Few bands boast the legendary guitar showmanship nor the inimitable songwriting prowess of Dire Straits. And when both traits are displayed with ease by the same musician, it’s an almost impossible formula. Yet, with six studio albums under their belt and countless, well-loved hits to their name, the British rock giant could not be more real.
Today we’re looking back through the group’s chart-studded career, from On Every Street right back to the swinging sultans’ 1978 debut and looking at the ten best Dire Straits song ever put to record.
Setting Me Up – Dire Straits, 1978
Angel of Mercy, Portobello Belle – Communiqué, 1979
Expresso Love, Hand in Hand – Making Movies, 1980
The Man’s Too Strong, Brothers in Arms – Brothers in Arms, 1985
When It Comes To You – On Every Street, 1991
10. Heavy Fuel (On Every Street, 1991) – ‘Heavy Fuel’ is probably the closest to a standard rock track the group have ever done – a group who, for the most part, don’t know the word ‘economy’ when it comes to run times, and wildly flutter from soft-rock hymns to proggy epics. That being said, this one is still five solid minutes of homage to vice and violence, and makes for one of the best latter-day Straits tracks.
9. Sultans of Swing (Dire Straits, 1978) – Putting what is, to many, the defining Dire Straits song so high up on this list is polarizing, I know, but bear with me. It’s a great track – with a simple, killer riff that landed the group a record deal – but it’s a touch overplayed. And though it’s a strong rock number, particularly on a debut album, the group have had better chances to show their tight composure as a unit and illustrate Knopfler’s mastery of songwriting. Despite all that, though, it’s a classic. And it’s a classic for a reason.
8. Communiqué (Communiqué, 1979) – While the group’s follow-up to their eponymous debut wasn’t held in nearly as high regard, it’s still a trove to some of the band’s most underrated efforts. Taking inspiration from Knopfler’s previous stint in journalism, the title track of Communiqué is a relatively down-tempo affair, often swaying into lowdown blues and mellow coves. Nonetheless, it’s a sublime tune, and among Dire Straits’ most overlooked.
7. So Far Away (Brothers in Arms, 1985) – ‘So Far Away’ is, in many ways, a masterclass in how to write a ballad. Opening the group’s biggest album to date, Brothers in Arms, it has one of the most seductive basslines of the 1980s. It’s five minutes of utter sorrow and lament, as Knopfler struggles to deal with being apart from his love, detailing the things he misses and the sheer pain it brings. But it’s that sparing use of guitar throughout which brings the song that occasional, frenetic energy, when the distance is all too much. Delicious.
6. The Bug (On Every Street, 1991) – The band’s final UK single, ‘The Bug’ is pure rockabilly, and one of the catchiest songs Straits ever did. On Every Street fails to reach the heavenly heights of Brothers in Arms, but it’s held aloft all the same by a slew of deep cuts and decent rockers. ‘The Bug’ is by far at the top of the pile, and deals with the eternal winning and losing that is life. But forget the lyrics, and it’s just four minutes of grooving country rock.
5. Industrial Disease (Love Over Gold, 1982) – Part comedy, part genuine social commentary, ‘Industrial Disease’ is an ode to early ‘80s industrial Britain and the monotonous strain of working life. Throw in a jaunty synth melody echoing the future hit, ‘Walk of Life’, and you’ve got a monstrously infectious anthem. ‘Some blame the management/ And some the employees/ Everybody knows it’s the industrial disease’ – It features some of Knopfler’s most tongue-in-cheek material to date, even if it proves worryingly resonant as the years drag on.
4. Tunnel of Love (Making Movies, 1980) – The opening to the group’s timeless classic, Making Movies – undeniably their best release (sorry, Brothers in Arms) – and a stand-out rocker in itself. As Knopfler sings of a stranger he met, kissed and subsequently lost in the wonder and waltzes of a northern fairground, his guitar wails effortlessly throughout, carrying the eight-minute piece along like a chugging rollercoaster. This track would go on for ages in a live setting, and you can easily see why, ripe for improvisation, and impossibly addictive.
3. Money for Nothing (Brothers in Arms, 1985) – Is it the most iconic opening ever written? Quite possibly. Though the rest of the eight-minute stadium anthem never quite lives up to the initial, piercing hype, it’s a staple of any ‘80s playlist, and still electrifies to this day. It’s not the best Straits have ever done – and it’s a shame most people seem to think as much – but it’s damn close, and one hell of an adrenaline shot. Who hasn’t pretended to be Knopfler in their bedroom while this was playing?
2. Telegraph Road (Love Over Gold, 1982) – Even Jim Steinman never attempted a fourteen-minute track. This near-quarter-hour epic on how one beaten piece of track weathered industrialization, winter and war is one of the best rock tracks ever produced; sparse in lyrical content and giving Knopfler all the time he needs to simply blister on guitar; but proving poignantly punchy when it needs to. It takes up most of Love Over Gold, and thank God it does. A gem in an already gleaming catalogue.
1. Romeo and Juliet (Making Movies, 1980) – Though not a big hit upon release, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has subsequently become one of the band’s most enduring staples, still blasting on the radio with that sorrowful, climactic chorus to this day. A modern-day take on Shakespeare’s classic, it’s the quintessential ballad, with Knopfler’s typically indifferent half-mutter giving way to genuine emotion and heartbreak. He may not be the image of a Hollywood Romeo, but boy, can he play the dejected romantic.
Ultimately, for a group who boast an impressive six studio albums, Dire Straits’ legacy is nothing less than astonishing – and nearly half a century later, their music lives on in heart-crushingly intimate ballads, and moments of guitar-straddled, arena rock genius. Their back catalogue is more than worth a deep dive, and asserts what we, the people, have known already for so many years. Whether it’s blues, country, pop or rock, Dire Straits are in their element, and masters of that fragile kind of alchemy.