Interview with Dire Straits’ bass guitarist John Illsley

Christmas Concert '85 by Dire Straits cd album cover

Christmas Concert ’85 by Dire Straits

With their 120 million albums sold, their iconic songs Brothers in Arms, Romeo and Juliet, Sultan of Swing, Tunnel of Love and Walk of Life and their domination of UK and US music charts from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Dire Straits have been one of the greatest British bands in rock history.

Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms Tour at the Pionir Hall, Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), 10th May 1985, by Zoran Veselinović, CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms Tour at the Pionir Hall, Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), 10th May 1985, by Zoran Veselinović, CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

Formed in 1977 by brothers David and Mark Knopfler with the addition of drummer Pick Withers and bassist John Illsley, they disbanded in 1988, reformed in 1991 and then eventually dissolved in 1995.
In addition to having played live to over seven million people on their final global tour in 1991-1992, the quartet also took part in two legendary London music events: the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert in 1988 and the 1985 Live Aid concert to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia which hosted artists like David Bowie, Paul Young and Spandau Ballet and had famously been the scene of one of the most magnificent performances of all time by Freddie Mercury and Queen.

My Life in Dire Straits by John Illsley

My Life in Dire Straits by John Illsley

In My Life in Dire Straits: The Inside Story of One of the Biggest Bands in Rock History, Dire Straits bass guitar player John Illsley discusses the inside story of the band’s success, recounting their rise from London pubs up to the peak of their success playing at the Madison Square Garden in New York in 1985.

The 279-page memoir published in 2021 by Bantam Press in the UK and Diversion Books in the US is prefaced by Dire Straits’ iconic lead guitarist, singer, songwriter and frontman Mark Knopfler, and primarily makes for a vast historical document about the past of rock and the money side of music.

John Illsley is in to discuss the book, his current career as an art painter in London, his eight solo album VIII and some controversial bits of the publication that needed to be addressed to offer Dire Straits fans a more meaningful and conscious reading experience.

John Illsley of Dire Straits playing live in Der Hirsch, Nürnberg, Germany, 2015,by Stefan Brending CC BY-SA 3.0 DE ©

John Illsley of Dire Straits playing live at Der Hirsch, Nürnberg, Germany, 2015, by Stefan Brending CC BY-SA 3.0 DE ©

John, I’m a big fan of Dire Straits’ music.

Me too.

In my case, I wasn’t even born at the time, but I really love the songs.

It’s quite interesting what I’ve found over the last few months. Actually, since the book came out, I got a lot of responses from younger people who had just discovered the music, and it’s rather about talking to people who are now listening to it – as well as to people of my age who are still listening to it. So it’s great that the music feeds into all different ages. That’s very pleasing. I think that’s very, very interesting. I don’t think there’s a lot of music that does that, so it’s nice to be part of that. There is some good music around but in the music business, they want to maximise their reach, so they keep repeating themselves and doing the same formula. So there’s not much possibility for different kinds of music to come out right now. I think the biggest thing has been in the rap and the black community, which I think has really changed things a lot. The pop music scene is quite sterile, I find it rather repetitive, so it’s not really for me, but a lot of people love it. So, I mean, I think you’ve got to have to sort of let people enjoy music in the way they do. It’s a big subject.

Dire Straits' concert at the Kranjčevićeva Stadium, Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), 12th July 1983, by Zoran Veselinović, CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

Dire Straits’ concert at the Kranjčevićeva Stadium, Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), 12th July 1983, by Zoran Veselinović, CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

Why did you write your book My Life in Dire Straits and what should Dire Straits fans expect from it?

I just felt it needed to be written, I didn’t really think about writing a book until somebody came to me and said, “Would you consider putting down your version of how you experienced the band?” And I thought about it quite a lot, and then at the time we went into lockdown, which gave me a lot of time. And so I began the process and it took a long time, it’s not easy, actually, to write a book, but I found that I could remember quite a lot. Rather than just say all the obvious things, I also wanted to put it down in a way that people would understand what it was like, what it was actually like to keep the band together for all that time and all the different characters and the people involved in making it work, because it got very, very big at some points. Obviously, everybody knows that, but this meant that you had to have an awful lot of different kinds of people helping you to keep the show on the road and make it work, and we had some great people, so I really wanted to celebrate that as well because they’re sort of the unsung heroes really, of the rock ‘n’ roll business. I mean, we get all the glory and all the patting on the back and, financially, we do very well out of it. But there are an awful lot of people behind the scenes that make these things work, as in most businesses. So, that’s a rather long answer to your question, but yes – the book is a celebration really of the band, and the people involved.

John Illsley of Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms Tour at the Pionir Hall, Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), 10th May 1985, by Zoran Veselinović, CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

John Illsley of Dire Straits’, Brothers in Arms Tour at the Pionir Hall, Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), 10th May 1985, by Zoran Veselinović, CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

What achievements are you most proud of?

Staying alive, because it’s pretty hard work actually as you get kind of very, very, very tired and not just physically but emotionally and psychologically as well as it’s quite a big thing. And yes, I think I’m proud of what we achieved. I think we kept a really good quality of records, each record is very different; the style is still the same because it’s the style of the band, but every record is different. I think we recreated a different atmosphere every time we put a new record out, which I think was quite an achievement and I really enjoyed being involved in that, working on different ideas and keeping it fresh, keeping it alive. But I did love the touring as well, even though it was exhausting. I really did love it. It’s a completely unique experience being in this other family and keeping that family together because it’s very different from being at home. And when you get home, you wonder how you can put the kettle on and boil an egg or how to catch a bus or get a train or book an airline ticket that’s even more difficult. So it’s kind of a weird life, really. And it’s kind of strange coming back to normality.

How do you feel when you hear one of your songs playing on the radio?

Oh, it feels great. I mean, it feels wonderful. It does sort of take me back a little bit straight away to when we recorded it and the way we used to play it. Yeah, it’s a very good feeling. I mean, I’m a painter as well, I do art shows and I put my paintings on the wall and I’m very, very pleased when somebody buys one and wants it on their wall. I think it’s very pleasing when you get recognition for what you do in life. You know, if you write a good article or you do a good radio interview or something like that, and people pat you on the back and say “That was great!”, this is actually getting some sort of recognition from your peers. Every artist needs feedback, we need feedback. And hearing your record playing on the radio is getting great feedback.

Which Dire Straits song are you most attached to?

Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits cd album cover

Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits

It’s always a difficult question to answer. We were very fortunate to have somebody [Mark Knopfler] who wrote some really beautiful songs. Everybody has different favourites, I couldn’t really pick out one but I think songs like Brothers in Arms will stand the test of time because no matter when you were born and when you listen to the song, it has relevance to what’s going on in the world – somewhere in the world, and how we deal with it.

What’s the legacy of Dire Straits? What have you left to the world?

Oh, the fact that you’re listening to it at your age, that’s the legacy. And the fact that it’s still relevant. I think it’s like a good painting: you can look at a good painting often and over a big period of time, which is the reason why Van Gough, Gauguin or Monet and the main people who created art we recognise as having very historical significance will always be relevant. The same thing happens to music and in the sense that we spoke earlier about the legacy of the band, I think it is probably the fact that all ages seem to enjoy the music and it would seem that people are listening to it as much as – if not more, than they used to, which is wonderful. It’s a very nice feeling and it’s difficult to express it really in any other words than pleasure.

How do you explain, technically, the fact that Dire Straits songs are immediately recognisable and cannot be mistaken for anything else?

I think we touched on that just a moment ago, in the sense that all the albums were different but the style of the band playing is the same throughout. And that’s something that when you hear the band, you say, “Oh, that’s Dire Straits”. It’s a bit like when you hear Elton John and you recognise that’s Elton John, or Eric Clapton, or Pink Floyd or Fleetwood Mac or The Eagles. You recognise that style and it doesn’t actually fit itself to any particular other style that is going on. In other words, when the band started in 1977, it was in the middle of punk. Now, we didn’t get involved in the punk scene for obvious reasons, because we weren’t punks and we didn’t think that had anything to do with us. So we had our own style in a sense that made us stand out from the crowd. And I think that the only recommendation I can give to anybody who’s starting out now is to actually have your own way with what you do and stick to it because it’s yours and nobody else’s. And in a sense, you have to try and try and create and be yourself as much as you can, and actually, have a certain uniqueness that is different from anybody else. Because if it’s all the same if you’re just repeating what other people have done, then you are not taking any chances. And I think you have to take chances in your life, especially artistically, whereas it does move things forward.

Was it intentional to create that particular style, especially the guitar sound?

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, On Location World Tour concert in Dublin, Ireland, 1st January 1981, by Eddie Mallin CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, On Location World Tour concert in Dublin, Ireland, 1st January 1981, by Eddie Mallin CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

Well, I think that you know, Mark [Knopfler] plays in a very different kind of way than any other guitar player that I’ve ever played with. And I think that unique approach to guitar play really stood out and that was an absolutely major feature of the band style, as well as the approach to songwriting. I mean, these are the key things. You’ve got to have good songs, but you’ve got to play them in a way that makes them different. And it’s very interesting because what you’re asking really is what happens when musicians get together and start playing together and create the sound. And it’s one of the biggest pleasures I get when I get my guys together, and I play them a new song that I’ve written and everybody responds to it. And you build this thing up, and it becomes a completely new experience. And it’s a wonderful creative moment. I think that what happened when Dire Straits got together was that this immediate, immediate sound of the band seemed to just appear, I mean, it was very odd. And it was just the way we all played together, it was like, “Oh, this is different. This is great. And it’s different, so it’s a good place to start”.

What was your opinion about punk music in the 1970s? What did you think of it?

It’s kind of funny to look back on it now, but at the time it was a very abrasive and punchy moment for music. I think music did need a bit of a shake-up then because it was getting a bit self-important, and punk music sort of cut through all that and pushed things to the edge a bit. A lot of it was very violent and very aggressive. But I think underneath it there was a need for change. And I think the music business needed a bit of a push, a bit of a punch to get it out of this. The mid-1970s weren’t very exciting, musically, and I think that punks just came along and a few people kicked it off and then a lot of other people joined in. A lot of it was just really bad music, to be honest. But there were some good bits out of it. I mean, The Clash and some of the things that The Sex Pistols did were great, and I think the bits of that stuff, that sort of slightly edgy, aggressive element of punk then carried on for a bit and it was absorbed into the music scene. So it was a kind of interesting time. I wasn’t crazy about it. I mean, we did a few gigs with some punks, and that was quite weird. I wasn’t very keen on things like people throwing beer all over you or spitting at you… that wasn’t very nice… at some point, they did seem to hate everything, so I don’t go along well with that kind of things.

What do you think of the current state of music?

Dire Straits' concert ticket, Nice, France, 1992

Dire Straits’ concert ticket, Nice, France, 1992

Well, there is so much of it, there is so much music being produced in all sorts of different ways because it’s very easy to make a song and put it down. There’s a lot of music around. I’m completely staggered at how much gets loaded up every day on Spotify, I think it’s something like 40,000 songs a day or something, and nobody can actually take that all on board. I mean, you discount the vast majority of it, but there is some stuff that creeps through. We are all aware of Adele and Billie Eilish and people like that, and we’ve got somebody called Dave who is a great English rapper who is really politically and socially on the money. I think there are some great things that come out and I think it’s very difficult to be dismissive of a lot of it because a lot of people are enjoying music at all sorts of different levels and it’s not for me or anybody else to say that it’s all rubbish or whatever. It’s difficult to deal with it, as I said, there’s just so much of it coming out as it’s like “Oh, turn the radio off, for God’s sake! Give me time to think!” I’m having been in the music business or music scene now since I’m 14 years old, and I realise there are people listening to music for different reasons. I listen to music for a different reason than you do, and my wife listens to music in a different way than I do; it has a different effect on everybody. And the great thing about the vast, vast variety of music now is the fact that there is something for everybody out there, it would seem. I just still listen to the music that I enjoyed over the last 20, 30 and 40 years because I think it speaks to me – you know, people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Neil Young – I grew up with all that sort of stuff, so that’s my reference point; your reference point will probably be different. The thing is that when you hear music in your teenage years, that’s when it has the biggest effect on you. You kind of remember that, you remember those times.


Is there any difference in music between today and yesterday?

The preparation of Dire Straits' concert at the Kranjčevićeva Stadium, Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), 12th July 1983, by Zoran Veselinović, CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

The preparation of Dire Straits’ concert at the Kranjčevićeva Stadium, Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), 12th July 1983, by Zoran Veselinović, CC BY-SA 2.0 ©

Well, I think it was a lot simpler. I’m aware of the fact that when music was made in the late 1950s and 1960s when rock ‘n’ roll started, nobody was particularly worried about the fact that something was too loud on the record, or too quiet, or that you couldn’t hear the drums or that the vocals were too loud. It was much more natural to me because you couldn’t really fix things. Now, you can fix everything on a recording to make it absolutely perfect, and everybody can do it. Even if you can’t sing, you can choose somebody’s voice so it sounds okay. You know, all these tools are available to everybody, so, almost anybody can make a record, while of course, in the past not everybody could make a record and you actually had to be able to play an instrument. There are not many people today who make records who can actually play an instrument, they just use sounds they mix up together, put them into a computer, and the computer levels it all off. And to me, it takes the excitement out of it, so to me, that’s a big difference. I think, when you heard the opening chords to a song like I Can’t Explain by The Who, it just went like “Wow!” Or when you heard The Kinks playing You Really Got Me, it was like “Whoa!” – just the excitement, the sound of it was amazing. You don’t get that anymore because it’s all been flattened out.

Are there any Live Aid memories you would like to share? 

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits live at the Live Aid concert 1985 © to the owners

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits at the Live Aid concert, 13th July 1985 © to the owners

Well, I think there’s an awful lot of it being spoken about it already. I mean, I just wanted to touch on it in the book because it was just a moment on the band’s journey, if you like. It was a big moment, it was a very big moment for everybody. And I think it was a remarkable achievement for Bob Geldof [the organiser of Live Aid in 1985 and frontman of The Boomtown Rats] to get that together. As I say in the book, he found it very, very difficult to get it going because he needed a band like Dire Straits to say that we would be involved. But we were in the middle of a tour and we had a whole load of dates booked somewhere else and he chose a date when we were already playing because he wanted us to headline Live Aid. Us, not Queen. He wanted us to do it. And we couldn’t. Simple as that. But it didn’t really matter as far as we were concerned, we weren’t bothered about the ego side of things. It was a day when everybody was becoming aware of a problem somewhere out there in the world which people needed to be aware of and try to sort out – just not easy. And I think the awareness to the majority of the people in the world was very important, and hopefully, set in motion an attitude towards these kinds of problems, which are going to be endless. I mean: these problems are endless, about feeding people and people being in the wrong place where there’s no food anymore, no water anymore. It’s a very, very big issue, and I think the world hasn’t really taken it on board quite as much as it could have done. But it was an incredible day to have all those people together, and people’s egos were put to one side for the day. It was an incredible moment. I do mention in the book that I really thought that history was made that day. And I think Bob Geldof deserved two nights, not just one, but anyway. I don’t think anybody else could have actually done that. You know, he was so unbelievably persuasive and just would not give up until he got it done. So it was incredible. Yeah.

How was it to share the Live Aid stage with Queen and Freddie Mercury?

Live Aid poster, 13th July 1985

Live Aid poster, 13th July 1985

At Live Aid, actually, we weren’t there very long, because we literally sound-checked the venue next door, in the arena, which is next door to the stadium. We did a soundcheck in the afternoon, and then we walked over to the stadium to do the gig through the car park – amazingly – and did the gig, which was 20 minutes. And we were literally only backstage for about another half an hour or 45 minutes before we had to go back to the arena to do the show. So we chatted with a few people, but you went on and you had to get out of the way because there was another band coming in. It was a very nice vibe backstage with everybody. But in fact, actually, Roger Taylor, the drummer of Queen, is now a friend of mine – not because of Live Aid, but because we met a little while ago and so it’s quite interesting that after all these years I’ve got to know him a bit better.

What do you remember from your time playing at the Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute Concert in 1988?

We did Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute Concert in London, and there again, it was a celebration of somebody’s life, somebody’s existence. It was his 70th birthday, and shortly after that, he would be released from jail. I don’t think that having the concert really made the South Africans release him, but I think that somebody like him… well, it’s difficult to know what to say about Nelson Mandela because he’s such a historical and important figure for all the reasons we know about. We agreed to do it straight away because we had some history with South Africa as I mentioned in the book, we gave some of the royalties from the first album to Amnesty International because we didn’t agree with the apartheid movement in South Africa, like a lot of other people. And so we had a bit of history there, and I think that was probably one of the reasons why we were asked to do it… but also, the band hadn’t played together for at least two years. So we had to do a bit of rehearsing before we went to the gig, but it was a great line-up. I mean, Tracy Chapman was there, UB40 and Whitney Houston were there… what a lovely lady, such a sad business. Anyway, yeah, so that was a great day, and having Eric Clapton play rhythm guitar with us was very nice, very good.

Do you think bands could potentially never split? What does it take to stick together like The Rolling Stones?

The Rolling Stones are pretty unique in that respect. I think the fact that they’re still alive, well, most of them are still alive but Charlie [Watts] died [in 2021] but I mean, I have to be somewhat surprised that they’re still touring, but they do it because they love doing it. And they can still stand up on stage and do it; nobody would have ever thought that 77 or 78-year-old men would be singing (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction at the age of 78. But it’s pretty remarkable. I mean, there aren’t any other bands that have achieved that. You know, we were together for 20-odd years, I thought just under 20 years, and that seemed like a good time to stop. It’s very difficult to keep a band together, it takes a lot of work. And I think Mark [Knopfler] and I had a pretty good understanding of how we wanted it to be. And so that’s how it worked.

What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?

I think it’s pretty harmless. I don’t find it the slightest bit offensive, I think sometimes it makes good TV. And occasionally, you get great people coming out of it. I don’t see anything wrong with that, and I don’t think that’s controlled by the political parties, though. Yeah, Simon Cowell does have a lot of influence, I believe, but I mean, it’s just another side of the music scene and it’s basically entertainment, and we have a great thirst for entertainment in our world, of all sorts, some odder than others. But generally speaking, I think people like to be entertained and we now have a television where we can get pretty much anything we want, which is sometimes difficult to make choices.

In your opinion, what is the best song of all time?

Oh my God, that’s a crazy question. I couldn’t possibly answer that. I can rule it off, that’s not a fair question to ourselves.

Do musicians have a social responsibility to address political issues? What’s the relationship between music and politics, today?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I think that it’s probably a wise thing for most musicians to keep out of politics, actually. I think you can say a lot by writing in a way that lets people know how you feel about what’s going on in the world. There are quite a few of these songs that I’ve written on my album VIII which talk about that kind of thing but not in a very explicit sort of way. I think musicians – like everybody else – have a responsibility to be honest and inclusive, if you like – another big word. You know, that’s a difficult one, I am quite a political person, but I have to sometimes restrain myself when I’m writing things down, not to make it too obvious. I think, as an artist, you push the boundaries because that’s what your job is. It’s your job as an artist, whether to be a musician or a painter or poet or playwright, to make the world more intriguing for people. And so, I think it’s just something that most artists – and I use the word artist in a very broad sense here – are involved in because that’s what they like to do. They like to change things and stimulate people. So it’s all right to write love songs all the time, but I think we’ve got plenty of those, I think that you can be as political as you like these days if you can get away with it. I think you’ve got to be careful what you say, because these days, everybody’s watching everybody else’s moves and you can get yourself into a lot of trouble in this digital age, online, about what you say in a moment. I think you have to be a little careful about that.

You signed a collective open letter against Scottish independence in 2013. Has your view about it changed after Brexit?

Well, that’s difficult. I mean, that was a very momentary sort of thought that I had. I just thought it was not necessary to break up the United Kingdom, it’s been there for a long time, and it seems to work pretty well. I think people are doing it for the wrong reasons, which I thought they were. I think there’s a bit of dishonesty in a lot of politicians’ approaches to this kind of question. Ultimately, the Scottish people would decide, but the thing is, it’s a very, very complicated issue. I mean, if Scotland separated itself away from the UK, it wouldn’t be able to pay its bills.

They would probably still be in the European Union, though.

I don’t think Europe would let Scotland in. If Scotland left the United Kingdom, I don’t think the EU would let them in. It would cost them too much money. I’m not sure there’s much to be gained for the EU to take Scotland on. I don’t see any gains at all. Okay, they’ve got some good whiskey, but a language that nobody can understand.

Actually, more than 90% of the UK’s oil production occurs offshore in the North Sea and is worth billions. I’ve got another question, anyway. It’s about the way you treat the Italians in the book. One can accept anything if it’s based on evidence and facts, but certain things you write are defamatory. Like saying that the Sanremo Music Festival “was an event, so we were told, that was fixed in advance by the Mafia, who got to choose the winner of the “competition,” the prize being a slot on television at peak viewing time. We were just guest performers, not contestants, and I am very glad that Ed’s conscience was not troubled by having to consider coughing up a bribe for the mobsters [p. 181], and that the wife of the mayor of a certain city in Northern Italy “had been given a diamond necklace and a fur coat as a sweetener to let us use the stadium” [p.187]. Do you think you’re going to have the same relationship with the Italians after publishing that?

I’m afraid you weren’t there at the time, and all I can say is that this is the moment when you remember things that happened. And there’s no doubt about it with the Sanremo Music Festival, that the winner was already decided before the contest began. Things like that. That was a fact. And the fact that the mayor’s wife… I mean, you don’t get to play in a football ground very often, and the only way that can be swung is by a pretty powerful person. And all I know is that there was an awful lot of money swirling around which didn’t come to Dire Straits, it was used for all sorts of other things. So I think we should just probably leave it at that. I have a lot of love for Italy and we enjoyed ourselves immensely, but I’ve got to tell you, in those days in the early 1980s, it was very, very difficult playing in Italy. And extremely dangerous, which I did mention in the book, it was extremely dangerous. And whether you like it or not, and whether anybody else likes it or not, there were elements in the promotional world, in Italy at that time, which were not safe. To be perfectly honest, there were times when we actually feared for our lives. And I think people who read will recognise that anybody who’s played in Italy at that particular point in time… it was pretty tricky.

Was there any other country whose situation at the time could be compared to what you have just described? At some point, you discussed New Zealand and Yugoslavia in the book.

Well, the situation in Yugoslavia was difficult because the country was breaking up, if you remember. At that time in the 1980s, it was starting to break up and you could feel a lot of anger with people angry about the fact that their country was being pulled apart by different political and regional problems. And we were in the middle of that, and there is quite a lot of aggression around, quite naturally, when a country’s breaking up. Yugoslavia was only held together after the Second World War, because, you know, that’s what people wanted to happen, and they put Tito in place and kept an umbrella over the top of it. I mean, you probably know all that, and so suddenly that umbrella got taken away and the whole thing collapsed, and we were there just before that, and you could sense that there was something dying on, and we just didn’t know what it was. But when you look back on it, you realise that there were a lot of problems at that particular time. And I forget which concert it was, it was either Belgrade or somewhere else the first time I’ve seen mounted police trying to deal with crowds of people trying to get in or out of the concert. I mean, it wasn’t very nice. Now, things are much more settled in the world even if at the moment, we know things can change quite quickly. But at that particular time in Italy, I think the way that concerts were organised and supervised was not great.

There have been some fatal accidents during football matches in Italy, but apparently, there have not been any deaths reported during live music events during the years you are referring to.

No, no, probably not. Hopefully, you didn’t have that. But when we were doing the concert in Milan, when literally the Carabinieri [the national gendarmerie of Italy] decided to open the doors and let in another 20,000 people into a place that was already full, that was just tantamount to insanity and I don’t know whether I put this in the book, but I took a turn around in the backstage area, I think to go and find the bathroom, I came across the medical centre, and there was a lot of pretty bad injuries in there from the crowd, you know, just on top of each other and I mean – it was mayhem.

The rest of the book’s storytelling makes a worthy historical document, but what is shocking in addition to the comment about the mayor’s wife, is the statement about the Sanremo Music Festival, because this is offensive to all the singers that have won the competition over the last 70+ years. This is the longest-running music competition in the country and there has been no evidence that it is fixed in advance by “the Mafia” – which, by the way, is a criminal organisation whose activities include murder, extortion, corruption, labour racketeering, loan sharking and tax fraud. So, to say that “the Mafia gets to choose the winner of Sanremo” is a groundless statement.  

You may have better information about how the Sanremo Music Festival is run now, but at that particular time in 1981, things were different. And I think you have to realise that things were different, they weren’t the same as what you experience today. Things were different in the UK, things were different in Italy then and the whole thing was extremely suspicious. That’s all I would say. And you can write about things that you know about, and it might seem unfair or not correct, or whatever. But the fact of the matter is that you know, everybody knows that certain things happen in Italian society, which I mean… look – we all have our own form of control in our worlds and a lot of things over there are fixed and sorted out by different factions and nobody does anything about it because they can’t. It’s a worldwide problem, it doesn’t just happen in your country.

The focus must be on facts. If there was a proper scandal and it was found out that the Mafia was deciding on the winner of the Sanremo Music Festival, that would be something in the public domain that one could discuss. But to say that “everybody knows” – everybody knows what? And what if the wife of the mayor of New York, Paris or Berlin was being publicly accused of having been corrupted – do you think people in those countries would be cool with it because “everybody knows”? One will see things in the UK, and also in other countries, that are awful, horrible –  things that “everybody knows” but nobody there will ever admit. Why should the Italians be expected to take every allegation as gospel truth without arguing back just because they don’t have the habit of denying the issues facing their country?

Yes, I think you’re absolutely right, every country has its issues with that kinds of elements of control and influence, whether it’s political, social, financial, or whatever – we know that goes on in every single society; when there’s money involved, people behave differently. It’s a fact. You’ve seen certain things in the UK and you felt certain things, I live here and I know things which I don’t like but it’s incredibly difficult to change those things. But there’s a sense of reality, we know lots of things that are fixed in places which we don’t inhabit, and it’s very different. This is why you have journalists to actually try to uncover the facts. And people hate journalists because they basically interfere with the status quo more often than not, but it’s the only way that you can actually find out things. I mean, if you’re a writer or you’re a journalist, you want the facts and you go looking for the facts.

Tell me about journalists. The UK is keeping Julian Assange in prison in the heart of London.

Personally, I’m not having to do with this, I’m not going to get into that at all. I’m sure he’s a lovely fellow, but there are obviously some people who don’t like him very much.

This was simply a reference to the state of press freedom in the UK.

The media is responsible for an awful lot of things that we don’t like. And they’re very, very powerful, but they also have to support their arguments, and sometimes they get found out. But I mean, in every single country I’d rather have a liberal society where journalists are allowed to express opinions and get called to account if they got it wrong. In most countries that we’d like to inhabit, we would like a free press in the sense that it moderates itself and has certain rules, which they all do. I have to tell you that I’m sorry if I upset you about Sanremo, but this was something that we were told while we were there.

That’s the point: in the book, you are always saying “we were led to understand”, “so it seemed”, “we were told”, but what were you told, and by who? The Italians make jokes all the time and don’t realise that the foreigners won’t get them the same way they do. Had you said that the Sanremo Music Festival is kind of controlled by groups of influence, politics and the powerful, that would have been one thing – just like one could try to figure out who(ever) controls the Academy Awards in America. But to say that the Mafia itself gets to choose the winner, that’s a completely different story.

But we’re talking about the same thing, whether you’re talking about it using the word mafia, or whether you talk about political influences, you know – a lot of them get mixed up together. You probably know that. All I can say is that when my tour manager had a gun pulled on him, that was true.

Speaking of which, you also wrote that “he was the only one that was alarmed. To everyone else in the room, so it seemed, this was just how business was done” [p.186] – and you also wrote:

” […] That pretty well sums up our experience in Naples, admittedly the craziest of all Italian cities. The gig itself, of course, only went ahead, so we were led to understand, with the permission of the Mafia” [p.203]

“We feared a catastrophe at every gig we played in Italy” [p. 187]

“In every activity from serving a coffee to staging a concert, the attitude seems to be: Why make an event simple and straightforward and free of hassle when you can have some fun and turn it into something thrilling and unsettling and, in hindsight, quite amusing?” [p. 202]

You could say to me, that can’t possibly happen, but that did happen, and there are a lot of other things I didn’t put in that book, to be perfectly honest, because I didn’t want to upset too many people. I left a lot of things out, I can assure you.

Still, there is a need to point out that this is not “how business is done in Italy”. It’s offensive.

Well, I’m afraid you didn’t live in those particular times. And if you’ve been living in those times and if you would have been a journalist in those times, you’d probably notice things which you didn’t like. And hopefully, things have moved on a bit since then. Funnily enough, I was just asked to go to Italy and speak in Padua because they’ve got a Guitar Festival over there in May, I think. So they want me to go there and talk about the book but I’d better be careful in Italy if I go there as I might be in trouble. You’ve probably made me a target now.

The views and opinions expressed by Mr Illsley in this interview are solely of his own and are in no way affiliated with or endorsed by the interview author, this website and its representatives.

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