Released: October 1978
Chart Peak: #2
Weeks Charted: 41
Certified 2X Platinum: 1/6/87
Dire Straits, an English quartet led by singer/songwriter Mark Knopfler, plays tight, spare mixtures of rock, folk and country music with a serene spirit and witty irony. It's almost as if they were aware that their forte has nothing to do with what's currently happening in the industry, but couldn't care less.
As a writer, Knopfler pens terse little narratives about the mundane problems of his brethren: women trouble, money trouble, one's-place-in-the-world trouble. He's often as clever as he is banal, so a nice line ("I need a little water of love") can be followed by a silly one ("You know it's evil when you're living alone"), or vice versa. If anything, living alone is what Dire Straits is about, and it sounds like a good life.
But Knopfler isn't interested in writing songs with profound messages. In fact, the only time he tries it ("In the Gallery"), the message turns out to be a petulant attack on avant-gardism -- i.e., a real yawn. No, Dire Straits get their effects by precise, well-played contrasts: the way a brisk bit of folk-rock is entitled "Sultans of Swing" and not only boasts an inescapable hook but also a goony, Bob Dylan-like snarl in its vocal. "Setting Me Up" sports a standard mangled-romance theme, but the verbiage is masticated by Knopfler's growling, annoyed singing, with a giddy country-guitar solo tacked on at the end. It's a heavenly number, funny and bitter.
Even when Mark Knopfler tends toward Bruce Springsteen-style street bathos in such mini-epics as "Wild West End" and "Lions," his band keeps everything admirably straightforward. Dire Straits is one of those quietly subversive albums whose sober lucidity reeks of rapid obscurity. It doesn't deserve such a sad fate.
- Ken Tucker, Rolling Stone, 1-25-79.
Dire Straits was the only non-New Wave band in England to debut across-the-board raves in 1978, and it's not hard to figure out why: they're so good it's scary. But the speed with which they've caught on in this country (as of this writing, "Sultans of Swing," the single, looks to be headed for the Top 10, which in an era of terminal disco approaches the miraculous) has me a little worried. Granted, the Straits are quite subtly original (if not totally innovative), and for sheer musicality, in the every-note-is-there-for-a-reason sense, there isn't a New Wave band in the world that can touch them. Still, they are not likely to offend the sensibilities of anybody who thinks that, say, Kenny Loggins is God, and I am a little uncomfortable right now about endorsing the music of any group that will go down so easily amidst the utter pap that FM radio revels in. But I'd be the first to admit that that's unfair, and I should add that in live performance the band has turned out to be pleasingly rawer than the recorded model, so I'll stop complaining.
The Straits' music, an understated, gorgeous amalgam of Southern r-&-b styles tempered with a Dylanesque lyrical bent, amazingly atmospheric playing, and a near architectural grasp of song structure, is by and large irresistible. Leader Mark Knopfler has got to be the most quietly riveting guitar stylist to have emerged in the Seventies, and the band as a whole plays with such loose-limbed precision and soul that overlooks the occasional pettiness of some of the lyrics ("In the Gallery," which is one of the strongest cuts musically, is a rather simplistic attack on the Art Establishment). The intelligence involved is what will ultimately win you over -- at least, it's what's won me over. Hey, wait a minute, maybe Dire Straits is more subversive than I thought: how many bands have you heard on the radio lately to which the word "intelligent" could accurately be applied?
- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 5/79.
Although associated with the British new wave, four-man band Dire Straits seem more like a hybrid of Dylan, Talking Heads and the Band. With sparse, country flavored backing, lyricist and lead singer Mark Knopfler creates and describes a world in such detail as to sometimes border on the claustrophobic. While this LP is designed for FM audiences, frequent vocal and instrumental hooks plus smooth textures could make for AM exposure. Best cuts: "Sultans of Swing," "Wild West End," "Six Blade Knife," "Down To The Waterline," "Setting Me Up."
- Billboard, 1978.
Despite initial misgivings, I've found this thoughtful and sexy. The decisive touch is how Mark Knopfler counterpoints his own vocals on guitar -- only a musician with a real structural knack could sound like two people that way. But there's a streak of philistine ideology here that speaks for too many white r&b players these days -- most of them can't be bothered articulating it, that's all. In "In the Gallery," an honest sculptor has his bareback rider, coal miner, and skating ballerina rejected by the "trendy boys," "phonies," and "fakes" who (literally) conspire together and "decide who gets the breaks." Those who find this rather simplistic should now ask themselves whether Knopfler's beloved Sultans of Swing -- not to mention Dire Straits -- have more in common with that sculptor than he suspects. B
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
While Britain lurched to the pulse of punk, what was basically a "family and friends" outfit (Mark and David Knopfler on guitars) cracked the American and British charts wide open with "Sultans of Swing." This affable tribute to jazz, written in a soft rock style, contained some superbly confident throwaway guitar solos. The album which "Sultans" followed proved to have eight additional atmospheric tracks, each of the same high quality. This debut album was an overwhelming success, straddling all musical, age and geographic divisions.
Produced by Steve Winwood's brother Muff and recorded using the Aphex Aural Exciter (a "black box" which adds natural harmonics to enrich sound quality) the album was a big hit with "soundies." In CD form, the bass and drum lines are tighter, Knopfler's stratospheric flights of Stratocaster fantasy less likely to hit a wall of dull distortion. But there is an overall "tubbiness" and thickness.
This review sample proved superior to a copy bought three years ago.
- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.
From the first note on this recording, it's apparent that Knopfler has assimilated the lessons laid down by the Beatles, Paul Simon, and Led Zeppelin, among others -- the recording studio is every bit as much a component of a band's sound as its guitars or keyboards. Having come on the scene a few years before digital reproduction became feasible, it appears that Knopfler maintained a keen ear for advances in studio technology. The lush, yet slightly removed, spatial quality of the group's attractive sound is the direct result of these concerns. Musically there is a strong kinship to J.J. Cale's vocal timbre and mannerisms, plus a reliance on his blues-oriented, loping rhythm. Because of Knopfler's limited performance prowess, the elements which lift this recording above the run of the mill are his acknowledged songwriting skills (as illustrated in the album's hit single "Sultans of Swing") and immaculate production values which produce a slightly compressed, but fine sounding CD. B+
Even after all the success, the debut is the best example of the intricate style of Dire Straits, dominated by the electric finger-picking of guitarist Mark Knopfler, his smoky voice and poetic lyrics. Features their first hit, "Sultans of Swing." * * * * *
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Dire Straits hinted at what the band could do with solid tracks such as "Sultans of Swing" and "Water of Love," and Knopfler's guitar work instantly put him in a league with rock's masters. * * * *
- David Goldberg, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Dire Straits, and in particular lead vocalist, lead guitarist, and songwriter Mark Knopfler, an ex-journalist and schoolteacher, were not punks, and the release of this album in 1978, when punk and new wave (and disco, for that matter) were dominating the British media and charts, was brave to say the least.
Owing more to blues-influenced U.S. acts such as J.J. Cale than to the Sex Pistols, the quartet (completed by Knopfler's younger brother, social worker David, on rhythm guitar, sociology undergraduate John Illsley on bass, and Welsh drummer Pick Withers) were initially ignored (with the notable exception of London broadcaster Charlie Gilett, who played them on his local show), and when the first single, "Sultans of Swing," was released in the UK in early 1978, it made little impression. It was not until Warner Bros., to whom the group were signed in the United States, made this song about a band of elderly musicians into a Top Five hit, that Britain realized its mistake.
Apart from this single, this album provided early examples of Mark Knopfler's storytelling abilities and highly impressive guitar work, with "Down To The Waterline," "In The Gallery" (about England's north-east, where Knopfler grew up), and "Wild West End" (about being in London). The album was finally released in Britain six months after the single, making the Top Five; in the United States it made the Top Three and was certified double platinum.
From those hesitant beginnings, Dire Straits were to go to become, arguably, the biggest band in the world in the early 1980s.
- John Tobler, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
Main Page | The Classic 500 | Readers' Favorites | Other Seventies Discs | Search The RockSite/The Web