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30 YEARS SINCE: DIRE STRAITS' 'BROTHERS IN ARMS' ALBUM

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There are those for whom vinyl is unsurpassed as a music listening medium. For decades, popular music did well enough churning out black plastic wheels with the songs of the day etched into them. But, for all its upside, vinyl, with all its scratches and creaks, along with cassette tapes, are inconsistent and often unfaithful transmitters. The birth of CDs brought the potential for not only perfect sound, but for the introduction of nuance hitherto denied popular music listeners. Few understood the possibilities of digitised recording better than Dire Straits. When Brothers in Arms came out in May 1985, they helped shift popular music to incorporate the new digital possibilities.
Dire Straits was already a major act by the mid-1980s. Brothers in Arms was their fifth album in a line of commercially successful outputs. Constant global touring had ensconced them further near the very top of the rock band tree. But, they were always more than just a rock band. Mark Knopfler, he of the gravelly Geordie voice and lighting fingers spidering across his Fender Stratocaster, was the band’s creative foundation and his roots ran a lot deeper into blues and jazz than the Top 40 froth.
Evidence can be spotted in earlier efforts. On the Communique album (1979), Knopfler floated the band on a bed of atmospheric jazz/blues and dotted each song with numerous personal narratives. By Love Over Gold (1982), the band had largely broken away from the three minute pop-rock standard and moved into the kind of song that lasted as long as cup of tea (or a joint, depending the inclination). That album goes 41 minutes and has just five tracks — the longest, Telegraph Road, running over 14 minutes.
But, the detail and the layering on these collections is largely lost in the analogue medium. The airy subtleties of much of Communique and in tracks like Private Investigation and of course Telegraph Road from Love Over Gold hid behind the now old school technology and got lost.
Brothers in Arms eases us in to the new era. The opening tracks are pretty conventional pop-rock chart shooters. Even the iconic Money For Nothing, with its choppy riff and Sting on backing vocals is pretty straight up and down. No new technology needed here perhaps, although the Money for Nothing video was one of the early — and now laughably clunky — uses of computer animation.
But for a purist like Knopfler, these tracks were given a life force with digital technology. The layering on the intro to Money for Nothing, with its building crescendo of fluctuating tones and volume shifts, might have struggled to be heard fully and comfortably on analogue technology. Similarly the intro to the next track, Walk of Life.
By track 4, Your Latest Trick, you know for sure you’re in a different landscape. The atmospheric horn and the gentle piano communicate as much through the gaps and silences as in the sounds. These off-beats would be filled with static on a vinyl or cassette recording. Then there’s sax, the smooth hills of John Illsley’s bass (an often under-rated contributor to Dire Straits’ sound), the lonely echo on Knopfler’s wailing guitar. CDs were made for this.
Why Worry the next song, is a lilting acoustic lullaby which lives or dies on its delicacy. Ride Across the River emerges from a kind of conch shell call arcing across the silence. The Man’s Too Strong rolls like a hokey, bluegrass standard which morphs into a Wagnerian riff of electric guitar, before settling again into a Country groove. All are the purer for their digital recording. After a fairly plodding track, One World, we are lifted into the album’s title track — a tour de force of a song that seems impossible to imagine amid the clutter of analogue.
Brothers in Arms, the song, is a goose pimply evocation of misty mountains and men dying needlessly in war. Musically, it’s a fairly quiet piece, with not a great deal going on outside of the words and Knopfler’s guitar lines. But, it fills an enormous aural space. Like many tracks, particularly on this and the previous album, the silences between the notes are vital. It’s a piece that soars, lifting off into the kind of realms few pop rock bands would struggle to imagine, let alone reach. The sound of a clock ticking almost at the very back of the audio at the intro would almost certainly be impossible to hear pre-CD.
It’s a stellar track and is beautifully aided by the video, which uses animated, hand drawings and grainy war-time imagery via a kind of stop motion animation technique known as rotoscoping (today, it seems computer generated, but this was done before such technology existed and was done by hand, frame by frame).
Brothers in Arms is an evocative, stare-into-the-distance kind of track and it set Dire Straits on a whole other level. It slows the world for a moment, something rare in pop rock, or in music for that matter.
It’s unlikely Mark Knopfler and his band sat around like geeks pondering how to capture the new emerging digital technology — Knopfler was actually adverse to some aspects of music technology, such as the increasingly prevalent use of music videos. It just worked for them. Knopfler was/is indeed a fine music fanatic and his intention was to refine the recording process so tightly that it was utterly faithful to the band’s every nuance. Digital technology allowed just that kind of obsession to be given full rein. Dire Straits’ clout allowed them to push the new recording techniques into areas that suited them and their sound.

In the UK, Dire Straits’ albums have spent around a total of 21 years on the charts and they remain one of the world’s most commercially successful bands ever. Brothers in Arms remains their best selling album, with over 30 million sold, roughly a quarter of their total album sales. The album went to #1 in the UK, the US and on numerous charts as around the world. In Australia it led the album sales charts for a total of eight and a half months, from May 1985 to April 1986, in a run broken only by short chart topping runs by The Eurythmics, INXS and Jimmy Barnes.
When they toured the album here in 1986, Dire Straits played 21 consecutive sell-outs at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, which may still stand as a record.
Brothers in Arms was one of the first major mainstream albums to be recorded digitally — on a now, presumably, fairly rudimentary 24-track Sony system. It is considered the first CD to sell over a million copies. In this sense, it marks a historic cross-over to digital recording. By the time the albums final and eponymous track faded into digital silence — not into the scratchy middle of a vinyl record or with the sharp clunk of a cassette player auto-stop button, analogue was pretty much dead and buried.
Not a perfect album by any means, Brothers in Arms nevertheless serves up enough classic moments to be considered truly memorable and is worth constant re-visiting. But, it is the detail it contains, and the fact it can all be so clearly heard, that makes the album iconic. The kind of music Dire Straits created and recorded was a perfect vehicle for the new technology and for a music listening public that was happy to be pushed along lengthy tracks and and into more complex, subtle, artful and contemplative directions.
It’s an album of its time, but in the way that Beethoven’s Fifth is of its time. That is to say, Brothers in Arms is symbolic of a time when the very DNA of popular music was mutating. It helped push the industry and the listening public into the new era of at-your-fingertips studio-quality music and flawless computer-generated sound quality. It is fitting the album matched the excellence of the new recording technology with such vaunting musical superiority.
It’s only a shame that CDs, like vinyl and cassettes before them, while bringing great music to a wide audience could just as easily be used to bring us Lady Gaga. Can’t blame Dire Straits for that though.

3 responses to “30 YEARS SINCE: DIRE STRAITS' 'BROTHERS IN ARMS' ALBUM

  1. I was lucky enough to see them live twice in 1986. The first concert was particularly memorable as the closer “Brothers in Arms” was augmented by a fireworks display. It just set the night off perfectly & the arena watched in awe as the band played & the sky rockets went off overhead. I get shivers just thinking about it. The opening of “Money for Nothing” was also a highlight as Terry Williams belted out the drum intro with a self illuminating drum set on a darkened stage. Where did those 30 years go?

  2. Saw them in Perth as a 16 year old in 1986. Desperate for the nostalgia I chanced “The Dire Straits Experience” band and wasn’t let down. For the record, Ed Sheeran has just broken Dire Straits record for number of tickets sold on a tour, a record that stood for 32 years.

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