Dire Straits star John comes to Theatre Severn

By Mark Andrews | Shrewsbury | Shrewsbury entertainment | Published:

It is not the classic image of a veteran rock star, but John Illsley is in his element as he whiles away the hours painting while listening to Rachmaninov.

John Illsley of Dire Straits will be at Theatre Severn

"I love listening to Rachmaninov when I'm painting because it's a bit mad," says the former Dire Straits bass guitarist.

"Then, when I'm really desperate, I will bang on a bit of ZZ Top, that usually gets me going."

Illsley turned 70 earlier this year, and is in a reflective mood as he prepares for his show at Shrewsbury's Theatre Severn on Thursday next week. His new album, Coming Up For Air, tackles issues including the ageing process and his memories of the early days on tour.

His show The Life and Times of Dire Straits is an evening of music and memories, a nostalgic journey through the history of the band he formed it with Mark and David Knopfler and Pick Withers in 1977.

The first half of the show will see him being quizzed by his old friend and co-manager Paul Cummins, while the second half will see him answering questions from the audience.

"One of the questions they always ask was 'who wrote Romeo and Juliet?' to which I reply 'William Shakespeare'," he quips.

Throughout the show he will perform the classic tracks from the humble beginnings performing in pubs in Deptford, south-east London, through to Live Aid and the Nelson Mandela benefit concert in 1988.

"It will be about half an hour of chat, and an hour of music," he says.


John Illsley of Dire Straits will be at Theatre Severn

While Dire Straits went on to become one of the biggest selling bands of all time, with 100 million album sales under the belt, his fondest memories are of the early days when he realised they might just be on to something.

"When the initial excitement starts, you are making music you really love, and you're going to be able to play it for other people, it's not like anything else, it's every schoolboy's dream."

He says like all the best partnerships, Dire Straits was born through a happy accident.


"I was living in a council flat and couldn't afford to pay the rent, which was £9.48 a week if I remember rightly," he says.

"I was a student at Goldsmith's College and needed help with the rent.

"David became my flatmate, and I met Mark when he came to stay at the flat."

Within 23 months of the band's formation in 1977, Dire Straits had become the most successful new band in the world, and would go on to set the music scene of the 1980s.

"The 1980s was a magical time," he says.

John Illsley of Dire Straits will be at Theatre Severn

"I think there was a recession on, and people would still spend a fortune on music."

He recalls the long hard slog of performing in pubs and working hard to get a record deal, but doesn't envy musicians trying to make it today.

"It was much simpler then, when we got our record deal it was for five albums, and they invested a lot in us, they gave us a lot of support, and that isn't around today," says John.

"Now, you get dropped if your first album flops, or your first two singles don't do well.

"Record companies aren't prepared to invest for the long term.

"For musicians today, it's all about social media, and everybody thinks they can become a recording artist, but that means there is so much about and there is not longevity to it.

"When you listen to the radio today, it is all very samey, and the songs all blend into one, to the point where you wonder whether you wonder 'is that the same song, or is it a different one?'"

*John Illsley, The Life and Time of Dire Straits, will be at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, at 7.30pm on November 14. Tickets are £26.50.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.


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