Dire Straits were a British rock band formed in London in 1977 by Mark Knopfler (lead vocals and lead guitar), David Knopfler (rhythm guitar and backing vocals), John Illsley (bass guitar and backing vocals), and Pick Withers (drums and percussion). They were active from 1977 to 1988 and again from 1991 to 1995. The band became one of the world’s best-selling music artists, with album sales of over 100 million.
Their first hit single “Sultans of Swing“, from their self-titled debut album released in 1978, reached the top ten in the US chart and became a top ten hit in the UK the following year. The band released several hit singles in the 1980s, such as “Romeo and Juliet” (1981), “Private Investigations” (1982), “Twisting by the Pool” (1983), “Money for Nothing” (1985), and “Walk of Life” (1986). Their most commercially successful album was Brothers in Arms (1985), which has sold more than 30 million copies and was the first album to sell a million copies on the compact disc (CD) format. Dire Straits’ sound was drawn from a wide variety of musical influences including jazz, folk, and country, as well as the blues-rock of J. J. Cale and Eric Clapton. Their stripped-down sound contrasted with punk rock and demonstrated a roots rock influence that emerged from pub rock.
According to the Guinness Book of British Hit Albums, Dire Straits have spent over 1,100 weeks on the UK albums chart, ranking fifth all-time. Brothers in Arms is the eighth-best-selling album in UK chart history. Their career spanned 15 years. They split up in 1988, reformed in 1991, and disbanded again in 1995 after Mark Knopfler launched his solo career full-time. There were several changes in personnel over both periods, with Mark Knopfler and Illsley the only members who remained throughout the band’s career. Dire Straits won four Grammy Awards, three Brit Awards (Best British Group twice), two MTV Video Music Awards, and various other music awards. The band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Brothers Mark and David Knopfler, from Newcastle in northeast England, and friends John Illsley and Pick Withers, both from Leicester in the east midlands of England, formed the band in London in 1977. Withers, already a 10-year music business veteran, was the most seasoned of the quartet, having been a session drummer for Dave Edmunds, Gerry Rafferty, Magna Carta and others through the 1970s, as well as having been part of the group Spring which recorded an album for RCA in 1971. At the time of the band’s formation, Mark Knopfler was working as a teacher at art college, John Illsley was studying at Goldsmiths’ College, and David Knopfler was a social worker. Mark Knopfler and Withers had previously both been part of the pub rock group Brewers Droop at different points in around 1973.
In 1980, Dire Straits were nominated for two Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for “Sultans of Swing”. In July 1980 the band started recording tracks for their third album. Produced by Jimmy Iovine with Mark Knopfler also sharing credit, Making Movies was released in October 1980. During the recording sessions, tension between Mark and David Knopfler took its toll on the band, and David Knopfler left over creative differences with his brother to pursue a solo career; he was uncredited on the album. The sessions continued with Sid McGinnis on rhythm guitar and keyboardist Roy Bittan from Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band. After the recording sessions were completed, keyboardist Alan Clark and Californian guitarist Hal Lindes joined Dire Straits as full-time members for tours of Europe, North America, and Oceania.
Making Movies received mostly positive reviews and featured longer songs with more complex arrangements, a style which would continue for the rest of the band’s career. The album featured many of Mark Knopfler’s most personal compositions. The most successful chart single was “Romeo and Juliet” (number 8 in the UK singles chart), a song about a failed love affair, with Knopfler’s trademark in keeping personal songs under fictitious names. Although never released as a hit single, “Solid Rock” was featured in all Dire Straits’ live shows from this point on for the remainder of their career, while the album’s lengthy opening track, “Tunnel of Love“, with its intro “The Carousel Waltz” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was featured in the film An Officer and a Gentleman. Although “Tunnel of Love” only reached the position of No. 54 in the UK Singles Chart when released as a single in 1981, it remains one of Dire Straits’ most famous and popular songs and immediately became a favourite at concerts. Making Movies stayed in the UK Albums Chart for five years, peaking at No. 4. Rolling Stone ranked Making Movies number 52 on its list of the “100 Best Albums of the Eighties”.
Dire Straits’ fourth studio album Love Over Gold, an album of songs filled with lengthy, experimental passages that featured Alan Clark’s piano and keyboard work, was well received when it was released in September 1982, going gold in America and spending four weeks at number one in the United Kingdom. The title was inspired by graffiti seen from the window of Knopfler’s old council flat in London. The phrase was taken from the sleeve of an album by Captain Beefheart. Love Over Gold was the first Dire Straits album produced solely by Mark Knopfler, and its main chart hit, “Private Investigations“, gave Dire Straits their first top 5 hit single in the United Kingdom, where it reached the number 2 position despite its almost seven-minute length, and became another of the band’s most popular live songs.
In other parts of the world, “Industrial Disease“, a song that looks at the decline of the British manufacturing industry in the early 1980s, focusing on strikes, depression and dysfunctionality, was the main single from the album, particularly in Canada, where it became a top 10 hit. As well as the title track and “It Never Rains”, Love Over Gold featured the 14-minute-long epic “Telegraph Road“. Also written by Knopfler during this period was “Private Dancer“, which did not appear on the album, but was eventually given to Tina Turner for her comeback album of the same name. Love Over Gold reportedly sold two million copies during the first six weeks after its release. Shortly after the release of Love Over Gold, drummer Pick Withers left the band. His replacement was Terry Williams, formerly of Rockpile and a range of other Welsh bands including Man.
In 1983, a four-song EP titled ExtendedancEPlay was released while Love Over Gold was still in the album charts. It featured the hit single “Twisting By the Pool” which reached the Top 20 in the UK and Canada. The band won Best British Group at the 1983 Brit Awards. With session keyboard player Tommy Mandel added to the live line-up to help Clark cover the band’s increasingly detailed arrangements, Dire Straits embarked on an eight month long Love over Gold Tour which finished with two sold out concerts London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 22 and 23 July 1983. The double album Alchemy Live, was a recording of excerpts from these two concerts and was reportedly released without studio overdubs. It was mixed in November 1983 and released in March 1984, reaching the Top 3 in the UK Albums Chart. The concert was also issued on VHS and was remastered and released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2010.
During 1983 and 1984 Mark Knopfler was also involved in other projects outside of the band. He wrote the music scores for the films Local Hero featuring the keyboard work of fellow Dire Straits member Alan Clark, and Cal, which were also released as albums. Also, during this time Knopfler produced Bob Dylan‘s Infidels album which also featured Alan Clark on keyboards, as well as Aztec Camera and Willy DeVille. Also in 1984, John Illsley released his first solo album, Never Told a Soul, to which Mark Knopfler, Alan Clark and Terry Williams contributed.
Dire Straits returned to recording at the end of 1984, and began recording tracks at Air Studios in Montserrat for their upcoming fifth studio album to be titled Brothers in Arms with Mark Knopfler and Neil Dorfsman producing. The recording sessions saw further personnel changes. Mandel had returned to session work and the band added a full-time second keyboardist, Guy Fletcher, who had previously worked as a session musician with Roxy Music and on the Cal soundtrack. Guitarist Hal Lindes left the band during the recording sessions and was replaced by New York guitarist Jack Sonni.
According to a Sound on Sound magazine interview with Neil Dorfsman, the performance of then-permanent drummer Terry Williams was considered to be unsuitable for the desired sound of the album during the first month of the recording sessions. Williams was temporarily replaced by jazz session drummer Omar Hakim, who re-recorded the album’s drum parts during a two day stay before leaving for other commitments. Both Hakim and Williams are credited on the album, although Williams’ only contribution was the improvised crescendo at the beginning of “Money for Nothing“. Andy Kanavan was briefly with the band as a drummer. Williams would be back in the band for the music videos and the 1985–1986 Brothers in Arms world tour that followed.
Released in May 1985, Brothers in Arms entered the UK Albums Chart at number 1 and spent a total of 228 weeks in the charts. It went on to become the best-selling album of 1985 in the UK. Brothers in Arms was similarly successful in the US, peaking at No. 1 on Billboard 200 for nine weeks, going multi-platinum, selling nine million copies. The album spent 34 weeks at number 1 on the Australian ARIA Chart, and it remains the longest-running number one album in Australia.
The album featured a more lavish production and overall sound than Dire Straits’ earlier work, and spawned several big chart singles: “Money for Nothing”, which reached number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and number 4 in the UK Singles Chart, “So Far Away” (No. 20 UK, No. 19 US), “Brothers in Arms” (No. 16 UK), “Walk of Life” (No. 2 UK, No. 7 US), and “Your Latest Trick” (No. 26 UK). “Money for Nothing” was the first video to be played on MTV in the UK and featured guest vocals by Sting, who is credited with co-writing the song with Mark Knopfler, although it was the inclusion of the melody from “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” that triggered the copyright credit, as no actual lyrics were written by Sting. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in February 1986.
Brothers in Arms was the first album recorded entirely digitally due to Knopfler pushing for improved sound quality. Written around the period of the British involvement in the Falklands War, the album’s title track, “Brothers in Arms”, has become a favourite at military funerals. Reported to be the world’s first CD single, it was issued in the UK as a promotional item distinguished with a logo for the tour, Live in ’85, while a second to commemorate the Australian leg of the tour marked Live in ’86. Containing just four tracks, it had a very limited run. “Walk of Life” meanwhile was nearly excluded from the album when co-producer Neil Dorfsman voted against its inclusion, but the band members out-voted him. The result was Dire Straits’ most commercially successful hit single in the UK, peaking at number two.
The album is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first compact disc (CD) to sell a million copies, and it has been credited with popularising the CD format. The Guardian ranked the Brothers in Arms CD number 38 in their list of the 50 key events in rock music history. The album featured the full version of the “Money for Nothing” cut, rather than the LP version, and it also includes extended versions of all tracks on the first side of the LP, with the exception of “Walk of Life”.
The 1985–1986 Brothers in Arms world tour which followed the album’s release was phenomenally successful, with over 2.5 million tickets sold. The tour included dates in Europe, Israel, North America, and Australia and New Zealand. The band played 248 shows in over 100 different cities. Saxophonist Chris White joined the band, and the tour began on 25 April 1985 in Split, Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia). While playing a 13-night residency at Wembley Arena in London, the band moved down the road to Wembley Stadium on the afternoon of 13 July 1985, to appear in a Live Aid slot, in which their set included “Money For Nothing” with Sting as guest vocalist. The tour ended at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, Australia on 26 April 1986, where Dire Straits still holds the record for consecutive appearances at 21 nights. The band also made an impromptu attempt at the Australian folk song “Waltzing Matilda“. With 900,000 tickets sold in Australia and New Zealand it was the biggest concert tour in Australasian music history, until it was overtaken in 2017–2018 by Ed Sheeran.
Additionally in 1985, a group set out from London to Khartoum to raise money for famine relief led by John Abbey, was called “The Walk of Life”. Dire Straits donated the Brothers in Arms Gold disc to the participants in recognition of what they were doing. The band’s concert of 10 July 1985 at Wembley Arena, in which they were accompanied by Nils Lofgren for “Solid Rock” and Hank Marvin joined the band at the end to play “Going Home” (the theme from Local Hero), was televised in the United Kingdom on The Tube on Channel 4 in January 1986. (Although never officially released, bootleg recordings of the performance entitled Wembley does the Walk (2005) have been circulated.)
In 1986 Brothers in Arms won two Grammy Awards, and also won Best British Album at the 1987 Brit Awards. Q magazine placed the album at number 51 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever in 2000. The album also ranked number 351 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2003. Brothers in Arms is also ranked number 3 in the best albums of 1985 and number 31 in the best albums of the 1980s, and as of December 2017, the album was ranked the eighth-best-selling album in UK chart history, and is the 107th-best-selling album in the United States. In August 1986, MTV Europe was launched with Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”.
After the Brothers in Arms tour ended Mark Knopfler took a break from Dire Straits and during 1987 he concentrated on solo projects and film soundtracks. Dire Straits regrouped in 1988 for the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert staged on 11 June 1988 at Wembley Stadium, in which they were the headline act. They were joined for their set by Eric Clapton who performed his hit “Wonderful Tonight” with the group and played rhythm guitar on the other songs performed by the band, while guitarist Jack Sonni was absent. Soon afterwards, Williams left the band.
Mark Knopfler announced the official dissolution of Dire Straits in September 1988. He told Rob Tannenbaum in Rolling Stone: “A lot of press reports were saying we were the biggest band in the world. There’s not an accent then on the music, there’s an accent on popularity. I needed a rest.” The tremendous success of the Brothers in Arms album and the tour that went with it left the band members under a significant amount of stress, and Knopfler announced that he wanted to work on more personal projects. A greatest hits album, slyly titled Money for Nothing, was released in October 1988 and reached the number one position in the United Kingdom. Also in 1988, John Illsley released his second solo album, Glass which featured Mark Knopfler, Alan Clark, Guy Fletcher and Chris White.
In 1989, over a meal at a Notting Hill wine bar, Knopfler formed The Notting Hillbillies, a country-focused band whose line-up featured Guy Fletcher, Brendan Croker, and Steve Phillips and manager Ed Bicknell on drums. The Notting Hillbillies’ one album, Missing…Presumed Having a Good Time with its minor hit single “Your Own Sweet Way”, was released in 1990. The Notting Hillbillies toured for the remainder of the year, and also appeared on Saturday Night Live. Knopfler would further emphasise his country music influences on his 1990 collaboration with guitarist Chet Atkins, Neck and Neck.
In 1990, Dire Straits performed alongside Elton John and Eric Clapton at Knebworth Festival, playing three songs: “Solid Rock”, “Money for Nothing” and a song which Knopfler prefaced as an experimental song, unsure if they should record it on a following record. The song, a blues rock piece with solos by both Knopfler and Clapton, was titled “I Think I Love You Too Much”. This song also appeared on the 1990 album Hell To Pay as a gift to Canadian blues/jazz artist Jeff Healey from Knopfler. This was prior to the time that Knopfler, Illsley and manager Ed Bicknell decided to reform the band the following year.
- (Nearly all) 80s Studio albums