It seems a bit incongruous to consider Dire Straits’s brilliant 1985 masterpiece, “Brothers in Arms” for a column on lost and forgotten albums, but I’m going to do it anyway, if for no other reason than it gives me an excuse to fire up the turntable and give it another listen. Unlike past selections, “Brothers in Arms” is not some hidden gem in a band’s long and storied discography, but rather is the most successful release from Mark Knopfler and company – the rare album that was ubiquitous in its time but which now feels somehow misplaced in the back of an old milk crate of slowly-warping vinyl.
During the mid-1980’s, Dire Straits was another one of those uncool rock bands from the prior decade of disco that survived on the strength of an early and unavoidable hit. A young demo of “Sultans of Swing” got them a record deal in late 1977 and their momentum over the following eight years was marked with opening slots for the Talking Heads, guest spots on Bob Dylan records, Grammy nominations, lineup changes and time spent recording with the best musicians of the era. Then they learned what real fame looked like.
“Brothers in Arms” had the rare distinction of being recorded on early digital equipment, making it one of the pioneer albums of the computer age. As such, it was also one of the first albums to take up floor space in the new CD racks at music stores and it was the first release to sell more than a million copies on the shiny format. Even the length of the album, at over 55 minutes, had to be scaled back to fit on a single LP. Its success on CD allowed it to outpace sales on other analog formats, and its popularity made an impact on the ability of manufacturing houses to produce albums from competing musicians.
So after worldwide acclaim, nearly 20 million copies sold and a slew of awards, why would “Brothers in Arms” ever qualify for consideration in this column? Because it best represents a style in album production that seems unfathomable in today’s world of DIYrecording and digital post-production fixes. There’s no doubt that the album is an overproduced mix of musical styles and questionable substance, but the sum of its parts are as fresh now as they must have been back in ’85.
Featuring some of Dire Straits’ biggest hits, “Brothers in Arms” is most famous for the statements it makes on the music business. “Money for Nothing,” for example, is a nearly nine-minute opus that boldly [and ironically] eviscerates Eighties excess with controversial lyrics, electric drums, synths and guitars, and a guest appearance by cowriter Sting, wailing “I want my MTV” in the background. The fact that the song’s music video became one of the most popular on that TV channel was probably unavoidable – it was only the second computer-generated video at the time. The rest of the album is pretty typical 80’s-era rock, but the climactic title track is a true example of art (and creative endeavors) representing life; a sprawling seven-minute story of battles lost and won and the compatriots that stand with you on “fields of destruction.” It’s a beautifully emotional coda to an album of big ideas, a statement on a past and future that is at once familiar and unresolved for us all.
Written by: Ari Halbkram