“Carefully crafted instead of raucous, pretty rather than booming, and occasionally affecting, the record is beautifully produced, with Mark Knopfler’s terrific guitar work catching the best light.”
Brothers in Arms, the fifth studio album by English rock royalty Dire Straits was released 35 years ago this week, which probably makes it older than most of the people reading this. If you do remember it, you are no doubt feeling old as fuck right now.
Brothers in Arms was an instant phenomena, hitting number one in 12 countries (though weirdly, it didn’t even crack the top 100 in France) and holding the top slot in the UK for an incredible 14 consecutive weeks, where it became the first album to ever be certified 10 x platinum. It also became the first CD to sell over a million copies, and is still the eighth best-selling album in British chart history. Even considering how the music industry has evolved, you just don’t get numbers like that these days. The album not only represented the pinnacle of the band’s career, but is now recognized as one of the defining albums of the era.
For his guest appearance on the single Money for Nothing, Sting recycled the vocal harmony from The Police’s hit Don’t Stand so Close to Me. Despite containing what is often referred to as homophobic lyrics (based primarily around the use of the wrd ‘faggot’) the song became the band’s signature tune and biggest ever hit, reaching the top 40 in 15 countries, even France. Money for Nothing was one of five singles released from the album in the UK, along with the title track, So Far Away, Your Latest Trick, and the disco-enthused Walk of Life, which peaked at number two and became the band’s fourth gold single. While the singles were strong, and carried Brothers in Arms a long way, it has to be said that the rest of the album is filler at best. Only the melancholy Why Worry is worth repeated listens. It’s a mystery to me that with so many great songs in their arsenal, Dire Straits chose to start most of the gigs on that tour with Ride Across the River, a nondescript mid-tempo plodder buried on side two. This suggests that far from being a truly classic album, Brothers in Arms was more a happy coincidence, benefiting enormously from a convergence of outside factors like the emergence of MTV, the arrival of the compact disc, and the implementation of CGI technology. In my opinion, previous albums Making Movies (1980) and Love Over Gold (1982) outstrip Brothers in Arms both in terms of songwriting and musicianship, if not commercial success.
Many of the songs on Brothers in Arms had to be edited to enable them to fit on vinyl, which can only comfortably accommodate 23-minutes or so per side before the sound quality is severely compromised. Hence the total running time of the original vinyl version is 47:21, while the full length of the album as heard on CD, cassette and later double-vinyl versions, was a much more indulgent 55:07. When I heard the album again on MP3 years later, it was like discovering a whole new set of songs.
However, despite the album’s epic achievements which will forever guarantee it a place in rock history, there was a considerable downside.
Not only was its runaway success impossible to replicate, but it transformed Dire Straits into a different beast. No longer were they considered the rootsy, innovative, blues-based outfit that gave us Sultans of Swing, Lady Writer and Private Investigations. Despite being suddenly elevated to Springsteen and Madonna-esque heights of megastardom, after ’85, the very name Dire Straits became a by-word for boring, middle-of-the-road dad rock, epitomized by Mark Knopfler himself. Never really what you would call a looker, the reluctant frontman was nudging forty by then, and trying desperately to keep abreast of the fast-moving MTV generation by literally rolling up his sleeves and sporting a wacky neon headband. Cringe. Still, it was the eighties, and the whole decade was one big fashion crime.
There were also other, less obvious difficulties during the recording process which suggest that all was not well within the camp even before mainstream success came knocking. According to a later interview with producer Neil Dorfsman, the performance of drummer Terry Williams was deemed unsuitable, and his parts later re-recorded by a session musician though Williams retains a credit on the album liner notes and played on the resulting world tour. Interestingly, the recording process was carried out against a backdrop of conflict in a wider context with many of the lyrics influenced by the Falklands War. The emotive title itself came from something Knopfler’s father said about Russian and Argentinian soldiers having similar ideologies and hence being, “brothers in arms.”
Yeah, Dire Straits were never the same after Brothers in Arms. Apart from the customary slew of compilations, they didn’t release anything of note until 1991’s sub-par On Every Street, which proved to be the final nail in the coffin. That particular opus is now only talked about in hushed tones.
Maybe they were never really cut out for superstardom.