Mark Knopfler is an “inspired” songwriter. A former journalist, his keen observations of other people have led to some of his biggest hits with Dire Straits. “Sultans of Swing” was based on a small (and not very good) pub band he saw in Deptford, south London, in the mid-1970s. “Money for Nothing” was actually written in a New York store while eavesdropping on two delivery men complaining about the pop stars they were seeing on the TVs on display. Knopfler borrowed a pen and paper from a employee and literally sat down in a model kitchen in the store and copied down the banter he overheard.
Many of his songs are written in the first-person narrative form, although he’s not actually a “Private Dancer” (made famous by Tina Turner) or a detective (“Private Investigations” from Love Over Gold) or a war criminal (“The Man’s Too Strong” from Brothers in Arms). In a Rolling Stone article from 1985, Knopfler wondered, “In fact, I’m still in two minds as to whether it’s a good idea to write songs that aren’t in the first person, to take on other characters.”
In the Nineties, Knopfler began to find more and more song ideas from stories and characters he read about in books and articles and found fascinating. “Heavy Fuel” from Dire Straits last album, On Every Street, is based loosely on the main character in Martin Amis’ novel Money. The title track from his second solo album, Sailing to Philadelphia, is a duet between the subjects of Thomas Pynchon’s lengthy and very quirky tale of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, of Mason-Dixon line fame. Although several real life people were the focus of Knopfler’s attention on the the 2005 Shangri-La album (Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker and the late skiffle-player Lonnie Donegan, for instance), two songs in particular were based on books. Ray Kroc’s biography inspired “Boom Like That,” and many of the lyrics in the song about the founder of the McDonald’s fast-food chain are taken straight from Kroc’s own words. “Song for Sonny Liston” was directly inspired by Nick Tosches’ book The Devil and Sonny Liston.