Walk of Life by Dire Straits – this rock ’n’ roll-style 80s tune was oddly not intended to make it onto the fifth studio album ‘Brothers in Arms’ from British rock band Dire Straits, but instead was meant to be a B-side for their lead single ‘So Far Away’.

Manager Ed Bicknell knew better though, and after happening to hear it while it was being mixed, he convinced lead singer Mark Knopfler to include it on the album last minute. What a stroke of luck that was! The song was their biggest hit in the UK, peaking at no. 2 in the charts and no. 7 in the US Billboard Hot 100.

The song has a familiar and comforting 50s rock ’n’ roll rhythm plus an iconic bluesy organ riff in the introduction – you’d recognize this riff anywhere. Over a cheesy IV – V – I chord progression, Knopfler tells the story of musician “Johnny”, a sort of autobiographical tale about a busker on the streets of London.

Story Behind the Song

The song was of course inspired by street buskers, as Knopfler explained to Uncle Joe Benson on the Ultimate Classic Rock Nights radio show:

“I saw a photograph of a kid playing the guitar in a subway, turning his face to the wall to get a good reverb. When I started playing the guitar, because I didn’t have an amplifier, I’d put the head of the guitar on the arm of a chair and put my head on the guitar to try and get into a loud noise. It kinda reminded me of that, I suppose.”

He was also interested in Cajun music at the time and used it as inspiration. “Really, all I was trying to imitate with that Farfisa (organ) riff, it’s really like an accordion. If you substitute accordion, it’s really a Cajun-style riff.”

A fantastic cover by Louisiana swamp artist Charles Mann proves just how at-home this riff is in Cajun music.

Mark Knopfler started the band in 1977 along with younger brother David on guitar, John Illsley on bass, and Pick Withers on drums. They were an overnight success, rising from the London pub-rock scene to some of the biggest stages in the world over the course of their 15 years.

Growing up, the brothers were both fans of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and The Shadows, admiring popular guitarists like Hank Marvin as well as great names in the blues like Muddy Waters and John Lee. Mark got his first guitar at age 15, a copy of Marvin’s red Stratocaster, and started out playing in school bands and around the city.

Over the years there was much falling out between band members, and by the end of 1984, Knopfler had assembled a new group of musicians to create the next record ‘Brothers in Arms’ including keyboardist Guy Fletcher and guitarist Jack Sonni. Knopfler was incredibly detail-oriented when making this album and the group rehearsed rigorously before flying over to Air Studios on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat to record.

As you can imagine, the chilled island lifestyle over in Montserrat brought a sense of ease and effortlessness to the recording of the album.

What Happened After the Release?

‘Brothers in Arms’ was generally described as a mid-tier album by reviewers, but that didn’t stop its success. The music station MTV was about to launch in the UK, and they chose the single ‘Money for Nothing’ as the first video to be shown on the channel. Selling more than a million copies on CD, the album took them on an 18-month-long world tour in 100 cities.

‘Walk of Life’ came with two music videos: a British version showing the character “Johnny” described in the song as he plays 50s songs in the subway, and an American version which shows clips of the band playing live intermixed with clips of American sports bloopers to hopefully catch the attention of American fans.

The band went on to make one more album in 1991: ‘On Every Street’. After one last two-year-long tour, Knopfler sadly felt completely worn out by the fame and the stress of the spotlight and so decided to lay the band to rest.

“Mark and I agreed that was enough,” recalls John Illsey on Louder Sound. “Personal relationships were in trouble and it put a terrible strain on everybody emotionally and physically. We were changed by it. Neither of us wants to go back to those days. Mark described it to me just the other day as being too much ‘white light’ – too much in the spotlight, and he was never very comfortable with that.”

The band seemed very content with coming to an end. Illsley went on to get into painting and set up an exhibition of his work in London, as well as recording with his own band ‘Cunla’. Mark Knopfler got into composing soundtrack albums like ‘Altamira’ (2016) with Evelyn Glennie and solo albums like ‘Down the Road Wherever’ (2018).

Song Breakdown

The iconic long intro with the bluesy riff is the ultimate manifestation of 80s feel-good sentimentality, and it’s easy to see why this song was so popular. It feels like it’s infused with that Caribbean sunshine from Air Studios.

[Verse 1]

Here come Johnny singin’ oldies, goldies

Be-Bop-A-Lula, baby what I say

Here comes Johnny singing “I got a woman”

Our character Johnny is singing ‘oldies’, meaning classic nostalgic songs from the 50s, including rockabilly song ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps and ‘What I’d Say’ by Ray Charles.

Down in the tunnels, tryna make it pay

He got the action, he got the motion

Oh, yeah, the boy can play

Dedication, devotion

Turnin’ all the night time into the day

Johnny is “down in the tunnels” i.e. down in the London Underground trying to earn some money from busking, and he sure is talented at it. He’s turning the nighttime into day with his sunny performance.

[Chorus]

He do the song about the sweet lovin’ woman

He do the song about the knife

Then he do the walk, do the walk of life

Yeah, he do the walk of life

Woo-hoo

Knopfler is talking about more 50s tunes here: ‘My Sweet Lovin’ Woman’ by Robert Nighthawk and ‘Mack the Knife’ by Kurt Weill. Although, Dire Straits also have a song about knives: ‘Six Blade Knife’. Knopfler would sometimes switch out the lyrics in live performances to mention this song instead.

What exactly is the “walk of life”? I would imagine it’s a description of the “sense of life” as I know it, that “journey” we talk about.

[Verse 2]

Here come Johnny gonna tell you the story

Hand me down my walkin’ shoes

Here come Johnny with the power and the glory

Backbeat, the talkin’ blues

He got the action, he got the motion

Oh, yeah, the boy can play

Dedication, devotion

Turnin’ all the night time into the day

This verse is all about the role and the skill of the musician – he can tell you a story and perform all sorts of different styles!

[Chorus]

He do the song about the sweet lovin’ woman

He do the song about the knife

And he do the walk, he do the walk of life

Yeah, he do the walk of life

Woo-ho-ho

[Verse 3]

Here comes Johnny singin’ oldies, goldies

Be-Bop-A-Lula, baby what I say

Here comes Johnny singin’ “I gotta woman”

Down in the tunnels, tryna make it pay

He got the action, he got the motion

Oh, yeah, the boy can play

The dedication, devotion

Turnin’ all the night time into the day

[Chorus]

And after all the violence and double talk

There’s just a song in all the trouble and the strife

You do the walk, yeah, you do the walk of life

Mmm, they do the walk of life

The lyrics themselves are kind of unremarkable in this song. In fact, I imagine most listeners like myself aren’t paying much attention to the individual words. While they do tell a nice story about our performer Johnny, they definitely aren’t the centerpiece of the song. The rhythm is. You want to get up and dance!

Knopfler’s vocal delivery is super smooth and laid-back, along with the jolly blues-style chord progression, catchy main melody, and seamless guitar licks to fill in gaps between, the overall performance is bright and sunny – “turning all the nighttime into the day”.

You might find the cheesy melody a tad annoying if you’re in a bad mood, but otherwise, this infusion of Cajun imitation, love of 50s rock ’n’ roll rhythm, bluesy feels, Caribbean lifestyle, and laid-back delivery make this song a good dose of sunshine to add to your day.

Related Read: “Learning to Fly” by Pink Floyd

Aniket Warty

Aniket Warty

Adventure Capitalist. I need no sanction for my life, permission for my freedom, or excuse for my wealth: I am the sanction, the warrant, and the reason. The creation of wealth is merely an extension of my innate freedom to produce.
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