Alan Clark

Musician/producer/composer, Dire Straits Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member & double Grammy, Brits & MTV awards winner

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It is far more important who the elementary music teacher is in a small town than who the director of an opera house is because if the opera house director is not good, he will be dismissed in a year, but a poor music teacher in a small town can kill off the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of children. This is an enormous responsibility.
— Zoltan Kodaly

If you have a child who shows interest in playing the piano, think carefully before you send him/her to piano lessons, because the wrong teacher can kill off a child's creativity. That's what happened to me when I was 6yrs old: I quickly became bored because I was having to learn to read and play music I didn’t like. I stopped the lessons after a couple of years and I might never have played again if I hadn't fallen ill with appendicitis when I was 11yrs old, and ended up  recovering from the operation while my father was also recovering from an illness, which meant we were house-bound together. Back then, there was no daytime tv and the only source of entertainment we had in the house was the radio and the piano. Dad fancied himself as a crooner, a singer in the mould of Frank Sinatra (he loved Frank Sinatra, so do I) and he could knock out a few tunes on the piano, albeit in a very basic manner. But he played well enough to teach me how to play the song Blue Moon, using the only chords he knew: C, A minor, F and G (he used those chords in that order, regardless of which tune he was attempting to play). I was instantly hooked. I’d started playing "by ear" and was soon discovering new chords and how to make them work in other tunes.

Soon after that, a Hammond organ shop opened in nearby Chester-le-Street, which is where I went to school. I remember like it was yesterday, peering through misty windows at these fabulous instruments. Enter my Dad. A few days later, he'd arranged for me to do go into the shop and play, and from then on, I was in there on school lunchtimes, after school, all day Saturday, and within a few weeks I was playing better than the shop manager (according to my Dad). Fridays in Chester-le-Street was market day, which meant there were lots of shoppers around, and whenever I played on a Friday lunch time, crowds of people would gather in the doorway of the shop and spill onto the road to watch and listen and applaud this kid who cold barely reach the bass pedals, playing epic themes like the Dam Busters and 633 Squadron. The music came from my heart, and the applause was a thrill. I was hooked.

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Chester-le Street might strike you as an unlikely place to set up a shop selling expensive organs made in Chicago, USA, but workingman's clubs were springing up and becoming hugely popular in the North East of England, and they all wanted these high-tech instruments from America to replace the pianos in their concert rooms, and Chester-le Street happened to be the best place to distribute them from. They sold so quickly, there weren't enough organists around to play them ( a lot of the clubs'piano players struggled to make the transition to organs) and it wasn't long until the shop manager was asking my dad if I could join the rota of organists he'd compiled and was sending out to the clubs. That weekend, aged 13, I played my first professional gig, and it wasn't long until I was making more playing at weekends than my Dad made working an entire week as a supervisor in a cable factory.

My proud, wonderful father passed away when I was 16. By then, I was resident organist at one of the better clubs (Houghton-le-Spring "Big" Club) and I soon bought a car that I couldn't drive until I became old enough to have a licence, i.e. 17.

L to R: George Defty, Dave Ditchburn, Vic Malcolm, Franky Gibbon, me, Brian Johnson, circa 1975.

L to R: George Defty, Dave Ditchburn, Vic Malcolm, Franky Gibbon, me, Brian Johnson, circa 1975.

In my early 20's, after year long stint in a band on a cruise ship sailing around the Caribbean, I decided it was time to take music a bit more seriously and became involved with a few local bands around Newcastle, one of which included singer Brian Johnson (see above) who soon after joined AC/DC. That led me to playing with Splinter who were signed to George Harrison's Dark Horse label. I met George when Splinter played the Hammersmith Odeon, and he would turn up quite often at shows when I was in Eric Clapton's band, 10 or so years later. After that I was recruited by Geordie band Lindesfarne for a UK festival tour which included Knebworth and Glastonbury, and soon after that played with Glallagher and Lyle, and went on to record their final album with them. That led to me being head-hunted by Dire Straits who I joined in 1980 as their first keyboard player, and I remained with them for the next 15 years until the band broke up in the early 90’s.  

People point out that when I joined Dire Straits, the band turned into the huge, stadium-filling outfit that most people remember, and wonder how much of a part I played in that transformation. Before I joined, Mark's songs were written for a guitar band, and Mark was becoming interested in what keyboards could add to the band; he wanted to introduce another dynamic and expand musically so the band would appeal to a wider audience. It must have worked.

One of the songs we recorded when we were making the Love over Gold record was Private Dancer, which didn't make the record because the lyrics are from the point of view of a female, and it sounded daft being sung by Mark. But it was perfect for Tina Turner, and I arranged and recorded it with her, which led to her asking me to join her on her forthcoming tour of the US as her musical director. As Dire Straits were having a break then, I did and her Private Dancer album went to number one in the US while we were on tour. The party that night at a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio, Texas, is one some of us will never forget and others probably can’t remember.

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Working with Tina was every bit as good as you’d imagine. One of the reasons I play music is because of her River Deep, Mountain High record. Playing that tune with Tina for the first time, in a rehearsal studio on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, was a special moment. I had a similar experience, a year or so later, with Bob Dylan. Just a few years before I recorded with him (I played on the Infidels and Empire Burlesque albums), I'd spent endless nights lying on my apartment floor listening to his Desire album. I got on well with Bob. I met him for the first time at one of the first gigs I played with Dire Straits, the Roxy in Hollywood. He turned up at the show and came back to our hotel, the Sunset Marquis, and we watched Bob and Mark jamming together in Mark’s room.

But I had the most fun in that period when I was in Eric Clapton's band (1987 through 1990). Eric often came to see Dire Straits during the Brothers in Arms tour, and would stand watching at my side of the stage, and when the tour was over, he invited me to join his band. And what a band it was: Steve Ferrone, Nathan East, Greg Phillingaines, Ray Cooper, Tessa Niles, Katy Kassoon, and Phil Palmer. My first experience as his keyboard player was to fly to New York with him on Concorde to record the song After Midnight, for a Michelob beer ad. It was a brilliant band - some say Eric's best ever - and a brilliant few years. Eric recently described the Journeyman album, which we made during my time with him, as his favourite of all his records. I reluctantly left his band in 1990 to record and co-produce Dire Straits’ On Every Street album.

Happy days with the EC band: Tessa Niles, Katie Kissoon, Greg Phillinganes, Eric, Phil Palmer, Nathan East, me, Steve Ferrone, and (out of shot) Ray Cooper

Happy days with the EC band: Tessa Niles, Katie Kissoon, Greg Phillinganes, Eric, Phil Palmer, Nathan East, me, Steve Ferrone, and (out of shot) Ray Cooper

On the subject of Concorde: when I joined Eric's band, there was no second guitarist. When Eric later expanded the band, Mark Knopfler became the second guitarist for a while and when he left, Phil Palmer took over. The first time Phil and I met was in BA's first class lounge at Heathrow, on our way to New York for the start of what was the second of Eric's back-to-back US tours that I'd been involved with. When we were informed the flight had been delayed until the following morning because of a technical fault, I told the BA representative it was vital we arrive in time for Eric's show and suggested she put us on the Concorde flight that was due to leave. And she did.

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After Dire Straits' On Every Street album, which I co-produced, and subsequent tour which was the opposite of being in Eric’s band (the tour was soulless), I’d had enough of travelling the world and decided to stay at home and spend time with my then very young children (twins, born 1989), and I worked in my home studio making music for TV dramas and documentaries, as well as occasionally playing on albums with other people. Since then, I've played and recorded with lots of people, see below, produced music for movies, one of which I directed, made music for TV ads, and wrote songs. I've recently co-written and co-produced an album for LEGACY ( 3 Chord Trick), and I'm currently co-producing, with Trevor Horn and Phil Palmer, songs I wrote for an Italian mega star’s next album, which will appear later this year. 

I’ve also played and recorded with this bunch of talented people:

Dire Straits Trevor Horn Eric Clapton Bob Dylan Tina Turner Bee Gees Gerry Rafferty Splinter Prefab Spout The Blessing Escape Club Ian Drury Bo Diddley Buddy Guy Billy Joel Lou Reed Dave Stewart David Knopfler Gallagher and Lyle Bill Wyman Mary Hopkins Shakin Stevens Matt Monroe Mark Knopfler Rory Block Westernhagen Joan Armatrading Tim Healy Lindesfarne Geordie Brian Johnson Nils Lofgren Jimmy Nail Mike Brecker Sting Jamie Squire Robert Cray Renato Zero Al Green George Harrison Pacifico Legacy Robbie Williams Jon Anderson Seal Beverly Knight Ronnie Wood The Pet Shop Boys Stuart Copeland Renato Zero Rod Stewart