The most meticulous and gifted of craftsmen, everyone knows that Mark Knopfler is the genius guitarist, singer and writer whose new take on country, folk and British roots launched the meteoric rise of Dire Straits and kept them at the top of the pile when music tastes changed. Knopfler’s vision never faltered. He wasn’t new wave and he was only briefly pub rock. His star was set much higher and his solo career since 1983 has given us gem after gem, from the opening salvo of Local Hero to the most recent Privateering, his first double studio album in a 35-year career. Solo albums and classic soundtrack work run parallel in Mark’s life and he has also graced other artists with his instantly recognisable, trademark guitar work.
Scott Walker, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Sting, Chet Atkins, Van Morrison, Cliff Richard, Steely Dan, Randy Newman and Eric Clapton have all benefited from his quiet and graceful presence. His fingerstyle expertise has him ranked high on Rolling Stone’s list of all-time great players and he is a four-time Grammy winner with so many other prizes to his name that we’ll just mention his honorary doctorates from UK based universities and the fact he even has a dinosaur species named after him by palaeontologists who were listening to Dire Straits when they discovered a new species.
Mark is no dinosaur though. He is a forward-thinking, rapidly moving artist who matures by the year to the extent that his reputation simply soars above the commonplace.
With everything Dire Straits tuning multi-platinum it was only natural that Mark Knopfler would seek to broaden his horizons and he delighted us with his debut soundtrack disc, the music for Local Hero. What a beginning to a solo life that is! The heady blend of Celtic music, folk, pop and jazz was the perfect accompaniment to Bill Forsyth’s much-loved movie. Joined by Gerry Rafferty and specialist sidemen the Local Hero soundtrack embodies the magical mood of this classic film and won him a BAFTA.
Having then produced albums for Bob Dylan and Aztec Camera, Mark’s next venture is Cal, an exceptionally lovely and haunting score that incorporates Dire Straits and again provides the ideal instrumental backdrop to an idyllic film. Comfort and Joy follows in the same year of 1984 with another suite set to a Bill Forsyth while The Princess Bride (1987) – for Rob Reiner’s quirkily romantic venture – is a significant example of classic British film-music in that era. The song ‘Storybook Love’, lyrics by Willy DeVille received an Academy Award nomination.
The five-star music for Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) is fully orchestrated bliss, ambitious and memorable from intro to finale. After this Mark will take a sojourn with his side trip, The Notting Hillbillies, recharge his creative batteries and return fully juiced and primed for a Nashville dream ticket with Chet Atkins – Neck and Neck and a well-deserved compilation called Screenplaying that cherry-picks his magnificent compositions thus far.
Oddly it isn’t until 1996 that he releases what one might call his debut solo disc. It proves to be worth the wait because Golden Heart will conquer charts worldwide as the man himself recovers from the decision to end Dire Straits for the time being following a gruelling 15-month world tour to support their On Every Street album. Two years in preparation this disc evidently does the trick for our hero because he’s soon back on the road to support his new role. Guest players are of the highest calibre, to be expected really, and include American legends like Paul Franklin (pedal steel guitar), Don Potter’s acoustic and Sonny Landreth’s National Steel. Now one can hear all that fusion of folk and US roots bubbling forth and it’s a heady brew that veers from pure country to the most exact traditional fare.
The deeply sardonic Wag The Dog movie finds Knopfler back in movie guise, concocting smart bedrock for Barry Levinson’s highly acclaimed political satire. Still using the ensemble he refers to as the 96-ers, Mark’s Metroland (for Philip Saville’s evocative flic) is a gorgeous confection of original songs that transport the listener from 1930s Paris to a near-contemporary London. To that end he tackles pieces by his beloved Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club de France. ‘Sultans of Swing’ crops up, as do borrowed tracks from Elvis Costello, Francoise Hardy and The Stranglers that help complete an authentic masterpiece.
Consistency is a valuable commodity in this man’s work and his relationship with producer Chuck Ainlay is never better felt than on his second solo album, the silky Sailing To Philadelphia. This heartily recommended disc from the year 2000 features such guests as Van Morrison, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and the brass expertise of Jim Horn and Wayne Jackson. The title track itself is a duet with James Taylor that sets the scene on songs inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon, the two men who effectively created an imaginary border between the North and South divide in the USA.
A Shot At Glory and The Ragpicker’s Dream (both 2002) continue to mine Knopfler’s own political concerns. It’s significant that he always chooses to add his musical tone to films he’s comfortable with and then he graces those darkroom experiences with shuffles, honky-tonk, ballads and often tense and taut pieces that enrich the audience’s appreciation even without them knowing – the consummate skill of the soundtracker.
Shangri-La (2004) is now Mark’s fourth solo outing. It includes the beautiful and elegiac ‘The Trawlerman’s Song’ and songs that refer to a bad motorcycle accident he’d suffered before recording took place. Even so, this is a joyous and pleasantly skew-whiff set that mixes tracks such as ‘Boom, Like That’ inspired by the founder of McDonald’s, the entrepreneur Ray Kroc, with cleverly nostalgic items like ‘Song for Sonny Liston’, ‘Back to Tupelo’ and ‘Donegan’s Gone’ wherein country abuts skiffle and the listener is transported to a delightful place. An abridged version of this album comes with ‘The Trawlerman’s Song’: EP (2005) which combines the title piece with live in the studio versions of other favourites recorded in one take at Shangri-La Studios, Malibu.
The Private Investigations: Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler is branded to suit all parties before we come to a very important release indeed – All The Roadrunning (2006) a dual effort between Mark and the legendary Emmylou Harris. The result of a long-time collaboration between the pair, this is seven years in the making extravaganza that includes rich and mature work from both artists with an exemplary country cast and some of MK’s finest songwriting to date in the shape of ‘I Dug Up a Diamond’, ‘Beyond My Wildest Dreams’ and the title cut. Emmylou offers ‘Belle Starr’ and ‘Love and Happiness’ and the whole thing is just that.
By contrast, there is a darker edge to Kill To Get Crimson, whose noir-esque title recalls a period in English history, the late 1950s, when time seemed to stand still between the austerity of the recent war and the imminent explosion of youth culture. Another very desirable disc that we’re discovering ourselves with renewed satisfaction.
Get Lucky (2006) – dif that Anglo-American teenage title – contains phenomenal songwriting and fresh insights into other chunks of life and seems to make the transition from the previous monochromatic 50s to the more garish colours of the 1960s, though not really the Swinging type of Sixties. Mark Knopfler recalls some early youth in Glasgow and the North East and entertains with songs about gambling, poverty and British roots in general. Remarkable stuff.
So we come full circle to the most recent Privateering whose twenty original songs are wrapped around a meticulously clean and seductive sound that was completed just after a tour supporting Bob Dylan. Available as a Deluxe Version this is a recording that already sounds indispensable, as fine a slab of work as Mark Knopfler has ever produced – and he actually did this time. Superbly intricate folk playing, unleashed rhythms and rock and roll music that’s as comfortable as a favourite pair of jeans make for a thoroughly engaging whole with stellar support from harmonica man Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds) and the ever-present A-team of Guy Fletcher, Richard Bennett and Chuck Ainlay. This one’s an epic.
A modern master with an ear for the past and a driven itch to stay contemporary – that is Mark Knopfler. One of the finest guitarists of his time, or of all time, an incredibly underrated songwriter and a singer with emotional depth, he is a true artist. Any and all of the above albums are recommended and as you may already be aware the man’s repertoire is an addictive experience. Enjoy.
Words: Max Bell