David came to share a flat at Farrer House on Deptford’s Crossfield Estate, South-East London, with a Leicester-born bass player by the name of John Illsley. John recalls first meeting Mark. “I’d been out all night and came in about ten in the morning. I walked into the kitchen, started making myself a cup of tea, walked into the lounge and there was this guy lying on the floor with his head propped up against a chair. He was fast asleep, fully clothed in denim with leather boots. He had a guitar slouched over his waist.” David had often spoken to John of his guitar-playing brother and John guessed correctly that the guy sprawled out on the lounge floor was indeed Mark. It wasn’t long before John found himself on stage with Mark. One night the Café Racers’ bass player was ill and John was asked to stand-in. Mark and John immediately struck up a great working relationship and both realised that, despite having built-up a good reputation on the local pub scene, the Café Racers had a limited future. In April 1977 Mark gave up his flat in Buckhurst Hill and moved in with David and John.
Shots from a very early Dire Straits gig
Punishing rehearsals and live gigs followed. There was just enough room in the back of John’s estate car for the band’s equipment and they earned just enough money to pay for PA hire and a round of beers. On the 27th of July 1977 Dire Straits recorded the now famous demo tapes of five songs – Wild West End, Sultans of Swing, Down To The Waterline, Sacred Loving and Water of Love. In what was probably October they recorded Southbound Again, In The Gallery and Six Blade Knife for BBC Radio London and, finally, on the 9th of November demo tapes were made of Setting Me Up, Eastbound Train and Real Girl. Many of these songs reflected Mark’s experiences in Newcastle, Leeds and London, and were to be featured on the first Dire Straits album the following year: Down To The Waterline recalled images of life in Newcastle; In The Gallery is a tribute to a Leeds sculptor/artist named Harry Phillips, father of Steve; and, Lions, Wild West End and Eastbound Train were all drawn from Mark’s early days in the capital.
The demo tapes were given to BBC Radio London DJ Charlie Gillett. Charlie played the tapes calling upon record company executives to sign this new band: enter John Stainze and Ed Bicknell. It is said that Phonogram A&R man Stainze was in the shower listening to the radio when he first heard Dire Straits. A few weeks later he signed the band to Phonogram’s Vertigo label and Mark secured a publishing deal with Rondor Music. Towards the end of 1977 Ed Bicknell was working at the NEMS agency when he got a call from Stainze asking him to fix up some gigs for Dire Straits. Ed was invited round to Phonogram’s offices in December where he heard the Charlie Gillett demo tapes. He was then taken to Dingwalls Club in North London to meet Dire Straits. The date was the 13th of December, 1977, and as he walked into the club they were playing Down To The Waterline. Ed recalls, “The first thing I noticed was that it wasn’t necessary to stand at the back of the room; they were very quiet. I’d just done The Ramones, who were deafening……The second thing I noticed was that Mark was playing a red Stratocaster, which immediately made me think of Hank Marvin, who I had idolised in the sixties.” After hearing two or three numbers Ed decided that he wanted to manage the band. He was organising a tour for Talking Heads and was able to put his new band on the bill as the support act. Dire Straits were paid £50 per night for the Talking Heads tour; a ten-fold increase from their fee at Dingwalls. The rest – as is often said – is history.
Dire Straits: From local heroes to supergroup
Ed Bicknell’s former assistant, Liz Whatley, when asked when it was that she realised Dire Straits were going to be really big. She replied that it was the first time she heard Romeo and Juliet. By the mid-1980s Dire Straits had released Brothers in Arms, one of the best selling albums of all time, and had been tagged ‘the biggest band in the world’. By that stage the recording and touring personnel of the band had changed more than once. David left. Hal Lindes, guitar, and Alan Clark, keyboards, joined. Then came Tommy Mandel, keyboards, and Mel Collins, saxophone. Pick left and was replaced on drums by Terry Williams. Keyboard player Guy Fletcher became a member of Dire Straits for the Brothers In Arms album. Jack Sonni, guitar, and Chris White, saxophone, were brought in for the subsequent world tour. By the time Dire Straits commenced the 1991/92 On Every Street tour Mark, John, Alan, Guy and Chris were left from the mid-80s line-up. They were joined on stage by Phil Palmer, guitar, Paul Franklin, pedal-steel guitar, and percussionists Danny Cummings and Chris Whitten. Others who have been featured on Dire Straits’ recordings include Roy Bittan, keyboards, and Joop De Korte, drums. The Brothers In Arms tour saw Dire Straits play 234 shows in twelve months to combined audiences of about 2.5 million.
Mark brought Dire Straits back together for the 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert which featured Eric Clapton who was standing-in for Jack Sonni as Jack had just become the father of twin girls. Mark, John, Alan and Guy appeared on stage at Knebworth in June 1990 along with, among others, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Ray Cooper and Phil Palmer, to help raise funds for the Nordoff Robbins charity. Then came the On Every Street album. The resulting extensive world tour, which played to more than four million people, was punishing and exhausting. After it was over Mark felt that he needed to take a break from the pressures of live performance and studio schedules.
Collaborations, The Notting Hillbillies & Solo work
This year marks the centenary of the first film appearance of English actor-comedian Charlie Chaplin, in “Making a Living”.
While his films (‘The Gold Rush’, ‘City Lights’, ‘Limelight’, ‘Modern Times’, ‘The Great Dictator’, and so many more) have become the stuff of cinematic and comedy legend, it is less well-known that Chaplin was an ardent musician, and that the violin in particular played a central role in his life.
Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) was born into poverty in London. His father (a singer, and also named Charles Chaplin) had deserted his family, and Charlie had to be sent twice to the workhouse to help the family finances, before he was even nine years old. His mother, a music-hall singer, was committed to an asylum when he was fourteen. Despite such a chaotic childhood, he nevertheless had a passion for music, and managed to teach himself to play piano, violin and cello.
In his autobiography, Chaplin recounts how his mother would take him with her to the theatre, where he would stand in the wings, and watch and listen to her and the rest of the cast.
He ecstatically describes the first time “music entered my soul”. He wandered into the streets one dismal evening and: “Suddenly, there was music. Rapturous! It came from the vestibule of the White Hart corner pub, and resounded brilliantly in the empty square. The tune was The Honeysuckle and the Bee, played with radiant virtuosity on a harmonium and clarinet. I had never been conscious of melody before, but this one was beautiful and lyrical, so blithe and gay, so warm and reassuring. I forgot my despair and crossed the road to where the musicians were. . . .It was here that I first discovered music, or where I first learned its rare beauty, a beauty that has gladdened and haunted me from that moment…”
By the age of sixteen, Chaplin was a rising star in the English music halls, but would still practice the violin four to six hours each day. Every week he took lessons from the theatre conductor or from someone he recommended. Most left-handed aspirants on the violin adjust to playing it the ‘normal’ way, but not Chaplin. He got his violin strung left-handed, with the bass-bar and sounding post reversed as well. Apparently Jascha Heifetz once picked up Chaplin’s violin and tried to play it but couldn’t!
Claude Debussy complimented the young Chaplin, then about twenty, after he had starred in the Fred Karno comedy sketch show at the Folies Bergère in Paris, saying “You are instinctively a musician and a dancer.”
Stan Laurel (of ‘Laurel and Hardy’ fame) toured the US with Chaplin in 1910 and shared accommodation with him. It is said that when Laurel cooked (which was forbidden in their lodgings), Chaplin would play the violin to drown out the noise.
A 1917 press release underscores Chaplin’s affinity for the violin: ‘Every spare moment away from the studio is devoted to this instrument. He does not play from notes excepting in a very few instances. He can run through selections of popular operas by ear and if in the humor, can rattle off the famous Irish jig or some negro selection with the ease of a vaudeville entertainer. Chaplin admits that as a violinist he is no Kubelik or Elman but he hopes, nevertheless, to play in concerts some day before very long.’
Chaplin writes of those years: “I had great ambitions to be a concert artist, or, failing that, to use it in a vaudeville act but as time went on I realised that I could never achieve excellence, so I gave it up.”
“As for the cello,” wrote Chaplin in his book, ‘A Life in Pictures’,”I could pose well with it, but that’s about all.”
Nevertheless, although he could not realize his dream of a concert career as a musician, he poured his creative energy into writing film scores awash with the string sound. Chaplin gave huge importance to the musical accompaniment to a film. ‘City Lights’ was the first of his films for which he composed the music, and thereafter he composed the scores for all of his films. Remarkably, as he had not formally studied music and therefore could not read sheet music, he needed the assistance of professionals to write his scores. The laborious process would involve Chaplin singing or playing tunes he had in mind, which were then developed. Film historian Jeffrey Vance asserts, “Although he relied upon associates to arrange varied and complex instrumentation, the musical imperative is his, and not a note in a Chaplin musical score was placed there without his assent.”
Chaplin’s immortal tune in ‘Limelight’, known as “Terry’s theme”, later became a popular song “Eternally”, and is based on the exposition from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.
And Chaplin appears on screen, playing his violin, in films that framed his career. In ‘Vagabond’(1916), he serenades a gypsy girl, steals monetary tips given to other musicians, and thinks up gags that would only occur to a musician: a trilling fourth finger that gets out of control; how to tackle an itchy nose while playing; and thrills and spills involving buckets of water while still holding on to his fiddle and bow for dear life.
In his masterpiece ‘Limelight’ (1952)Chaplin plays a faded, washed-up music hall star, in a story that is almost autobiographical, and his death on screen happens immediately after a violin-piano comedy routine with Buster Keaton.
Poignantly, at the height of his powers in 1920, he confided in a journalist, how he wished to break free from his career, and “retire to some Italian lake with my beloved violin, my Shelley and Keats, and live under an assumed name a life purely imaginative and intellectual.” The violin and he would remain inseparable to the very end.
(An edited version of this article was published on 1 June 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)