By John Harlow
Perhaps one of the most unlikely guitar heroes to come from England since his hero the great Hank Marvin, Mark Knopfler has put together a career of composition, virtuosity, and collaboration that any artist would covet.
From a guitarist’s standpoint, his style is unusual and truly unique. He admits to holding the guitar “like a blacksmith would” and has drawn the comparison to the way a baseball bat is held. Yet, from that technique and a multi-finger picking technique, Mark draws a pallet of incredible sounds played mostly on his legendary 1961 red Strat, or his later custom made Suhrs. His collaborations have ranged from being a member of Eric Clapton’s “Houseband”, to sublime link-ups with Chet Atkins and James Taylor.
His compositions draw extensively on his background in Newcastle; a very working-class area in the time of his adolescence. Evoking images of seedy clubs that hosted the Animals back in the early sixties, shipbuilding, coal mining…all sorts of backwoods tales…his songs are stories.
It’s clear that Mark is a humble hero. People obviously like him and he enjoys an engaging modesty that disguises ferocious guitar chops. Clapton frequently writes of realizing he knows little about songwriting when comparing himself to the talent Knopfler enjoys. Like all the greats in perhaps any field, he makes it look easy, even effortless.
I watch that style play in many of his videos. While handing over the stage to another gifted musician you frequently will hear a throwaway line thanking the man, and that he will see him in the bar afterward! No Limo to a swanky club, just a jar or two in the pub around the corner. That’s the man.
He’s never fallen out with band members. Destroyed hotels. Beaten wives and girlfriends. Been arrested for possession of controlled inspirational substances.
None of that. Just a massive catalog of work put together with a craftsman’s eye over decades.
He has a gentle singing style and uses unusual subject matter for songs. Backing him is that ferocious technique and the ability to draw in musicians from all sorts of background. It makes for a very intestine mix.
When first playing with Dire Straits in the late 70’s he used to ask the pub landlord to lower the volume of the band so people could still hold a conversation while they played for them. I doubt anybody wanted to but perhaps there was never a truer indication of the class and modesty of this most accomplished man than this unassuming display.
For the true guitar Connoisseur, we should have a chat about his guitars. As we noted earlier, Mark was a Geordie, the term for Newcastle residents in the far north if England. His hero was Hank Marvin of the Shadows and he, in turn, boasted England’s first imported Stratocaster….the famous 1961 recently reissued by Fender in the famed Candy Apple red. In the early sixties, it was still illegal to import guitars. That’s why you saw McCartney with a German bough Hofner!
Even after the restrictions were eased (customs duty was still enormous) back in 1964 a Fender would have been a year’s pay for a working man (hence the emergence of brands like the mediocre Burns and Watkins).
Such instruments were absolutely out of reach then but I would guess he owns several now! I imagine that a modest Mark allows himself a wry smile when he sees his “own” Fender Custom Shop instrument bearing his name.
Mark singlehandedly resurrected the Dobro from obscurity when he used a National on the amazing single Romeo and Juliet in 1980. Rather like people who bought a Gibson ES-1275 after seeing Jimmy Page wield one on Zeppelin’s greatest hit (even though it wasn’t actually used to record it) folks would buy a National based just on seeing Knopfler play one. Likely only usable on one song for any band, the sales have been steady for the past 38 years based on that one song!
Equally prominent in Mark Knopfler’s catalog was the song Private Investigations. Anyone who has ever tried to write an enduring melody or construct a guitar part that stays in the memory will marvel at this piece. You will have your Mozart and Salieri moment here! Likely played on a Ramirez the song builds from fairly simple but beautifully minor chords. The melody is almost spoken as much as sung but it pulls you into a sleazy world of smoke and suspicion. The guitar has a distinct Spanish flavor staying around the Phyrigian mode, but at the end, the listener is treated to probably the most powerful chords Mark ever played. But that Ramirez sounds awesome throughout and I’m left wondering how many were sold on the basis of this song alone.
Lyrically Knopfler’s songs are complex, unusual, interesting and spellbinding. They pull in images of tired soldiers longing to come home from silly wars. Travel to new places in old ships. Cold nights in old towns with warm hostels and equally warm people. Cities that are trying to sleep but being kept awake by “prehistoric garbage trucks”. And one of my favorite lines, the “taxis and whores only taking calls for cash”! The words pull you in and you’re left wondering how do such poems reside in one man yet find a way out.
In my view, Mark Knopfler will eventually be remembered regularly with people like the Beatles. Not quite yet, but in time.
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