Dire Straits was a rock and roll band which sprang into being in 1977 and faded out by 1996. In between, they had a number of hits in the United States and England and they made some good records.
The first lineup was as follows:
- Mark Knopfler: Lead guitar, singing
- Dave Knopfler: Rhythm guitar
- John Illsley: Bass
- Pick Withers: Drums
Dave Knopfler wandered off to take a leak during the recording of their third album, Making Movies; he was later found in another studio making a solo album. Pick Withers left in 1982. From then on, they increasingly became "the Mark Knopfler Band", so to speak. From around 1983 onward, the records got a bit schlocky and obvious.
To a great degree, you could argue that they were always the Mark Knopfler Band: He wrote all the songs, he sang, and it was his lead guitar playing that originally defined everybody's perception of the band. You can't really blame them: He's one of the finest rock and roll guitarists we've yet seen (as in, he could pretty much eat Stevie Ray Vaughn for breakfast) and their early records are hip deep in vintage Stratocaster detailing. Their first hit, "Sultans of Swing", is not just a catchy and memorable song, but also a sort of mini-textbook in just how much you say with an electric guitar if you've got rare talent, serious chops, and an active imagination.
In fairness, the band (at least the Illsley/Withers lineups) was a real band, not just random sidemen. They were tight and they understood each other. Later records often downplayed the lead thing. The single "Twisting By the Pool" (1983) has a minimal, Chuck Berryish solo that's not even very loud in the mix. It's a great song, though. It may be that Knopfler grew weary of being pigeonholed as "that guitar virtuoso guy" and he wanted to branch out.
But let's get back to the guitar, the guitar, the guitar. Knopfler has always been at his best with a not-quite-distorted bridge-and-middle-pickup Strat sound: Plato's ideal Stratocaster tone. He plays with his fingers. He's got a rare command of dynamics (most rock and roll guitarists don't even worry about dynamics), and with that tone he needs it: If you push it too much or play two strings at once, it distorts; if you lay back a bit, it's perfectly clean and clear. On that interface between the clean and dirty tones, small changes in volume have a very noticeable effect on the tone itself. The trick is to make the tone do just the right thing at just the right moment. Think of it this way: Music on paper looks like it happens in two dimensions, time and pitch. In fact, there's a third dimension there that too few rock and roll people take good advantage of -- and that's in addition to the fact that those little dots on the paper are a massive oversimplification of the time and pitch information to begin with.
It may be that only a nose-to-the-vinyl guitar obsessive will consciously hear all this, but it's there and your ear is smarter than you think. It's affecting you. Besides, he's a guitar hero, after all. He's playing for everybody, but he's very much aware of the ones sitting back with their arms crossed, waiting for him to fuck up.
If you can work with a tone like that, you can really do a lot with it. Knopfler trails off thoughtfully at ends of phrases, he asks little questions, he answers them (I'm not kidding!), he gets wistful, scared, and excited. The electric guitar can be a wonderfully expressive instrument, because you've got your hands right on the strings making the sound, and with an amplifier you can make the very smallest things audible. You can't do much with that in a stadium, but you can do it in a club or a living room, and you can do it at 3:00 am when it's just you and the engineer.
Knopfler's phrasing is a hell of a thing, too. He sometimes has a rare careless grace, sometimes a liquid muscularity, and he sometimes plays gnarled little knots of notes that untangle at the end and resolve into some clean, mournful afterthought. His playing is what guitarists call "tasty" or "tasteful": Not necessarily "pretty" or sweet, but very musical. There's not much flash for its own sake. This is not just a matter of playing notes that sound good over the chords. You have to have something like a bass player's sense of where the pocket is -- it's a high little pocket, but it's up there if you know where to look -- and enough chops that you can really think on your feet and put every note just exactly where it wants to be. Of course, you can't put them in the right place unless you can feel them asking. He wraps himself around the groove and the chord progression, supports them and comments on them, and does what's needed to move the song forward. It makes you smile. It's logical, it's exactly right, even though sometimes it's unexpected. There's nothing like being surprised by a lick that nevertheless makes perfect sense. I am telling you there are bits at the end of "Skateaway" that make this listener sit straight up and WIGGLE! You don't have to be predictable to be "tasty", unless you're one of the rest of us. He plays acoustic guitars beautifully too, but it's on the electric that he's one of the immortals.
Most of what you can say about Knopfler's playing, you can say about his singing. His voice is a little bit like Bob Dylan's, not that you'd mistake one for the other, but he's not lazy like Dylan is. He's also a far better lyricist than Dylan. He writes little stories and tells them well. He's very visual, and the images are real concrete images that signify and have something to do with each other.
But all that was pretty much over by 1983. Everybody heard "Sultans of Swing", but the next thing you probably remember of these guys is the ghastly debacle (artistically, not commercially) Brothers in Arms. The INTERNATIONAL SMASH MTV HEAVY ROTATION HITS HITS HITS from that one will probably be the trash cluttering up their gravestone forever, and that's a shame. "Money for Nothing" is a mechanical, tedious exercise in turning a profit, with Sting whining along for that extra 10% in the gross receipts. "So Far Away" is a weak torch song, and "Walk of Life" is a cartoonish retread of "Twisting By the Pool" and "Industrial Disease". They've had no meaningful airplay since.
Dire Straits' first album was also called Dire Straits. It's a fine effort, one you can't live your life without if you give a damn about the guitar. There are a couple of duds and some really fine songs. One of the duds, "Down to the Waterline", is saved by some of the best lead guitar playing you'll ever hear. It's got a number of those moments where you look up and do a double take like a cartoon character: "What'd he just say?!" He throws clever fills in everywhere and blesses us with two unpredictably irrefutable solos. Good stuff. "Wild West End" is a good song all around, friendly and acoustic. You've heard "Sultans of Swing" already, but you really need to hear it again, don't you? Oh, yes. You know it.
Knopfler's songwriting has always been uneven. I wouldn't quite call them a singles band, but sometimes I get a mite suspicious.