Vinyl Frontier: Dire Straits, Dire Straits

Look, I like Dire Straits. There, I’ve said it. It is true that the later albums became overblown, and little of the subsequent music lived up to this eponymous debut. But there is much to love about this first album.

Dire Straits may have become classic dad rock in the end, but back in 1978 they delivered with Mark Knopfler’s take on pub rock: Dylanesque Americana with touches of country and jazz, built around the main man’s flowing, jittery guitar playing and semi-mumbled vocals.

I like this album because of what it has to say musically, its freshness and immediacy. And I like this album because I was there. Not there in the studio with Knoplfler, brother David Knopfler, bassist John Illsley and drummer Pick Withers. But if you look on the fringes, peer into the shadows, there I am. Once I interviewed Dave Knopfler backstage at the Lewisham Odeon before a concert, Mark being unavailable.

Dire Straits lived for a while on the Crossfield Estate in Deptford. I was a student at the time, then worked on the local newspaper in Deptford High Street. A little bit of Deptford DNA rubbed off on me, the Albany Empire and the tatty pubs, the sausage shop and the south London chat from the wheeler-dealer opposite the office who let me park my car in his lot for a weekly fee.

In my student spell, Dire Straits played their first gig in a festival on the Crossfield Estate. We all crowded into someone’s flat for a view from a balcony above. Later, they played a gig at the Rock Garden in Covent Garden, and we were there, too.

That was before any deal for this album, before the initial rejections, and before radio DJ Charlie Gillett championed the band’s cause; the album is dedicated to him.

In 2009, a plaque went up on the Crossfield Estate to mark that first concert, and the Yorkshire Evening Post got in on the act, reporting that “ex-Leeds musician Mark Knopfler said he was ‘honoured’”. Knopfler briefly worked as a reporter on the paper, before heading further south, having started out in Newcastle.

Opening song Down To The Waterline could be a hymn to the south London waterfront, but in fact it harks back to the quayside in Newcastle. Knopfler’s arrival in London does generate some songs, most famously Sultans of Swing, inspired by a jazz band playing without fanfare in a Greenwich pub. One of those timeless songs that sound fresh with each playing.

The lovely Wild West End is another London song, with Knopfler self-consciously casting himself as a guitar cowboy, and Water of Love still rings clear.

The needle stuck on the opening chords of Wild West End. Annoying but also fitting, as for a while I was stuttered back to those distant days, watching Dire Straits before anyone knew who they were.

Dire Straits, 1978. Songs: Down To The Waterline, Water Of Love, Setting Me Up, Six Blade Knife, Sultans of Swing, In The Gallery, Wild West End, Lions.

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