Dire Straits had the misfortune to be a good band at a bad time. They emerged in the punk era in Britain, but front-man Mark Knopfler’s virtuoso finger-picking and Dylan-adjacent lyrics were distinctly un-punk. Knopfler and the other members were pushing 30, and had already undertaken long apprenticeships in various bands – drummer Pick Withers had played with Dave Edmunds and Gerry Rafferty. Along with Mark Knopfler, bassist John Illsley was the band’s only constant member.
Despite their status as the sultans of white-bread rock, Mark Knopfler is a talented individual and the band have plenty of enjoyable songs. There are a couple of very good records in Dire Straits’ discography, despite their lack of critical credibility in the wake of The Clash and The Sex Pistols. They’re very much an album band – with the exception of Communiqué, which was essentially a retread of the debut – each of their albums has its own distinct identity and sonic palette.
Dire Straits covered a lot of ground in their career; they started with the stripped down four-piece sound of Dire Straits and Communiqué, before adding extra members and creating more intricate music on Making Movies and Love Over Gold. They hit the pay-dirt with 1985’s mega-hit Brothers in Arms with huge hits like ‘Walk of Life’ and ‘Money For Nothing’. They announced their breakup in 1988, but reunited for one final album, 1991’s On Every Street. Knopfler has continued making music, but on a smaller scale, concentrating on movie soundtracks and roots-rock.
Dire Straits Album Reviews
Dire Straits | Communiqué | Making Movies | Love Over Gold | Brothers in Arms
Dire Straits’ debut album was recorded as a four-piece, with Mark Knopfler’s brother David on rhythm guitar. Mark Knopfler was 28 when the record was released, and accordingly it’s a remarkably confident debut. It features the band’s signature song, ‘Sultans of Swing’, which showcased Knopfler’s lead guitar, synthesizing influences like JJ Cale, Eric Clapton, and Chet Atkins into an instantly recognizable style. Dire Straits was an immediate success, reaching #2 on the US charts and #5 in the UK.
Despite the success, Dire Straits is less than the sum of its parts – Knopfler’s melodies aren’t attention grabbing, and the songs often meander over four minutes with little textural variation. The sameness undermines the excellence of Knopfler’s material, and it’s the upbeat songs that stand out – along with the big guitar hook of ‘Sultans of Swing’, the standout is the funky ‘Southbound Again’, which injects some energy into the end of the first side. ‘Down to the Waterline’ balances a moody atmosphere with more of Knopfler’s agile guitar leads.
Dire Straits doesn’t quite have enough variety or energy to hold my attention, but it’s a strong debut nonetheless.
The discographies of the class of 1977/1978 is littered with rushed and unsatisfactory sophomore records. The Jam, Television, and Kate Bush all followed up their debuts with hastily recorded sophomore efforts. Eight weeks after releasing Dire Straits, the band were en route to the Bahamas to record a followup with Muscle Shoals producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett. While it’s a little weaker than Dire Straits, a scarcity of good material isn’t its main issue – instead Communiqué is simply too similar to its predecessor.
In particular, ‘Lady Writer’ is a good first single, but it’s too similar in tone to ‘Sultans of Swing’, while lead track ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ has a similar riff to ‘Down to the Waterline’. Accordingly, the best songs break new ground for the band – ‘Portobello Belle’ has a folk lilt, while ‘Where Do You Think You’re Going’ is more explicitly bluesy than anything on the first record. ‘Single-Handed Sailor’ is a great deep-cut, with a fluid Knopfler guitar lead.
Communiqué is a little too similar to Dire Straits for comfort, but there’s enough good material to make it worthwhile.
Mark Knopfler recruited producer Jimmy Iovine for Dire Straits’ third album, after hearing his work on Patti Smith’s ‘Because the Night’. Iovine bought along E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan to guest; Bittan’s immense on Making Movies, adding detail to Knopfler’s increasing sophisticated compositions. The band’s core lineup also underwent its first change; rhythm guitarist David Knopfler quit in frustration at his brother’s creative control towards the end of the recording sessions, and Mark re-recorded most of his brother’s part.
The presence of Bittan accentuates the similarities of these songs to Springsteen’s widescreen cinematic epics of the 1970s. Epics like ‘Tunnel of Love’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ recall romantic urban Springsteen dramas like ‘Jungleland’ and ‘Incident on 57th Street’. The two epics lead off the record, but shorter tracks like ‘Skateaway’ and ‘Espresso Love’ mine similar territory just as effectively. ‘Hand in Hand’ is a pretty ballad, but unfortunately the record doesn’t stop after the gospel-flavoured ‘Solid Rock’. The final song, ‘Les Boys’, is a bizarre homophobic shuffle which undermines an otherwise terrific record.
Making Movies successfully increased Knopfler’s songwriting ambition and musical scope; their next record would be even better.
Love Over Gold
Dire Straits expanded to a five piece for Love Over Gold, adding rhythm guitarist Hal Lindes and keyboard player Alan Clark. The larger lineup makes sense for Knopfler’s most ambitious set of songs – Love Over Gold is closer to progressive rock than you’d expect from a Dire Straits record, with only five songs. In particular, the opening ‘Telegraph Road’ stretches out over fourteen minutes. These lengthy and moody songs won’t suit every Dire Straits fan, but I find it easily their most engrossing – like on Making Movies, the addition of a pianist provides a foil for Knopfler’s lead guitar, filling up the mix.
‘Telegraph Road’ is the focal point, but Love Over Gold has plenty else to offer. ‘Private Investigations’ interpolates a film noir atmosphere with spasms of dramatic guitar noise. There’s a change of pace on ‘Industrial Disease’, which leads off the second side with a humorous commentary on the U.K.’s industrial decline. The song ‘Private Dancer’ was recorded for this album, before Knopfler decided a female voice would be more appropriate and donated it to Tina Turner. It does sound as though part of the ‘Private Dancer’ melody is retained for the gorgeous title track, my favourite Dire Straits song with its lovely chord progression.
Love Over Gold is slow and moody, but it’s Dire Straits’ most musically satisfying effort.
Brothers in Arms
Dire Straits’ fifth album was their commercial blockbuster, the payoff for a string of a consistent records. Brothers in Arms topped the UK charts for fourteen weeks, and has sold thirty million copies. Yet it’s an odd record – the material’s generally strong, but it’s a step down from the excellence of their previous two albums. The tracks often outstay their welcome, and the emphasis on synths over piano and organ means there’s less happening instrumentally. Pick Withers is a significant loss as well – session musician Omar Hakim ended up playing most of the drum parts on the record, and as a result it doesn’t feel as much like Dire Straits.
While most of the songs are strong, there’s a difficult stretch on the first side where two consecutive songs cross the boundary into bad taste. ‘Walk of Life’ has a neat organ introduction, but lapses into the same unbecoming 1950s territory as ‘Twisting by the Pool’, while ‘Your Latest Trick’ pushes the adult contemporary levers too hard with its smooth sax introduction. These two songs aside though, the material is strong – ‘Money For Nothing’ has a scorching guitar riff from Knopfler, and the trick of using real-life dialogue from appliance store workers is genius, while the other rocker ‘One World’ is strong despite being buried deep in the running order. ‘So Far Away’ gets a lot of mileage from its minimal arrangement, while other album cuts like ‘Ride Across The River’ show Knopfler’s inclination toward country and folk. The best song though, is the elegant title track, where the slow pace works beautifully for Knopfler’s guitar solos and anti-war lyrics inspired by the Falklands conflict.
Brothers in Arms can be a frustrating listen with its smooth sound and drawn out running times, but there’s enough great material here to make it worthwhile.
Ten Best Dire Straits Songs
Love Over Gold
Sultans of Swing
Romeo and Juliet
Tunnel of Love