written in 1982, the year of the Falklands War. An anti-war song, Knopfler recorded a new version for the 25th anniversary of the conflict. It’s beautiful and atmospheric, with Knopfler wringing admirable emotion out of his guitar leads. ‘Brothers in Arms’ was reportedly the first song released as a CD single.

#5 Romeo and Juliet

from Making Movies, 1980
Like the rest of Making Movies, there’s a decided Bruce Springsteen influence on ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Roy Bittan is on piano, and producer Jimmy Iovine was recruited after Knopfler enjoyed his production on Patti Smith’s ‘Because the Night’ (co-written by Springsteen). The song was inspired by Knopfler’s short relationship with Holly Vincent, vocalist of Holly and the Italians. It’s not as desperate as Shakespeare’s tale of two star-crossed lovers – instead, it recalls Springsteen’s romantic epics like ‘Incident on 57th Street’.

#4 Sultans of Swing

from Dire Straits, 1978
Dire Straits’ breakthrough hit suffers from overexposure – it’s a favourite tune of buskers around here. Nevertheless, it introduced the world to Mark Knopfler’s distinctive finger-picked guitar style and the central riff is still magical. The tale of a struggling band is the perfect breakthrough hit for a musician who spent years playing his dues. Knopfler was 29 when Dire Straits was released, and he’d spent years playing in bars and working as a journalist.

#3 Telegraph Road

from Love Over Gold, 1982
Love Over Gold opens with this fourteenminute lament about industrialisation, a great platform for Knopfler’s emotive soloing. According to Songfacts:

The Telegraph Road is a major north-south 70 mile thoroughfare in Michigan. Mark Knopfler was inspired to write this song while riding in the front of the tour bus, which made the journey down Telegraph Road. At the time, Knopfler was reading the novel The Growth Of the Soil by the Nobel Prize winning Norwegian author Knut Hamsun and he was inspired to put the 2 together and write a song about the beginning of the development along Telegraph Road and the changes over the ensuing decades. This was a metaphor for the development of America and the ruining of one man’s dreams in the wake of its decline, in particular focusing on unemployment.

#2 Portobello Belle (Live)

from Communique, 1979/Alchemy, 1984
Dire Straits’ second album feels too close to a retread of their debut. But ‘Portobello Belle’ came to life in its live form – I’m choosing the live version featured on the compilation Money For Nothing, drawn from 1984’s Alchemy. The more relaxed vocal brings out the folky Irish romanticism of the song. Knopfler’s relaxed songs suit more sophisticated arrangements – the saxophone solos on the live version of ‘Portobello Belle’ are a welcome addition to the austere original version.

#1 Love Over Gold

from Love Over Gold, 1982
I’m not sure if this title track to Dire Straits’ 1982 album is anyone else’s favourite Dire Straits song, but I adore it. The piano introduction and the evocative verses are gorgeous. Melodically, the “it takes love over gold” section reminds me melodically of a famous outtake from the record, ‘Private Dancer’. Knopfler thought the song was better suited to a female voice and donated it to Tina Turner.

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  1. Thanks for an excellent list (as always) for an amazing band.
    Glad you didn’t put “Twisting By the Pool” which was on my worst songs of the 1980s list.

    • Yup ‘Twisting By The Pool’ is a pretty weird anomaly from them – I don’t like “fun” Dire Straits much.

  2. A good list except for the absence of two of my favourite DS songs, “Skateaway” and “Industrial Disease.” I was disappointed they didn’t play those when I saw them live in 1985. Mark does have a unique guitar style.

    • I should have had a shoutout list on the top for narrow misses, and both of those should be on it. Both from my favourite Dire Straits phase (albums 3 + 4) – anything from those two albums could have made the list really, except Les Boys.

  3. Nice list, Graham! I still enjoy listening to Dire Straits. My two favorite albums are their eponymous debut and “Making Movies.”

    And, yes, even though it’s been overexposed, I think my no. 1 still would be “Sultans of Swing” – just love Mark Knopfler’s melodic guitar playing on that tune.

    I probably would have added at least one more tune from the first album, such as “Water of Love” or “Down to the Waterline.” From Communique, my pick would have been “Once Upon a Time in the West”.

    • I hear a lot of buskers playing Sultans of Swing around these parts. That central riff is magical though. I like the band a lot more once they started using keyboards – doesn’t work for every band, but it worked great for Dire Straits.

    • You’re the second person to mention Skateaway – could have easily scraped in ahead of Espresso Love.

    • Thanks for listening. I play piano (albeit not that well) which is probably why I gravitate to it. Very much a piano song with its complex chord structure.

  4. I forgot my top ten – here they are :-

    1. Tunnel Of Love
    2. Telegraph Road
    3. Sultans Of Swing
    4. Espresso Love
    5. Love Over Gold
    6. Private Investigations
    7. Wild West End
    8. Southbound Again
    9. Lady Writer
    10. Skateaway

  5. Communique is an album I’m really unfamiliar with…
    I would have “Industrial Disease and Skateaway in somewhere but it’s a good list. I like Dire Straits and love his guitar playing but it’s a band that I will listen to in streaks or periods if that makes sense.
    “Romeo and Juliet” is awesome and that one disappears off of my radar some but it shouldn’t.

    I can still listen to Sultans of Swing but not Money for Nothing for the same reason you talk about.

    • Skateaway and Industrial Disease would be a good #11 and #12. The live version of Portobello Belle is much better than the original IMO.

      I did regard them as a bit dad-rock and uncool for a while, but they have some really solid albums and Knopfler is talented.

      • Knopfler won me when I first heard Sultans of Swing. When that song came out the guitar tone and playing was unlike anything else.

        You are correct they were not cool…Money for Nothing helped them in that department somewhat. I’ll take a listen to Portobello Belle live.

  6. I grew up about five miles from Telegraph Road and it never dawned on me until a few years ago that the song was about THAT particular Telegraph Road. Once I realized that and actually, you know, decided to finally absorb the lyrics, it made so, so much more sense. And, sadly, the song is still relevant 40 years later.

    • I didn’t realise the Telegraph Road was in the US until I was writing about it for this. I always assumed it was Australian for some reason.

  7. I agree broadly with your choices but would have found room for Walk of Life (although at the time I thought the keyboard sound was cheesy and the rhythm guitar too sappy – but that says more about me than the music). Now I just think it’s glorious. From the first album I would have included Wild West End. When the album emerged I was in London with my band, trying my luck. The bass player and I brought the album back to our crummy flat, listened to Knopfler’s guitar playing, looked at each other and agreed we might as well pack it in there and then.

    • You may enjoy the website http://www.wolproject.com/, where Walk of Life is put on the closing credits of iconic movies.

      It’s kind of crazy that Knopfler didn’t break through until he was almost 30 – just seems like a natural and commercially viable talent. I like your story though.

  8. I am almost sure that Sting did not want to receive credits for Money for Nothing. Actually MK and Sting are friends or were friends. It was A&M Records that push for that.
    Regarding Dire Straits music I am not a big fan but clearly MK knows how to play guitar. And when they started they were different from all the punk / post punk / new wave proposals from that era. The Band was good, but not “that good”.
    And overexposure is not a capital crime. I chose Sultans Of Swing.

    • I read that Knopfler played Sting a demo, and Sting was really impressed. Knopfler challenged him to add something to the song. I would have gone with over-rated a while ago but Love Over Gold and Making Movies are very good records.

  9. Cant lose with this band. I find myself singing ‘Wild West End’ a lot. Just love the lyrics and the music. Cinematic.
    ‘My conductress on the # 19 , she was a honey…… greasy greasy hair”

  10. Really good to see Portobello Belle here. If you swapped out Espresso Love for The Man’s Too Strong and Money for Nothing for something like Where Do You Think You’re Going or even something ‘newer’ like Iron Hand then it’d match my own top ten.

    • Cool! I think you’re the first person to suggest something from On Every Street – I like it, but it doesn’t quite feel like Dire Straits to me.

      • Well… I mean there’s definitely a line that runs through those first four studio albums and Brothers In Arms almost feels like a different band with just Knopfler and Illsley left from that lineup, but Knopfler’s guitar and songwriting is just as strong across those last two and I feel a strong thread binds songs like Wild West End to Man’s Too Strong and on to Iron Hand and Private Investigations to On Every Street / Fade To Black. Were it not for CD bloat and ‘kitchen sink’ production it would’ve sounded more Dire Straits than Brothers In Arms I think. I’ve been working up my ‘guitarists’ post recently so have been digging a lot of Knopfler’s work and it’s the one common factor that means even those albums released with no awareness of their context (punk and then alt.rock) remain bloody good still

  11. All those in your ten are great- I think ‘Money For Nothing’ now suffers a bit from overplay and editing. My #1 – “Romeo And Juliet” which I was glad to see high on your list!

    • Money for Nothing and Sultans of Swing both feel a little slow and overlong to me – they can wear out their welcome on radio. But since I haven’t really listened to the radio for years it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to.

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