And you’ll no longer burn
To be brothers in arms
Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
The late ’70s were an especially interesting time rock music-wise. Classic guitar-driven rock music was still very much all over the charts. And while it was still dominant it was by no means the only contender.
The sludgefest known as disco had made inroads into the charts as had punk which used guitar as more of a sledgehammer than a soloing tool, had great disdain for progressive rock and had no time whatsoever for the blues. Year Zero the British punks called it. (Punk was popular here in the States but it did not have the same cultural stranglehold as it did in the UK.)
So it was fun to turn the radio on back in late ’78 and hear this great, unusual-sounding minor key song about a down-at-the-heels jazz band in London. (Terrestrial radio was still overwhelmingly great back then. Aja, for example, had been released the year before and Tom Petty was releasing great stuff. I had the misfortune of listening to FM the other day and it is all dogshit. I would happily go back in time to this period in the 70s and just fucking stay there. )
“Sultans of Swing” had it all – great chord progression, lyrics, world-weary nasally vocals and a couple of great finger-picked guitar solos by some guy we never heard of. (Guitar wizardry was still very much a thing. Van Halen had released their debut album earlier that year and guys like David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck were still very much plying their trade.) So who are these guys we all wondered?
Wikipedia: Mark Knopfler was born on 12 August 1949 in Glasgow, Scotland. His mother was a teacher and his father was an architect (and Marxist agnostic) who left his native Hungary in 1939 to flee the Nazis. Mark’s younger brother David was also born in Glasgow in 1952.
During the 1960s, Mark formed and joined several bands and listened to singers like Elvis and guitarists like Chet Atkins, B.B. King and Hank Marvin. He worked for a time as a junior reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post. He formed a duo called the Duolian String Pickers with a blues guy named Steve Phillips. Phillips’ record collection was inspirational to Knopfler as had been some of the early blues and other music he’d heard around the house.
After finishing university in 1973, Knopflerler moved to London and joined a band called Brewers Droop. It was around this time that Mark got his hands on a cheap, almost unplayable guitar The only way he could play it was to fingerpick it. He said in a later interview, “That was where I found my ‘voice’ on guitar.” Knopfler took a job as a lecturer at Loughton College in Essex which he held for three years all the while performing with pub bands. (I always think of him and Sting in the same breath as Sting was a teacher.)
By the mid-1970s, three-quarters of what would become the original Dire Straits line-up were playing together after Mark’s guitarist brother David moved to London and shared a flat with guitarist-turned-bassist John Illsley. They initially called themselves Cafe Racers but with the addition of drummer David “Pick” Withers became known as Dire Straits, a name that could describe just any band that ever existed.
Dire Straits recorded some demos in 1977 which went nowhere. They took the demo to a British radio host who loved their stuff and who started playing it on his show. Two months later they had a recording contract.
Released in October 1978, Dire Straits was a smash and the almost 30-year-old (ancient for a first-time rocker) Mark Knopfler was the talk of the guitar town. Since one of the unwritten rules of rock is that all songs must be written by one, or at most two band members, all songs on the debut album were written by Knopfler. Including “Sultans of Swing,” a song I never get tired of.
Dire Straits spent 132 weeks in the UK Albums Chart.
Interestingly, the band had started touring prior to the album’s release and spent much of the back end of 1978 traversing Europe on the cleverly-named Dire Straits tour.
They followed up by touring as the opening band for Talking Heads. (Talk about a show I would love to have seen.) Their status started to grow and even one Robert J. Zimmerman invited Knopfler and Withers to play on his Christian album Slow Train Coming.
The band followed up in 1979 with Communiqué from which they had a hit with “Lady Writer.” (As much as I like Dire Straits, one of my issues with them is sometimes they have songs that sound too much alike as if Knopfler kept re-writing “Sultans.” But still, a pretty good song.) Legend has it that the lady in question is an English novelist named Dame Marina Sarah Warner of whom I know nothing.
While recording their third album, Making Movies, Mark’s brother David suddenly quit the band. David later said that Mark, who handled all the songwriting duties for the band, became too domineering.”He was the bloke I had shared a bedroom with,” says David. “How could I be deferential to him? Mark and I had a different vision of what we were up to. I was building a democracy and Mark was making an autocracy. Everything put a strain on us. I spent a lot of time doing therapy and dealing with my issues and ghosts and demons.”
Yes, well there it is ladies and gents. Substitute Ray and Dave Davies, Liam and Noel Gallagher, Tom and John Fogerty and you have it – the same fucking story every time. Do not get into a band with your brother. You will not be able to overcome the “but I shared a bedroom with him/who does he think he is anyway?” syndrome. Well, for one thing, that brother is the guy who writes all the songs. Minus those you would be working in a fish and chips shop in Witherington-upon-Margate or some fucking place. THAT is why you need therapy mate.
David’s name was taken off the album, the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan was recruited on keyboards. Of this album, Rolling Stone said, “Making Movies is the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler.
The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances and the band’s cutting-edge rock & roll soundtrack is breathtaking—everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t. If Making Movies really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.”
I don’t know about that but here’s “Skateaway.” Toro, toro, taxi.
By this time – 1980 – Dire Straits are pretty big, pretty well-established. But they were nothin’ compared to what they would be just a year or two down the road after the advent of MTV.