British rock band Dire Straits were never particularly fashionable. They weren’t the band the cool kids were into, but don’t let that fool you. Despite the “middle-of-the-road rock” badge they were given, they made some brilliant music that is well worth checking out. Singer and frontman Mark Knopfler hailed from Newcastle, England, a working-class northern city famous for its shipbuilding.
Like his compatriot Sting, he never abandoned his working-class roots, even after finding fame and fortune. In fact, it’s his “northernness” (characterized by a slightly morose outlook and dry sense of humor) that made his songs stand out. Plus his virtuosic guitar playing, of course.
In this article, we pick the best Dire Straits songs from their impressive back catalog. So grab your Newkie Brown Ale, crank up your speakers, and enjoy the best of Tyneside 🙂
10. Lady Writer
Let’s kick off proceedings with the upbeat song ‘Lady Writer,’ said to have been inspired by Marina Warner, the author of a scholarly book about the cult of the Virgin Mary. Mark Knopfler reportedly saw her on a TV program, which is why the first line of the song begins, “Lady Writer on the TV….” The song appears on their second studio album, Communiqué.
9. Six Blade Knife
Here, the six-bladed knife symbolizes his guitar and all the euphoria (and woe) it brings. The guitar, with its six strings, is a double-edged sword. It can bring you fame and fortune but also sow the seeds of your demise and bring you to your knees. “You take away my mind like you take away the top of a tin / I’d like to be free of it now, I don’t want it no more“
8. Tunnel of Love
This gorgeous, autobiographical song tells the story of a young boy who finds the girl of his dreams (“in a screaming ring of faces, I see her standing in the light”) at an amusement park (“Spanish City” in Whitley Bay) but becomes separated in the hustle and bustle of the fair. As a boy, the fairground made a lasting impression on a young Knopfler. Legend has it that he was first exposed to loud rock ‘n’ roll music there. A snippet of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The Carousel Waltz,” a song that would typically be playing on the ride, is heard at the beginning of the song.
7. Your Latest Trick
Here’s a song about feeling used because, let’s face it, we’ve all been there. The narrator has had his heart broken, good and proper, and compares the girl to a “lady of the night” for the way in which she’s used him. The “Wild West” mentioned in the song is probably London’s West End, which has a long history of being a popular place for prostitution.
6. Walk of Life
This foot-tapping, feel-good track is one of Dire Straits’ all-time fan favorites. The catchy keyboard sound (played by Alan Clark) also gives it a sort of carnival sound. The song celebrates the buskers (street performers) of London, who are “down in the subway trying to make it pay.” The original video suggests as much, with footage of a busker strumming away. The video was sadly dumbed down for US audiences and instead used sports bloopers. The line about Johnny “singing oldies, goldies, be-bop-a-lula, baby what I say” could be a reference to John Lennon, whose tragic murder would have been on Knopfler’s mind. “Down in the tunnel trying to make it pay” could also be a nod to the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
5. So Far Away
Mark Knopfler uses this song to vent his frustration over having to spend time apart from a loved one due to the nomadic lifestyle he leads. While he was on tour in climates with more sunshine and warmer temperatures, his wife (at the time) reminded him that she was back in England, where the weather was cold and wet. Hence the line: “See, you’ve been in the sun, and I’ve been in the rain.” She makes a very good point!
4. Brothers in Arms
This song was influenced by the Falklands War in the 1980s, a conflict between Argentina and the UK over islands off the coast of Argentina (to which both countries claimed a sovereign right). Knopfler sings about a dying soldier surrounded by comrades. The song looks at the folly of war and the plight of soldiers. With wars still ravaging the world, this song’s depiction of comradery and criticism of war-mongering is sadly as relevant today as they were then.
3. Money for Nothing
“I want my / I want my MTV,” Sting sings at the start of the song. Then the drums roll in, and that electric guitar riff (reminiscent of southern rockers ZZ Top) blasts the song into the stratosphere. You have to hand it to the boys from Tyneside—they sure knew how to open up a song! The lyrics are about prima donna pop stars (he calls them “yo-yos”) who’ve never done a hard day’s graft in their lives (they get “money for nothing”), compared with the hard labor done by earnest folk like removal guys, and, in this case, one assumes, the hard-working boys from Dire Straits. To add insult to injury, these lowlifes get all the chicks!
2. Romeo and Juliet
Another strong start with arpeggiated resonator guitar on a National Style “O” guitar (incidentally, the same guitar on the cover of Brothers in Arms). This song is about Juliet abandoning Romeo after finding fame and leaving the rough neighborhood where they met. The song was inspired by Mark Knopfler’s failed relationship with Holly Vincent. The singer says that Vincent used Knopfler to help her career and that he was “just another one of her deals.” The line “there’s a place for us” is the opening of the song “Somewhere” from West Side Story, which is itself a reimagining of the Romeo and Juliet story set in New York City during the 1950s. Brandon Flowers of The Killers (who do a pretty good cover) said, “it’s one of the finest songs ever. Brilliant melodies.”
1. Sultans of Swing
You guessed it. The number one spot has to go to ‘Sultans of Swing.’ It’s one of the most famous rock songs ever written and is instantly recognizable by most people, regardless of whether you know the band or not. The song’s lyrics were inspired by a jazz band that played on a rainy night in a dull pub in Deptford, South London. The band was “blowing Dixie,” but the local boys just wanted rock ‘n’ roll. It’s hard to know whether Knopfler feels sorry for the jazzers or whether he’s with the boys.