Dire Straits: Brothers, Innovators, and Signature Sound-Makers

Dire Straits have spent more than 1,100 weeks on the UK albums chart, marking them at fifth of all time. Their 1985 album, Brothers in Arms, is the eighth best-selling album in the history of the UK charts. The band won four Grammy Awards, three Brit Awards, two MTV Video Music Awards, and various others. Oh, and they were, obviously, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

John Ilsley, Mark Knopfler and David Knopfler of Dire Straits performing in London, Britain - 1979

John Ilsley, Mark Knopfler, and David Knopfler of Dire Straits performing in London, Britain – 1979. Photo By Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

So yeah, they’re a pretty big deal. Well, at least they were. The Brothers in Arms album alone turned Dire Straits into one of the most successful bands of all time. And many say it was thanks to technical innovation, some hard decision-making, and that particular guitar sound that was, in fact, created by accident.

This is the story of Dire Straits and the making of their most successful album.

Two Brothers, a Harmonica, and Some Inspiration

Brothers Mark and David Knopfler (Mark is three years older) were born in Glasgow, Scotland. When Mark was seven years old, the family moved to their mother’s hometown of Blyth in North East England. The boys were originally inspired by their uncle Kingsley’s harmonica playing and his boogie-woogie piano style.

John Illsley, David Knopfler, and Mark Knopfler - Dire Straits

John Illsley, David Knopfler, and Mark Knopfler – Dire Straits. Photo By Fraser Gray/Shutterstock

Mark both formed his own and joined several other bands during the ‘60s. He would listen to singers like Elvis Presley and guitarists like Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, B.B King, Django Reinhardt, Hank Marvin, and James Burton. At 16, he made a local TV appearance as part of his very own harmony duo, with a classmate of his named Sue Hercombe. By 1973, Mark was in London and had joined a local rock band called Brewers Droop. His bandmate was future Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers.

From Dire Straits to Sultans of Swing

In the mid-‘70s, Mark devoted most of his energy into his next group that called themselves the Café Racers. His brother David followed him afterward to London, where he became roommates with another future Dire Straits member, bassist John Illsley. At the time, Mark was working as a teacher, John was studying at college, and David was a social worker.

Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits

Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits. Photo By ITV/Shutterstock

By 1977, the guys formed a group and called themselves Dire Straits – a name given to them by a musician and roommate of Withers. The meaning? It basically represented the financial situation that they found themselves in at the time. The freshly formed group then went ahead and recorded a five-song demo tape, including their future hit single, Sultans of Swing.

From Record Deal to Record Deal

At first, the group was rejected by MCA records. So, they took their demo tapes to BBC Radio London DJ Charlie Gillett. He had a radio show called Honky Tonk. Their intentions were to get advice, but once Gillett heard their music, he liked it so much that he played Sultans of Swing on the show. Two months later, Dire Straits signed a record deal with Vertigo records.

DIRE STRAITS

Dire Straits. Photo By Richard Young/Shutterstock

Their first album, also called Dire Straits, was recorded at Basing Street Studios in the infamous area of Notting Hill, London, in February 1978. That same year, they began touring as the opening band for Talking Heads. After Sultans of Swing finally started to hit the charts, they hit the money when they made it over to the United States.

A Drab Band Playing in an Empty Pub

Dire Straits landed a US recording contract with Warner Bros, and before the closing of 1978, they managed to release their debut album worldwide. They were topping the charts in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Eventually, they hit the Top 10 in every European country.

Princess Diana and Prince Charles With Dire Straits

Princess Diana and Prince Charles With Dire Straits. Photo By Richard Young/Shutterstock

The inspiration for their first big hit, Sultans of Swing, came from seeing a jazz band play in the corner of a nearly empty pub in Deptford, South London. The lead singer of this pub band announced that they were the “Sultans of Swing.” Mark Knopfler found it amusing – the contrast between the band’s drab look and surroundings and their lavish name. Clearly, the name stuck in his head.

The First Strains Begin to Show

Dire Strait’s second album, Communiqué, came in 1979 and provided the world with the modest hit Lady Writer. It got stuck just outside the Top 40 in both the UK and US. Then, their third album, Making Movies, came out in 1980. This one involved much more complex arrangements and production, with many of Mark’s personal compositions (Romeo and Juliet and Tunnel of Love).

Pick Withers - Dire Straits

Pick Withers – Dire Straits. Photo By Fraser Gray/Shutterstock

The recording sessions during the making of this album took a toll on the brothers, and the strain began to show. Tensions in the band were brewing, too, which only intensified by being constantly on the road or in the studio. In the end, the brothers’ relationship bore the brunt of it.

Everything Changes… but You

“Everything put a strain on us,” says David. “It was just through being exhausted: drinking too much every night, partying and wrecking your physical and mental health in the way that rock bands did then to excess.” Their manager, Ed Bicknell, explained that nobody is really ever prepared for the kind of success Dire Straits experienced.

Dire Straits in Concert

Dire Straits in Concert. Photo By Ilpo Musto/Shutterstock

“Everything changes,” Bicknell said. “You’re probably still in your horrible little flat eating bacon sandwiches because none of the money has flowed through. Or if it has, you’re so terrified of it that you don’t spend anything, which is what happened with us.” According to Bicknell, the tension between the two brothers ran deeper than Dire Straits.

A Sibling Rivalry from the Beginning

The way Bicknell put it, David’s problem was that he thought that the group should be a democracy. But in reality, it was more like a dictatorship, at least as far as David was concerned. The issues between the brothers, which the public consumed as musical issues, were much deeper. As John Illsley put it, it’s been “going on since David was born.”

Dire Straits in concert at Wembley Arena, London, Brittain - 1985

Dire Straits in concert at Wembley Arena, London, Brittain – 1985. Photo By Ilpo Musto/Shutterstock

After all, David was in the group because he was Mark’s little brother – not because he was the greatest rhythm guitarist Mark could have found. As for Mark, he was working his way towards becoming the band’s official songwriter. He always was a prolific writer, but, with their third album, he had new intentions in mind.

Control, Break-Ups, and Hard Feelings

Mark envisioned their sound being enhanced by keyboards, and he wanted to explore more complex territory. Romeo and Juliet was the first marker of his new path – a six-minute roller-coaster ride exploring through the wreckage of a ruined love affair. By this time, Mark made it clear that Dire Straits was his group, and he was in a position of control.

1986 Music Therapy Awards London, UK - 27 Jun 1986, Phil Collins Mark Knopfler and Tina Turner

1986 Music Therapy Awards London, UK – 27 Jun 1986, Phil Collins Mark Knopfler and Tina Turner. Photo By Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

The act of Mark seizing control was provocative enough, but it was intensified by other issues bubbling up as the band headed to New York to record their third album. There were issues between some of the band members, mostly related to the girls in their lives, according to Bicknell. Three of the guys were fresh off of break-ups. In general, the dynamic among the band members was strained.

He Wanted to Be the Boss

The guys being in the studio with producer Jimmy Iovine didn’t help, either. He was a brash New Yorker who had just finished making hit records with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. Iovine, as some may already know, had a painstaking way of working. Their first week there, they spent the whole time trying to get the perfect drum sound.

Dire Straits - John Illsley, Mark Knopfler, Jack Sonni and Sting performing at Live Aid, Wembley Stadium - Jul 1985

Dire Straits – John Illsley, Mark Knopfler, Jack Sonni, and Sting performing at Live Aid, Wembley Stadium – Jul 1985. Photo By Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

In this hot-headed environment, the Knopflers were basically at each other’s throats. David recalled that Jimmy took Mark to see a Springsteen session, and “his jaw was on the floor.” He said that everyone was calling Springsteen “Boss,” and that he was calling the shots. But David pointed out that Bruce spent 30 years learning to be the boss. On the other hand, according to David, Mark was a recent college lecturer who hadn’t really learned any people skills.

Goodbye, David, It’s Been Great

By that point, the brothers’ relationship was as bad as it could get. David said that by the time they were working on Making Movies, his brother reigned alone as king. “But he was the bloke I’d shared a bedroom with. How could I be deferential to him?” The two had an inevitable blow-up.

Dire Straits in 1981

Dire Straits in 1981. Photo By Ilpo Musto/Shutterstock

And it was swift and brutal. Their explosive argument led to David quitting. His leaving the band caused only a temporary halt in production. David said publicly that he left over “creative differences” with his brother and chose to pursue a solo career. In the end, he was never credited on the album. And he never returned, either.

Sad, but Inevitable

“David’s going wasn’t nice, but it was absolutely inevitable,” Bicknell admitted. He said that a similar issue of control is what also led to Pick Withers’s departure within the following two years. “Mark’s got a strong personality, and he’s very determined and quite ruthless. But you need to be ruthless if you’re going to climb the greasy pole, and democracy in groups never, ever works.”

Dire Straits - John Illsley and Mark Knopfler

Dire Straits – John Illsley and Mark Knopfler. Photo By Ilpo Musto/Shutterstock

With David gone, recording picked up, and Making Movies was on its way. Jimmy Iovine brought in Springsteen’s pianist Roy Bittan, who gave wings to another hit, Tunnel of Love. As Bicknell heard the track come into being, “it felt like a jet plane taking off.”

Hello, Platinum, Let’s Make Money

After the recording sessions were complete, keyboardist Alan Clark and guitarist Hal Lindes joined Dire Straits as full-time members. By the end of 1984, they began recording tracks for their upcoming fifth studio album: Brothers in Arms. Released in May 1985, the album entered the UK charts at number one and stayed on the charts for a total of 228 weeks.

Dire Straits in concert, Wembley, London, UK - 1985

Dire Straits in concert, Wembley, London, UK – 1985. Photo By Ilpo Musto/Shutterstock

It became the UK’s best-selling album of 1985. In the US, it peaked at number one for nine weeks, selling nine million copies. To this day, it’s the longest-running number-one album in Australia. The album’s biggest single, Money for Nothing, was the first video played on MTV in Britain. To set another record, it was also the first CD to sell a million copies.

Money for Something

Brothers in Arms wasn’t only the first album to make a million copies in the new CD format, it was also a career highlight for Neil Dorfsman, the man who co-produced the record with Mark as well as engineered it. After all, he did earn the first of three Grammy Awards for the effort. “I actually didn’t expect the record to do what it did,” Neil admitted.

Dire Straits - John Illsley, Mark Knopfler, Jack Sonni and Sting performing at Live Aid, Wembley Stadium - Jul 1985

Dire Straits – John Illsley, Mark Knopfler, Jack Sonni, and Sting performing at Live Aid, Wembley Stadium – Jul 1985. Photo By Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

“I knew the band was very popular, but no one ever thought the album would turn out to be so huge.” Neil said that he thought Mark (someone he had known for years) was at a stage in his career when he wanted to do something other than “straightforward rock music.” He remembers Mark always being interested in a lot of different things, like studying jazz and woodshedding on his guitar at home.

Where the Magic Happened

All of the material on Brothers in Arms was written by Mark and rehearsed by him and the band before they started recording. When Neil first heard it, it happened to be through a live performance rather than a demo tape. While Mark played guitar, John Illsley was on bass, Terry Williams was on drums, Alan Clark on the piano and Hammond B3 and Guy Fletcher (the newbies) were playing a synth rig.

AIR Montserrat studio

AIR Montserrat studio. Source: airstudios.com

There were all these instruments and musicians, and nowhere to put everybody. Despite the reputation and beautiful location of the AIR Montserrat studios, it was nonetheless a basic facility with a small recording area that offered virtually no isolation. Still, it was a great place to hang out.

Drumming for Nothing

As soon as all of the album’s backing tracks were finished, it was time to do the overdubs. By that point, it was a month into the project, and Mark realized that all of the drum parts — the drummer included — needed to be replaced. Neil remembers telling Mark early on, “that the drums weren’t really happening.”

'The Tube' - The crew with a triple platinum award for 'Brothers in Arms' by Dire Straits

‘The Tube’ – The crew with a triple platinum award for ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits. Photo By ITV/Shutterstock

Initially, Mark didn’t feel the same way, but he eventually picked up on Neil’s frustration. So, they ditched the drum tracks and brought in a new drummer. Mark wanted Roxy Music’s Andy Newmark or jazz drummer Peter Erskine. Eventually, they went with Omar Hakim. In New York, he was known as a jazz-fusion drummer more than a rock drummer. But Omar was the kind of guy who played anything, and Mark liked that.

A New York Attitude and Energy

With Omar on board, they re-did all the tracks in two and a half days. The difference, according to Neil, was like night and day. “It really started to sound like a record,” Neil explained how Omar joining the band was exactly what they needed – a kick in the butt. Before him, the atmosphere was somewhat relaxed, a lot of hanging out, and the energy had slowly ebbed away.

Omar Hakim

Source: Pinterest

The music needed new energy and they didn’t get it until Omar came in. Once he did, it was “like a bulldozer — New York attitude, New York energy.” Omar also brought his own feel to the material – more energy, more complicated playing, and it essentially saved the project.

Williams Wasn’t a Happy Man

Ex-drummer Terry Williams was not a happy man. He had been slowly pushed out by Neil since day one, and to hear one day that his contributions wouldn’t be used after all and that he’d been replaced in the band. Ouch. Williams was actually on his way to the airport when Omar flew in. An awkward situation indeed.

Terry Williams

Source: moderndrummer.com

Neil now admits that all he cared about was the music. He wasn’t mean, but he would push for things to be different if they didn’t feel right. He would tell Mark, the more patient and tolerant one, his concerns. Finally, Mark got a sense that things weren’t going the way they could and should be, and he decided to act. Although Williams was let go, he did have some solid contributions to the album…

I Want My MTV

While Williams’s drum tracks were coldly and unceremoniously wiped from the record, some of his work did stick around. For instance, his snare-and-tom-tom intro to the track Money for Nothing survived. The song originally started with the guitar riff, but then Guy Fletcher came up with the “I Want My MTV” intro idea, Neil explained.

Money For Nothing Clip

Source: Pinterest

They decided to make an extended intro with Williams. They set up his five toms and snare and made a whole piece on its own. Fletcher laid down a guide keyboard, and Williams was urged to get wilder as the intro went on. The piece was already in place by the time Omar arrived. Since the band loved the intro, it was just a matter of getting the drum track.

A Happy Accident

But it isn’t the drum part that pops into our heads when we think of Money for Nothing; it’s mostly Mark’s lead guitar. Mark’s Les Paul Junior, through a Laney amp, was the sound of that track. Neil explained that they were really going for a ZZ Top sort of sound. What they got instead was a kind of accident. A happy accident, if you will.

Money for Nothing Music Clip

Source: direstraitsblog.com

Mark was in the control room, and they ran a lead out to the main area. Neil remembers getting a channel set up to the monitor, going to the room to move the mics around, only to hear Mark’s guitar technician Ron Eve telling him not to touch anything. Why? Because it sounded amazing as it was.

That X-Factor

Neil described it: “One mic was pointing down at the floor, another was not quite on the speaker, another was somewhere else, and it wasn’t how I would want to set things up… it was probably just left from the night before.” Either way, regardless of what made the particular sound, what they heard that day was exactly what ended up on the record. No additional processing was done on that tune.

Money for Nothing Music Clip

Source: YouTube

Later on, the band tried to recreate that same guitar sound at a different studio, the Power Station, with the same amp, setup, and models of microphone. But, of course, they never got it. It must have been that “x-factor” that made the magic happen.

All He Knows Is…

Neil even admitted that he drew extensive pictures, including a little map of how everything was set up. He was messing around with it all for a good couple of hours, but Mark got bored and wanted to move on. People would ask Neil how he got the sound on the record. “All I know is, it was the sound of Mark playing, using his fingers instead of a pick, together with the Laney amp.”

Dire Straits in concert at the Point, Dublin, Ireland - 1991

Dire Straits in concert at the Point, Dublin, Ireland – 1991. Photo By Malcolm Goy/Shutterstock

After hearing the unique, accidental sound, knowing that it was something Mark was doing, Neil suggested he do more soloing, but Mark wasn’t into that idea. Mark asked Neil, “Do you mean like a rock guy?” But Mark was more interested in emulating the ZZ Top sound more than anything else.

Laid Back Vocals

The track Money for Nothing was also big due to its guest vocalist Sting. Mark, as a vocalist, had a very laid-back style. He was often smoking a cigarette while singing, and with six or seven takes on a track, that’s a lot of cigarettes. As for Sting, he was visiting Montserrat on vacation (he had already recorded there with The Police), and Mark asked him to sing on the track.

Mark Knopfler and Sting

Source: YouTube

The whole thing took about an hour. The band faced a micro nightmare at one part when a saxophone part that Michael Brecker recorded for another track disappeared. Luckily, they were able to get a Sony tech expert to retrieve the part “from the depths of digital hell,” Neil said. It was in the early days of digital, after all.

Going Digital

Thanks to Mark and Neil’s constant striving for better sound quality, Dire Straits turned out to be early adopters of digital recording. Brothers in Arms was one of the first albums to be recorded on a Sony 24-track digital tape machine. Neil remembers the night Mark made the decision to try digital.

Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, and the Police

Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, and the Police. Source: Shutterstock

They were working on Love Over Gold at the Power Station studio. They were spending a long time just getting the piano sound for the song Private Investigations. Impressed with it, they played it back several times for others to hear. But every time they did, the sound lost something. The expression on Mark’s face was “dismay, and a look of ‘We’ve got to do something about this. The sound is going to wear out.’”

A Lightbulb Moment

It was at that point that the lightbulb went on above Mark’s head, so to speak, and Neil also knew that they had to work in another way. Digital seemed to be the answer. Still, those early 16-bit digital machines and the sound they produced was nothing compared to that of the current generation. They weren’t as reliable, either.

Dire Straits in concert, Wembley Arena, UK - 1985

Dire Straits in concert, Wembley Arena, UK – 1985. Photo By Ilpo Musto/Shutterstock

But the Sony 24-track was a different story. It was great. After Brothers in Arms came out, people asked Neil if he had changed his technique or style of recording to accommodate the new digital method. He told them he had done the exact same things he had done with analog, just without worrying “about adding extra top end because it would degenerate.”

They Got Their MTV

Released during the summer of 1985, Brothers in Arms was Dire Straits’ international breakthrough. It was only further boosted by the song’s groundbreaking computer-animated music video that was played in heavy rotation on none other than MTV. “I never realized that they would do such a tie-in with MTV,” Neil said, who went on to work with people like Tina Turner, Paul McCartney, Björk, Sting, Billy Idol, and Randy Newman.

MTV music video for Money for Nothing

MTV music video for Money for Nothing. Source: YouTube

After the Brothers in Arms world tour, Dire Straits stopped working for several years while Mark concentrated on film soundtracks. They regrouped in 1988 for Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute concert as the headline act. That September, Mark announced the dissolution of Dire Straits.

The Notting Hillbillies

In 1989, during a meal at a Notting Hill wine bar, Mark formed a group called The Notting Hillbillies, which was a country band whose line-up included Guy Fletcher, Brendan Croker, Steve Phillips, and their manager Ed Bicknell on drums. The Notting Hillbillies made one album, Missing…Presumed Having a Good Time, and made a minor hit single called Your Own Sweet Way in 1990.

The Notting Hillbillies

Source: fanart.tv

The Notting Hillbillies toured and even appeared on Saturday Night Live. The following year, Dire Straits united again. In early 1991, with Bicknell remaining as their manager, Dire Straits stayed a four-member band: Clark, Fletcher, Illsley, and Mark Knopfler. They began recording a new album, but as John noted, “personal relationships were in trouble and it put a terrible strain on everybody, emotionally and physically. We were changed by it.”

On Every Street… Until the End

Dire Straits’ final studio album, On Every Street, was released in 1991. It saw moderate success, mixed reviews, and a significantly reduced audience. Some called On Every Street “underwhelming” as a follow-up to Brothers in Arms. Regardless, it sold eight million copies and hit number one in the UK and number 12 in the US.

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits in concert

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits in concert. Photo By Ilpo Musto/Shutterstock

Session drummer Chris Whitten was added to the lineup, and Dire Straits hit another world tour. While more elaborate than the previous world tour, the band’s demanding final tour was neither critically acclaimed nor as commercially successful. By then, Mark had had enough. It came time for the band’s second and final break-up.

His Marriage and His Band Were Gone

The world tour lasted about two years, making the band loads of money while also driving them into the ground. When the tour was over, both Mark’s marriage and his band were gone. Mark has been married three times. His first marriage was to Kathy White, who happened to be his high school sweetheart. They separated in 1973, and he married Lourdes Salomone 10 years later, in 1983.

Mark Knopfler with His Wife, Kitty Aldridge, and Daughter Isabella

Mark Knopfler with His Wife, Kitty Aldridge, and Daughter Isabella. Photo By Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

Their twin sons were born in 1987. It was this marriage that ended after the world tour in 1993. Around that time, Mark expressed his desire to give up touring in general and took time out of the music business. Later, in 1997, Mark married British actress and writer Kitty Aldridge. The couple have two daughters.

Time to Go, Solo,

In 1996, Mark started working as a solo artist, releasing his first album, Golden Heart, after 20 years or so of collaborations. Mark, John, Clark, and Fletcher reunited one last time in 1999, with Ed Bicknell on drums, for John’s wedding. The most recent compilation, The Best of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler: Private Investigations, came out in 2005.

Autumn Stones - Mark Knopfler

Autumn Stones – Mark Knopfler. Photo By Angel Marchini/Shutterstock

The only previously unreleased song on the album was All the Roadrunning, a duet with singer Emmylou Harris. Also, in 2005, Brothers in Arms was re-released as a 20th-anniversary edition, winning a Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album at the 48th Grammy Awards ceremony. But after their official breakup, Mark has shown no interest in re-grouping.

It Got Too Big

In 2007, Mark said he didn’t miss the global fame that came at the height of his band’s success. In his eyes, “It just got too big.” In 2008, John Illsley wanted to get Mark to agree to regroup as Dire Straits for a comeback tour, but Mark declined, saying, in his words, that he “isn’t even a fan of Dire Straits’ early hits.”

Mark Knopfler in concert, Milan, Italy - 10 May 2019

Mark Knopfler in concert, Milan, Italy – 10 May 2019. Photo By Mairo Cinquetti/Shutterstock

A decade later, in 2018, Dire Straits were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Mark never showed up to the ceremony. According to John, “it’s a personal thing. Let’s just leave it at that.” As for the other members, including Clark and Palmer, they have continued touring under the name Dire Straits Legacy.

What About David?

After leaving Dire Straits, in 1983, David Knopfler released his first-ever solo album called Release. Mark and John both played on the album. The single Soul Kissing peaked at No. 82 on the UK’s Albums Chart. His second album, Behind the Lines, was released in 1985, and his third solo album, Cut the Wire, came out in 1986.

David Knopfler

David Knopfler. Source: Wikipedia

In 1988, his fourth album was released, called Lips Against the Steel. David also scored the soundtracks for a few films, including Shergar (1984) and Laser Mission (1989). David has a total of 17 solo albums; the latest one, released in 2020, is called Last Train Leaving.