Britain's New Rock Export Boasts a Most Misleading Name—but After Punk, Dire Straits Is More Than Welcome
Just when U.S. music fans had a bellyful of Britain—what with Punk Rock and such—a more hopeful import arrived, perhaps the most valid in years—Dire Straits. This was more than New Wave. It was Brain Wave. Sure, college-bred groups like Queen, Boston and Talking Heads had already established that heavy reading can count as much as heavy metal. But the four members of Dire Straits may be the most scholarly and sensible rockers yet.
Mark Knopfler, 29, the band’s singer songwriter and lead guitarist, is a former reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post who spent three years as a lecturer in English at Loughton College near London. His rhythm-guitarist brother David, 26, has a degree in social work and carried a case load in South London as recently as two years ago. Bassist John Illsley, 29, got his B.A. in sociology at the University of London, worked five years as a lumber importer and ran a record store. The only Ringo-er in the group is Pick Withers, 29, whose main matriculation was 12 years as an itinerant rock drummer.
If the name Dire Straits wildly misfiles the gents, then the title of their big worldwide hit single, Sultans of Swing, is every bit as misleading. Their sound is closer, maybe, to Bob Wills’ Texas swing than to the Benny Goodman variety, but it owes at least as much to the blues, Dylan and to their own inventiveness.
The boys got together just 20 months ago in a $16-a-week flat in London’s South End (and three of them still reside there). Mark and David are the sons of a Glasgow architect. Along with Illsley, a bank manager’s son from Leicester who learned bass by lopping two strings off a used guitar, they began plunking out some songs Mark had written—but needed a drummer. Enter Withers, who had started banging away as a teenager (undeterred by a mother who once dumped a pail of water on his head).
The four of them scraped together $320 to make a tryout “demo tape” of five songs. Then a friendly deejay aired the catchy melodic Sultans of Swing, and it became an instant rage. Record company execs swarmed around, Illsley reports, “taking us out for crazy meals—you know, women, drugs, booze and that sort of rubbish. It’s just so obvious.”
So is their subsequent success. Playing unadorned rock—a respite from the numbness of disco overproduction—Dire Straits cut their debut LP in a breathtakingly fast three weeks and have since topped the charts in Holland, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Canada—all before the group began their current 22-city U.S. tour. In New York, Bob Dylan sent them a congratulatory note backstage, though just this month, David relates, “I was rejected by American Express.”
They remain admirably wary of the success syndrome. “I don’t think I’ve made a close friend since the band started,” says David. “Nobody in this band is desperate to get on the cover of Rolling Stone,” adds Withers, especially if that means “dropping our pants for the cameras and being controversial.” Mark agrees, “We don’t want a lot of attention diverted to things like wearing pink plastic trousers, which we’re not.” Then what’s behind those earrings three of them wear onstage? “Just wax,” cracks Mark in a line that evokes the Beatles. As for drug excesses, he self-mockingly raises his forearms, virginally free of needle marks, and proclaims, “My only abuse is drinking too much coffee. And I like my pints [of beer].” Women are available too, but three of the lads have birds back in England. Mark admits with a chuckle to a habit of “falling in love with waitresses and hatcheck girls. But there’s no big flash scene backstage.”
Late spring will bring the second Dire Straits LP, Communique, which may help ease the pain of their 83 percent British tax bracket. Mark, who lists the Everly Brothers, B.B. King and Lonnie Johnson among his musical influences, has no thought of intensifying his lyrical message. “This is not the gospel according to Mark Knopfler,” he insists. “It’s just to make people feel good. I enjoy knowing that we’re on the shelf with other records, that we’ve made something people like. It’s as simple as that.” As he himself says: “It’s surprising how normal we are.”