Mark Knopfler on the end of Dire Straits: ‘Maybe I should have kept playing, let it get as big as Brazil’

Reluctant to coast on old glories, the guitarist is about to release One Deep River, the 10th in a series of soulful and virtuosic stand-alone albums

Mark Knopfler was never a reluctant rock star. In the glittering, go-go 1980s, he had the time of his life leading Dire Straits to the top of the charts with monster hits such as Money for Nothing and Romeo and Juliet. Over time, though, the novelty wore thin. Once you have sold 100 million records and played 248 concerts in a single year, as Dire Straits did touring their 1985 behemoth Brothers in Arms, the thrill starts to go. He is glad he got off the juggernaut when he did. In the end, megafame was not for him.

“It suits some people. You can get used to the scale of it. I don’t know if I ever really did. What happens there is that the gig becomes an event. There’s a different energy,” he says.

Knopfler is speaking from his home in London, where he is promoting his new solo album, One Deep River. He cuts a cheerful, inquisitive figure: ask him a question and he may (very pleasantly) shoot back with one of his own. There is little of the strutting guitar hero about him: it is hard to reconcile this softly spoken individual with the stadium overlord in the neon headband from Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing video.

That track, with its blistering guitar intro and backing vocals by Sting, represented the commercial high-water mark for Knopfler and Dire Straits. It was also the beginning of the end, as he discovered when taking it on the road. Night after night, he would look out at the vast audiences coming to see the band and wonder if it was too much of a good thing.


“If you’re playing events all the time – some great blown-up festival, some great inflated thing, then you are losing something as well,” Knopfler says. “That’s how it seemed to me. Maybe I was overthinking it. Maybe I should have kept playing, let it get as big as Brazil.”

Dire Straits broke up for the first time in 1987 and finally called it quits in 1995, after which Knopfler focused on his solo career. He is in no mood to go back – when Dire Straits were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 2018, he was the only member not to attend.

Reluctant to coast on old glories, he has released a series of soulful and virtuosic stand-alone records, of which One Deep River is the 10th. It is a contemplative listen, more Romeo and Juliet than Money for Nothing.

Recorded as he was about to turn 74, it is also an unapologetically wistful reflection of his upbringing in Blyth, a coastal village outside Newcastle, and his early years in London, when he was just another guitarist trying to break into the music scene. “There’s always going to be some autobiography there. Maybe there’s a bit more than usual,” Knopfler says.

He singles out the autumnal track Watch Me Gone, in which he reflects on leaving home in pursuit of fame and fortune: “I knew there was something/ And I knew there was no choice.”

“Watch Me Gone – there’s a big splash of the autobiographical about it,” says Knopfler. “The cover [of the LP] – that’s me crossing [Newcastle’s iconic Tyne Bridge] and leaving, me going down to London. You’ve got to be ready to leave and fall in love with the big city.”

Traces of folk music are sprinkled through the record. Knopfler explains that he has a lifelong love for Irish music and for Irish culture in general. As a teenager he devoured James Joyce and later crossed paths with Seamus Heaney. In 1984 he went one better by composing the haunting score to Pat O’Connor’s Cal, a social-realist drama filmed in Drogheda starring Helen Mirren and a young John Lynch.

“I met Seamus Heaney a couple of times. He liked my stuff. He sent me a book, The Spirit Level. He said, ‘Keep your spirits high,’ which was a wonderful thing. I was very touched by that. Irish literature meant a lot to me as I was growing up. It started when I first started to read adult books: Irish books were right in there. Finnegans Wake, Ulysses, all of those books.”

Irish writing has been a “fantastic gift to the world,” Knopfler says. “I was reading Edna O’Brien books. Irish novelists from the very beginning, it seemed they were part of the picture for me. And Irish music. Because I’ve been listening to so much Van [Morrison], the folk music – Van knew it all. One of my favourites has always been The Chieftains [with whom he collaborated on their 1995 album The Black Veil].”

He speaks warmly, too, of Rory Gallagher, the great Cork blues guitarist who would spend his career in the shadow of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix but is today regarded as their musical equal. Knopfler has always been a Gallagher fan and recalls seeing him blitzing through one of his famous solos while headlining in the north of England in the late 1970s.

“I’d seen him play in Leeds before Dire Straits [had formed]. I’d been out to see Rory and loved him,” Knopfler recalls. “I was so totally into the blues anyway. I was completely on a blues trip. That was my trip more than folk music, more than anything. I was hanging out with Steve Phillips [the blues guitarist with whom he would play in the Notting Hillbillies) a lot and listening to a lot of electric blues. And because of Steve’s record collection I was getting into a lot of county blues.”

There were parallels between Knopfler and Gallagher – virtuosos who grew up far from the bright lights of the music business. Gallagher was never interested in fame. Knopfler shared the outlook. He also wasn’t intimidated by the stars he would later cross paths with – including Bob Dylan, whom he name-checks, alongside Van Morrison, on Watch Me Gone, singing: “Well, maybe I’ll hit the road with Bob/ Or maybe hitch a ride with Van.”

Knopfler nurtured those dreams of hitting the road with Dylan when he was desperate to get out of northeastern England and make something of himself. Just a few years later his wishes came spectacularly true when Dylan asked him to produce his 1983 album, Infidels.

Knopfler was honoured. But he was never intimidated by Dylan. He was not afraid to be blunt with his collaborator, something the American came to appreciate. “No, I absolutely wasn’t [overawed],” Knopfler says. “Bob had a lovely regard for me and I for him.”

He has maintained friendships with many artists with whom he has crossed paths, which came in handy when he decided to rerecord his 1983 solo composition Going Home (from the soundtrack to Local Hero) for the Teenage Cancer Trust charity.

“Rerecord” is an understatement. He has assembled an Avengers-style line-up of musicians to play on the track, including Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Slash, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Pete Townshend, Peter Frampton, Sting, Brian May, Joan Jett and David Gilmour. Drumming is courtesy of Ringo Starr and his son Zak. The record, credited to Mark Knopfler’s Guitar Heroes, also features the late Jeff Beck, who recorded his part shortly before he died last year.

“The first person who was in was Pete Townshend, possibly because Pete was connected with the charity. Then Eric Clapton was in the next day. Everybody was playing great – David Gilmour all of a sudden, then Jeff Beck and all sorts of people. Frampton sent in a whole thing from America. Then Ringo and Zak, they added a whole bunch. Everybody was great – Sam Fender, Sting, everybody piled into it.”

The Dire Straits story is one of rags to riches on fast-forward. In 1977 Knopfler started the band with his brother David and their friends John Illsley and David “Pick” Withers. They broke through within a few months when their playful debut single, Sultans of Swing, was championed by BBC Radio London. They soon had a record deal and Sultans of Swing became a hit in the Netherlands, followed by North America and, finally, the UK. (It fared well in Ireland, too, reaching number six in the charts.)

Later, as the cash was rolling in, it became popular to write Dire Straits off as rock dinosaurs. (Sultans of Ping mockingly took their name from Sultans of Swing.) But the group’s origins were hardly glamorous. Sultans of Swing was about a Dixieland band whom Knopfler saw in an empty pub in Deptford, in south London. Far from a display of rock’n’roll arrogance, it was a portrait of failure.

“Sultans of Swing was one of those songs where he says, ‘Thank you, good night, we are the Sultans of Swing.’ And when he says that, they couldn’t have been less the sultans of anything,” Knopfler says.

“A shabby little chap in a dirty sweater – he looked like a geography teacher. There was nothing Sultans of Swing about them or the pub either. It’s funny. It was so nonglamorous – and the name is so glamorous. Beautiful name and this very unbeautiful look that they had. I think sometimes a situation song like that will present itself.”

A few years later the gods would gift him Money for Nothing in much the same way. It is written from the perspective of two blue-collar workers watching rock stars on a bank of televisions in an electronics store and complaining about the musicians and their easy lifestyles.

“The lead character in Money for Nothing is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television, custom kitchen, refrigerator and microwave appliance store,” Knopfler told the critic Bill Flanagan. “He’s singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real.”

Artists sometimes grow to loathe their biggest hit. Knopfler never felt that way about Money for Nothing. “I’ve got great fondness for it, because I’ve got a great fondness for that bozo character,” he says, referring to the ranting TV salesman. “He gave the song to me, from what he was saying. So I kind of love him. ’Cos he was hilarious. I was laughing as I was writing it down.”

Dire Straits is part of his past, but he will always be proud of his achievements. “It’s what I wanted. To make a few dreams come true was pretty incredible. It’s given me some incredible times – me and John [Illsley]. It’s been incredible,” he says.

Knopfler never ran away from his legacy. Until he retired from touring, in 2019, he always gave the audience what it wanted and was dutiful about playing their favourite Dire Straits songs. He feels that not doing so would be to fail to uphold his end of the bargain with his fans.

“If we’ve got to play Brothers and Arms or something, it’s a big moment. You are reminded why people are there. If you’re playing the intro to that you know your band had better be up to it, right there. You’ve got to play it as well as you damn well can. You owe it to people. It’s the sort of song where you feel you can’t brush it off to one side. You’ve got to believe it and play it.”

One Deep River is released by Mercury on Friday, April 12th