Dire Straits - Brothers in Arms
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I’m not totally sure that this is what “On Second Thought” is intended for. To date it’s been a forum for praising the ignored, for signing those albums with the wrong trainers onto the critical guest list, for finally giving some recognition to those LPs that changed the world whilst nobody was looking. Brothers In Arms did change the world. And it did change it whilst everybody was looking. Unfortunately, most people were looking down their nose at it. Critically, it’s regarded as a no-no, Dire Straits have entered the pantheon alongside Phil Collins and Milli Vanilli as one of those acts you can take as many potshots at as you like without any of the cognoscenti pulling you up on it. Whilst all of the other truly deserving acts with a slightly dodgy critical reputation of the early 80s have since been praised, reappraised and even elevated to the canon (Abba, Hall and Oates, Duran Duran), Dire Straits are still seen as the bastions of dad-rock, a hangover from the days when music and youth were alien to each other. They weren’t. They were great. Brothers In Arms is great. And this is where we prove such.
Before the defence makes its case, though, some anecdotal evidence. I have a friend called Thomas. His CD collection is full of dead white guys: The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Beach Boys. Talk to him about recent years though, and he’ll express a liking for Obie Trice and an opinion that Britney Spears’ “Boys” is the finest single of the last decade. He puts Todd Terry and R Kelly onto pub jukeboxes. I quizzed him about this volte face once, and he denied that it was cultural schizophrenia, but rather that guitar music nowadays has nothing to appeal to him in the same way it did under the reigns of Heath, Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher. He cites Brothers In Arms as the logical end point for his CD collection, and, after that “People should have just put the guitar down. They may have come up with something new, but nothing new that was worth coming up with”. He’s right. When the final track on this album draws to an end, you realise that you’re actually listening to a historical document. The release of this album in 1985 marked the era-end for what we now term “classic rock”. Listen to your local classic rock station, tune into K-DST, ask guys in denim jackets what music they listen to: nothing comes after Brothers In Arms. In the five act play of stadium rock, Brothers In Arms ends with a stage littered with corpses.
It wasn’t the only way that it changed the world though. Brothers In Arms was to CDs what spreadsheets were to PCs, the iPod was to MP3s, or The Matrix was to DVDs: the killer application. It may exist on cassette, it may exist on MP3, it may even exist on vinyl, but no album better typifies the CD era than this. Take the cover: powder blue, crystal clear simple image, and neat typography that utilises and benefits from the regulation 120mm by 120mm booklet. This is a CD album. It wouldn’t work with poor MP3 rate quality, or the scratchy warmth of vinyl. There is nothing warm about this album: it has been produced to within an inch of its life, and conducted with scientific accuracy. Simple, if Kraftwerk had been formed in Newcastle, this is what Trans-Europe Express would have sounded like. Knopfler’s lyrics really serve only to give him something else to do whilst pulling the notes out of that National Steel guitar. Just playing it on its own would be far too easy.
There’s a kindred spirit, however obscure the link may seem, between “Brothers In Arms” and a simultaneous musical movement, the Face-approved neo-jazz of the time, Sade and the like. The whole sound of this album is surgically scrubbed of any imperfections, with every note in its write place, but then the entire room is covered in fake cigarette smoke and fog for the sake of realness. It’s a film noir on wax. Or plastic, as the case may be.
The album is split into two distinct sections. The first is comprised of the initial three tracks: “So Far Away”, “Money for Nothing”, and “Walk of Life”. The singles, the lifeblood of drive-time for the past twenty years. These songs sound big. I’ve taken critical bumps on here before for my love of “Walk of Life”, but devoid of its sports blooper video, it reveals itself to be the Straits’ one concession to the 80s, to the idea that music may have changed since the blues had a son and they called it rock and roll: keyboards. And lots of them, the song splayed on what sounds like basketball organs whilst Knopfler holds it down on the rhythm side of things. As for the video itself, as far as cynical attempts at breaking the US market go, it definitely beats shaking your tits in a N*E*R*D* video whilst nobody acknowledges that you’re actually a musician. “So Far Away” is entirely Knopfler’s baby. There may be other things going on with that track other than his pub-rock Dylan vocals and those noises that he’s just pulled out of his mix bag of “Advanced Level” guitar tricks, but I can’t hear it. And those tricks. Those noises. I honestly don’t know what they are. Harmonics? It’s like conjuring tricks: when you know exactly how they’re done, they just lose all of their interest. I’d rather be kept in the dark and permanently amazed at how he’s getting those sounds out of the same instrument used by Maroon 5.
There’s also this little song called “Money for Nothing”. You know all about it. This is how all songs should be, the foreplay followed by the gush. The idea that Sting died when The Police split up to be replaced, Macca style, by an impostor is given credence here when the ghost of the original Gordon Sumner turns up and sings that ethereal “I want my MTV…” refrain whilst… what is that going on in the background? It sounds like a spaceship landing. You would not believe how many 90s house tracks tried and failed to replicate the feel of this. Building slowly up and up and up, like slow motion, you can feel every vibration. Drums. This is a muso’s wet dream. Guitars. Lights would be shining on stage now. And then at 1:36, 96 seconds before they even start the song, and it starts… “Dur-dur-dur-de-dur-dur-dur-dur, duhhrr-der-der-der-der-der-der-duh-der”. It’s as close to a money shot as music has every come, that one big release, the sensations that this song can bring out in the open minded are the exact same sensations every DJ has tried to inspire in the human soul since day one. Of course there are lyrics. The lyrics aren’t very good. The legions who criticise the Straits for being archaic nonsense are missing the entire point. Dire Straits are actually more of today than nearly any of their contemporaries, because they’re about the actual construction of the song, the jigsaw of sound. In an era where we’ve surrendered our pop stars to the producer, Dire Straits were already laid down on the altar
Dire Straits songs come in two flavours: anthems and album closers. They end with six album closers here—melding a huge mass of blues, jazz, Chet Atkins, and whatever else Knopfler considered to be “real music” at the time. There’s the sax solo in “Your Latest Trick” where it feels like the saxophonist is actually pulling his own heart out whilst he plays. There’s the mid-period Springsteenisms of “The Man’s Too Strong”. The corrupt lullaby of “Why Worry”. (Track titles are unimportant, of course.) And all of it is great—removed of the baggage of acceptability, you can simply accept them as craftsmen. When punk died, it’s not quite clear if Mark Knopfler pulled the trigger, but he definitely didn’t have an alibi for the time.
So, having put together the third biggest selling album in UK history, and an album that stands up to any critical yardstick you place against it, why isn’t it down on the list? For an album so intrinsically tied to the 80s, it doesn’t present that clown-face that the cultural historians want from the era. Dire Straits were their own unique brand of oddness, simply by being conventional and ordinary in a decade where all around them people were too busy trying to break boundaries. Dire Straits won’t break anything, except maybe your heart if you listen close enough. Brothers In Arms is the last great work by dead white guys. So the next time Thomas loads up “There’s Something Going On In Your Soul” and “She’s Got That Vibe”, I’ll remember to nudge him to close on “Money For Nothing”. Still don’t fit in, still unbothered by the fact.
By: Dom Passantino
Published on: 2004-11-16