It is easy, especially these days, to view Knopfler’s old band, Dire Straits – essentially a vehicle for his songs – as one of the low-points in dinosaur rock; as an example of a band that was never (and never will again be) cool. But that’s because people have the (lasting) image of the headband and wristbands, of the neon and pastel, of the Money For Nothing video, and Brothers in Arms album that went from being the high point of 1980s pop to the low point (seemingly overnight). It’s easy to forget that before Brothers In Arms album, Dire Straits, while clearly not appealing to punk and post-punk hipsters, was a band with an immaculate track-record. Four superb albums. That word, immaculate, became part of the problem.
And when it became about so much more than the songs that’s when Knopfler decided he had to pull this particular vehicle over. “That’s when I put the breaks on the band – when it became about more than the music. There wasn’t enough time in the day to keep up with the schedules. I needed breathing space”.
The breathing space started, arguably, with the soundtrack albums that Knopfler provided for Local Hero, Cal, Last Exit To Brooklyn and The Princess Bride and his production work for Bob Dylan’s Infidels and Aztec Camera’s Knife and then collaborations with Willy DeVille, more production work, this time with Randy Newman (it’s possible Knopfler’s Money For Nothing was the inspiration for Newman’s It’s Money That Matters) and of course the first move towards a form of anonymity with The Notting Hillbillies.
Knopfler assures me that all of those moves were just jigsaw pieces, part of the puzzle, a way to explore other avenues within the song. He returns to that basic idea, the idea of creating a song, telling me he feels “fortunate to have found the activity I ought to be involved with – it’s all I can do”.
Before he wrote songs, Knopfler trained as a journalist.
“It was a great thing to do as a kid. I went to college after being a newspaper lackey and I found I could organise stuff. I liked it. It was a great introduction to “life” as a concept, to the world in general. I then moved in to court reporting. I just remember it all as being a very good thing to be doing, a way to see how society is organised. A lot of kids don’t have a clue about that form of introduction to life. It influenced me and allowed me to meet people, to eavesdrop too, to take stories of other people home”.
And then to add them to songs – and create songs based on these ideas?
“Well, it certainly helps to have an imagination as a songwriter and to have some source material to draw from, sure”.
Knopfler’s approach to writing songs has been, so often, as a storyteller – putting characters in to the songs, rather than being the confessional singer/songwriter. And while his journalistic background has often been used as a metaphor in his writing, as well as informing a character’s traits (think: “I go checking out the reports/digging up the dirt/you get to meet all sorts/in this line of work”) the listener has been rewarded with learning about Knopfler through his character-writing; the same way we learn about journalists through the pieces they file. Maybe not every article (or in Knopfler’s case, song) but piece by piece it builds up. All of a sudden there’s no surprise that Knopfler would write a tune like Private Dancer (essentially gifted to Tina Turner; “there is a version I worked up, it’s slower, moodier, more reflective. A quiet portrait, but I don’t think people need to hear that now” – that in itself says a lot about the man).
And there’s also the fact that so often the story is told, at least in part, by his lyrical guitar playing. That is still obvious when listening to Get Lucky, which follows on from 2007’s Kill To Get Crimson, but, in terms of relating this child to its siblings, it most closely resembles Knopfler’s first non-soundtrack solo album, Goldenheart.
Knopfler says the same things still fascinate and inspire him about the guitar. That idea that “I am transported back to childhood and instantly nostalgic for the music I heard as a child and tried to make; in many ways I am still trying to make that”.
He tells me that he would fall asleep playing the guitar (“sometimes I still do”) the difference now is that he respects the talent and knows it’s something to still work at. “I didn’t respect the talent I had, now I try to visit it more. I work at it. Particularly the craft of writing. You don’t write songs unless you sit down and get behind the plough, I think people forget that. And I try very hard to stick to that philosophy, to stay behind the plough”.
Knopfler’s been compared to J.J. Cale, Robbie Robertson (of The Band) and Richard Thompson. Cale’s voice has that warble and his lines mumble and grumble away, burbling and gurgling rather than stinging out all at once in an obvious fashion. But Knopfler has never enjoyed the comparisons. I see them as being obvious in the sense that all are reluctant guitar heroes; more interested in the song than the histrionics. But again, Knopfler’s different for actually being forced in to and through that stage.
He’s done his best to be the shy retiring type ever since. But in terms of actually retiring – that seems a way off. I point out that he’s been far more prolific as Mark Knopfler Solo Artist than he ever was as Leader Of Dire Straits or as Mark Knopfler Soundtrack Composer.
“I’m still standing behind the plough. I’ve always been behind the same plough. I just show up more often now”.