A Not So Brief History of Dire Straits


It's less than a year after The Sex Pistols released Anarchy in the UK. Teacher Mark Knopfler (guitar/vocals, born 12 August 1949), his younger brother, social worker David Knopfler (guitar - they were born in Glasgow and grew up in Newcastle) and sociology student John Illsley (bass, born 24 June 1949) are sharing a flat in Deptford, South London. They start rehearsing Mark's songs and are soon joined by Pick Withers, formerly house drummer at Dave Edmund's Rockfield studios.

Under the name of Mark's previous band, Cafe Racers, the line-up debuts at a punk festival, headlined by Squeeze, on waste ground behind Farrar House. A friend of Pick observes their sorry financial condition and says they should call themselves Dire Straits, which they do for their second gig - supporting Squeeze at the locally legendary Albany Theatre.

They scrape together 120 pounds to record a demo and take it to BBC Radio London DJ Charlie Gillett, a renowned talent-spotter. He plays the tape on his Honky Tonk show. Phonogram A&R man John Stainze is listening and, in short order, Dire Straits are signed to the Vertigo label.


Stainze contacts Ed Bicknell, former drummer in Jess Conrad's band turned agent at NEWS, and asks him to book gigs for the band. As soon as he's seen them play, he offers to manage them. They reach "an informal agreement" and Ed gets them on Talking Heads' first British tour as support act in the following January.

14 FEBRUARY - 8 MARCH 1978

Dire Straits record their first LP at Basing Street Studios, London, produced by Muff Winwood. It includes "Sultans of Swing" , "Water of Love" and "Six Blade Knife". Total budget is 12,500 pounds - including artwork


Constant live work - Marquee residency, tours of UK, France, Holland, and Germany to rapidly increasing audiences. Despite enthusiastic reviews and responses everywhere, their first single, "Sultans of Swing" and self- titled album merely drop into the charts and drop out again.

The group signs to Warner Brothers for the USA, but even before their album is released there, Knopfler visits Muscle Shoals studios to play on a Mavis Staples session produced by Jerry Wexler (whose tack record includes Aretha Franklin, The Drifters, Ray Charles). Wexler and Muscle Shoals keyboard player Barry Beckett agree to produce their second album.

27 NOVEMBER 1978 - 10 JANUARY 1979

They record "Communique" (including "Lady Writer" and "Once Upon A Time In The West") at Compass Point Studios, Nassau Bahamas. Meanwhile the Dire Straits album gives them their first Number 1 - in Australia - and climbs steadily towards the Top 10's in North America and Europe.

23 FEBRUARY - 3 APRIL 1979

Dire Straits first North American tour comprises 51 sold-out shows in 38 days, not to mention 300 interviews. Mark sessions for Steely Dan's "Gaucho" album. While they're on the road, "Sultans' of Swing" reaches Number 4 and the first album Number 2. When they play Los Angeles, Bob Dylan is in the audience and afterwards he asks Mark and Pick to play on his next album ("Slow Train Coming", his first born-again statement it transpires, recorded with Wexler and Beckett at Muscle Shoals May 1-12).

Back home in Britain, though a little later than in America, reissued "Sultans of Swing" takes off to Number 8, stirring the Dire Straits album to peak belatedly at Number 5 during a chart stay of 130 weeks.


"Communique" is released and becomes an instant worldwide hit (UK 5, US 11, the first album to ever enter the German chart at Number 1), usually sharing Top 10's with the extraordinarily durable first album. Tours of Britain, America and Europe sell out, but after pre-Christmas concerts in Dublin, Belfast, and London, Dire Straits announce a six-month break to rest.

JUNE - JULY 1980

The band record "Making Movies" (including "Tunnel of Love", "Solid Rock", "Skateaway" and "Romeo And Juliet") at The Power Station, New York, with producer Jimmy Iovine. He had been engineer/mixer on Springsteen's "Born To Run" and producer on Patti Smith's "Easter". E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan plays keyboards on the album, David Knopfler leaves for a solo career.

SEPTEMBER 1980 - JULY 1981

Auditions produce a replacement guitarist in Hal Lindes from California and a keyboard player in Alan Clark from Durham (born 5 March 1952). After the 17 October release of "Making Movies", the band tour North America, Australia and New Zealand and Europe (they draw 250,000 to their Italian concerts alone). Despite their live success "Making Movies" does less than its predecessors in the States (Number 19), but in the UK the hit single "Romeo And Juliet" lifts it to Number 4, four months after release.


They record "Lover Over Gold" in New York, Mark producing, backed up by engineer Neil Dorfsman. The first side (in LP-era-speak) comprises just two songs, "Telegraph Road" and "Private Investigations". ("Private Dancer", omitted from the album, was later chosen as the title track of the 1984 album which relaunched Tina Turner's career). Soon afterwards, Pick Withers leaves the band, expressing a desire to play jazz.

JULY 1982

Mark records his first movie soundtrack for the low budget David Puttnam production "Local Hero" (in part working on the set). He got the job after Ed Bicknell punted copies of "Making Movies" round various film producers (the album reaches number 14 in the UK the following year).

Between work on "Lover Over Gold" and "Local Hero", the demand for Mark's services as a guitarist reaches a new pitch as he records sessions for Van Morrison.

AUGUST 1982 - JULY 1983

"Private Investigations" is Dire Straits' biggest UK hit to date (Number 2), despite being radio-unfriendly at seven minutes long. "Love Over Gold" is Number 1 album for a month, their first home chart-topper, and maintains the band's progress all over the world (Number 1 in 16 countries) except that in America, like "Making Movies" it stalls at 19.

Terry Williams, formerly of Man and Dave Edmund's Rockpile, takes over the drum stool in September and immediately work on Dire Straits' "Twisting By The Pool" rock `n' roll EP (released in February). He and Mark then record with Phil Everly in London before Dire Straits hit the road.

The band's conquests include the highest-grossing tour of Australia by any band to that point, the largest public gathering ever in New Zealand (62,000 in Auckland) and their first trip to Japan.

In April - May, Mark takes time out to undertake his first production work with another artist (apart from the "Local Hero soundtrack") when he co- produces and plays on Dylan's "Infidels" album.

AUGUST 1983 - OCTOBER 1984

Mixing the tapes for the live double album "Alchemy" recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon, 22/23 July 1983, Dire Straits eschew the usual "fairy dust" of overdubs and re-recordings and decide it should be released au naturel, mistakes and all. The album comes out in March (UK 3, US 46). Through the autumn and winter of 1983, Mark writes and records soundtracks for two more British movies, "Cal" produced by David Puttnam and "Comfort and Joy", directed by Bill Forsyth of "Gregory's Girl" and "Local Hero" fame. By this time, Mark has started working with keyboard player Guy Fletcher, who joins Alan Clark in the band. The "keyboard twins" are born. In the same period, Mark and John Illsley play on David Knopfler's first solo album "Release" while John records his solo debut, "Never Told A Soul", with assistance from Mark and Terry Williams. Also, in November at Kensington registry office, Mark marries Lourdes Salamone.

In June, Mark produces Aztec Camera's album "Knife" which goes to number 14 in Britain.

NOVEMBER 1984 - APRIL 1985

They record "Brothers in Arms", Mark co-producing with Neil Dorsfman at Air Studios, Montserrat. It includes "So Far Away", "Walk Of Life", "Money For Nothing" and "Your Latest Trick". Guy Fletcher (born 25 May 1960) joins the band as a second keyboard player (from an early stint with Roxy Music and many sessions). Hal Lindes leaves half way through the recording and is replaced for the marathon tour to come by Jack Sonni, a friend of Mark's who came straight from a day job at Rudy's Music Stop, 48th Street, New York. An additional musician on tour is Chris White on sax, late of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

APRIL 1985 - APRIL 1986

"Brothers In Arms" enters the UK chart at the top and stays there for 3 weeks, but this hardly offers a clue to the American and worldwide response which is to transform Dire Staits' status form First Division to Super League. The album launches a thousand statistics.

In the USA, it reaches Number 1 in August and stays there for nine weeks. Similarily, "Money For Nothing" with Sting as guest vocalist, is Dire Straits' first American Number 1 single. In the following months, "Brothers In Arms" also tops the charts in Canada, Brazil, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Eire, Finland, France, German, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Israel. Incidentally, "Brothers In Arms" becomes, perhaps, the key album in transforming CD from a new-fangled curiosity into a mass-market "music carrier".

The tour covers 23 countries, 117 cities, 248 shows and sells 3 million tickets. Legendarily, they play some astonishing unbroken runs of gigs for a major act, such as 23 straight nights in the UK in December 1985. On 13 July 1985, they perform to a billion TV viewers from the Wembley Stadium end of Live Aid. The tour ends in Sydney, Australia, the 20th night there, on 26 April 1986.

JUNE 1986 - JUNE 1988

Mark and John play the Prince's Trust concert at Wembley Arena with Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Tina Turner, Mark produces 2 tracks for her "Break Every Rule" album, including his own "Overnight Sensation".

Busman's holidaying from the band, Mark records for the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's "The Colour Of Money" (starring Tom Cruise and Paul Newman). He joins the "host of stars" re-recording "Let It Be" to raise money for the families of the Zebrugge ferry disaster victims; he plays with Chet Atkins at The Secret Policeman's Third Ball - a benefit for Amnesty International - then again on an American TV tribute to the great Nashville guitar man; as is to become traditional, he guests with Eric Clapton's band for his annual Royal Albert Hall winter session in London and a European tour; he writes and performs the soundtrack for the Rob Reiner movie "The Princess Bride"; he produces and plays on Willy DeVille's album "Miracle" and several tracks for Randy Newman's "Land of Dreams". Meanwhile, John Illsley releases a single under the name of K Wallis B and the Dark Shades of Night, plus his second solo album, "Glass".

On 9 November 1987 Lourdes gives birth to twin boys, Benji and Joseph.

In early 1988, Mark socialises with Steve Phillips and Brendan Croker, old guitar-picking friends from his Leeds days as an apprentice journalist. He offers to produce Phillips' next album. Over the ensuing months Synclavier meister Guy Fletcher becomes involved too and they very gradually record a set of some of their country blues favourites.

JUNE 1988

After two fan-club-only warm-up gigs at Hammersmith Odeon, Dire Straits, with Eric Clapton on second guitar, play the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Party at Wembley Stadium (part of the Artists Against Apartheid campaign), closing the show.


Mark plays on Joan Armatrading's album "The Shouting Stage", then he and Alan Clark join Eric Clapton's band for an American tour. The "Money For Nothing" hits compilation is released (a UK Number 1).


Mark writes and records the soundtrack for the German director Uli Edel's movie of the once controversial novel "Last Exit To Brooklyn". During the summer, a pub conversation with Steve Phillips and Brendan Croker reaches a conclusion that they have temporarily become a band called the Notting Hillbillies, that they will go out on the road to promote their slowly gestated album and that Dire Strait's manager, Ed Bicknell - last seen on a drum stool in a ceilidh band for the "Local Hero" soundtrack - is appointed official tub-thumper fortwith.


The Notting Hillbillies' album "Missing... Presumed Having A Good Time", is released by Phonogram on 5 March and goes Top 10 in the UK. They hit the road for 41 gigs in 43 days around Britain through April and May. The significant Knopfler verdict on the whole Hillbillies excursion repeated in interview after interview is, "I'm absolutely in love with music".

By now, Mark has used Nashville pedal steel guitar ace, Paul Franklin and `steals' him for Dire Straits.

Mark finishes an album of duets with Chet Atkins called "Neck and Neck", released November 1990 (UK Number 29 and Number 1 in the UK Country chart, multiplying Atkin's usual British sales by a factor of 6) and concludes other sideline recording work with Buddy Guy and Brendan Croker before - after a 5 year hiatus - he and John Illsley decide it's time to get back to Dire Straits. Mark and John play with Clapton's band at the Knebworth Festival benefit for Music Therapy, Mark spends the summer in America writing and comes up with 15 new songs from which the album will be chosen.

NOVEMBER 1990 - MAY 1991

Dire Straits record their sixth album, "On Every Street" with engineers Bill Schnee and Chuck Ainlay at Air Studios in London with production credited to Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits and mixed by Neil Dorfsman.

Bob Clearmountain mixes one track "Heavy Fuel".

23 AUGUST 1991 ..... SOMETIME IN 1993

Dire Straits begin their world tour with five dates at The Point in Dublin, expecting 250-300 more to follow over the next 2 years, with audiences adding up to maybe 7 million.

The 1986 tour line-up is considerably changed and augmented. While Knopfler, Illsley, Fletcher and Clark are now officially designated Dire Straits, the nine-piece line-up now also features Chris White (sax), Paul Franklin (pedal steel), Danny Cummings (percussion), Phil Palmer (guitar) and Chris Whitten (drums).

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