John Illsley talks about his life with Dire Straits

John Illsley
John Illsley

Dire Straits co-founder and bassist John Illsley looks back on the life and times of an iconic band on a tour that brings him to Chequer Mead, East Grinstead, on Friday, March 22 (01342 302000).

John was a major part of Dire Straits who sold over 100 million albums and received countless awards, including four Grammies, as well as an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

John says: “The tour started off from the gem of an idea that a friend of mine that runs a club in London had and asked me to come and do a question-and-answer session. I immediately said no! I thought it was a crackers idea. I am used to standing on stage playing the songs and occasionally having a chat about them, but not really going into all the ramifications and all the history that surrounds the band. But we got a few questions together… which he didn’t follow at all. And then the audience started to participate and ask questions and it all became rather good fun, and then at the end I played some acoustic numbers with some of my musicians.

“It all went rather well… and so we have expanded it now and are trying to be rather more organised.”

John continues: “Mark (Knopfler) and I kicked it all off in mid to late ’76. I was just finishing my degree at Goldsmiths and I was playing with another band. He was with another band, and he would come down and we became pretty close and suddenly there was the gem of an idea to start our own band.

“Initially he was a little bit unsure about singing. He was always the guitar player. All the bands he had been with had singers, but when you are writing your own songs, then you get your own voice, and I think it was that that helped him to be more confident.”

And so things took off, a series of circumstances, as John recalls, key among which was getting played on the radio by Charlie Gillett. Alongside John Peel, Gillett was known for discovering new bands, and he certainly helped Dire Straits.

“He played us on the radio and then the telephone starting ringing and the ball starts to roll and you end up playing catch-up.”

But did they ever catch-up as fame snowballed?

“I suppose you just get better at handling it. The fact was that we were a bit older. We weren’t 18. We were 25-26, and we had all done jobs before. We had all been around a bit.”

But as things escalated, it all became the new normal: “It would be disingenuous not to say it, but you get used to it, but there was a sense that we knew what we were doing and people liked what we were doing. We were fortunate that we had a songwriter that had songs that captured people’s imaginations and that we had musicians that could interpret those songs and the critical thing was that we had a certain style. Those are the key things.

“If you are just doing something in a generic way, you don’t stand out. Punk was going on, and no one would give us a gig.

“Our music was right at the opposite end of the spectrum, but Dire Straits had a style that really went all the way through in whatever we did, a style that never left us.”

Tickets cost £25.

Ten things to see in West Sussex, Friday to Thursday, March 22-28. Click here to read more.