Whatever Happened To Dire Straits?

In October 1992, the members of Dire Straits, including lead singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler and bassist John Illsley, flew back to London. After a more than year-long world tour that included 225 dates for more than 7 million fans, Dire Straits, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band best known for such hits as "The Sultans of Swing" and "Money for Nothing," was on shaky ground. They were one of the most important rock bands of the 1980s, but it mattered little in the end. Unlike so many other hugely successful music acts, it wasn't clashing personalities, drugs, or outside influences, but rather sheer exhaustion that finally did the band in.

"I sort of knew that things were coming to an end," Illsley told The Telegraph in November 2023. "And I was pretty happy about that because we were exhausted. We were exhausted. Mentally, physically, emotionally exhausted." This would be the band's last tour for its sixth and final studio album. While Knopfler went on to a successful if much more lowkey solo career, Illsley turned to fine art while also continuing to make music without his former bandmates.

A rotating roster of band members

By Dire Straits' final studio album, 1991's "On Every Street," Mark Knopfler and John Illsley were the only two remaining original members left in the band. Back in 1977, Knopfler, Illsley, Mark's brother David, on guitar, and drummer Pick Withers formed the band in London that would eventually be called Dire Straits. In 1980, David left to pursue a solo career, with Withers departing in 1982.

"There were lots of elements that came together to make [me] think, 'I just want to do something else now'," Withers told VRP Rocks (via YouTube). This included hearing problems, artistic differences, and "the dynamics" between Withers and some of the other band members. By 1992, the band had seen nearly a dozen musicians, including keyboardist Roy Bittan, of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, come and go. The remaining members of Dire Straits, by then, had also sacrificed their personal lives for the band. "Most of our marriages were falling apart, we weren't seeing our children very much — it was all wrong, basically," Illsley told the Telegraph. "It's the usual things that can happen to people in bands."

Mark Knofler loved music but hated fame

For Mark Knopfler, the aspects of being a musician that he loved eventually became subsumed by the business end of being in a massively successful band. "So there's music, and there's the music business: two different things," Knofler wrote in the forward to John Illsley's 2021 memoir "My Life in Dire Straits." "But mainly, for us, it was a huge adventure and a hell of a ride, with all its comedy, absurdity, exhaustion, madness, and sadness." Knopfler was just one of several rock stars who grew to hate fame.

"It just got too big," Knopfler said in 2007 (via BBC News). "If anyone can tell me one good thing about fame, I'd be very interested to hear it." While Knopfler enjoyed the success he hated the unending glare of stardom. "Fame is something different," he told Classic Rock. "That's a by-product of success. Fame's the exhaust — all the crap that comes out of it." Illsley, on the other hand, told The Telegraph he "really enjoyed the success of the band," in part because he was a little less recognizable than Knopfler who was Dire Straits' frontman, lead guitarist, and songwriter.

John Illsley became a painter

After the breakup of Dire Straits, bassist John Illsley questioned his choice of helping to stop "a machine like the Dire Straits thing," saying, "There's a massive vacuum. And you ask yourself if it was a good idea. And I had to keep telling myself that it was a good idea," he recalled. Illsley studied painting in London and after making "a terrible mess for seven or eight years" he began showing his work at art galleries. He put down his bass for a while but eventually returned to making music.

Today, Illsley has eight solo records, including 2022's atmospheric "VIII." He also continues to paint and owns a pub and hotel, the East End Arms, in Lymington, England. "Right now I'm just doing things that I enjoy doing," he told Guitar World. "If something comes into my world that speaks to me, I'll do it. Like a one-off gig in space!"

Mark Knopfler's solo career

After Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler went on to have a long solo career. His 10th solo album, "One Deep River," is set for release in April 2024. He's appeared on albums with musicians as varied as George Jones and Weird Al Yankovic. He is also responsible for creating soundtracks for a few movies from the 1980s. Knopfler scored and played the soundtrack for 1987's "The Princess Bride," he wrote and performed 1998's "Wag the Dog" soundtrack, and in 1983 he composed and played the music for the film "Local Hero." Now in his 70s, he admits he's starting to slow down a bit. 

"You do three things — write, record, and tour," he told Classic Rock. "And you get to an age where touring becomes the first casualty. I used to play six nights a week. Now I'm down to probably three. I love it. But I'll have to stop sometime." Still, he's managed to amass a reported fortune of £75 million (about $95 million in U.S. dollars) along with a slew of accolades, including six Grammy Awards. One thing he doesn't have any plans to do is reunite Dire Straits, although he remains proud of his work with the band. However, in March 2024 he re-released his song "Going Home," which was the theme song from "Local Hero," to benefit two different teen cancer charities. The 10-minute-long song brought together around 60 of rock's most revered guitarists to contribute to the new release and includes Jeff Beck's last recording. 

Reunited, briefly, but not likely ever again

Even before Dire Straits officially broke up, Mark Knopfler had hit the pause button on the band in 1988 following a grueling world tour before they reunited for their final album, 1991's "On Every Street." John Illsley and Knopfler remain "very close friends," the bassist told Vulture. But Illsley has yet to convince the guitarist to reunite the band. "I'm very open to doing whatever's suggested," Illsley told BBC News. "I think we've definitely got one more tour left in us, and probably another record too."

While many musicians came and went through the band, if Dire Straits reunited, it would be without guitarist Jack Sonni, who joined the band in 1984 and was on both the "Brothers in Arms" album and world tour. He died in August 2023. Since 2013, several former band members, including keyboard player Alan Clark, percussionist Danny Cummings, saxophonist Mel Collins, and guitarist Phil Palmer, formed Dire Straits Legacy, which performs Dire Straits' discography. Neither Illsley nor Knopfler are involved in this project. Knopfler, it seems, has moved on from Dire Straits. "These songs walked away from me long ago," he told Classic Rock. "They belong to you now. I feel very privileged to be able to play them for people. But at the same time, you've got to try and protect yourself from being a cabaret thing."