Tag Archives: Mark Knopfler

Where’s my F***ing Sweatband?

I really like Dire Straits. You could say they are my guilty pleasure. I don’t think they are as respected or as widely known these days as they probably should be. Most of the people who do know them are left with that eighties caricature image of Mark Knopfler in the Money for Nothing video, wearing a jacket with shoulder pads and the sleeves rolled up, and a fucking neon headband. That’s more a representation of the eighties as a whole than the band.

The first DS record I ever bought was Brothers in Arms, which I sought out largely as a consequence of the copious amounts of TV advertising that went into promoting it. I mean, when it was £5.99 in Woolworths (which would probably amount to around £15 in ‘today’s money.’) you fucking knew about it. I only found out years later that most of the songs had been horribly edited down to fit on the vinyl.

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Released over 35 years ago, Brothers in Arms, their fourth and most successful studio album, was a bit of a double-edged sword for Dire Straits. It was their Born in the USA. Actually, a lot of parallels can be drawn between Dire Straits (essentially singer/songwriter/lead guitarist Mark Knopfler with some other blokes) and The Boss, not least that both have working class roots and traded off the same kind of ‘everyman’ image. Of the two, Knopfler is without the doubt the better guitarist. He has a distinctive style, as do many of the greats from Jimmy Page to Brian May, in this case developed through ‘picking’ at the strings with his fingertips rather than using a plectrum. You wouldn’t even have to know the song to know who was playing guitar on it. On the flipside, The Boss is by far the better showman and probably the more consistent (and prolific) songwriter.

Another common denominator is that in effect, the Born in the USA and Brothers in Arms juggernauts alienated huge swathes of the respective artists’ existing audiences and attracted the ‘pop crowd.’ In the eighties, much like today, the Pop Crowd brought money, but no loyalty. They weren’t going to stick around. You’d be lucky to keep them interested for two albums, after that they’ll be into Fergal Sharkey or the Blow Monkeys for six months. The vast majority of bands don’t even get that two albums worth of grace.

It’s not enough to have talent and great songs. To attract the Pop Crowd and plug into the mainstream you need something else, some X Factor. In the case of Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms arrived within the eye of a perfect storm. It was released just as ground-breaking new tech was emerging in the form of CDs and CGI graphics, and MTV was just taking off. It soon became one of the bestselling albums of the era.

Dire Straits ended up paying a price for that success. By the time grunge hit a few years later they were typecast as a bunch of try-hard dad rockers and became a virtual laughing stock. Grunge, well, mostly Nirvana who spearheaded the whole thing, had a seismic effect on rock and metal. It almost killed off hair metal on its own, like a nuclear blast. Overnight, bands like Poison, Ratt, Cinderella, Motley Crue, Warrant, and approximately seven million others, all became irrelevant and then turned into shocked-looking parodies of themselves as they were reduced to playing 250-capacity rock clubs again instead of 20,000-capacity arenas they’d been used to. Def Leppard tried to fit in by recording Slang, for fuck’s sake. It was ugly.

Most of the artists who were left retreated into themselves. To use Springsteen as a yardstick again, he fired the E Street Band and released the limp one-two punch of Human Touch and the only-marginally better Lucky Town on the same day, just to try to stay relevant, and in 1991 Dire Straits put out On Every Street, their last studio offering. It’s not a bad album, just a bit tired-sounding in places. At best it was comfy and warm, at worst vapid and unrewarding. It was the sound of Dire Straits desperately trying to tread that middle ground between being true to themselves and pleasing their new legion of fans. The result was a big long sigh. Afterwards, the band fell into live archive releases and odd compilation territory and Mark Knopfler went solo.

Bloated and overlong, On Every Street was made for the CD market and it may be no accident that my top two Dire Straits studio albums, 1980’s Making Movies and 1982’s Love Over Gold would both fit on a single CD with room to spare. Although for the most part typically restrained (only Industrial Disease, Expresso Love and Solid Rock attempt to lift the mood a bit), those albums are focused and precise, a lot of the music dark and brooding yet filled with restrained passion. The musicianship is exemplary. I must have played those albums thousands of times. Earlier albums 1978’s self-titled and the following year’s Communique both had their moments, there were just fewer of them. Probably my favourite DS track of all time is Telegraph Road. At over 14-minutes long, it’s a stroke of genius. It takes a lot to keep me interested in anything for that long. I’ve had shorter relationships. I prefer the version found on Alchemy Live. I love the narrative, and how the song builds from little more than an understated whimper to a furious scream. Those power chords.

Alchemy, recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1983 on the Love Over Gold tour, is pretty much the perfect live album if you can overlook the weak opening. Once Upon a time in the West to open a show when you have ready-made firecrackers like Tunnel of Love in your repertoire? Really?

Dire Straits are the consummate live band. But more the kind of band you’d like to see in a smoky club, or at a push, a theatre. They were a bit lost in those stadiums. the bigger the venue, the bigger the entourage and when you have a touring band numbering in double figures, it all gets a bit dramatic. If you’re interested, and you should be, there are also a few excellent bootleg recordings floating around. Koln ’79 is recommended (notable because they play Sultans of Swing twice having fucked the first one up), as is On Location – Live in Wiesbaden 1981 and Live in Sydney 1985. Recorded on the Brothers in Arms tour, that one is worth seeking out if only to hear the band wowing audiences at their commercial peak. For a while there, nowhere was safe from the Knopfler shoulder pads and sweatband.

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If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy my recent tribute to London Calling or one of my several Springsteen posts.  I’ve also written about my personal musical odyssey and various other related shit.


Brothers in Arms at 35

“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.”

Rolling Stone

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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.

You’re welcome.

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.

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