You’ve probably never heard of this next LP I’m going to cover, but that’s okay I am here to educate as well as entertain. This next lot was a little local pub rock band that got lucky enough to release a couple of LPs back in the 80s to some moderate success. Let me introduce you to Dire Straits Brothers In Arms.
I was 13 when this record was released and Dire Straits were already my favourite band, I had a real thing for their first 4 albums* and so I was excited when I heard on Radio 1 that they were releasing a new LP; but how to get the £5.49 for the tape? my pocket-money at the time was 50p/week, I’d blown it all on comics and I’d be screwed if I was going to wait 11 weeks. After some tough negotiations with Old Man 1537 it was agreed I would muck out our goat shed for £5 and have the money to buy it the day it came out.
Ye Gods that was a Sisyphean ordeal, if I had known the amount of work involved I’d have swapped with ol’ Hercules and his Augean Stables in a trice! This has left me with something of a Proustian imprint, the sight of the cover of Brothers In Arms will always conjure a spectral smell of goat shit for me.
I was so pleased with Brothers In Arms, especially the second track, ‘Money For Nothing’, the intro to which I would play over and over again – that drum crescendo, Sting’s falsetto yodel and finally those incredible crashing chords; I still love it today. Unfortunately, I experienced a phenomenon that has struck me several times since for the very first time. Jealousy? Outraged musical snobbery? suddenly everyone liked my favourite band, they were NO LONGER MY PRIVATE PROPERTY. I mean, I understand that the poor sods were not going to make much money if I was the only person allowed to buy their records**, but all these Johnny-come-lately wankers pretending to love Dire Straits, as much as I did?! come on!
With the help of all manner of heaviness my musical tastes drifted off elsewhere fairly soon afterwards and until today I hadn’t listened to this album for at least 25 years. I was given a copy of the LP by a colleague of my wife’s who was clearing out his loft and I kept it for sentimental reasons, but didn’t play it. Brothers In Arms was the first LP I can remember being aggressively pushed on CD and tied in with the all digital recording process (one of the very first mainstream LPs to ‘benefit’ from this) and the rise of all manner of yuppie clichés. The NME review of the album was, a pithy one:
‘For compact dickheads only’
Which is a view I have a certain amount of sympathy for, I like anger, aggression, passion and humour in my music – Mark Knopfler and co. were working from a very different palette indeed by this point. I know they became whipping boys for a certain kind of laid-back, post Live Aid, older demographic, corporate rock after this release and I sort of think, justifiably so. But …
Listening to Brothers In Arms in 2017 was an interesting exercise. I can’t think of a bigger selling LP that opened with a more downbeat, almost half-assed song than ‘So Far Away’ – it’s hardly ‘Born In The USA’ is it? it’s almost an apologetic beginning and whilst I have a real weakness for Knopfler as a singer^ it is a bit pants, doubly so because of that thrice accursed 80s thrud at the bottom end of the mix. ‘Money For Nothing’, notable for Knopfler using a Gibson Les Paul for a change, is still entertaining radio fodder, even if the word ‘faggot’ grates in 2017 like it never did for me 32 years ago^^.
The intervening 11,800+ days since Brothers In Arms was released has done little to dull its most egregious sin, ‘Walk of Life’, which to this very day makes me want to puncture both eardrums with a kitchen knife until the pain goes away. I can genuinely say I have had more entertaining bowel movements than this song, the difference being that I have yet to package one up and inflict on innocent passers-by/the public at large. True story.
The laid-back faux bar band jazz of ‘Your Latest Trick’ has aged the best out of any of the songs on offer here. There is a genuine snap and bitterness overlaid with the end-of-the-night fifth Bacardi sophistication that serves it well even now. It is improved hugely with Randy Brecker’s trumpet intro^* and I still really love the first verse, which I still think is a bit naughty because it has the word ‘whores’ in:
All the late night bargains have been struck
Between the satin beaus and their belles
And prehistoric garbage trucks
Have the city to themselves
Echoes, roars, dinosaurs
They’re all doing the monster mash
And most of the taxis, most of the whores
Are only taking calls for cash
I was surprised how much I still liked this one today, despite forgetting it had ever existed. ‘Why Worry’ is next and it could be a nauseating schmaltz fest, but it isn’t. The track impresses me with a real sincerity and, something Knopfler has always been great at, underplaying – what’s not played being every bit as important as what is. I also like the extended coda, which is missing off the LP version too.
The first two tracks on side 2 are okay, ‘Ride Across The River’ and ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ with only occasional production quirks that irritate. I like the over-dramatic Dylanisms of the latter track, both of them conjured real scenarios and stories for me as a kid. ‘One World’ has that despicable 80s rubber-band bass sound to it, that makes it completely unlistenable so enough of that. I find the title track of Brothers In Arms a bit problematical these days too. The atmospherics are second only to Springsteen at his best, the guitar tone is just so and Knopfler’s vocal is as vulnerable and cracked as you could possibly hope for but I just find something in it too trite to stand muster now.
So overall I find this LP just sounds a little dead behind the eyes to me in 2017, it just sounds a lot less live and than their previous recordings did and I would rank it 5th out 5 *^. In fact it all seems strangely middle-aged to me now for a teenager to have been listening to at all, but there we all were going nuts for it. As I once very wisely wrote, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there; probably wearing a headband’.
PS. Careful, I found myself getting distinctly aroused whilst watching this video – it features nonstop cartridge action throughout:
PPS. From my Snowdonia walking yesterday, Llyn Dinas at dawn, it would make for a much better LP cover too:
*we didn’t have the live one at home, so that passed me by.
**although, to this day my purchase of the cassette of Brothers In Arms is still the only money the band have ever made out of my fanship, everything else was bootlegged, or bought second-hand.
^possibly because I’m actually a little bit better at singing than he is. That’s not the sort of thing I can say about many singy folks out there.
^^originally Knopfler wanted to use the word ‘motherfucker’, which is what the guys in the shop said – the band were going to record a MF version for private distribution, but sadly this never came to pass. Shame it would have been worth some serious 1537 bonus points for them.
^*missing on the vinyl version – all the tracks on the first side of the LP are shorter than on CD or cassette for space reasons.
*^I don’t count On Every Street, they’d split up by then. If you’re interested then I’d rank them:
- Dire Straits
- Making Movies
- Love Over Gold
- Brothers In Arms