I remember one time at school some guy told me “the best guitarist in the world is Mark Knopfler”. I laughed at him. Not entirely sure why – I’ve always been a fan. But it just didn’t sit with me – and to give this full context, this was way back – mid-80s, when Knopfler was probably a very big deal on the back of Money For Nothing and Brothers In Arms. I always hated (most of) that shit though. Hated then. Hated it now. The song Brothers In Arms is okay, by the way. The album – well if you’ve been reading these posts even semi-regularly you’ll remember I slammed down that Brothers album as one of the Classics I Could Never Hear Again.
Dire Straits made Mark Knopfler. And sorta hobbled him too. A great shame in so many ways.
The first two Dire Straits albums are magic, first three on a good day, first four when you’re feeling a bit more charitable. I’m known to be super kind – I can find (some of) the good in the final Dire Straits album, On Every Street. I’m probably alone there. But hey. (The only one that sticks out like a sore thumb for me is the band’s biggest hit).
One thing that surprises me though is that Mark Knopfler still has to deal with the baggage of Dire Straits.
Let’s respect him – a little. Please. He’s never reformed the band, never even snuck out on tour “as” Dire Straits or under a billing: “Mark Knopfler Plays Dire Straits”. You go see him now and he’ll give you some of the songs from that band. Why not? After all, they are his songs…but he’ll give you a show that includes the very best across his whole career.
Actually, he could charge twice as much – or something like that – if he milked that Dire Straits name a little further. Good on him that he never does. Never would.
At the same time, that name – that band, that brand – means a bunch of people who were so cool as to be listening to The Sex Pistols right when they happened and PiL just a little bit after won’t give the Knopflersaurus the time of day now because he was in the sort of band the punks and post-punk cool guys and gals hated.
Fuck that noise.
Knopfler’s solo career has been immaculate. A series of beautifully produced albums featuring strong songs, great ensemble players and playing – and he does have a magic touch on those six strings.
And so if you don’t dig the scores for Local Hero, Cal, Princess Bride and The Last Exit To Brooklyn – and I say you are not human if you don’t – think about his contributions to two of the best Bob Dylan albums from his lost/middling period (Slow Train Coming/Infidels) or how he played on Scott Walker’s great Climate of Hunter, on Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams, produced Aztec Camera’s Knife and Willy DeVille’s Miracle, made the lovely living tribute album to Chet Atkins (with Chet Atkins) Neck and Neck, duetted with Emmylou Harris on an album that’s close to a career-best for both of them (All The Roadrunning), loaned that wonderful mourning-guitar sound to The Notting Hillbillies, composed songs for Jeff Healey and Tina Turner and has made his version of Americana – his distinctly British “version” of Americana for a half-dozen great solo albums and one or two other soundtrack albums too…
That list goes on actually.
And guitar is almost always a feature. When it’s not – overtly – you can marvel at the man’s arranging, producing, framing chops. But on the very best material under the Knopfler/Dire Straits name the guitar was always a feature. The stinging strat. The stumble-thumb fingerpicking of a National steel.
I know it’s easy to chuckle at Mark Knopfler, to dismiss him because of Dire Straits. I never understood all that hate. Yes, yes, the Brothers In Arms album is evil (and not without a few track-by-track wins) but it seems it’s a lot harder to do the listening first – because if anyone has done the listening – to his career, his huge, diverse career – it’s impossible to dismiss him.
I was 10 years old when a friend told me he was the best guitarist in the world, had been voted so in a poll. I laughed it off. Told him something ludicrous about how Eric Clapton was obviously the best in the world. I’ve been embarrassed about that ever since.
Mark Knopfler has long been a hero – someone I feel honoured to have spoken to, one of the sharpest interviewees I’ve ever had. And I admire his almost distinct – profound – lack of coolness. Who needs cool when you’re that great? I’ll always hear him as one of the best guitar players around, a distinct – unique – voice. And someone who has just gone about his business, shrugged off the pop world for a second career as serious – idiosyncratic – singer/songwriter. A wizard at the guitar. A scholar. A gent. And one of the very best.
His CV is daunting. His track-record phenomenal. It’s weird so many people want to pick out only the slight missteps, the cheese-factor, and hold that against him. He has made some amazing music. And had a hand in creating some very fine tracks for others – in a selfless way too; as fan of music, as a conduit, a player, a guy with a guitar, a person in love with music, in awe of the sounds it is possible to coax.
First of all he talked about “getting behind the plough” – a songwriting metaphor that would have made Tom Waits proud. And when asked about why he didn’t play the guitar solo on Tina Turner’s Private Dancer – a song he wrote, for her – he said he was busy, was somewhere else, “so they got Jeff Beck in to play the world’s second ugliest guitar solo”.
He mighta ripped off J.J. Cale just a bit – you’ll even (still) hear that on his latest album, the very strong Tracker, but man, he did it so well.
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page.