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Mark Knopfler a Life in Songs

Updated on February 3, 2014

Dire Straits FIRST television appearance on BBC


Mark Knopfler -a Life in Songs was a BBC4 production that travelled the life of Mark Knopfler, one of the most successful musicians in the world, who has written and recorded over 300 songs. The documentary was deeply moving and interspersed interview footage of Knopfler with songs from that point in his life. This was a particularly well made programme and all credit to the BBC for another inspirational music broadcast.

An illustration of Boogie Woogie, this is not Mark Knopfler's uncle!

Early Years

"It’s not about the money, it’s about the music and he keeps evolving rather than staying in the glory days of Dire Straits".

Knopfler was born in Glasgow. His father was a Hungarian political refugee and his mother from Newcastle. Unlike many of today's angst ridden, Knopfler says he had a good upbringing and that his parents did a good job.

When Knopfler was eight years old, the family moved to Newcastle and it was there that Knopfler's love of music was ignited by an uncle who played boogie woogie piano and banjo.

It was also around this age that Knopfler began his obsession with guitars and was always to be found, apparently, hanging around the Newcastle music shops!

Knopfler wanted to go electric, like his idol, Hank Marvin, but the wait was to his later advantage, as he learned his trade going round the Newcastle clubs playing folk music.

For his first electric guitar, Knopfler wanted a red Fender Stratocaster, 'just like Hank Marvin'. The guitar his father actually bought him was a Hofner “super solid, (see picture).

In those early days, Knopfler's musical influences were Hank Marvin, Bob Dylan and BB King.

It was Hank Marvin for the sound of the Stratocaster, played with extensive use of the wammy bar. Bob Dylan became an influence on Knopfler's writing when he realised that it was possible to write songs about any subject. From BB King, Knopfler noticed a connection and interpaly between, the guitar, the singer's voice and the audience.

Knopfler left school at 18 and went down to Essex to train as a journalist. As well as working as a reporter, Knopfler went to Leeds University and did a degree in English. This led to a teaching job in Essex, but,

“The songs would be pushing and pushing...they push harder and harder...The songs which had been pushing so hard actually pushed me out of a job!”

1980 on The Old Grey Whistle Test

Hofner Super Solid (similar to Mark Knopfler's first guitar)


And then there was Dire Straits

Dire Straits was formed in 1977 and the band got their big break when a London DJ was persuaded to play their demo track on air. A recording contract followed and the band's first appearance on television came in 1978, (see video clip above). The song of the moment was Sultans of Swing which was inspired by a Dixie Land jazz band Knopfler heard in a pub one evening.

The album was a massive hit but Knopfler found himself being herded into a commercial straitjacket.

It has always been about the songs, for Knopfler,

“The idea never was to do it make a million dollars. It never was that in the first place.”

The second album, Communique, was not as well received. Knopfler was not afraid to analyse his situation,

“So it didn’t take me long to realise that I wasn't having enough time to develop properly as a player or a writer or anything.”

By 1980 and the third album, Making Movies, Knopfler was living in America and, according to popular acclaim, returned to form.

Brothers in Arms

The Notting Hillbillies

It's about the music

Knopfler has never compromised when it comes to what he writes and plays. He has largely avoided the trap of hammering out the same tired favourites in order to make more money. Talking about what songs he would perform he says,

“I’ve got to find something in it for myself when I do it”. talking about how songs seem to have a life of their own but that he will keep playing them if he can find something fresh".

In 1982 he was commissioned to write his first film score for the film, Local hero and he credits his early years in Scotland as being a big factor in his ability to produce that style of melodic music.

“...all this stuff comes back to who you are as a little person”

In 1985 Dire Straits released one of the biggest selling albums of all time, Brothers in Arms. Knopfler is both realistic and modest to comment that part of the album's success was that it coincided with the new format, the 'cd'.

The title track Brothers in Arms went straight to the heart for many people. On a phone in show, a soldier phoned Knopfler to tell him how, after a battle in the Gulf, all the tanks lined up and played the the song. It has been, and still is, a song to touch the spirit.

Once again, much of the idea for the song came from Knopfler's childhood. The phrase, 'brothers in arms' was an expression he had heard his father use and had remembered it as distinctive. Knopfler also mentions the poem, The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna, as an influence in the writing of this song.

This album also contained the song, Money for Nothing, which gave the band their first no.1 single in America. The song itself was based on a conversation Knopfler overheard in a New York television shop. At the time he was listening he knew it was going to be useful and borrowed paper and pen to take notes!

Once again, success did not come easily for Knopfler,

I probably just survived it, but there’s a lot of damage...a songwriter is more of an observer and you suddenly feel people looking at you and there’s a reversal going takes a while to get the whole thing in perspective.”

After their American tour, Knopfler put Dire Straits on hold and formed a new band with two friends from his early days in Leeds, they were the Notting Hillbillies.

Knopfler also began to collaborate with other musicians, including one of his early heroes, Chet Atkins. In 1991 Dire Straits got back together to record their final studio album, and after the world tour Knopfler left to pursue his calling.

“I wanted to get back to being a guy who could write a song...”

Knopfler has followed his heart and written songs and played them with musicians he has felt drawn to. One such musician was Emmylou Harris with whom Knopfler recorded a duet that was inspired by an article Knopfler read about the voice messages left by those trapped in the twin towers on September 11th. The song was called, If this is Goodbye.

mark knopfler

It's still always about the music

Knopfler describes himself as,

“I’m one of the lucky ones who enjoys the whole cycle...being a songwriter so I can write a song...then I enjoy very much getting in to the studio and recording...I really enjoy rehearsing to go out on tour...and then playing live!”

For him, the song is the important thing, and is a work of art,

“what i try to do with a song is craft it, i try and craft a song with pride. i’m trying to make something that’s going to last."

The last comment here will be about the programme itself. In my opinion the BBC did a wonderful job of portraying Mark Knopfler. Throughout the documentary we get a 'feel' for Knopfler as a person and how his personality has become weaved in and out of his music. Thank you BBC!

If this is Goodbye


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    • oldrick profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Ingate 

      7 years ago from UK

      Thanks for the comment, crystolite. The programme was very well worth watching, if you can find it online.

    • crystolite profile image


      7 years ago from Houston TX

      Thanks for this biograpgy


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