The back story is like a fantasy.
In 1977 Mark Knopfler was so broke following his recent divorce he had to go and sleep in his brother David’s flat, where John Illsley happened to be staying. As Mark was a lead guitarist, David played rhythm and John bass, it seemed straightforward, once they had found drummer Pick Withers, to form a band. And what better name to call a band that had no money?: Dire Straits.
Within a year they released their eponymous album, which went to number one in France, Germany and Australia and number two in the US Billboard charts. On the other hand, the impossibly catchy single Sultans of Swing, which is specifically about a band that is down on its luck, shot into the top 10 in the UK and top five in the US. To paraphrase their hit single, ‘people felt alright when they heard the music ring.’
And they felt alright for many years more as Dire Straits went on to become one of the biggest bands in the world and Mark Knopfler widely acknowledged as one of the greatest guitar heroes of all time. 7th October 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of Dire Straits’ debut album release and there seems no better time to listen again to those nine marvellous songs, and recall their impact.
At the time, a review in Rolling Stone noted that the mix of country, rock, jazz and folk ‘had nothing to do with what’s currently happening in the industry’ - but that the musicians in Dire Straits ‘couldn’t care less.’ Dire Straits were out there all on their own. But they knew they had something special and they were going to back it all the way.
The album kicks off with Down to the Waterline, which was recorded along with the other tracks in Basing Street Studios in London, in early 1978. Almost brash in its confident beginning, the track features outstanding guitar playing and strong lyrics and was rightly a huge favourite at Dire Straits’ concerts. It is followed by Water of Love, featuring Knopfler’s slide on his 1938 National Style O 14 fret guitar, and backed by some creative drum rhythm. It is worth saying at this point that while Mark Knopfler rightly takes great credit for his lyrics, compositions, guitar playing and producing, he was always beautifully supported by a tight rhythm section from the other highly talented musicians mentioned above.
The blues and jazz boogie Setting Me Up has been highlighted as another track that is ‘out of its time’; it is very rare for a band to go ‘from nothing’ – in terms of this being a debut album – to record something so original. Knopfler reportedly played his black Telecaster thinline to achieve the sound he sought on this track. Six Blade Knife and Southbound Again, on the other hand, complete an outstanding start to the album, which used to be called ‘side one’ when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
The eternal Sultans of Swing is followed by In the Gallery, which one critic described as “a petulant attack on avant-gardism — i.e., a real yawn.” To balance that view, this reviewer would draw attention to its compelling lyrics that highlight the lot of many artists; in this case a sculptor. The fact that Knopfler champions struggling artists in several of his songs cannot be separated from his own situation at the time, and his wry observations of these characters adds immeasurably to the charm of the album.
Wild West End has a lovely melody and again finds Knopfler in observant, sardonic and romantic mode as he wanders through London. Here, the guitar hero sports one of his favourite six strings; his 1961 red Fender Strat.
With its outstanding songwriting, variety and gorgeous instrumentation, Dire Straits’ debut is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered, and rediscovered. Extraordinary in its moment, it is not surprising that this album has more than stood the test of time.