By Alex Rice
This article contains excerpts from the 16-page Dire Straits oral history included with the Dire Straits Bandbox.
In an interview for this issue, Brothers in Arms co-producer Neil Dorfsman told me about a story that engineer Rhett Davies, who worked on Dire Straits’ 1978 debut, once told him. “The first thing Mark said to him when he walked into the studio on the first day of recording was something like, “This may just be another job for you, but it's my fucking life, so don’t mess it up.” We’ve done our best to not fuck up the Dire Straits story. What better way to get it right than to talk to the people who were there?
On the early days:
Pick Withers (Drummer): I remember meeting Mark in North London at the house where I was renting a room. The house belonged to Si Cowe, like Mark a fellow Geordie born and raised in Newcastle. One afternoon Mark called in on Si to make use of his two-track tape machine. I can’t remember what songs or ideas even, but I offered to add some percussion and I thought no more about it. Anyway, Mark called again some months later, asking if I remembered him and wanting to know if I would do some rehearsing with him in Deptford, where he, his brother and John shared an apartment in a social housing project.
John Illsley (Bassist): I was still at university and I had rented this flat from the local council. It was really a very simple and pretty basic sort of place to live in. David was my flatmate and, later, Mark. He eventually moved in after visiting us a few times and we gradually started to make music together, just playing in the flat. It was probably nine months before we decided to get ahold of Pick and put down the drums.
Withers: One of the rooms was a small, rectangular spare bedroom that had been made into a rehearsal room. There was token sound proofing present with egg trays stuck to the walls and ceiling. This became the drawing board for the embryonic Dire Straits! For that first album, Mark was selecting what were regarded as the most accomplished songs from all his written work thus far. The drum intro to “Water of Love,” the guitar on “Wild West End,” the narrative of “Sultans of Swing,” the atmosphere created at the outset of “Down to the Waterline”; if you have free reign to cherrypick in the orchard, you pick the ripest, sweetest fruit and present it to the best of your endeavor.
On 1980's Making Movies:
Illsley: After the first two albums came out, we were touring constantly. Mark had started writing songs like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Tunnel of Love.” I think that Making Movies was made after quite a bit of reflection about what had happened with the first two albums. They were both very successful, so we suddenly had a bit more time on our hands to say yes or no to things.
Withers: There was a much more cinematic palette on Making Movies. Mark and I were keen to introduce keys in the band, but the other two counseled against it! The fear of changing up a successful formula can be such a negative. Roy Bittan (the E Street Band keyboardist who lent his talents to the album, meaning he played on Dire Straits’ “Tunnel of Love” and Bruce Springsteen’s song of the same name) certainly gave me more colors to react to.
On 1982's Love Over Gold:
Neil Dorfsman (Engineer): To me, Love Over Gold has the sound of me learning on the job. I think Mark's music will always sound, quote unquote, beautiful because the songwriting is beautiful. That kind of made my job easier, so I think more credit is given to me for the sound of Love Over Gold and Brothers in Arms than is due. His records always sound good, just because of the way the melodies are arranged.
Illsley: We built “Telegraph Road” on the road. Every soundcheck, we would work on certain sections of the song until we put the whole thing together as a story. That was quite a difficult song to record. It’s 14 minutes long, and it took the better part of a week to get the track down. It was a constant attempt to move things forward. “Private Investigations” was another case in point. That was the second six-minute single to get played on English radio, after “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Ironically, it was one of our most successful singles in the U.K.!
Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages.
Photo: Heinrich Klaffs / Flickr