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Music

The Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler collaboration that ended in tears

@SamWKemp

Bob Dylan had a habit of alienating his fanbase. Perhaps it was boredom or maybe the belief that he would always garner a devoted following. Having established himself as the authentic voice of the 1960s folk movement, Dylan took pleasure in defying expectations and going electric in 1965. During his subsequent UK tour, he was called all manner of dirty words, including “Judas” at one now-infamous Manchester concert. Then, as the 1970s drew to a close, Dylan went through yet another metamorphosis, marking the dawn of his most bizarre and controversial decade: the 1980s. After feeling the spirit of Jesus in a hotel room in 1978, Dylan embraced Christianity, releasing a series of obscure and largely neglected albums to an unwilling public.

It wasn’t just his supporters that Dylan had difficulty with during the 1980s, his collaborators also struggled to understand his process. Whether it was because of his bible study, his new roster of principles, or his sheer lack of patience, Dylan constantly frustrated his peers. Take Mark Knopfler, who Bob asked to produce his 1983 LP Infidels after considering offering the role to David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and Elvis Costello. By ’83 Dire Straits had enjoyed huge success for their clean, radio-friendly blend of rock. Dylan was fooled into thinking the group’s slick sound would suit Infidels. But when recording sessions began at New York’s Power Plant studios, it was clear that the two musicians were utterly at odds with one another.

The tension was palpable from the start. At that time, Knopfler liked to take a lot of time over his music, re-dubbing guitar and drum tracks ad-infinitum. For Knopfler, detail was everything. For Dylan, it was less important than a well-stocked mini-fridge. Speaking to Uncut, Dire Straits’ producer Neil Dorfman recalled Bob being “a little shocked at the way Mark and I worked. My impression is that Bob always has, and always will want a very immediate approach. He gets very easily bored. So, in that respect, I think Infidels was not the most comfortable situation for either Bob or Mark.”

The pair very quickly learned that this session wasn’t going to be plain sailing: “I don’t want to use the wrong word, here, but Bob was also a little bit of an agent provocateur, or he even had a little saboteur in him,” Dorfman continued. “If things were going maybe too well, in somebody else’s definition, he would consciously make an effort to make that stop. Whether it was walking away from the piano and vocal mic while he’s doing a take, or, I remember him taking the tinfoil from a sandwich, and standing opening and closing it like an accordion into a vocal mic during a take. And, of course, everybody stops playing, thinking there was something wrong technically, but it was just his way of saying, ‘I’m bored with this, I don’t want to do this particular song anymore.'”

For Knopfler, the situation was incredibly frustrating. He had accepted the invitation to produce the record on the assumption that he would have some say on the nature of the songs. In reality, Dylan dictated everything. “I imagine that he [Knopfler] felt a similar responsibility to the one that I felt: this is Bob Dylan; we’re going to make an amazing record, we have an incredible band, an incredible bunch of songs, and it’s up to us, we really, really have to make this happen,” he said. “And I could feel the air just sort of going out of Mark a little bit, when he realised that the traditional role of the producer was not going to be in play on this record. He was going to be looked to as an advisor, or maybe a mirror in some ways. But as far as driving the bus – that was not going to happen”.

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