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Mark Knopfler and Brian Johnson tell us about their new show ‘Music Legends’

Geordies unite! Mark Knopfler and Brian Johnson tell us how they traversed the globe to meet the likes of Tom Jones, Nile Rodgers, Cyndi Lauper and Sam Fender for their new series

By Nick Reilly

Mark Knopfler and Brian Johnson (Picture: Sky)

We’re less than ten minutes into the first episode of Music Legends… when Tom Jones breaks out into a impromptu rendition of ‘Black, Brown and White’ by fabled Blues legend Big Bill Broonzy – backed by Mark Knopfler on guitar and AC/DC‘s Brian Johnson on vocals.

It’s a lovely, candid moment from three icons in a show that can only be best described as the televisual equivalent of a warm hug for music lovers. The premise is simple enough – Knopfler and Johnson traverse the globe and sit down with the likes of Jones, Sam Fender, Cyndi Lauper, Nile Rodgers, Carlos Santana and Emmylou Harris to discuss their storied career.

But it’s the instant warmth and rapport of these two Geordie lads done good that allows the show to soar. In their presence, we see their glittering guests telling the untold side of their journeys – whether that’s Fender’s tough upbringing on Tyneside or Tom Jones’ early meetings with the Mob in New York. There’s enough here to engross casual fans and music anoraks alike, and, crucially, the palpable sense that the pair are loving every minute too.

“Maybe it’s the way the guests felt so comfortable with us and I’m proud that me and Mark can, you know, spread that feeling,” explains Johnson.

You can read our full Q&A with the pair below.

Two Geordie icons unite is a large part of this show’s premise. But were you mates before?

Mark: We were both playing in Dusseldorf and a pal of mine from Northumberland happened to be in the hotel with us and he said, “Brian Johnson’s in the bar!” I went straight through and said hello. That was about eight years ago, but it just seems like we’ve been friends for 20 or 30 years, I mean, it was an immediate connection.

Brian: It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about either, whether it’s the beat groups or Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding or whatever it is. We’re both music fans so we were just away and we’re both old motor heads as well. We’ve both done a bit of racing here and there, although not anymore – we’d just frighten ourselves! I can’t see that far.

Did the show seem like a natural extension of this friendship then?

Brian: I had a show already called A Life On The Road and Mark was one of my desired guests. We went to Whitley Bay and Tynemouth Priory and we shot the thing inside of a lovely old pub in Tynemouth. It was so wonderful, because we went down on the sands and the beach afterwards and we both have a particular love for the area. At the end, Mark said to me, “Isn’t it a shame that we couldn’t just keep walking and filming and talking?” That stuck in my head.

Mark: Our managers agreed and we filmed this over a year. It did feel like herding cats a bit, the way we had to travel around and meet all these people, but we got through it and the production team did a really good job on it.

There’s a lovely rapport between yourselves and the guests on the show that encourages them to open up. That one moment in particular when Tom Jones is talking about his early days and performing in New York and meeting the mob. Have you ever met any characters like that over the years?

Mark: Oh yes, and I’m sure Brian has. You meet these characters when you play at clubs around the world and and certainly on the security side of it. In fact, there was a time when it infiltrated into the agencies and promoters too. It was all part and parcel of the game, but it didn’t stop you loving the game then.

Brian: Nefarious characters are rampant in music – you’ve just gotta find the good ones! There’s a lot of guys out there who are ready to take advantage of anybody’s dream of making it big and it happens everywhere. I’m not going to name specific TV shows, but there’s some that just exploit people for entertainment too.

Brian Johnson, Mark Knopfler and Tom Jones (Picture: Press)

Do you think it gives the audience a different perception of your guests too, because they open up in your company?

Brian: Yes, because in America, Tom Jones is just… you’ve just got to mention his name. It’s immediate, and I’m sure it is in England, but he should be elevated and people understand when they see the show what a fucking great talent he is!

There’s some other brilliant guests too – Cindy Lauper, Sam Fender and Carlos Santana. Was there something unexpected you may have learnt from them that stood out?

Mark: Absolutely. If you just take Cindy, you’re reminded of what a fantastic voice she had and Brian would agree there. But she went on to have a career in film and musicals and you often forget that. It helped us to remember that and, well, of course she did. Because she is that talented and there’s a girl who could break through and do anything she wanted to do in spite of all the opposition.

Brian: We got to feel the warmth of these people too. We’d heard stories that Cindy could be difficult to work with and a former wild child, but nothing could be further from the truth. She brought a dulcimer with her and was playing it, singing and it was just a wonderful surprise. Maybe it’s the way they felt so comfortable with us and I’m proud that me and Mark can, you know, spread that feeling.

You do your fair bit of globe-trotting for the show too, so I wanted to ask – where’s the weirdest place in the world you’ve heard an AC/DC or Dire Straits song being played?

Brian: I got a shock a few years ago when a study revealed that listening to AC/DC makes surgeons operate faster than they usually do. They concentrate more too, apparently!

Mark: A pal of mine said he heard Dire Straits in a taxi in Nepal. My friend asked the driver about it and he said, “That singer! He had balls of steel!” Music does translate and it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing when people feed back to you from around the world from the strangest places and the oddest circumstances. It’s resonating with people and with this show, we hope that our guests will find a place in the lives of the people who see the programme.

Sam Fender is one of your guests and, like yourselves, something of a true Geordie hero. What first drew you to him?

Mark: We both like everything about him and the fact he’s a youngster, you feel everything more keenly because he’s still he’s got it all in front of him. I mean, Brian got up and played with him at St James Park’ last summer and when Sam plays there – believe me – it’s some event!

Brian: Yeah, it was a special night. When I got on that stage, the roar was spine tingling! St James’ Park is just the centre of the universe. It sits on a hill and you can see it from everywhere. The noise and the passion of the people there is extraordinary – it really is.

Sam Fender, Mark Knopfler and Brian Johnson (Picture: Press)

Did Sam ask you for any advice?

Brian: He’d been working at Mark’s British Grove studio and he’s done some of the tracks on his new album there, so he was obviously learning a lot and trying to emulate some of Mark. But in conversation, he was very nice to us about what we’d done and he’s a smart kid.

Mark: He’s got it all to go all the way.

He feels like a generational voice in many ways for a lot of people too…

Mark: Absolutely, he’s like another young Springsteen, which is why he identifies so strongly with him and that’s why he’s recording in the States and going through that phase himself. But he’s gonna keep taking creative steps and I wish him all the very best. He does great with his band around him, but he’s gonna need a lot of support with good management. But even if it was to crash here and there, I still think Sam is going to go all the way.

And finally, Brian, you’re back on the road with AC/DC this summer. How much of a joy and relief is it to get back on the road after all the trouble you endured with your hearing?

Brian: Well, I just don’t know what to think! We tested it last October at Power Trip Festival in the Vegas desert and it seemed to work pretty well out there. I’m just gonna give it a shot and I’m lucky that modern technology has allowed me to be here and have that shot. Y’know, I’m just gonna be here singing until I fall down.

Johnson and Knopfler’s ‘Music Legends’ will air on Sky Arts, Freeview and NOW from April 25.