Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Dire Straits

Monday, November 25, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Dire Straits

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.


A&R originally stood for men whose job was to combine Artists who sang with Repertoire – the songs they’d sing. It was, to oversimplify the job of whoever got a singer like Al Jolson on the label, then found a song like “Mammy” for him to perform.

The term A&R has lasted, but now it means much more. It means producers who sit in booths and enhance recordings, but it also means producers who just can hear a voice and say “That group’s for us. Let’s sign ‘em.”

Back to Warner Bros. Records in Manhattan, where its NY chief (over from Atlantic) now is Jerry Wexler. Wexler had left his home, Atlantic Records, to become WBR’s bird dog in the East.

Jerry is a producer, of course. But now he’s hired an assistant, one who’s a talent scout.

Her name:

Karin Berg

Karin had just turned 40, but music pumped inside her like she was a teen.

In her career in the record business, Karin was witty, warm, and no-nonsense. In that career, she’d heard not-yet-signed artists, and got them signed. New Wave musicians like Television, R.E.M., the B-52s, the Gang of Four... Marshall Crenshaw. All on her credits list.

But now (1978), this new band she’d found sounded bigger. She’d come across an act on English label Vertigo, still unsigned for America. An act with a less-than-hopeful name, Dire Straits.

Hearing this album, Karin felt Dire Straits deep inside. Hardly anyone else is her department agreed, though. So now, in 1977, feeling this one deep, Karin takes this new group, unsigned in America, in to see boss Jerry.

She told (in her nice way) Jerry Wexler, “We should sign Dire Straits.”


The answer would come soon:

Some Dire Background

Step back now to 1977:

The members of a local rock band back in England had wanted success, but had found poverty on the road. They’d played together in pubs in Yorkshire, but their leader, Mark Knopfler was struggling financially. He sang, played lead guitar, and was always broke.

After an early divorce, Mark had moved into his brother David’s flat, where bass-player John Isley also lived. They found a drummer (Pick Withers), also out of money.

Four in the group (Mark’s brother on rhythm guitar), a quartet that’s the core of rock (two guitars, bass, and drums). Still, those four could and did manage to sound New Age. And lucid.

Dire Straits emerged on the British rock scene in 1977, one of those brash bands like Siouxsie & The Banshees, Buzzcocks, and X Ray Spex. At first, in London they’d gone under the name Café Racers, but not for long. They renamed, based on how they were living: in Dire Straits.

Unlike other local bands, Dire Straits rose, bit by bit, to the top of the London club circuit, playing “old fashioned” rock and roll: mid-tempo, blues, and country-based rock, perfect for the guitar of Straits leader Mark Knopfler.

Over the months, they accumulated tunes on disc, but not on albums. Those tunes became demo tapes.

Getting Attention

Pre-Warners, the band had given a demo tape to Radio London’s DJ Charlie Gillett, who was floored by it. Gillett played the demo on his BBC show Honky Tonkin’, over and again. Three songs especially: “Water of Love,” “Wild West End,” and “Sultans of Swing.” This latter tune was Knopfler’s tribute to bands that had faded away.

A one-country English label, Vertigo Records, took a shot with this group. To record the first album cost Vertigo £12,500, all in.

Album One: 1978 - Dire Straits

The self-named first album got attention. It all sounded clean and warm, and Knopfler’s Fender Stratocaster sounded masterful. Knopfler’s husky warbling found a bigger, album-oriented radio audience, and that Sultans single helped.

“Sultans of Swing” the original version? Right here:

You get a shiver in the dark
It's been raining in the park but meantime
South of the river you stop and you hold everything
A band is blowing Dixie double four time
You feel all right when you hear that music ring

You step inside but you don't see too many faces
Coming in out of the rain to hear the jazz go down
Too much competition too many other places
But not too many horns can make that sound
Way on downsouth, way on downsouth London town….

And then the man he steps right up to the microphone
And says at last just as the time bell rings
'Thank you goodnight now it's time to go home'
and he makes it fast with one more thing
'We are the Sultans of Swing'

Dire Straits began to tour. First, only in Europe, not across that Atlantic Ocean. They’d been signed for UK only by Vertigo Records (a bit of Phonogram Records), but the deal left Dire Straits loose for the rest of the world.

Until, as you may have read, Karin Berg.

Jerry Wexler, getting an answer to his “Who?” picked up his pen and stepped forward for Warner Bros. Records of America.

Wexler was a long-term pro, having made decades of hits with Atlantic artists like Aretha and all. He decided to produce Dire Straits.

Album Two: 1979 - Communique

Produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, the latter the star keyboardist from Muscle Shoals Sound band. Neither man heard exactly what Knopfler was hearing for this next album, but all of them record guys, so let’s go.

The style of Communique was far from London. Jerry Wexler recalled producing the album this way: “We’d had a great time cutting the sides in Compass Point, Nassau, where I solved our only problem – lousy local meat – by importing squab, roast, and loins of pork from Lobel’s, a fancy Manhattan butcher.

“The music was wonderful. Mark Knopfler is a remarkably versatile guitarist and luminous musical mind. Each night we’d sip fine wine and dine by candlelight in a grandiose mansion by the sea, and the sessions were just as smooth. Barry (Beckett) and I were able to help the rockers get a bluesy edge, and the Bahamas providing a cool and calm setting. Dire Straits was an example of how funky Englishmen can be when they pay attention.”

The album went to #11 for Warner Bros./U.S., with one pretty good (#45) single, “Lady Writer.” In that songm Knopfler sings about a smart and lovely writer, Marina Warner, whom he’d encountered on TV. (She’d written a book about the Virgin Mary.)

Just the way that her hair fell down around her face
Then I recall my fall from grace
Another time, another place

YouTube of “Lady Writer” can be seen here:

Knopfler’s song writing style was clearly his (and maybe a little bit of Dylan’s): stories that wandered, stream-of-consciousness. Not usual on most albums.

Album Three: 1980 - Making Movies

As often became the case, Mark Knopfler moved on to find another producer for his next album, Making Movies. This time, it’s Jimmy Iovine, recording at the Power Station in New York.

During the recording, Mark’s brother quit Dire Straits, and his guitar tracks were re-recorded by Mark. The album got good reviews, but so-so sales.

The album had longer songs than previous Dire Straits tunes. “Tunnel of Love” became a concert yelled-for. But it got only up to #54 on the chart.

MTV gave Making Movies’ videos gossiped-about play: “Skateaway” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Album Four: 1982 - Love Over Gold

And for this one, Knopfler found the producer of his dreams: Mark Knopfler.

His songs were finding intent audiences. Addicts, in fact. Take for instance the song “Private Investigator” on this LP/CD. It’s a lengthy ballad that tells of a P.I. who’s sick of his work, in a bar now, mumbling like Bob Dylan into his whiskey. There comes gunfire. Tragic piano. Pain, part of Knopfler’s own anti-romantic life frustrations.

The album also included a 14-minutes-long “tune,” “Telegraph Road,” describing unemployment in Detroit. Another shift away from pop hits. Knopfler was out there. Such indulgence was embraced widely, although Dire Straits’ labels found promoting such tunes dicey.

Catch a live 1985 performance of “Private Invesitgator” here:

It is this kind of performance that has set Dire Straits quickly climbing up the ladder of public attention.

Love Over Gold went gold in the U.S. market. Heading upwards. How high, no one could have predicted. Within Warner Bros. Records, however, no one was truly ready for what was next to come out.

Next, a New Kind of Album

In the three years since Album 4 (Love Over Gold), Mark and his group had paused when it came to “R” word: recording. Their lives were better these years, no more “Dire” in them.So Mark took the years to focus on turning A&R into A=R, an awkward explanation, perhaps, but Mark wanted artists to be the repertoire, and repertoire to be the artists.

And he wanted those changes, whatever that took, to happen next. On their very next album.

First: He decided to write all of Dire Straits’ songs himself, based on what he felt. That meant not having to do those three-minute takes because of radio’s needs. It meant being like a painter, one who could paint on a canvas of any size he chose.

So Mark’s songs chosen for this next album, Brothers in Arms, wander their own paths, and those paths were not succinct. Nor were his songs aimed at the theme of love, like so much R had been. Mark was into what he called “deeper.” World politics could make a hit song, and he wrote/sang those songs (three of them would make their points on Brothers).

Also: Mark produced every song on the album. The way he wanted. Before the industry was really ready for it, Mark created Brothers in Arms, the whole album in digital recording on a not-sure-yet Sony 24-track digital tape machine. Risky, but now’s the time.

Beyond those R-repertoire issues, Mark also focused on marketing for this next album. Two major changes were affecting labels in the early ‘80s: MTV and CDs. Both changes were embraced by Dire Straits as their next album was coming out fresh, new, yes.

Labels worried, was the market ready for any and all of these changes?

Out Comes the Biggie

Album Five: 1985 - Brothers in Arms

On May 13, 1985, the answer to that “ready?” question got answered with “like never before.” All these “new” attributes put together got major attention.

em>Brothers in Arms charted #1 worldwide. In the U.S., it sat up top of the Billboard 200, at #1 for nine weeks. Even better, it sold nine times platinum in America. And, across the world, sold 30,000,000 copies.

CDs were getting hot now, and this one album practically overwhelmed the manufacturers of those shiny little discs; it became the first million-selling CD, outselling its LP version. The word had got out: Dire Straits was not only out on CD, but on a CD that had been recorded digitally. It sold so many, other labels’ CDs had to wait in line to get manufactured.

The album’s contents were ripe. Singles included “So Far Away” (#19), “Brothers in Arms” (#16), “Walk of Life,” (#7), and “Your Latest Trick.” But the most popular of all was one called “Money for Nothing.” (#1).

“Money for Nothing” also became a one-of-a-kind music video. Animated. And Sting appeared in it, singing in falsetto one of the year’s themes, “I want my MTV.”

The computer-animated video of “Money for Nothing” can be viewed right HERE:

The album’s title-single did even better: it became the most frequently played on MTV.

Watch a live version of "Brothers In Arms":

There's so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones

Now the sun's gone to hell
And the moon riding high
Let me bid you farewell
Every man has to die
But it's written in the starlight
And every line in your palm
We're fools to make war
On our brothers in arms

Knopfler had turned pop, fully and fruitfully.

The album’s riches (side two, if you’re still buying LPs) included three songs taking down “militarism”: “The Man’s Too Strong,” “Brothers in Arms,” and “Ride Across the River.” The pop audience – teens – had grown anti-warfare, and Knopfler made war even more senseless than Vietnam had.

But the eager audience had got Mark’s wish, after that three-year pause, and after doing “all” for that ultimate album that he wanted.

Brothers in Arms went not only #1 in English-speaking lands. The album also topped the charts in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.

Mark Afterwards

Mark Knopfler next worked on for years, usually with Dire Straits, until he disbanded his quartet in 1995 and, after that produced solo albums. But ultimately, he fully retired. All that band career, it “just got too big,” he said.

Among Mark Knopfler’s survivors to this day are those golden albums as well as his American record label, Warner Bros.

Karin, the Finder

Through all these albums, to one side at Warner Bros. Records, raising no fuss, was their Finder: Karin Berg.

Since saying (nicely) to Jerry Wexler, “Sign them,” some years had passed. Karin continued to embrace music, at Warner Bros. then at Nonesuch Records, then writing for magazines like Rolling Stone.

She lived on until 2008, when at age 70, she died. At her funeral in Manhattan’s St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, over a hundred there told stories of what Karin had meant to them. Composer Philip Glass played his “Opening” at the piano.

Patti Smith recalled meeting Karin in 1970, when Karin was struggling “like all of us, to develop our cultural voice,” recalled how Karin has “always been supportive of people, she’s always championed new artists… And she always made friends for life with the people that she signed.”

Marshall Crenshaw recalled “I feel there’s one less wise person in the world now.”

Laurie Anderson spoke of meeting Berg in a smoky club in 1978. “She never tried to make it look better than it actually was.” She recalled how Karin had for decades lived down on 61 Horatio Street. “She loved the Village. She just loved her life Downtown.”

Karin Berg left no survivors.

-- Stay Tuned