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Mark Knopfler

+ {The Notting Hillbillies}

An atypically unassuming rock star who’s sought rootsier terrain after the huge mid-80s success of his band DIRE STRAITS, singer-songwriter/guitarist Mark is now an established solo artist and film composer with a raft of successful albums (including soundtracks) under his belt.
Born Mark Freuder Knopfler, 12th August 1949, in Glasgow, Scotland, he was raised from age 7 in Newcastle, England (his father was an Hungarian architect), KNOPFLER learned guitar and subsequently became a rock music critic with the Yorkshire Evening Post. While teaching problem students at Loughton College (early ‘77), Mark and his younger brother David performed a few South London pub gigs. Along with John Illsley and Pick Withers on rhythm, the group evolved into DIRE STRAITS. The quartet were initially swept along by the momentum of the new wave movement, even if their brand of bluesy, DYLAN-esque rock hardly qualified as punk.
KNOPFLER first moved into film with the soundtrack for LOCAL HERO (1983) {*8}, just as his band were about to capture the mid-80s zeitgeist with their “Brothers in Arms” album. If that record embodied such pivotal music industry shifts as the emergence of MTV and the CD market, his debut score was pitched at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum; diffident and beguiling mood music for a movie championing the local over the corporate (so local, in fact, the main theme was adopted by Newcastle United football fans).
And while it was light years removed in both style and ambience from “Brothers…”, the record did occasionally call to mind the band’s 1982 album, “Love Over Gold”, a record characterised by the addition of Alan Clark’s keyboards. While Clark was also present here – along with ‘Straits bassist Illsley – his Hammond, synth and piano playing served as a context rather than a focal point, ghosting through fragments of Scottish folk tunes as surf broke on a highland beach. KNOPFLER’s guitar-picking was as evocative as ever, even more so for its restraint and reserve, and strikingly so on `Wild Theme’, where the bluff northerner begins his long-time love affair with Celtic roots themes. It’s beguiling stuff, and if Michael Brecker’s tasteful sax occasionally threatened to steer the whole thing into jazz-lite territory, a recurring sense of elemental warmth and strapping, luminescent melody kept it all satisfyingly grounded.
Scores for both “Comfort And Joy” and “Cal” followed, movies set in Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively, and the latter, especially, distinguishing itself by its Celtic folk influences. A natural and haunting progression, CAL (1984) {*7} found KNOPFLER at least partly realising the folk ambitions he’d so evocatively announced in his predecessor. By enlisting bona fide folk musicians PAUL BRADY and Liam O’Flynn, the DIRE STRAITS frontman succeeded in creating an authentic and dynamic roots canvas for those plangent guitar notes, so much so that rather than carrying the melody, he often merely provided supporting texture, ingeniously working his distinctive nylon strings into the arrangements. Yet if this is true for Celtic lullabies like `Irish Love’ and `Potato Picking’, `The Long Road’ was as gorgeous a semi-acoustic ballad as KNOPFLER has yet committed to soundtrack, with BRADY’s tin whistle providing reedy, wisp-ish accompaniment.
While these soundtracks were recorded with key DIRE STRAITS personnel, they were a world away from that band’s ostentatious stadium fare, or at least its rockier elements. KNOPFLER distanced himself even further with more conventional, orchestral scores for “The Princess Bride” and “Last Exit To Brooklyn”, initiating a long term writing partnership with Guy Fletcher. For someone who’d never tackled anything remotely like this before, the first of these, THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) {*7} has to be considered a fairly impressive achievement. Endlessly inventive and convincing in conjuring a sense of fairy-tale wonder, the eddying arrangements faithfully chart the film’s unfolding narrative and shifting moods without ever doubling back on themselves. KNOPFLER also proves that he can incorporate his quicksilver guitar playing into just about any musical format and while it wasn’t heard much, when it is, as on opening theme, it dazzles. Not as warm as his previous soundtracks and perhaps not as enduring as a stand-alone album, it housed his WILLY DeVILLE vocal/guitar combination single, `Storybook Love’.
While MARK KNOPFLER composed and produced the soundtrack to the Hubert Selby Jr. adaptation, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (1989) {*5}, it was collaborator/keyboardist Guy Fletcher who performed the bulk of the score. No surprise then, that this was the most atypical of all the man’s soundtracks. If the music was weighted with a melancholic gravitas in keeping with the film’s grim storyline, it’s a gravitas which never came across as less than dignified, despite the tawdriness of the subject matter. Comparisons with JOHN BARRY were difficult to avoid, especially on the main theme, itself almost as glacially haunting as some of JB’s own masterpieces.
In the early 90s, and after a period away from the limelight, Mark resurfaced with country-folk collective The NOTTING HILLBILLIES, a quartet also comprising of long-time buddies/string-pickers, Steve Phillips (whom he met in ’68), Brendan Croker (from Five O’Clock Shadow) and the younger Guy Fletcher; Paul Franklin played pedal steel guitar. Just kept from the No.1 spot, MISSING… PRESUMED HAVING A GOOD TIME (1990) {*7} was sourced from breezy old-timey numbers (among them CHARLIE RICH’s `Feel Like Going Home’, The LOUVIN BROTHERS’ `Weapon Of Prayer’ and The DELMORE BROTHERS’ `Blues Stay Away From Me’), while KNOPFLER’s cool cut `Your Own Sweet Way’ was the pick of the bunch.
Together with the almost legendary trad-country journeyman, CHET ATKINS, Mark produced another focused country/roots piece in Top 50 album, NECK AND NECK (1990) {*6}. With only one KNOPFLER cue (the finale `The Next Time I’m In Town’) and nine cover versions, ranging from DON GIBSON’s `Just One Time’, Stephane Grappelli & Django Reinhardt’s `Tears’ and Paul Kennerley’s `Poor Boy Blues’, it was mellow without being too nostalgic and sentimental. DIRE STRAITS duly returned to the fold once more, 1991’s chart-topping “On Every Street” going platinum, but losing critical favour in the process.
When KNOPFLER actually issued his first non-OST set proper, GOLDEN HEART (1996) {*6}, chances seemed slim of any further ‘Straits activity. A Top 10 entry, the guitar virtuoso took a brooding, searching and lilting approach on `A Night In Summer Long Ago’, the title track and `I’m The Fool’, while his uptempo “Walk Of Life” pull continued via `Cannibals’ (a minor UK hit), `Imelda’ and `Don’t You Get It’.
Over a succinct 24 minutes, KNOPFLER’s return to soundtrack work in WAG THE DOG (1998) {*6}, noodled away evocatively in that unassuming northern way of his, covering the usual folk/blues/country bases but never outstaying his welcome. He even got his middle-aged geezer freak on with the Hammond-eering title track, mumbling suggestively over a list of dance-craze double entendres from way back. The rest of the album was more tasteful, purely instrumental and, with such a stickler for perfection at the helm, instrumentally pure. Standout track `In The Heartland’ best summed it up, steeped in both the intimate grandeur of “Local Hero” and the cupid flourish of DIRE STRAITS’ `Romeo And Juliet’. The whistling organ and ‘Straits-esque bends of `Stretching Out’ wasn’t far behind, and as always, it was all about heart for this sultan of strings, a bloke-ish candour that coloured every astutely plucked note; whether it was the right sound to accompany a politically satirical comedy is a moot point. KNOPFLER offered comment on the movie’s darker implications with the sombre, spaghetti-esque `An American Hero’ and `We’re Going To War’, tempering the trademark warmth with martial underpinnings, but tempering them both in turn, by sticking in a bluegrass jam and calling it `Drooling National’.
Although not all his own work and shared with various artists (from FRANCOISE HARDY, The STRANGLERS and DIRE STRAITS’ “Sultans…”), METROLAND (1998) {*5} couldn’t quite demand cohesion from the music of a story that flitted between the late 60s and late 70s, London and Paris. It also indulged the composer’s flair for pastiche, and he has fun with a perky bit of easy-listening jazz and a “Wipeout”-style dance tune complete with manic cackling at the start of every chorus. Then there are a couple of new tracks (and a couple of fragments) featuring the full-blown and instantly recognisable KNOPFLER thing, whose keyboard washes, lush-toned guitar and folky cadences are atmospheric and effective, if familiar. The main theme works a good deal better with soprano sax than with the singer’s smoky, approximate vocal, but there was nothing here to change MARK KNOPFLER’s enduring status as the thinking listener’s HANK MARVIN; one remembers he was credited on the SHADOWS man’s 1993 re-tread of `Wonderful Land’.
KNOPFLER delivered his second non-OST chart-busting album, SAILING TO PHILADELPHIA {*6} in 2000, a record that threw up a stellar cast of big names such as VAN MORRISON, SQUEEZE men (Difford and Tilbrook), GILLIAN WELCH and JAMES TAYLOR for an hour’s worth of organic, stylish and finger-picking goodness; the latter act co-scribed the title track.
Mark took his fondness for keenly felt folk music a step further with the soundtrack to Scottish football drama, A SHOT AT GLORY (2001) {*6}. Not one to blow his own trumpet, the quietly spoken northerner had indicated in at least one interview that he was not convinced of his own ability when it came to soundtracks, an opinion that his impressive CV rendered fairly groundless. The set falls squarely into the “Local Hero”/“Princess Bride” category and was in fact, possibly his most accomplished attempt at combining the various roots styles he’d pursued since leaving the ‘Straits. That steely, signature guitar sound was never far away of course, and fans of his rockier days have at least one track, `He’s The Man’, with which they can reminisce. Given the film’s Scottish setting, it was no surprise that most of the other arrangements feature bodhran, whistle, bagpipes, accordion and fiddle, employed fairly traditionally for the most part, although KNOPFLER falls in with Scotland’s thriving nu-folk scene by welding a strapping tempo and some peaty acid squelch onto `Four In A Row’.
THE RAGPICKER’S DREAM (2002) {*6} inhabited that singular musical landscape sacred to KNOPFLER, where northern English tradition stalks the prairies and backwoods of rural America. It’s a land far removed from DIRE STRAITS but one where the fleet-fingered singer moves with tranquil – if always strangely restless – ease, content to rein in his guitar prowess to the confines of acoustic roots music; check out `Why Aye Man’, `Hill Farmer’s Blues’ and `Fare Thee Well Northumberland’.
Finally recovered after a rib-splintering motorbike crash (and months of physio), KNOPFLER returned with SHANGRI-LA (2004) {*6}, his flat-cap charm, burnished guitar and beady narrator’s eye intact. Only the latter day Celtic folk-isms were absent, as he concentrated on a perennial penchant for American roots music, even penning a wake for skiffle pioneer LONNIE DONEGAN. The soberly recounted `5.15 A.M.’ ranked as one of his most compelling yarns in years, while `The Trawlerman’s Song’ dished out the kind of rippling Stratocaster scraps that keep DIRE STRAITS fans on board.
While the record didn’t quite make the UK Top 10 (US Top 75), he was back there – and in the US Top 20 – with ALL THE ROADRUNNING (2006) {*6}, an extended duet with country star EMMYLOU HARRIS. Released on the back of the 2005’s DIRE STRAITS/KNOPFLER anthology, “Private Investigations” (which previewed the standout title track), the HARRIS collaborations had actually undergone a lengthy gestation period dating back to the late 90s. The part CD/DVD companion piece, REAL LIVE ROADRUNNING (2006) {*5} was rather exploitative and unnecessary, but it did reprise versions of `Romeo And Juliet’ and `So Far Away’.
It was understandable when the guitarist’s follow-up piece, KILL TO GET CRIMSON (2007) {*6}, kept up his country-rock momentum, while also blending in his inimitable folky, singer-songwriter aplomb. GET LUCKY (2009) {*6} and the double-disc PRIVATEERING (2012) {*6} continued in this vain; dedicated disciples happy to fork out the readies to give each a UK Top 10 placing (however brief), while Americans, too, had warmed to his fireside-folk in recent times.
Garnering unfair mixed reviews from almost all the music tabs for 2015’s TRACKER {*6}, couldn’t alter, one iota, the set’s chart performance; his highest (UK Top 3/US Top 20) since Sailing To Philadelphia in 2000. Something akin to a folk-rock JJ CALE, KNOPFLER and esteemed co-producer Guy Fletcher shone the light of retrospection on the “Sultans Of Swing”-esque `Beryl’, but too many times, the man’s languid sense of predictability comes into question for ballads `River Towns’ and `Broken Bones’. Augmented by Ruth Moody of The WAILIN’ JENNYS on the concluding `Wherever I Go’ and Mike McGoldrick on `Lights Of Taormina’, KNOPFLER rarely pushes out the boat of mediocrity, but maybe mellow and moody are the new mirth and merry – who knows?
Mark’s first film commission in a decade and a half, the mini-set ALTAMIRA (2016) {*6} was an instrumental/orchestral work credited with the profoundly deaf, Aberdeen-born virtuoso percussionist EVELYN GLENNIE. Based on a story concerning the amazing discovery in the 19th century of the Cave of Altamira in northern Spain, the album itself created a minor stir around the continent when released; the production work by Guy Fletcher and the intricate fragility of Mark’s guitar and Evelyn’s percussive pieces (from the title track to the romantic `Farewell To Altamira’) had an obvious soothing effect on its listener, although GLENNIE’s acute `Dream Of The Bison’ and `Farewell To The Bison’ (depicting the cave’s jaw-dropping artwork) brought another dimension to the record’s haunting and ancestral atmosphere.
With septuagenarian-land just a year away, the durable KNOPFLER was still churning out his brand of rootsty Americana AOR via late 2018’s co-Guy Fletcher-produced DOWN THE ROAD WHEREVER {*7} album. Much like slow-hand predecessor ERIC CLAPTON on one hand, or a myriad of RICHARD THOMPSON, J.J. CALE and CHRIS REA on the other, somehow transatlantic Top 20 artist Mark was still cool among the coffee-house contingent. If the singer/songwriter/guitarist was any more horizontal he’d fall out of his hammock, as they say, but then again fans would’ve missed out on his reflective and autobiographical light-rock tunes such as `Trapper Man’, `Nobody’s Child’, `Just A Boy Away From Home’, `Good On You Son’ et al.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Sep2012-Nov2018

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