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Musician John Illsley Chronicles His Life In ‘Dire Straits’



Bass Player for Iconic Band Describes His Rise to Stardom in Latest Book

By: Jeff Walker, Book Review

From his early years growing up in Great Britain to the height of his worldwide fame, John Illsley chronicles his rise to stardom in his first ever autobiography ‘My Life in Dire Straits‘. In over 280 pages including rare photographs Illsley details his humble beginnings, to finding overnight success as the bass player for one of the biggest bands to emerge out of Europe during the late 1970’s.

Whether by luck, fate, determination, or divine intervention Illsley recalls how he first befriended drummer Pick Withers and later became a roommate of Dave Knopfler which led to meeting Dave’s older brother Mark who would become the front man for Dire Straits. Although they all had musical aspirations, Illsley describes how it just sort of fell in place, especially after a major record label in America got behind them. It didn’t hurt that record sales from a small European country helped convince the labels Dire Straits had an audience.

With the foreword provided by Mark Knopfler, ‘My Life in Dire Straits’ is not your typical rags to riches story, even though it’s peppered with times the band members were down and out which ultimately led to the group’s name. Illsley simply provides a detailed timeline to the progression of the band, from their un-assuming origins to the height of their fame during the mid 1980’s.

Illsley’s account is not scandalous, rather it renders an honest behind the scenes account of Dire Straits genesis, including early brushes with celebrity, being wooed by upstart Virgin Records founder Richard Branson, as well as hanging out with Stevie Nicks, Rod Stewart, as well as Keith Moon of The Who, partying with Bob Dylan, meeting Jerry Garcia, and opening for the Talking Heads and Styx during UK and American tours.

Chapter 14 starts out reminiscent with Illsley recalling the legendary acts who preceded Dire Straits at the famed stage at the Roxy in Hollywood. Their first tour in the states had the British chaps taking it all in, soaking up several American landmarks including Niagara Falls and Washington DC.

Recording their second album ‘Communique’ with the tracks laid down at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas provides a bit of humor, allowing journalists tried to smuggle island reptiles out of the country. Mixing their sophomore release found the guys returning to the states to the more celebrated Muscle Shoals Studio, adding their names to a long list of who’s who of artists that have graced the iconic Alabama recording studio.

As the 1980’s were unfolding the rigors of non-stop touring and recording began to take an effect on the four members, with Mark and John standing firm until Dire Straits called it quits in 1996. Overshadowed by his more talented brother Dave bowed out in 1980 only to have Pick put down his drumsticks in 1982, with both original members exiting just a few years before the pinnacle of any MTV fame garnered from their iconic single and video ‘Money For Nothing’ off their fifth album ‘Brothers In Arms’.

Having tasted success with the band Illsley attempted what many fellow artists (Phil Collins, Sting) during the 1980’s did, he released a solo album. He states in his book it had nothing to do with ego, rather after playing other peoples songs he was trying to prove to himself he had more to offer. Record sales covered the studio time, and Illsley never fancied himself a solo artist.

‘My Life in Dire Straits’ is full of uplifting and poignant stories, but by all accounts, it’s a story of survival and perseverance. Although there have been re-unions mostly with secondary members, Dire Straits pretty much enjoyed a two-decade run that began in 1977 with Illsley there throughout. Illsley reiterates in his book he’d welcome a full scale reunion, but admits Mark has little interest.

Illsley’s autobiography is ripe with stories of playing some of the biggest fundraising concerts in the 1980’s including Live-Aid where he shared the stage with The Rolling Stones and Queen. Among his favorite moments are performing with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, as well as backing Paul McCartney during a 70th birthday bash for Nelson Mandela.

Closer to home are reflections of working on education initiatives with Prince Charles, sharing stages with Sting and Pete Townsend (Who), and meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Illsley is even prouder of the time when his then three year old son James presented flowers to Princess Di, which made a profound effect on the London newspapers the following day.

The constant demands of being a rock star cost Illsley two failed marriages, but when the musical merry-go-round came to an end there was an upside. Not only did Illsley re-connect with his two sons, he discovered a passion for painting which led him to find true love in wife number three, welcoming two more children to the mix.

For more than two decades Illsley had a front row seat to the travelling circus fans knew as Dire Straits. He saw firsthand how fame can tear bands apart and create conflict between blood brothers. Through it all Illsley is a rock n’ roll survivor. Baby boomers and fans of Dire Straits will find Illsley’s book enlightening.

Labeled as one of the greatest rock n’ roll bands to emerge from Great Britian during the classic rock era Dire Straits will long be revered for their musicianship and timeless arsenal of songs. ‘My Life in Dire Straits’ is one man’s recollection of his trek from the small village of Market Harborough in England to some of the biggest venues around the world, and though the ride was bumpy at times John Illsley managed to keep it all together.

Check link to Amazon page for purchase

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