Dire Straits are a testament that a band can be out-of-step with prevailing fashions and still find success. Their laid-back blues-rock, accented by subtle, often sly, lyrics and Mark Knopfler’s Dylanesque vocals, was nearly overwhelmed by the flood of disco and punk (later, postpunk) recordings beginning in the late 1970s. Extraordinary musicianship (highlighted by Knopfler’s peerless lead guitar work) and subtle studio production work did enable the band to find commercial success, although the success of their album releases varied to a considerable degree.
The driving force behind Dire Straits was lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Mark Knopfler, who decided to go into music full time after several years as a teacher. He assembled the band during 1976-1977; the final lineup included his brother, David, on rhythm guitar, bassist John Illsley, and drummer Pick Withers. After having their demo tapes rejected by vitually every label in England, Phonogram Records signed them in 1978 upon hearing "Sultans of Swing." Newly recorded (Warner Bros. 8736; 1978; #4 US), the single first became a hit in Holland, and then in much of Europe and the United States. With Warner Bros. acquiring their U.S. distribution rights, the band’s first two LPs, Dire Straits (Warner Bros. 3266; 1978; #5 UK, #2 US) and Communique (Warner Bros. 3330; 1979; #5 UK, #11 US), were awarded gold records by the RIAA (the former ultimately selling for than eleven million copies worldwide). Furthermore, Billboard would designate them number one in its New LP Artists category for 1979.
With the release of Making Movies (Warner Bros. 3480; 1980; ##4 UK, #19 US) and Love Over Gold (Warner Bros. 23728; 1982; #1 UK, #19 US), the band’s limitations—most notably, Knopfler’s monochrome vocals and undistinguished melodies with an emphasis on minor keys—led to a decline in sales. Apparently considering new directions, the band treaded water with a couple of transitional releases, the retro EP, Twisting by the Pool (Warner Bros. 29800; 1983; #53 US), which celebrated Knopfler’s love of the twangy rock ‘n’ roll popularized by the Shadows and the Ventures, and the live Alchemy (Warner Bros. 25085; 1984; #3 UK, #46 US).
Brothers in Arms (Warner Bros. 25264; 1985; #1 UK, #1 US) become the band’s most artistically and commercially successful album, eventually selling more than twenty-six million copies on the strength of superb material—including three hit singles the MTV-friendly "Money for Nothing" (Warner Bros. 28950; 1985; #4 UK, #1 US), the Cajun-inflected "Walk of Life" (Warner Bros. 28878; 1985; #2 UK, #7 US), and reflective "So Far Away" (Warner Bros. 28729; 1986; #19 US)—pioneering digital production work tailored to the emerging compact disc medium. Perhaps recognizing the limitations of the group format as well as the futility of trying to top Brothers in Arms, Knopfler’s decided to concentrate on outside projects, most notably, producing albums for Aztec Camera and Randy Newman, writing "Private Dancer" for Tina Turner, scoring various films (Local Hero, 1983; Cal, 1984; Comfort and Joy, 1984; The Princess Bride, 1987; and Last Exit to Brooklyn, 1989), session work for Joan Armatrading, a recorded collaboration with Chet Atkins—Neck and Neck (Columbia 45307; 1990; #41 UK; received three Grammy awards)—and a release as part of the country-oriented Notting Hillbillies, Missing…Presumed Having a Good Time (Warner Bros. 26147; 1990; #2 UK, #52 US).
Two more Dire Straits LPs—On Every Street (Warner Bros. 26680; 1991; #1 UK, #12 US), a return to the group’s funky, laid-back style, and the live On the Night (Warner Bros. 45259; 1993; #4 UK)—would appear in the early 1990s. Perhaps due in part to the comparatively limited interest they generated, Knopfler has gone on to record a couple solo albums and compose for more films. In 2000 he would receive the Order of the British Empire medal for his contributions to the country.
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