Sultans of Swing: 40 years of Dire Straits
Consider a dimly lit tavern on the eastern fringes of Deptford, London, abounding in smells of spirit and stale introductory conversation. Up comes the manager, announcing the arrival of a rock band previously unheard of. Rock Garden has since hosted umpteen performances with some of the most established artists – the Pet Shop Boys, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Genesis to name a few. None, however, would match up to the peculiar response this particular band garnered.
Crowds of people surged in from all over the Piazza to hear the sound that had them transfixed right from the evocative opening lines, “You get a shiver in the dark…”
It’s been 40 years since then, and the magic spun by the Sultans of Swing is still very much alive.
Dire Straits emerged at a time where punk rock took center stage. The punk subculture started to diversify during the late 1970s influenced by multiple musical, philosophical, artistic and literary movements which led to the proliferation of new wave factions, one of them being pub rock. Punk rock was all about power chords, single verses and high energy drum solos, guitar and bass riffs. Dire Straits strayed from the fast-paced, almost aggressive music and commemorated their own brand of a rather minimalistic, stripped-down sound. If anything, they owe their roots to the revivalism of slow, sweet pub rock. While the genre was all about celebrating the good times, Dire Straits thrived on melancholy.
The band was founded by Mark Knopfler (lead vocals and lead guitar), his younger brother David Knopfler (rhythm guitar and backing vocals), John Illsley (bass guitar and backing vocals), and Pick Withers(percussion). Mark and David were the sons of an architect. At 15 years of age, their father bought them their first guitar – a 1962 Hofner Super Solid V2 featuring a red finish, celluloid strip fretboard inlays, and two type 510 “Diamond Logo” pickups. The family was unable to afford an amplifier at the time, so Mark played it through the family radio instead. Its defining twang is especially palpable in ‘Walk of Life’ and ‘Lady Writer’. Little has changed in these 55 years as regards to the Knopfler’s fascination with guitars, this one in particular.
Interestingly, Mark was a part-time lecturer of Literature and occasionally jammed with David and his roommate, John Illsley; a timber broker pursuing sociology at the University of London (a clear indication that contrary to popular belief, university bands stand every chance of making it big). After rehearsing with studio drummer Pick Withers in July 1997, they conjured up a five-track demo tape, and there was no turning back.
Their work ethic was entirely unlike that assumed by the archetypal rock-and-roll lifestyle. Fueled by passion and oodles of creativity, they were known to work tirelessly for weeks on end, ensuring everyone knew that Dire Straits was here to stay.
Back in 1977, Knopfler and Illsley visited a mutual friend’s art gallery in London’s West End. Upon seeing it’s threadbare condition with bits of string piled up in a corner and garbage cans strewn all over the floor, Knopfler knew he had to manifest his outrage at the disrespect towards art through a song. During the ride back to their apartment in South London, Knopfler sat in the back seat and scribbled furiously. He kept writing when they reached the destination and was still writing when Illsley went in to make himself a cup of tea. Half an hour later, he showed up saying he’d finished the song. An entire song, that the world would come to know as “In the Gallery” had been composed on the drive from Shaftesbury Avenue to Deptford.
Knopfler has always exhibited an inclination towards Dylanesque imagery, which shone through in their remarkably accomplished debut album. This was a work of art that they faced difficulty in surpassing throughout their career. They drew their musical influences from jazz, rock, blues and folk, whilst coming closest to beat music in the context of classic rock and roll. What never fails to set them apart is the smokey, low key undertones that always seem to loom over every composition, each distinct from the other. No album style or genre is ever repeated twice, each is becoming of a whole new struggle. Let’s look beyond ‘Twisting by the Pool’ and ‘Tunnel of Love’ to get a whiff of the russet of winter sunburns, like swirls of vivid turquoise running down endless sheets of satin, all the scents that denote the legacy that is Dire Straits.
Brothers in Arms
Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I’ve witnessed your suffering
As the battle raged higher
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My Brothers in Arms.
This was a song penned by Knopfler to commemorate the atrocities of the Falklands War. It stemmed from the conflict between Argentina and England over a set of islands in the South Atlantic that both countries lay claim to.
‘Brothers in Arms’ are still remembered for the chilling music video that holds great metaphorical value. Featuring sketchings of an island by an ocean, a pendulum depicting the swift foot of time as soldiers fight on, fuelled by the music of the band even as there’s actual footage of the soldiers and a band. The video bears a mourning semblance in colours of black, white and gray throughout, with the exception of the finalé that depicts a coloured sunset.
Money for Nothing
Terry Williams’ unforgettable snare-and-tom-tom intro, coupled with a formidable rhythm section featuring Illsley at the bass and Clark at the piano showcases the Straits’ versatility at its peak, incorporating ambient and polyrhythmic elements into the jazzy, reggae-ish feel of the song.
Collaborations were never a thing Dire Straits shied away from. This piece was co-authored by none other than Sting, and also had him providing backing vocals (I want my MTV). Here’s a piece that possesses a distinctive fluidity and renegade-like element. Never once getting too flamboyant, this features classic laid-back rock at its cleanest.
Romeo and Juliet
No one in the mid-80s was oblivious to Knopfler’s panache for storytelling.
One of their more ardent compositions, this piece is characterized by brilliant melodies and soft formative undertones, with an almost sardonic outlook on conventional courtship. The song opens with an arpeggiated resonator guitar and has Knopfler experimenting with an open G tuning.
Knopfler had a knack for incorporating all sorts of literary and historical references for fans to unravel. Along with the obvious reference to Shakespeare’s play bearing the same name, it also makes playful allusions to other works involving a similar theme. Westside Story, for instance, has a song called “Somewhere” from which inspires the heartfelt lines, ‘There’s a place for us’.
The song was inspired by Knopfler’s broken romance with Holly Vincent from the band, Holly and the Italians. The song speaks of a relationship that seems fulfilling on the surface, but it had to end, as Romeo ‘The time was wrong ‘. He does, however, believe that there is intermittently a place for them. All he can do until then is kiss her through the bars of a rhyme.
Here is a piece whose intimate tension and historic sweep never fails to mesmerize. Knopfler deploys an ingenious method to depict the crushing of a man’s dreams in the wake of their accelerating crumble – accentuated instrumental voices. A synthesized sunrise whistle symbolic of hopeful beginnings, to a Baroque piano motif halfway through depicting an unavoidable impediment.
The song draws to an end with an extended guitar crescendo, supplemented expertly by Pick Withers and his galloping drums. Don’t, however, discount the rueful silence that only articulates the frustrations that colour the melancholic streak of this masterpiece.
Knopfler pens a terse little narrative, almost like a flurry of startled birds fluttering away over the edges of the haunting music, all too reminiscent of the band’s characteristic noir-style tale as piano notes pluck away ominously in the background.
In the 1982 album Love over Gold, you’ll observe a quantum leap from Dire Straits’ organic Rhythm & Blues impressionism, showcasing Knopfler’s characteristic poetic muse as he fashions a series of profoundly expanded epics that demand the listener’s attention. Here we find an existential defiance in all it’s glory, as the thunder casts us farther away from reality, down to Telegraph Road.
It’s been 25 years since they disbanded, but the legacy continues. The Dire Straits Experience featuring Terence Reis and Chris White gives the fans an opportunity to reconnect with the grandeur and aching beauty associated with the legends. Reis is perhaps the only person to effectively emulate Mark’s tonal variations and bass guitar snarls, while Chris has worked with Knopfler on a multitude of ’80s film scores.
The legendary ensemble rose from the cramped, sweaty pubs of London to some of the greatest stages in the world. The people adored their safe, homogenized music and their distinctive fluidity, that was almost reminiscent of a bubbling stream.
Knopfler being the prolific artist he is, enjoyed a supremely successful solo career. He had always observed Dire Straits as a vehicle to further his incisive songwriting and lush guitar riffs, whilst holding his ground as one of the most lyrical rock guitarists since Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Buckley.
Thus go on the Dire Straits, leaving behind a catalog of some of the finest compositions and musical enterprises the heyday world of rock has ever been witness to.