Friday Night with Guitar George: Mark Knopfler

Mark Knopfler is probably the most unlikely of rock stars to emerge from the post-punk period that began in the late 1970’s.  A Scottish-born, well educated son of an architect and a schoolteacher, Knopfler had already finished college, had worked as a journalist at Yorkshire Evening Post, and was teaching at Loughton College in Essex when his side job as a musician turned into a full time career as the frontman of an English rock quartet called Dire Straits. With Mark singing and playing lead guitar, his brother David on rhythm guitar, John Illsey on bass, and Pick Withers on drums, the band was playing gigs in English clubs when they got the attention of some record industry people and landed a contract.  Dire Straits’ self-titled debut album was released in the fall of 1978, and one of its nine songs became a surprise hit in England as well as across the pond in the States: “Sultans of Swing” was an absolute joy to us high school boys in 1979 who took our air-guitar playing very seriously.  When I overheard a friend tell someone that there were several songs on the album even better than “Sultans”, I went a bought a copy for myself.  And was hooked instantly.  Mark Knopfler’s distinctively clean guitar playing, augmented by Withers’ impeccable precision of snap/crackle/pop drummimg, was like nothing I had ever heard before, yet seemed immediately familiar. The band’s musical talent was matched by Knopfler’s mature skills as a songwriter and by his street-wise, Dylanesque vocals that had just a tantalizing hint of the Scottish brogue of Mark’s birthplace.

Dire Straits would release several more albums over the next decade and a half, and each one seemed like a miracle to me.  How is it possible to produce music album after album, song after song this damn good?  I eagerly bought each new Dire Straits album on the day of its release, then would rush home to tear the plastic off and drop the needle on the vinyl, and then sit transfixed in dumbfounded amazement as I listened to the incredible music.  Of course, it was mostly Mark Knopfler’s brilliant guitar playing that held me spellbound.

In between Dire Straits albums, Knopfler advanced his reputation as a songwriter, session man, producer, and movie soundtrack composer.  The Bob Dylan albums Slow Train Coming and Infidels both are on Mark’s resume.  Two of his compositions from the 1991 Dire Straits album On Every Street were covered in unlikely places: “When it Comes To You” was a hit single for country crooner John Anderson of “Seminole Wind” and “Straight Tequila Nights” fame, while “The Bug” was a hit for folk/country/pop crossover cutie Mary Chapin Carpenter (and includes the unforgettable line “Sometimes you’re the Louisville Slugger, sometimes you’re the ball”).

On Every Street turned out to be the last studio album by Dire Straits, but Mark Knopfler, a prolific songwriter and consummate musician, would go on to have a long and successful solo career, which will be the focus of a future edition of FNWGG.  But tonight’s video is taken from a Dire Straits live performance of “Telegraph Road”, one of Knopfler’s finest compositions.  The song, an allegory of post-urbanization disillusionment, first appeared as the fourteen minute opening track on the 1982 album Love Over Gold, but live performances often ran close to twenty minutes, and it was often featured as the dramatic finale of the band’s arena concerts.  Don’t worry–this truncated video is only of the final four and a half minutes, with Knopfler concluding the song and the concert in a glorious blaze of guitar brilliance.  The video gets major bonus points for the numerous close-ups of Mark’s fingers on the frets.

For the die hard fans, there is a fifteen minute YouTube version of a 2006 performance of “Telegraph Road” recorded in Rome, with an aging Mark Knopfler playing a slightly slower but very soulful version of the song’s coda.

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