Happy Birthday, Mark Knopfler: The Sultan of Swing

Mark Knopfler — born on August 12, 1949 — made a massive impact on rock history with some of the best guitar playings to ever come out of the rock world.

 |  8-minute read |   11-08-2020
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In the early 1980s, a friend of mine from the merchant navy who knew about my passion for the band Jethro Tull, gave me a cassette recording of a BBC radio show of Ian Anderson (the heart and soul of Jethro Tull), on which he presented songs that he admired. My friend was in London when he heard the programme and taped it instantly. A maestro, who had already conquered several peaks and was to conquer many more after, playing songs of his rivals, so to speak, whom he appreciated? That was some concept! The programme was divided into many sections. One such section was ‘Guitar Virtuosity’. He played Jimi Hendrix (All Along the Watchtower), Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven) and Eric Clapton of The Cream (Tales of Brave Ulysses). All the usual suspects. And then he came to the final song in the segment.

I had not heard the song earlier. It was simply blowing. I had never heard the guitar being played at such a gallop, such fast licks and that too with such clarity — without distortion and so melodic. This was serious talent.

The song was Sultans of Swing. That was my first introduction to Mark Knopfler and his band — Dire Straits.

Ironically, Jethro Tull was criticised for the Dire Straits-flavour of their album Crest of a Knave released in 1987, whose tour I saw in Paris. There are certainly shades of Knopfler, in both the guitar work and the singing, and the album is a classic.

Right from the starting line, Knopfler made a massive impact on rock history with some of the best guitar playings to ever come out of the rock world. His refreshing sound convinced some players to embrace the cleaner tones. The band continued to amass many hits as well as critically-acclaimed albums, filled with brilliant and innovative guitar work. Also, Knopfler has had an incredibly prolific career as a solo artist that has included highly esteemed film-scoring, production and session work.

But let us start from the beginning.

Knopfler was born on August 12, 1949, in Glasgow. His mother was a teacher, his father a Hungarian architect who had fled his country in 1939 because he was close to the Communists. Knopfler discovered music as a child. His uncle's piano playing triggered his passion for music, and his parents gave him his first guitar. He founded Dire Straits with his younger brother David in 1977.

main_mark-knopfler_t_081120022107.jpegKnopfler made a massive impact on rock history with some of the best guitar playings to ever come out of the rock world. (Photo: Twitter/ @MarkKnopfler)

Why such a bleak name for the band? The name refers to their initial financial situation. The record companies showed no interest until a Dire Straits demo tape was played in ‘Honky Tonk’ BBC show – the track: Sultans of Swing. Before the last bar had been played, several record labels called the station to find out who had written the song.

Their 1978 debut album — Dire Straits — was an international success, establishing the band's trademark sound marked by Knopfler’s unique fingerpicking and a laconic singing style.

in 1985, Dire Straits landed at the top of the album charts worldwide with their fifth album, Brothers in Arms. The video of Money For Nothing, an ironic look at the music business in which Sting sang the line "I want my MTV" was the first to be released when the television network for music videos was launched in Europe.

Six years later, the band released its next and last album — On Every Street. The following two-year tour, however, turned out to be too much. In 1995, Knopfler dissolved Dire Straits. After the overwhelming burden of the band's success, Knopfler found more pleasure in his solo career.

Knopfler never made a secret of appreciating peace and solitude. The headbands he used to wear on stage not only kept the sweat out of his eyes — when he took them off after the show, nobody would recognise him anymore. While many superstars spent more time in detox than in the studio, he stayed away from excesses and scandals.

Dire Straits was inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

Knopfler has a fingerstyle approach to guitar playing. He developed a largely pick-less (a pick is a plectrum used to play the guitar) style to deliver a host of fresh sounds. Not many guitarists are instantly recognisable from just a few notes. But music lovers can instantly identify Mark Knopfler's playing from just one chord.

A major reason for this was his determination to forge his own musical style. Knopfler's unique fingerpicked clean tones and modest approach to solos stood in stark contrast to the norm prevalent among bands of that era. It made him a true guitar hero. Knopfler is known for his quick, rhythmic jabs and fills, but he also employs a softer touch in many songs. He has done plenty of unhurried, emotive guitar lines that linger in the memory, including some offbeat but moving moments that only Knopfler could pull off. He is the sultan of subtlety, providing expressive shadings by varying the tone, texture, and tempo.

main_mark-knopfler_1_081120023447.jpegKnopfler has a fingerstyle approach to guitar playing. He developed a largely pick-less (a pick is a plectrum used to play the guitar) style to deliver a host of fresh sounds. (Photo: Twitter/ @MarkKnopfler)

While most guitar heroes are rooted in the blues-rock tradition, Knopfler’s unmistakable playing style owes more to Celtic, folk, and country — without hanging its hat on any one of those classic genres in particular. These influences were blended to become an instantly timeless mix of atmospheric album tracks, combined with populist, catchy and massive-selling singles. Dire Straits has been acknowledged as one of the most intelligent and original bands of its era.

He is a truly great songwriter. Knopfler's ideas are intellectually and musically stimulating but are also accessible to the average listener. He could write big, brooding epics (Love Over Gold, Brothers in Arms). He could write pure pop (Walk of Life). In Money for Nothing, he wrote a mega-hit, with guest vocals by the 1980s megastar Sting, which achieved its aim of permanent rotation on MTV. The song is written from the point of view of a blue-collar worker muttering "that ain't working" as he watches overpaid pop stars on MTV — no mean feat. He has stated that he loves songwriting more than anything.

And his singing style? Knopfler has a ‘storyteller’ singing voice which suits his music perfectly. He has a laidback style of singing. As his guitar playing, it is very distinctive and has a lot of character. Whether it is a slow song or a fast song, he manages to get the feeling across, his voice purposely cracking on the emotional words. He "speaks" to music.

But he also has an appreciation for the ridiculousness of his lot — a self-awareness all too lacking among his peers. He is rock's anti-star: no cool outfits, no self-conscious posing, no long-winded solos.

I had the good fortune of seeing Knopfler perform in Mumbai on March 5, 2005. In an interview, he stated that when seeking Shangri-La in the mind, one should come to India. "India offers a broad spectrum of philosophy and spirituality to those seeking a Shangri-La state of mind," Knopfler said, whose latest solo album at that time was titled Shangri-La (2004).

main_mark-knopfler-t_081120021424.jpgThe ticket to Knopfler's performance in Mumbai in March 2005. (Photo: Ajay Mankotia)

What an evening it was! Knopfler gave his fervent fans the very best in two hours of nonstop song-after-song performance. Though it was a Mark Knopfler concert and not Dire Straits, he belted out many Dire Straits numbers, which struck an ecstatic chord with the crowd. His trademark singing style had not jaded a bit. His artful guitar tones rang all around the ground. The crowd happily swayed to numbers such as Walk Of Life, Sultans Of Swing, Sailing to Philadelphia, Romeo and Juliet, So Far Away and towards the end, to the power chords of Money For Nothing.

On August 12, 2020, Knopfler turns 71. At this age, rock stars are called “dinosaurs”. There are many who are still performing. But Knopfler is the only official “rock dinosaur” in the world. The Masiakasaurus knopfleri — a theropod dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period — was named after him in 2001.

As the line in Walk of Life goes: “He got the action, he got the motion, yeah, the boy can play, dedication, devotion, turning all the nighttime into the day.”

The craft and majesty of Mark Knopfler will always live on. Four decades later, he is still making records that are love letters to the sound of the guitar.

Also Read: How mashups are changing the way we listen to music


Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia @ajaymankotia

The writer is an author, former revenue official and a music aficionado.

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