The most meticulous and gifted of craftsmen, Mark Knopfler is known to one and all as the genius guitarist, singer and writer whose new take on country, folk and British roots launched the meteoric rise of Dire Straits – and kept them at the top of the pile when music tastes changed. Knopfler’s vision never faltered. He wasn’t new wave and he was only briefly pub rock. His star was set much higher and his solo career since 1983 has given us gem after gem, from the opening salvo of his first film soundtrack, Local Hero, through to glorious solo entries like Privateering and 2018’s Down The Road Wherever.
Solo albums and classic soundtrack work run parallel in Mark’s life and he has also graced scores of other artists with his instantly recognisable, trademark guitar work. Scott Walker, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Sting, Chet Atkins, Van Morrison, Cliff Richard, Steely Dan, Randy Newman and Eric Clapton have all benefited from his quiet and graceful presence. His finger style expertise has him ranked high on Rolling Stone’s list of all-time great players and he is a four-time Grammy winner with so many other prizes to his name that we’ll just mention his honorary doctorates from UK based universities; his 2018 induction into the Hall Of Fame at the Scottish Music Awards (and Living Legend title at the same event); and the fact he even has a dinosaur named after him by palaeontologists who were listening to Dire Straits when they discovered a new species. Mark is no dinosaur, though. He is a forward-thinking, rapidly moving artist who matures by the year to the extent that his reputation simply soars above the commonplace.
Screenplaying: early soundtracks (1983-1989)
With everything Dire Straits turning multi-platinum it was only natural that Knofpler would seek to broaden his horizons, and he delighted us with his debut soundtrack, the music for Local Hero. The heady blend of Celtic music, folk, pop and jazz was the perfect accompaniment to Bill Forsyth’s much-loved movie. Joined by Gerry Rafferty on one track and by specialist sidemen throughout, the score embodies the magical mood of this classic film and won Knopfler a BAFTA.
Having then produced albums for Bob Dylan and Aztec Camera, Mark’s next venture was 1984’s Cal, an exceptionally lovely and haunting score that incorporates Dire Straits and again provides the ideal instrumental backdrop to an idyllic film. Comfort And Joy followed the same year, another suite set to a Bill Forsyth, film while The Princess Bride (1987) – for Rob Reiner’s quirkily romantic venture – is a significant example of classic British film music in that era. The song ‘Storybook Love’, with lyrics by former Mink DeVille frontman Willy DeVille, received an Academy Award nomination.
The five-star music for Last Exit To Brooklyn (1989) is fully orchestrated bliss: ambitious and memorable from intro to finale. After this Mark took a sojourn while his side project, The Notting Hillbillies, recharged his creative batteries to return fully juiced and primed for a Nashville dream ticket with Chet Atkins, Neck And Neck. Then came a well-deserved compilation called Screenplaying, which cherry-picked his magnificent compositions thus far.
Golden heart: early solo albums (and more soundtracks) (1996-1999)
Oddly, it wasn’t until 1996 that Mark released what one might call his debut solo album proper. It proved to be worth the wait. Golden Heart conquered charts worldwide as the man himself recovered from the decision to end Dire Straits for the time being following a gruelling 15-month world tour to support their On Every Street album. Two years in preparation, Golden Heart evidently did the trick, because he was soon back on the road to support his new role. Guest players were of the highest calibre – as was to be expected – and included American giants like Paul Franklin (pedal steel guitar), Don Potter’s acoustic guitar and Sonny Landreth’s National steel. One can hear all that fusion of folk and US roots bubbling forth; it’s a heady brew that veers from pure country to the most exact traditional fare.
The deeply sardonic Wag The Dog movie found Knopfler back in composer guise, concocting a smart bedrock for Barry Levinson’s highly acclaimed political satire. Still using the ensemble he referred to as the 96-ers, Mark’s Metroland score (for Philip Saville’s evocative flick) was a gorgeous confection of original songs that transport the listener from 30s Paris to a near-contemporary London. To that end he tackled pieces by his beloved Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club De France. ‘Sultans Of Swing’ also crops up, as do borrowed tracks from Elvis Costello, Françoise Hardy and The Stranglers, helping to complete an authentic masterpiece.
More shots at glory (2000-2009)
Consistency is a valuable commodity in Knopfler’s work and his relationship with producer Chuck Ainlay is never better felt than on his second solo album, the silky Sailing To Philadelphia (2000), Featuring such guests as Van Morrison, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and the brass expertise of Jim Horn and Wayne Jackson. The title track itself is a duet with James Taylor that sets the scene on songs inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon, about the two men who effectively created an imaginary border between the north and south in the US.
A Shot At Glory and The Ragpicker’s Dream (both 2002) continued to mine Knopfler’s own political concerns. It’s significant that he always chooses to add his musical tone to films he’s comfortable with and then graces those dark-room experiences with shuffles, honky tonk, ballads and often tense and taut pieces that enrich the audience’s appreciation even without them knowing – the consummate skill of the soundtracker.
Shangri-La (2004) was his fourth solo outing and included the beautiful and elegiac ‘The Trawlerman’s Song’ among tracks that referred to a bad motorcycle accident Knopfler had suffered before recording took place. Even so, this is a joyous and pleasantly skew-whiff set that mixes such pieces as ‘Boom, Like That’ (inspired by the founder of McDonald’s, the entrepreneur Ray Kroc) with cleverly nostalgic items like ‘Song For Sonny Liston’, ‘Back To Tupelo’ and ‘Donegan’s Gone’, wherein country abuts skiffle and the listener is transported to a delightful place. An abridged version of this album comes with The Trawlerman’s Song EP (2005) which combines the title piece with live-in-the-studio versions of other favourites, recorded in one take at Shangri-La Studios, Malibu.
The Private Investigations: Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler was branded to suit all parties before a very important release, All The Roadrunning (2006), a collaborative effort between Mark and the legendary country singer Emmylou Harris. The result of a long-time collaboration between the pair, this extravaganza was seven years in the making and included rich and mature work from both artists with an exemplary country cast and some of Knopflers’s finest songwriting to date in the shape of ‘I Digging Up Diamonds’, ‘Beyond My Wildest Dreams’ and the title cut. Emmylou offers ‘Belle Starr’ and ‘Love and Happiness’, and the whole thing was just that. A live memento of their ensuing tour, Real Live Roadrunning, ensued.
By contrast there is a darker edge to Kill To Get Crimson, whose noir-esque title recalls a period in English history, the late 50s, when time seemed to stand still between the austerity of the recent war and the imminent explosion of youth culture. Another very desirable disc that we’re discovering ourselves with renewed satisfaction. Get Lucky (2009) – dig that Anglo-American teenage title – contains phenomenal songwriting and fresh insights into other chunks of life and seems to make the transition from the monochromatic 50s to the more garish colours of the 60s – if not the swinging type of 60s. Knopfler recalls some early youth in Glasgow and the North East and entertains with songs about gambling, poverty and British roots in general. Remarkable stuff.
Down the road wherever… (2012 to the present day)
The 20 original songs on 2012’s Privateering were wrapped around a meticulously clean and seductive sound that was completed just after a tour with Bob Dylan. As fine a slab of work as Knopfler has ever produced, its superbly intricate folk playing, unleashed rhythms and rock’n’roll are essential, and feature stellar support from harmonica man Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds) and the ever-present A-team of Guy Fletcher, Richard Bennett and Chuck Ainlay.
Voraciously creative, and always working on his next masterwork by the time each new one appears, Knopfler supported Privateering with his usual extensive tour before unveiling 2015’s Tracker. A dozen new songs (with half a dozen more on the deluxe edition), were bejewelled with folk, blues, jazz and country influences, encased in Celtic tradition and Knopfler’s usual travelling-man wisdom on such tracks as ‘River Towns’ and ‘Lights Of Taormina’. Ruth Moody lent her plaintive vocals to ‘Wherever I Go’ and Knopfler doffed a cap to writer Beryl Bainbridge on ‘Beryl’.
His next soundtrack commission, for Hugh Hudson’s Altamira, landed in 2016. Then, fresher than people half his age could expect to be after embarking on yet another huge tour, late 2018 brought us Down The Road Wherever, a further reassertion that Knopfler has no intention to go gently down some nostalgic path. The album explored new territory with its addition of a mean horn section including Graeme Blevins (saxophone) and Tom Walsh on trumpet. Imelda May added delightful colour to the slinky ‘Back On The Dancefloor’ while Knopfler’s dark and understated humour was to the fore on ‘My Bacon Roll’ and ‘Heavy Up’. Gorgeous narratives such as ‘Just A Boy Away From Home’ and the autobiographical ‘Matchstick Man’ were further billboards for his highly literate, filmic eloquence. In March 2019, a new musical production of Local Hero, staged in Edinburgh, marked the unveiling of another slew of Knopfler compositions, as he challenged himself in yet another new medium to uniform acclaim.
A modern master with an ear for the past and a driven itch to stay contemporary – that is Mark Knopfler. One of the finest guitarists of his time – or of all time – an incredibly underrated songwriter and a singer with emotional depth, he is a true artist. Any and all of the above albums are recommended. The man’s repertoire is an addictive experience. Enjoy.
Words: Max Bell and Paul Sexton