You get a shiver in the dark, it’s raining in the park, but meantime…in a small London club circa 1977, a band of hopefuls called Dire Straits are whipping up a storm. The sultans of swing themselves are about to emerge. The song containing those lyrics simply has to feature on the playlist with which we present 20 of the best Dire Straits songs by the group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 14, 2018.
“Sultans Of Swing” was one of the Mark Knopfler compositions on the Dire Straits demo tape that found its way to revered broadcaster and journalist Charlie Gillett. It led, ultimately, to their record deal with Vertigo Records. At that division of Phonogram, they became labelmates of Graham Parker and the Rumour, Thin Lizzy and Status Quo, not to mention Black Sabbath, Nazareth and even Fairport Convention.
Their first, self-titled album, produced by Muff Winwood, was released early in 1978, featuring that flagship single which would become a UK hit as a reissue. The LP also contained early signature pieces such as “Down To The Waterline” and the Glasgow-born, Newcastle-raised Knopfler’s documentation of his own increasingly frequent journeys to London, “Southbound Again.”
By the time of the band’s second album Communiqué, they were already such big news that they were recording in the Bahamas and working with no less an industry legend than production overlord Jerry Wexler. The LP’s one single, and radio favorite, was the incisive “Lady Writer,” a hit in several countries, notably Holland.
The release of 1980’s Makin’ Movies saw the band as a three-piece of Knopfler, John Illsley and Pick Withers, after the departure during the sessions of Mark’s brother David. But they were scaling ever-more ambitious peaks such as the Rodgers and Hammerstein-quoting “Tunnel Of Love” (said to be inspired by Knopfler’s childhood visits to the fairground at Whitley Bay) and the equally filmic, not to mention anthemic, “Romeo and Juliet.” Mark took his first co-production credit on the album, alongside in-demand rock producer and future Apple Music executive Jimmy Iovine.
Knopfler’s ambition and scale
The 14-minute “Telegraph Road,’ from 1982’s Love Over Gold and one of many songs inspired by Knopfler’s extensive travels around America, typified the ambition and scale of his writing. So did the atmospheric “Private Investigations,” a No.2 UK hit held off the top only by Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger.”
There was far more abandon, and hints of the band’s love of rock‘n’roll, about the 1983 non-album single “Twisting By The Pool.” Their first live album Alchemy followed in 1984 and featured the version we feature of “Solid Rock.” That Makin’ Movies track remained in Straits’ live set during the 1983 tour that produced the live LP.
Then came the phenomenon that was Brothers In Arms, the record-smashing behemoth that, in addition to worldwide sales of 30 million-plus, practically became a greatest hits album in its own right. Five songs from the set make the cut for us: the gently persuasive opening single “So Far Away,” the iconic “Money For Nothing” and deeply evocative title track, the goodtime shuffle “Walk Of Life” and the soothing “Why Worry.” That hinted at the soundtrack-friendly reflection that Knopfler would develop in his solo career.
Little did we know it, but Dire Straits would last only one more studio album after the bittersweet challenge of that globe-conquering release. 1991’s On Every Street gave us one more opportunity to experience Knopfler as a rock guitar figurehead in this band context. “Calling Elvis,” “The Bug,” and “Heavy Fuel” were all major rock radio hits in the US and elsewhere.
The 1993 live album On The Night, recorded on the band’s European tour the year before, allows us to revisit Brothers In Arms for the in-concert version of the saxophone-driven ‘Your Latest Trick.” This affectionate leaf through the pages of the Hall of Fame inductees comes to a close with the live version of “Local Hero”/“Wild Theme” that adorned the 1998 compilation Sultans Of Swing. It nodded to the solo career to which Knopfler was, by then, deeply committed.
The 2021 half-speed vinyl master of Brothers In Arms can be bought here.