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A mega group in the making

Pick Withers

David ‘Pick’  Withers [photo: Jacob Bolhuis]


This article appeared on Dutch website It’s about concert promotor Jacob Bolhuis from the city of Groningen, in the north of The Netherlands. Jacob worked with Magna Carta in the late 1970s and 1980s. The article is mainly about Dire Straits, the band with former Magna Carta drummer David ‘Pick’ Withers.

March 3, 2020, text: Alex van der Meer

The band Dire Straits started in 1977, and thanks to its first successful single in 1978, Sultans Of Swing, it quickly became a well-known act. In the end, Mark Knopfler and his colleagues reached an unprecedented mega status in the 1980s and early 1990s. No venue was too big, but in the very beginning it was still possible to see the band in the somewhat smaller halls. During the band’s first tour abroad, they also performed at Huize Maas in Groningen. Legendary, you could say. But was it actually memorable?

What few people know is that at an early stage of the band’s existence there was a certain Groningen connection. The original drummer for Dire Straits was Pick Withers, whose actual name is David Withers but everyone called him Pick. However, Withers was previously a drummer with the folk-rock band Magna Carta. This band also performed regularly in the Netherlands. During a performance in Assen, in the early 1970s, a city resident was present who was taking beautiful pictures. At a later gig in Groningen, he showed the photos taken to the band. One thing led to another and the gentlemen made it a pleasant evening in the city. Ultimately, the band members stayed in Groningen, in the towner’s house in Lewenborg.

The name of this Groninger: Jacob Bolhuis. The friendship with the band that had arisen in particular ensured that Bolhuis decided to do more with concert organization. Incidentally, with great success. Ultimately, Bolhuis started working at MOJO as a co-organizer and was the tour and product manager of many top acts. This is how he came into contact with the big names in the music world. However, because he remained a Groninger above all else, he ensured that appealing acts also performed in Groningen: Bob Dylan for example. But Bolhuis also initiated the concert of The Rolling Stones in the City Park in 1999. A striking aspect is that around an earlier concert by Toto in the Martinihal, John Mulder (the current CEO of MOJO) from a airplane has shown the potential of the trotting track as a location.

In any case, Bolhuis has many appealing anecdotes, including about Van Morrison, David Bowie, John Denver, The Everly Brothers, Prince and Whitney Houston, but the connection with Magna Carta and Pick Withers will forever remain a very special story for him.

The hit
Before Dire Straits became even slightly known, Bolhuis was already aware of the existence of this band. Withers had called him personally to say he was leaving the band Magna Carta. His new band became Dire Straits. This felt like a potentially good step for Withers. Bolhuis decided to keep a close eye on things, and when preparations were made for Dire Straits’ first foreign tour, it was only logical that Dire Straits would perform in Groningen. The hit and the fame were not there at the time. However, that would soon follow.

In May 1978, Sultans Of Swing was released. The first single from Dire Straits. In the Netherlands it was the first to be a great success, the rest of the world also started to pick it up later. It eventually became a top ten hit here, and when the first album was released in October, it was an immediate sales success here. It went really fast, when the performance took place in Huize Maas shortly afterwards, the counter was already at 100,000 copies sold. Despite the fact that the band was still a big unknown a few months before, Huize Maas was already too small. The band could easily have sold out a hall three times as large. At the time, the band didn’t feel like it at all.

The performance
Nowadays it is technically very clear how many tickets to a concert were actually sold, but in the 1970s it was often unclear for a long time how the presale actually went. You only really saw this on the evening itself. The organization saw on October 18, 1978 that the hall was filling up very quickly. Very full. It may just have been the case that the audience considerably exceeded the capacity of the hall.

The band was clearly looking forward to that day. The mood on stage was good. Of course, especially the songs from the debut album were played. But whether it was a memorable performance? In itself you would think so, but you should also see it in the spirit of the times. Dire Straits’ music was very skilled; Mark Knopfler was, and is, of course, that fantastic guitar virtuoso, and the other band members were also not without musical baggage. But for some of the real Huize Maas audience it was a bit sluggish. Used as it was to see performances by punk bands in that hall. For a number of concertgoers that evening it was not a foregone conclusion that there was a future mega band here, no matter how good and solid the music was played on stage. Some visitors nowadays can hardly remember the performance itself.

A review of the performance, written by Syp Wynia, appeared in the daily regional newspaper Nieuwsblad Van Het Noorden. It is easy to read between the lines that Wynia was not exactly a big fan, but Mark Knopfler’s remarkable guitar skills were certainly praised. Furthermore, it was a rippling performance according to the reviewer, where the gentlemen only managed to add some spice to the songs at the end.

Anyway, it remains special that it was successful to put a band that was immediately growing out of control into a relatively small venue. In principle, Dire Straits could have skipped the phase of the smaller halls here in the Netherlands. It was, of course, a special moment in view of the mastodon status of later retroactive effect.

Because of the success, drummer Withers had seen it right in 1977 to join Dire Straits. Although he chose to leave the band after the fourth album. He had accomplished everything there was to be achieved at the time. The ambition now was not to become a standard rock drummer and to be able to spend more time with his family. The greatest British rock band of the 1980s continued to grow, until the band itself saw the end in 1995.


Original article (Dutch language) can be found here