MARK KNOPFLER’S 1983 LES PAUL ’59 REISSUE, USED TO RECORD ‘MONEY FOR NOTHING’ AND ‘BROTHERS IN ARMS’
Without doubt one of Mark Knopfler’s most recognisable instruments, the Les Paul ’59 Reissue is synonymous for so many with that riff, that cowboy shirt, and that headband. ‘This is the ‘Brothers In Arms’ and ‘Money For Nothing’ guitar…’ Knopfler told us, ‘and it just happens to be a terrific sounding instrument.’
‘I’d wanted a Les Paul really badly since I was a kid,’ Knopfler told Tony Bacon for Gibson.com in 2002, ‘but it was always out of the price range. I knew about Strats since I was very small, but I got more aware of the Les Paul through becoming a blues fan in my early teens.’ Although perhaps most strongly associated with the Stratocaster today, the young Knopfler actually bought a Gibson long before he started playing Strats. Reminiscing about his first Gibson, Knopfler told Bacon: ‘It was a double-cutaway Les Paul TV Special that had been repainted black, probably a 1960. I bought it for £80; this would have been around 1971. My friend Steve Phillips [of the Notting Hillbillies] and I painstakingly stripped it and got it back to its original cherry finish, and it was everything to me… I absolutely adored it, and still do. I used it in the Straits when we started… So that's where Gibson started in my life.’
Heading into 1984 with a number one album and a BAFTA nominated film score under his belt, production credits racking up with the likes of Bob Dylan, and a live concert album in the works, Knopfler began directing his thoughts to the next Dire Straits project and the sound he wanted to achieve. ‘I was looking for more power,’ he told Bacon, ‘and so I became interested in using a Les Paul for a number of things. It was a harder rocking sound I wanted, but also I always loved the sound of Gibsons with strings.’ As the songs began to take shape for the next album, Mark took the plunge and purchased this 1983 Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘59 Reissue from his pal Rudy Pensa at Rudy’s Music Stop on West 48th Street in New York. According to Pensa, Mark simply spotted the guitar in the store one day, tried it out and made the snap decision to take it. Knopfler told us: ‘I was on the hunt for a Les Paul for years. First of all, I could never afford one...and then I realised that the older ones were getting really expensive. So, the realistic one to get at the time was the one that Rudy sold to me…. It was the first time I really came to grips with a Les Paul. Obviously, I’d been listening to Peter Green and Eric [Clapton] and all those guys, you know, and I was a mad keen blues hound, so it was an ambition to be able to pick up a guitar like that.’
Dire Straits’ fifth studio album Brothers In Arms would be recorded at George Martin’s AIR Studios in Montserrat from October 1984 to February 1985, co-produced by Knopfler and Neil Dorfsman, who had engineered the band’s previous album Love Over Gold. After the group spent a few weeks fine tuning Knopfler’s new material at Phil Manzanera’s rehearsal studios in Surrey, the band decamped to Montserrat in October 1984. In his 2021 memoir My Life In Dire Straits, bassist John Illsley noted that the studio was chosen for its lack of distractions: 'There’s literally nothing to do… the idea was to work, and that’s what we did, very hard, for a few months.' Mark recalls a rather more chilled start to the proceedings, remarking that AIR Montserrat had ‘just more of a home studio vibe… [but] we really hit a groove and recorded very quickly once drummer Omar Hakim arrived - all the 'Brothers In Arms' tracks were recorded in just a few days’. Destroyed by a hurricane in 1989, today AIR Montserrat exists only in the memories of the musicians who recorded there.
According to Illsley, Mark had written all nine album tracks well before rehearsals began, although one immediately stood out from the rest. As Knopfler explains, inspiration for the album’s standout song struck in an unlikely scenario: ‘I was in this store in New York that had a wall of TVs at the back, and rows and rows of refrigerators, microwaves and all kind of appliances. In the back all the TVs were tuned into MTV and this delivery guy was standing there mouthing off in the most classic fashion. I snuck behind him and watched from behind some microwaves, trying to remember all the things he was saying. He had what the Americans call a “Hard-hat mentality”. It was so funny,’ continued Knopfler, ‘I went up to the front of the store and asked somebody for a pen and paper, and I actually sat down in the front window and began to write the lyrics for ‘Money For Nothing’.’
Famously, Knopfler would use his new Les Paul ’59 Reissue to record the iconic riff that would propel the band’s biggest hit and spark a perpetual pursuit among a generation of guitarists for that elusive signature sound. Illsley presents the most straightforward account: ‘The distinctive guitar sound on ‘Money For Nothing’ came about as a result of a happy accident. It was in the morning, and no one had noticed that the mic in front of Mark’s Laney [speaker cabinet] had fallen and was pointing down at the floor. Mark was using his Gibson Les Paul...[and] Neil was setting up the equipment for the session...he was about to correct Mark’s mic when Mark’s guitar tech, Ron Eve, burst on to the talkback, shouting, “Don’t touch a thing! It’s perfect!”’ Interviewed for Sound on Sound in 2006, Neil Dorfsman elaborated: ‘One mic was pointing down at the floor, another was not quite on the speaker, another was somewhere else, and it wasn’t how I would want to set things up… Nevertheless, whether it was the phase of the mics or the out-of-phaseness, what we heard was exactly what ended up on the record. There was no additional processing on that tune during the mix. Later on, we tried to recreate that guitar sound at the Power Station with the same amp, same setup and same models of microphone, but we could never get it.’
Looking back on the recording session for the 2012 Sky Arts documentary Guitar Stories, Knopfler recalled: ‘Obviously I had my Marshall there, we turned it up [to the max], and we were going for a pretty heavy sound, but I had a wah-wah pedal in it just to give it something different… as soon as it was in and set - that was the sound.’ Demonstrating the pedal action, Knopfler continued ‘You’re sort of waltzing around sometimes with these. And this lick – again, it came from just the way that I play. I’m actually just playing a couple of strings at a time, but I’m damping out everything else, and if you stick some notes in too… it really just comes from that.’ Quoted in Paul Balmer’s The Gibson Les Paul Handbook, Ron Eve confirmed: ‘The half-cocked Wah on ‘Money For Nothing’ was a [Jim Dunlop] Cry Baby we fiddled with while he played the riff (THAT riff) until he liked it. On tour we got Pete Cornish to build one into a rack with a screwdriver-controlled pot that we adjusted to match the sound.’ Eve, who was shadowing Knopfler’s guitar tech Pete Brewis at the time, has cleared up the garbled mythology of the ‘Money For Nothing’ amp set-up for us: Mark recorded the Les Paul through a Marshall JTM 45 amplifier head, which belonged to Eve at the time and has since passed into Mark’s collection (see footnote to lot 40), and a Laney 4 x 12 speaker cabinet that belonged to AIR Studios. Minus the wah-wah, the same set up would be used to record ‘Brothers In Arms’.
The song’s haunting refrain ‘I want my MTV’ was directly inspired by the American cable channel’s ubiquitous advertising campaign, which saw various popular artists including Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, and The Police screech the slogan verbatim into a telephone, encouraging viewers to call their television providers and request the channel. Interviewed for Under the Volcano, Knopfler recalled: ‘I’d seen on MTV The Police doing an ad for it and I thought, well, if I stick that to [their 1980 hit] ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’, those notes – that would fit.’ By another happy accident, frontman Sting happened to be in Montserrat at the time, having recorded the last two Police albums on the island. ‘We were recording ‘Money For Nothing’, Knopfler continued, ‘and I said to somebody “I wish Sting was here,” and somebody said “Well, he is here, he’s on holiday!” and I said, “Oh great – get him up here, cause I can hear him singing on this thing!” Sting came up to the studio and we already had the track in place, so he just sang it great.’ Sting’s vocal contribution earned him a co-writing credit on one of the biggest hits of the year. The song featured Terry Williams’ tomtom sound on the intro and Omar Hakim’s drumming for the rest of the track. Released in June 1985, with this guitar featuring prominently on the cover, it became the band’s most commercially successful single, topping the US Billboard chart for three weeks. Partially rotoscoped performance footage of Knopfler playing the Les Paul Reissue was featured in director Steve Barron’s ground-breaking music video, along with one of the earliest figurative computer animations. Recognised with two MTV Video Music Awards in 1986, ‘Money For Nothing’ would be the first video played on MTV Europe when it launched in 1987.
In sublime contrast to the punchy tongue-in-cheek pop-rock of ‘Money For Nothing’, Knopfler knew that the powerful Les Paul would also be fundamental to achieving the melodic swells and sombre solos that would punctuate his understated lament on the futility of war – ‘Brothers In Arms’. Reminiscing with his old bandmate John Illsley about recording the album’s title track in 2012’s Guitar Stories, Knopfler revealed: ‘I always knew that what I wanted [for the song] was a Paul. When we were in the studio, I didn’t know how I was going to start… I’d written the thing, I’d written all the words and knew what the chords were, but those first notes – they’d be improvised... I must have been trying different things and ended up with those notes to get the thing started.’ Speaking to International Musician & Recording World in 1986, Knopfler conveyed the flexibility of the guitar: ‘I use the Les Paul for different things… I think in terms of the Les Paul and string sounds. That always sounds good to me. The Gibson, if played in a certain way, can sound really great with other instruments. I find that with my style of playing, however, I have to mask out certain strings to stop certain sounds. You get so much more sound from the Les Paul, you have to be careful that you're not bashing away on the wrong strings with your [right] hand. For example, when I do the intro to ‘Brothers In Arms’ I mask out certain strings so that they don't make any noise.’
Inspired by a passing remark his Dad made in reference to the Falklands War, about Communist Russia being “brothers in arms” with the fascist Argentinean government, Robert Sandall quoted Knopfler for the band’s CD compilation liner notes in 1998: ‘[Sometimes] a phrase will stay with you for a while… “Brothers in Arms” … the absurdity of it seems to stay in the mind. ‘Brothers In Arms’ is sung by a soldier who is dying on the battlefield. You can’t just write off the top of your head; you have to dig deep to get those things.' Directed by Bill Mather, the music video immortalised the Les Paul reissue in monochrome rotoscope and went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Music Video at the 29th Annual Grammy Awards in 1987.
Upon release of the album in May 1985, Brothers In Arms went stratospheric, spending multiple weeks at number one in the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic and becoming the first album in recorded history to sell over a million copies on CD. Certified multi-platinum in both the UK and US, it remains one of the world’s best-selling albums, having sold over 30 million copies worldwide. ‘‘Brothers In Arms’ was one of the first all-digital recordings and that in tandem with MTV blowing up at the same time, I think that’s a huge reason why everything changed for the band at that point,’ mused Dorfsman in 2021’s Under the Volcano. Following the record-breaking release, the band set off on a 12-month world tour from April 1985 to April 1986, taking in 248 sold-out stadium and arena shows in 118 cities across 23 countries, including a two-week residency at London's Wembley Arena. Knopfler enlisted the ’59 Reissue for performances of ‘Money For Nothing’ and ‘Brothers In Arms’ throughout the tour, sometimes switching in his Steinberger (lot 11) for the former.
Most notably, music fans around the world will recognise this guitar from Dire Straits’ legendary performance in front of 72,000 people at the historic Live Aid concert in Wembley Stadium on 13 July 1985. As the biggest band in the world at the time, organiser Bob Geldof had hoped that Dire Straits would headline the show, yet was obliged to settle for an afternoon slot when it was agreed that their Wembley Arena residency across the road would make this impossible. Taking to the stage at Wembley Stadium at 6pm, Knopfler – clad in signature cowboy shirt and headband – strapped on the Les Paul for an electric performance of the recently released Money For Nothing with guest vocalist Sting, before switching to his Schecter Strat for an epic 11-minute version of ‘Sultans Of Swing’. The extended overture, with Sting’s famous falsetto intro lingering in the air, made the spinetingling moment when Knopfler finally ground out the infectious riff all the more impactful. Interviewed by Paul Gambaccini when he came off stage, Knopfler joked that Dire Straits hadn’t had far to carry their equipment across the car park, adding ‘the feeling is so great, just listen to that [crowd], and I think they have been fantastic. The band, we’re all delighted to have just been able to do our bit.’ Reflecting on the event in his 2021 memoirs, Illsley remembered 'an atmosphere as electrifying as any we had ever played in... [with] the knowledge that there were close to a billion people watching on television.’
In the late 1980s, the Les Paul was rewired by guitar tech Ron Eve so that Mark could have the option to switch between ‘in phase’ or ‘out of phase’ tone. Knopfler explains: ‘The Les Paul has a little ‘out of phase’ switch so that I could get more of a Peter Green kind of tone out of the it... It just added to the tones that I could get from that Les Paul.’ Knopfler put the modifications into use when he re-assembled the band at London’s AIR Studios from November 1990 to record one final Dire Straits album – On Every Street. The piercing ‘out of phase’ tone of the modified Les Paul can be heard on the track ‘You And Your Friend,’ a soulful ballad with deliberately ambiguous lyrics and a yearning guitar solo to fade out. When asked by Guitar Player magazine how he achieved the warm, throaty lead tone, Knopfler explained: ‘My Les Paul has a little alteration. You can pull a pot up and get a slightly out-of-phase sound. Then you just back one of the levels down a little bit to where it becomes this voice. I tried to get that on ‘Brothers In Arms’ but it didn't please Neil Dorfsman at the time we were doing it. I always liked that sound; with a Les Paul it's a beautiful thing.’
Eventually displaced by the vintage Les Paul Knopfler acquired in the mid-90s, the guitar remains a treasured relic that was undeniably elemental in shaping the sound of one of the landmark albums of music history. When asked during our interview what made this guitar so special, Knopfler replied: ‘You wouldn't think that they would vary as much as they do, but boy, they do, you know.’