Dire Straits’ John Illsley Explains ’The Essence of Good Songwriting,’ Names ’Perfect Example’

According to bass legend John Illsley, there’s one thing that’s essential to good songwriting. Illsley, famously a member of Dire Straits, discussed the matter while guesting on Vintage Rock Pod recently. The whole issue about the “essence of good songwriting” came up as he was asked about his top five favorite Dire Straits songs, with the No. 1 on the list being “Wild West End.” Discussing the song, he explained (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“For me, it was a recollection of that time when Mark [Knopfler, Dire Straits frontman] and I were hanging out a lot — not only at the flat, musically working things out. He was writing and all this, but we used to make regular visits up to the West End, to Soho — and Soho in 1976 was a little different than it is now.”

“It was a bit more edgy, there were a lot of clubs, strip joints, and stuff like that. So we used to go up there because we enjoyed that edginess of the place, but also because there were some wonderful guitar shops up there, where we could drool in the windows over things that we couldn’t possibly afford.”

Dire Straits - Wild West End (Official Music Video)

Going more into it, John explained how this particular song brings back some very specific memories of the time when the piece was written and recorded. Coming from Dire Straits’ self-titled debut record, Illsley admits that he has a “soft spot” for “Wild West End.” He continued:

“And so he used to go out there and have a bowl of pasta at the Barocco Bar and go get coffee from Angellucci’s. It’s a lovely memory for me of the beginning of Mark and I’s friendship, so I’ve always had a very soft spot for it.”

“In fact, I’m going to play it at a gig in two weeks’ time because it brings back up every lovely memory of that relationship with him developing — and it stood the test of time — so that’s the reason I’ve chosen that one.”

Dire Straits - Wild West End [Rockpalast -79 ~ HD]

Although “Wild West End” isn’t remembered as one of Dire Straits’ massive hits, like the album’s opening track “Sultans of Swing,” Illsley points it out as one of the best examples of Mark Knopfler’s songwriting. And the essence of it is in storytelling. Reminded of how Mark has always been “a wonderful storyteller,” John said:

“I think storytelling is the essence of good songwriting unless you just want to sing about love and pain — that kind of really personal stuff. And this is a personal thing, but it’s telling a story, building a picture of a time, and that’s a very good craft.”

In fact, Illsley admits that the learned a lot from Mark’s writing. So much that this can be heard on his new solo record and its opening track “It’s a Long Way Back.” He continued:

“I learned a lot from his writing — ‘It’s a Long Way Back’, for instance, from the new album is painting a picture of when we first went to LA — so I understand that approach to trying to communicate something to somebody else in a unique way.”

“It’s a talent, but it’s something that I think one can learn over a period of time. So ‘Wild West End’ is a perfect example of very early storytelling. Well, actually, if you listen to the whole first album, it’s a story.”

“I think that’s probably why people tend to latch on to that as being… because it is. I don’t really think about it. At least there are times when people say to me, ‘Well, that really is the seminal Dire Straits record because, at the very beginning, it showed the energy that the band had.'”

It's A Long Way Back

A couple of years ago, John Illsley released a memoire titled “My Life in Dire Straits.” Speaking to the Bass Player magazine last year, he said of this book:

“This is not about me scoring points. It is a celebration of the time we had and how we survived it. We stayed intact, and stayed friends – and a lot of people don’t. I decided right from the word go that I didn’t want people coming at me saying, ‘No, I didn’t say that – how dare you!'”

“I know some people will find glaring problems with my book because their version of events is different from mine. This is my version of events. A lot of people did get hurt on the way, for various reasons, and you don’t want to get them to revisit that. I don’t think it’s fair.”

John Illsley of Dire Straits - Money for Nothing - Live at The Brook

Discussing his bass playing in the same interview, he offered:

“Like John McVie, I like to leave as much space as possible, because the essence of bass – as far as I’m concerned – is to make the rhythm section, the engine room, as tight as possible, particularly in Dire Straits.”

Photo: Helge Øverås (Dire straits 22101985 23 800)


  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.