Calling Knopfler

Dire Straits are back in town

"It's a right here, John," Mark Knopfler says.
"No, it's not," John Illsley replies, turning his car left.
"Go up here and make a U-turn," Knopfler suggests.
"It's one way, " Illsley responds.
"I think..." Guy Fletcher begins.
"Now! A right, John!" Knopfler interrupts.
"No, that doesn't go through," Illsley snaps.
"I think I'll keep quiet," Fletcher sighs.

Dire Straits are driving through the alleys and back streets of London's Soho, looking for their dinner. Bassist Illsley is at the wheel of his Honda Accord, singer/guitarist Knopfler is riding shotgun, and keyboard player Fletcher is crammed in back with the toys and baby seat. Fletcher (like pianist Alan Clark) has been promoted to partnership in Dire Straits on their new album. But Mark and John are the only two charter members, the only two contractual members, and right now, the only two trying to drive this small car.

What's that smell?" Fletcher asks politely. "Dirty diapers," Illsley responds, pulling out onto a main street "Quick, John, make a U-turn," Knopfler urges. For once Illsley agrees. Wait!" Fletcher says, "Look at all the police!" Sure enough, both sides of the street are lined with bobbies, holding back crowds of people with cameras and autograph books. Dire Straits, among the most famous and (if you believe the British tabloids) wealthiest stars in England, have emerged in the middle of a big movie premier. "Go ahead," Knopfler says, "these cops won't care." Illsley swings his car around in the middle of the road and zooms off. In a few minutes he and his co-pilots have found the restaurant where they have reservations. Illsley wants to drive around looking for a legal parking space but Knopfler urges him to park in front and risk the ticket. They pull up at the restaurant's front door, right behind a sleek Jaguar.

Stepping into the restaurant, Illsley tells the tuxedoed headwaiter that he has parked illegally out front. The waiter nods and glances toward the Jaguar. "No," Illsley says, "the Accord." The waiter looks again, turns back to Illsley and says, "Good luck." State the obvious: Dire Straits don't seem like big rock stars. They seem like regular guys who drive their own cars with baby seats in the back and suffer the condescension of snooty headwaiters. The joke is, they are the most successful band England has. Their first album, "Dire Straits," sold eight million copies. Their last album, 1985's "Brothers in Arms", sold 20 million. Tonight's dinner follows a playback of their next album, "On Every Street," which is just about finished. There are still a few mixes to go, Fletcher is still fixing a flam or two on the Synclavier, but by and large the first Dire Straits album in six years is complete.

Since finishing the "Brothers in Arms" tour in 1986, Mark Knopfler has composed the film soundtracks for the fairy tale "The Princess Bride" and the grim "Last Exit to Brooklyn." He and Fletcher were half of the rootsy Notting Hillbillies, and Knopfler and Chet Atkins recorded a duo guitar album called "Neck & Neck." No one, including Knopfler, was sure there would be another Dire Straits record; his taste seemed to be moving farther and farther from rock 'n' roll. Knopfler reconvened Illsley, Fletcher and Clark last September and suggested they record his newest songs live in the studio, with minimal over-dubbing. They brought in session drummer Jeff Porcaro (who declined joining Dire Straits out of loyalty to Toto-de gustibus non disputandum est) and Hillbillies steel guitarist Paul Franklin and started to play.

The songs that rolled out combined everything Knopfler had picked up in his travels - the dynamics and arranging tricks of film orchestration, the earthiness of his folk and country side trips - with the essence of Dire Straits. Songs such as "Calling Elvis," "The Bug" and "When It Comes to You" have the loping country-blues groove of the Straits' earliest work. There is also a great emphasis on rhythm - tracks hold off on Knopfler's guitar solos and let the groove stretch out. There are several moody late-night ballads, one of which - the title song - returns Knopfler to the bittersweet romance of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hand in Hand." "Heavy Fuel" and the B -side "Kingdom Come" are hard rockers in the "Money for Nothing" mode, and a few songs defy categorization - "Ticket to Heaven" is a lush ballad with strings sung by a sad soul who sends all his money to a TV preacher, and "My Parties" is a cross between Randy Newman and Rodney Dangerfield-a singing tour of a rich moron's house: "Step inside my home/That's a brass toilet tissue holder with its own telephone/That's a musical doorbell-it don't ring, I ain't kiddin'/it plays `America the Beautiful' and `Tie a Yellow Ribbon.' "

Knopfler has decided to drop "My Parties" from the album because he thinks the joke will get old after a couple of listens. This is appalling to the others, who consider "My Parties" a great track. The final decision's not open and shut; for this album, Knopfler has for the first time shared record production with Illsley, Fletcher and Clark. That's important to the others for more than financial reasons. Dire Straits made their first two albums as a quartet. In 1980 rhythm guitarist David Knopfler left and they made two more LPs as a trio. Then drummer Pick Withers quit; by the time of Brothers in Arms Dire Straits was really a two-man show-Knopfler and Illsley. The promotions of Clark (who has been with the band since 1980) and Fletcher (who worked with Knopfler on all of his recent projects) to partnership marks the expansion of Dire Straits after a long contraction. "It feels more like a band now than it ever did," Fletcher says. "Especially the way we recorded, the way we were all involved. It's not just Mark sitting behind the desk making all the decisions." Fletcher laughs. "Now he to hold Alan and me back. He's forever saying, `It's a guitar band.' I say, 'How can it possibly be a guitar band when you've got two keyboard players?" But it is, of course."

During the playback at Air Studios in Oxford Circus, Illsley moved around the control room, standing in front of one speaker, then another, listening from every position including out in the hall. Fletcher sat stock still off to one side, unmoving, hardly blinking, eyes fixed straight ahead. Knopfler rocked back and forth in the producer's chair, eyes closed, nodding and smiling to the music. After more than an hour, when the last note faded, he looked up happily and said, "Yeah. It's good work."

The next afternoon Knopfler is overseeing the mix of "Kingdom Come," a hard rocker about a hunter who uses heavy artillery to kill rabbits. He tells engineer Chuck Ainlay there's too much echo. John Illsley walks in, says hi, listens for a moment and says, "Too much echo." After 14, years, Illsley and Knopfler are two sides of the same doubloon. Illsley walks out into the London lunch time crowds and finds a quiet wine bar on a back street. "I was quite happy with the knowledge that there wouldn't be another Dire Straits album," he says. "In a sense Brothers in Arms felt like a signing-off. And yet it doesn't take very long to realize that it could just be beginning again The level of intensity in Mark's song writing is still there, it's even greater in some ways. I don't think we would have gotten anywhere near making this record unless he got those songs. It had to be very positive move on his behalf to make it happen again. Even I'm surprised at the strength of the material."

Illsley orders a glass of wine and continues. "I still respond very much to the way Mark plays a guitar. And like it was 15 years ago, if he sits next to me and plays I fall into a kind of response. It's not questioning, it's not a problem, it's more an automatic dialogue going 'round and 'round. You hear that rhythmic feel of the guitar and the bass and the pulse underneath. It's basic rock 'n' roll."

There are a lot of jokes around Dire Straits and a very strong sense of ease about playing music. The band has no patience for prima donnas or self-important statements of creative anguish. Yet one gets a sense that, although he would rather swallow a brick than admit it, Knopfler does believe that his music has lasting value. It is a subject Knopfler always manages to avoid, deflect or joke his way out of. Asked if his old friend sometimes hides his most serious ambitions under the camouflage of camaraderie and high spirits, Illsley picks his words carefully:

"I think one has to be a bit cautious in the way one analyzes it all really. Because what you say obviously has an element of truth in it. A very strong element of truth. In a sense artists live a life of isolation, but they want to be part of what's going on, too. Because that sense of isolation is almost too much to bear. You know, you don't write good songs out of being in a normal happy middle-class- environment. You don't paint good pictures if you sit and watch TV every night. You live on the outside of all that sort of stuff. If you don't live on the edge, you don't live.

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