Our scene: in inspiring London. A tennis player's sweat band around his head, sleeveless t-shirt and wrist band resting on the top of his Strat. Cotton trousers rolled up to the ankle; it's the '80s. On this stage in the background we can of course see Mark Knopfler barking out "Walk of Life" in front of a sea of tens of thousands of faces. Plucking at the strings with his two fingers and thumb, it's clear that the Dire Straits guitarist is the bandleader and the soul of his decade.
The Straits arrived to the party late, which may in fact have been a stroke of luck. Mark Knopfler was already around 30 years old and had trouble getting the money together to afford a demo tape. It was meant to be. While the entire United Kingdom was consumed by a severe economic crisis that pushed the youth to the streets with stones (perhaps marking the beat to the punk music that was to come), the band travelled down from Glasgow with a bright idea. Something that wasn't going to work, not unless the men behind it were mature and dead sure of their proposition – to go against the flow, to lead mass music away from cynicism and rebelliousness towards the hedonism that came to be the '80s. And to do so with a firm hand, telling stories on the back of a prodigious guitar mastered by a Scotsmen with a weak voice but magical fingers.
As in all great British literature, there is a chance event in the story that changes everything. For this man destined to be a leading musician and icon of the electric guitar in his decade, it was to be that his life's path would lead him to Hendrix. Back on 18th September 1970, after finishing the obituary, that young journalist who had just turned 21 decided to give up his uninspiring and soulless career and take a different path - one travelled by six strings from the bridge to the nut. After telling the news of the death this musical great to the readers of Leed's 'Yorkshire Evening Post', his work for the northern daily had come to an end. Let some other guy tell them what's happening, I've got other concerns to deal with. Serious ones. For example, to see if I can live from this or if I'll have to keep the wolf from the door by working as an English teacher...
Mark Knopfler was everything but a rebel. His story is that of an individual that made his way to fame by not following the typical script to rock star beginnings. He was born in Scotland, which for the Scottish is in no way a social stigmatism, no matter what others would have you believe. It was on 12th August 1949, just in time to not be a post-war child, as were many guitar legends of the 20th century. Although his father was a Communist Jew that had fled Hungary, the Knopfler family's life was a normal one. Young Mark's childhood and adolescence was not marked by the absence of his father fighting in World War II. And his first box with six strings, a Hofner Super Solid was bought for him by his dad on his fifteenth birthday… Nope, no Oedipus goings-on against his father, no adolescent angst. Nothing going on there.
The young Knopfler led a very comfortable existence until, once graduated in English literature, he decided to go it alone. He left Leeds (and his first wife) and set off for London in search of a band, scraping a living from coffee to coffee, earning a few quid here and there in the capital's pubs and small clubs, strumming away at his guitar.
And now from a bed of dreams is born an old Desire. If there is hunger, it is the hunger of talent not yet fully realised. Hunger that comes to an end with a job. Normal, middle-class employment, teaching kids at Loughton College in Essex. Between the walls of this primary school's nearby cafés, the embryo that was to be Dire Straits came to life.
The group's name was soon a memory of the past. With that done, they scraped together 200 greenies with the Queen's face on and paid for the recording of their first demo tape at the Pathway Studios in London and that was the end of their tribulations. Music didn't drop them into a life of debauchery and vice; rather it was music that saved them from it.
Knopfler isn't just a musician that is up for playing anything; he never gave in to the commercial wishes of his record labels. Quite the opposite, unlike his contemporaries and successors, the more famous and lauded he was, the less commercial his following album would be. If the eighties were a time of bleakness in music for the general public, he and his Dire Straits served as a light in that darkness, finding a perfect balance that both entertained the most basic and mundane needs of the masses while also pleasing and receiving the approval of the musical aristocracy. And they didn't try to string out their fame by regurgitating their past successes over and over again. As soon as Mark saw that the praise and appreciation received was more thanks to former glories, that his followers rejoiced more in his past creations than in the new material he had to offer, he dissolved his court, stepped down from his throne and left in silence. That's the end of that then, I'll go my own way.
His journey from rags to riches wasn't all thanks to his merit. That demo tape they made as paupers was a treasure map which would be the band's musical career: next to the song 'Sacred Loving' sung by his brother David, his fellow band members John Illsey and Pick Withers gave Mark the go-ahead to sing 'Wild West End', 'Down to the Waterline' and 'Water of Love'. More importantly, he was allowed to sing a piece that before being made into vinyl was already a historic hit: 'Sultans of Swing'. The absolute proof that in Knopfler there was a real bard, a storyteller who was a master at his art. To show up with this material before any DJ or record executive was tantamount to guaranteed success. After just four days, the song was already being aired by the BBC and copied in companies' jingles.
London. A club. The Straits' demo tape is endlessly played. Enter Mark, David, Pick and John. Triumphant. They've got into the business and they're no fresh-faced youngsters. Mark has clocked up 28 years, a divorce, various moves from city to city and job to job and has at last made his dream come true.
He didn't want to see it escape through his fingers and so became even more demanding and perfectionist. The money that came from the first few good gigs was reinvested in better sound equipment for the group; he worked harder on and developed his compositions with more detail and when in London they were at last the sultans of London's best clubs, their undisputed leader, Mark Knopfler, knew that they would make it big time. All they had to do was persevere and fine tune 'that' sound that characterised them: instrumentally-based melodies, rhythmical elements of funk in Illsley's bass, the crystalline picking of the red '62 Strat, the girl of Mark's dreams, played softly as if it were a Spanish classical, stroking the strings with his thumb, index and middle finger, but above all with his heart; the strange sound of his metal-boxed '38 National resonator or the suggestive slides played on the '69 Telecaster Thinline…
In December of that year, 1977, they had already signed with Vertigo, a month later they were the support band for Talking Heads, in March they went into the studio to put all the songs recorded on that magical demo made months before onto vinyl … all except for David's 'Sacred Loving', which was forever kept on the back burner.
A never-ending loop of studio, album, tour, short break and back to the studio was the order of the day for the band, with growing success in Europe, Australia, Japan and the United States for the first five years. During this time, Mark continued to head the Dire Straits brand, without worrying too much about the exits of a fed-up Pick and his disillusioned brother David, who had had enough of standing in his elder brother's shade for so long, the rhythm guitarist in the wings. Remember, Mark, that we invited you into the band because we needed a singer and now you have made yourself lord and master, that you have invented nothing and now don't let us express ourselves. That resonator might sound really nice, but the story of Romeo and Juliet was already written. I've had it up to here with you; I want to do more than just give you the background chords for you to shine to. You know what I'm talking about, right? Right, so you listen to me for a change, hey, Mark? Are you there?
After the band's first four lightning albums, it was time to rest. In that break, Vertigo records released a live double album which, like all their previous albums, appeared to be the best on offer at that moment in time. A precisely-performed masterpiece. It was an artfully produced, prodigious masterpiece whose cover perfectly reflected the music that Knopfler composed for Dire Straits: halfway between the figurative and the abstract, an unforgettable record despite not conforming to the run of the mill. It was his own journey. 'Alchemy' (1984) had such impact that it opened up a whole new niche in the record industry.
Air Studios, Montserrat Island, November 1984. The much-needed rest has served to boost the band onwards and upwards to new heights. 'Brothers in Arms' (1985) proves to be a perfect alchemy made up of the perfect dose of each and every ingredient.
The new album was made to measure for the eighties pop culture (powerful bass rhythms, measured synth riffs, the odd echo, saxophones and a lot of distortion effect with the guitars, but never going overboard). It had a slight symphonic tinge reminiscent of the band's previous work (no rush to express the main melody, complex drum patterns…) and of course you could feel the increasing presence of country folk roots (the use of a slide with the Stratocaster, the sound of the resonator…). It had a certain grandiloquence, as if to say that yes, here it is, now is the time to release the best record of the decade. Or one that at least deserves to be treated as such. There you go, guys. Yes, I know that it's good; I haven't heard anything like it before either. Thanks for the applause.
This was their masterpiece, the climax of a splintered group whose changing members were unseen in the massive shadow that the omnipresent leader cast. Knopfler's mastery of the electric guitar, with a special technique that gave his songs an instantly recognisable sound, even when he played without his band members in soundtracks or his quick flights of infidelity with a wide variety of artists from Tina Turner to Bob Dylan, the music behind each and every one of his songs, his terribly imperfect voice…it all added up to success. Time has shown that Mark is not infallible, not everything he does is a work of art and not all his records sell by the truckload. The secret to their success then wasn't just him. The arrival of the '90s brought the next Dire Straits album, 'On Every Street' (1991), whose mass marketing kept it in the top 40 even though it was clear that it was undeserved, it being considerably less accomplished and innovative than their earlier records. The perfect recipe for success didn't sit so well in the eclectic mix that was the mid '80s and it seemed that what he had suspected during his year away from the group was right, it wasn't worth carrying on.
A has-been, they called him, just a business meeting to sort out the ailing accounts, slapdash musical trickery peddled out under the name of a group strapped for cash whose creative well has been dry for a while now. The criticism he came in for was harsher than he deserved. Mark retired to his kids and a home life, gave a little Scottish curse under his breath but decided there and then that he wouldn't bite back at those that were sticking the boot in. He understood that some of what had been printed was partly correct and decided to get back to his roots. His personal, family and musical roots.
He started out on a new career, that of a musician out to enjoy himself with the public, to get along with all present, the happy faces standing right in front of him in the club, back to the small-time. In no rush, inviting his heroes to play along with him: J.J. Cale, Chet Atkins… bent on showing all that what he felt was true on every track set down in vinyl in the '80s, proved to be just so in the compact discs of the '90s and digital downloads of the 2000s: that folk from his isles and American country from across the Atlantic when brought together are musically very similar. And that he knows more than anyone how to superimpose the two together to make it sound just right. Stroking his strings, going just that little bit against the flow, as he always has. With the girl of his dreams.
And so he left those great stages to tell of sad things. Although his melancholic voice will never find a story better suited than that of 'Romeo and Juliet', that an English teacher one day dared to share with the master storyteller and pick it out on a beautiful steel-stringed resonator guitar.
Exit stage and curtain