Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Dire Straits "Brothers In Arms" (1985)

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 Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms” (1985) 

So Far Away/Money For Nothing/Walk Of Life/Your Latest Trick/Why Worry?//Ride Across The River/The Man’s Too Strong/One World/Brothers In Arms 

The fourth best selling AAA-related album ever (in fact the 7th best selling record of any kind in the UK), it used to be reckoned that one in four of all British citizens had a copy of this album in their collection. Dire Strait’s biggest seller by some margin, it brought worldwide fame and superstar status that Mark Knopfler decided he didn’t want, causing a retreat from the public eye that carries on today after a career that was already pretty high-profile. There were an astonishing five top 30 singles taken from this album, with three of them still known round the world today and heard endlessly on the radio – to the cost of some of the band’s better songs actually. This album also pioneered the CD format, being the catalyst for old and new collectors to finally shell out for a CD player in the same way that ‘She Loves You’ skyrocketed the sale of vinyl and ‘White Christmas’ pioneered 78s. The best-selling band of the 1980s released this, the best-selling album of the 1980s at the mid-point of the decade, hitting a chord with both the fidelity lovers of the times and the retro rock lovers from past decades. It wasn’t just sales either: the awards that ‘Brothers In Arms’ received would take up more shelf-room than all this year’s gold Olympic medals together. ‘Brothers In Arms’ really was everywhere and a record as close to the heart of what life was like in 1980s Britain as any I’ve come across. But is this record really worth the accolades, the 30 million sales and the overshadowing of the rest of Dire Straits’ back catalogue? Well, as ever with this site, the answer is yes and no. Just as ‘Sgt Peppers’ was to 1967 and the Sex Pistols were to 1977 so this is to 1987: an album so clearly of its time that its hard to come to it with later, more modern ears and fall in love with it the same way. A good four of the singles taken from the album – ie the ones that everybody knows – are actually pretty dire by Dire Straits’ standards, novelty rock light years from their best work. Had Dire Straits leapt straight to this album from the lacklustre ‘Comminique’ and the stepping stone seven-song ‘Makin’ Movies’ I’d have been perfectly happy with it, marvelling at Mark Knopfler’s ability to vary the tempo more than his old habit of writing purely fast and purely slow songs and ability to make such slow songs so commercial and easy on the ear. Yet coming after the band’s masterpiece ‘Love Over Gold’, which matched Knopfler’s love of retro 50s rock with a real empathy and passion for politics and people around the world circa 1983 I can’t help but feel disappointed at such a backwards step, with spot-on political commentary and wordy guitar-based epics no one else could have written now substituted for the short-term novelty fuzz of side one, songs which every vaguely commercial band have written or re-written in their time. Compared to the troubled citizens of ‘Telegraph Road’, the 14 minute opus that still barely has time to fit in the story of civilisation, the earnestness of ‘Love Over Gold’ or the sarcastic spot-on wit of ‘Industrial Disease’ much of this album sounds empty and hollow, built for airplay time not longevity. None of the singles from this album work anywhere near as well as ‘Sultans Of Swing’ or even ‘Private Investigations’ and the reason we talk about ‘Money For Nothing’ ‘#Walk Of Life’ et al so much now is simply a matter of timing: after a troubled half-decade pop this polished and uplifting, together with some cracks at the 1980s lifestyle, was exactly what was needed. However if you were an alien who’d just come to the planet and wanted to check out Earthling music by starting with the best-sellers, oblivious to what was happening on the planet at the time you landed, chances are you’d be scratching your three heads by the time the fifth track finished and wondering what all the fuss was about. Yet that said this album is a game of two halves, a real curate’s egg of songs that worked better then on side one and songs that work better now with some 25 years’ distance on side two, with the one-two punch of ‘Ride Across The River’ and ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ among the band’s greatest achievements (along with ‘Telegraph Road’). The latter song, especially, is a real overlooked gem that deserves to be better known, compacting all the drama, unease and political insight that made Dire Straits the special band they were for their short six album burst of creativity (its also, thank goodness, the direction Mark Knopfler has gone to with his solo albums, a quieter barer more intense sound where the lyrics are as key as the music and riffs). In fact had the band gone on to release a sixth single from the album, this might have been the biggest seller of them all. In fact, side two’s half-concept about military might and regret and guilt is an awesome piece of extended songwriting, an even better soundtrack to the unnecessarily troubled decade of ‘Star Wars’, Thatcher the milk snatcher and the Falklands invasion than the poppier, more immediate songs. They were overlooked at the time, surrounded by noisier recordings out to grab the audience’s attention, but these four songs are the real sound of the decade, in the same way that ‘Peppers’ is best known for the drama of ‘A Day In The Life’ and the whimsy of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ and the technicolour of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, even though anyone with half an ear will recognise George Harrison’s warning fable of ‘Within You Without You’ as the ‘real’ soundtrack of 1967. To last, an album needs to be more than the sum of its parts – it needs to offer something no other album can (after all, any self-respecting Dire Straits hits collection contains majority of this album’s five singles too; incidentally can you believe the audacity of Vertigo calling one of their compilations ‘Money For Nothing’?) The reason ‘Brothers In Arms’ stays on your CD player after the singles have been and gone by track six is the power of the songwriting of the second side, where brash shouting and character playing are replaced by honesty, sincerity and emotion. There is one other important element to consider when discussing this album. Given that just five years before this album’s release Knopfler was a failed music journalist and a fed-up history teacher, his musical dreams seemingly washed up by the age of 29, the fact that he was now scoring number one singles and albums regularly should have made this the best period in his life – heck in anyone’s life. But even before this album’s mega status Knopfler was already showing signs of strain and pressure, overwhelmed by the growing fanbase Dire Straits was accumlating by 1983. Unlike the other big sellers of the 1980s (Prince, Madonna), Dire Straits built their star image not from confidence, arrogance or an ability to own a stage (it’s a sad fact that the Dire Straits concerts out on video are much less interesting than listening to their records) but from ears that naturally picked up on what people in the street were feeling, reflecting the mood of at least the Western world back on the record buying public. Despite the good times Knopfler was experiencing, comparatively late in life, years later he was to call this period one of the ‘worst’ times for him personally, with so much to live up to and remark again and again how pleased he was that fame came to him at an older, wiser age because without that grounding early on he’d have gone monkeynuts from the sheer scale of it all (a ‘luxury’ bands like The Small Faces and artists like Cat Stevens and Lulu never had – not that it probably felt like a ‘luxury’ to the penniless journalist-come-teacher struggling to make ends meet in his 20s). One fact that not many people know – because Knopfler managed to keep his private life as private as any talked about rock star can be – is that Mark was newly married in this period. This was in fact his second marriage, to Lourdes Salomone in November 1983 – about the time ‘Love Over Gold’ came out - and you’d then logically expect ‘Brothers In Arms’ to be a happy album about love, marriage, union and finally finding your soulmate. In actual fact, it isn’t at all: the images of love on this album sound more like a man screaming to get out of than falling in love. The path from one relationship is never simple and never clean cut, no matter what sites like this one have to portray, so could it be - despite the dating of this album and the happy vibes that should surround it - that Knopfler is still pining here for the loss of his childhood sweetheart Kathy White. As an extremely general rule, most AAA band members who marry pre-fame are still married decades on (their love clearly not being based on love of someone’s money or status but their character), but another reason Knopfler seems to have hated the pressure and fame that came with this album was that, barely a couple of years earlier, it added to his break-up. Here love is a changing, moving, un-embraceable mystery, with both ‘Your Latest Trick’ and the more sarcastic lyrics on ‘One World’ the nastiest and most sniping we’ll ever hear Knopfler be and adds to the feeling around this album that stardom is a bad thing to have. Knopfler’s still writing about this now, such as the song ‘The Car Was The One’ on his 2010 album ‘Get Lucky’: the teenage Knopfler yearns to be like the loved showman who drives race cars at a local track but when all is said and done and Knopfler too has that amount of attention and fame he realises that it wasn’t the lifestyle he wanted: it was the car. This would also fit with the theme of being ‘disconnected’ in someway across the album, with even the songs about relationships that aren’t about marriage and love sounding fragile and built on guilt and shame rather than the brotherly love the title implies. Indeed, the reason ‘Money For Nothing’ was such a huge single was that, as well as a catchy riff and a booming ear-catching drum break, it successfully summed up what a fractious, divided era the 1980s was, with the MTV generation replacing their parents’ 1960s demand for sound warmth and subtlety with visual images and cold static digital noise. In fact ‘Brothers In Arms’ is a clever title for an album that’s all about togetherness and the search for breaking the lonely isolation of life. The title track refers to army veterans returning from some giant shared experience they’ll never have again and the bond this creates, but for the first 45 minutes of this record it could easily be the fit for that splintered MTV generation spoofed in ‘Money For Nothing’, the spurned lover of ‘Your Latest Trick’, the kind soul reaching out with words of comfort on ‘Why Worry?’ or the suddenly guilt-laden dictator of ‘This Man’s Too Strong’, realising that without support or help from others he is nothing. I might be reading too much into Knopfler’s lyrics here but the way I see it all of these songs are about fame in some way and the way it isolates the person at the centre of it from the ‘ordinary’ people they used to hang around with and the way it changes the way everyone around you views you. If so then its a particular irony that an album about isolation and the need for connections between people became one of the biggest sellers of all time, further distancing Mark from those around him (after all, if you were hungry for this level of fame you wouldn’t then immediately cancel Dire Straits to record with some little-known friends as The Notting Hillbillies as Mark did in 1988 or put the band on ice for eight years until ‘On Every Street’). The way I see it the brotherliness and tradition-respecting of the 1990s were an immediate response to the ‘me’ decade of the 1980s, with Dire Straits learning the lesson before most and reaching out into the darkness, trying to make a connection. The fact that the best selling album of the decade contains all the answers needed as well as asking the questions is, in retrospect, extraordinary, with ‘side two’ of this album the solution to the problems posed by ‘side one’. It fits well, this title, for a suite of songs about working out what it means to exist and be alive – although I still wish ‘Love Over Gold’ had been saved for this record as its a title that fits even more perfectly, making a million selling record about the importance of not losing sight of what’s important. Not that you can’t enjoy this album on a lower, simpler level either. One of the reasons some albums go on to become big sellers is that they appeal to lots of people on lots of different layers at once: ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ being perhaps the best example, with enough guitar and drum solos to keep rockers happy but enough of a half-theme of the pressures of life and some pretty deep lyrics for a rock album in 1973 to keep regular Floyd fans pleased. ‘Brothers In Arms’ is probably pulled off the shelf by most people for the hit singles ‘So Far Away’ ‘Walk Of Life’ and ‘Money For Nothing’. For me, none of these songs represent as perfect or certainly as original a piece of pop songwriting as any of the band’s previous run of form (the swinging ‘Sultans Of Swing’, the sad romance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the pulsating sad-happy drive of ‘Tunnel Of Love’, the mystery and power of ‘Private Investigations’ – OK perhaps not the abominable ‘Twisting By The Pool’...), but the reason these songs in particular took off is because they’re so similar to what been around already, but simply updated to a new more 1980s sound. Anyone could have recorded these songs, which don’t particular sound like other Dire Straits records (there’s hardly any guitar on any of them for starters). In fact there’s very little guitar on this album at all, considering that it’s the one with the famous cover of Knopfler’s prize National Guitar from 1936 (the same brand Paul Simon references on the title track of his breatkthrough 1980s album ‘Graceland’). Traditionally Dire Straits songs are built on riffs, ones that grow in intensity and passion as the narrators lose themselves in something (the music in ‘Sultans Of Swing’, love in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, heck even skating in ‘Skateaway’!) Very few of the songs from ‘Brothers In Arms’ are – only ‘Walk Of Life’ has a really hummable riff and that’s played on a synthesiser! Freed of his guitar, Knopfler spends more time and effort on his vocals than normal, turning in some of his best performance on songs like the spine-tingling title track and ‘Why Worry’ (though you have to turn the CD up pretty loud to hear it properly; again another sign of how timid a performer Knopfler is compared to the decade’s other big sellers). The rest of the band sound more ‘together’ here than normal too, with keyboardist Alan Clark the reliable second-in-command he had been on ‘Love Over Gold’ (that’s his work you can hear on the credits of the Most Haunted TV series!) and getting more time than Knopfler’s guitar and bassist John Illsey given more space to work with than normal (his unexpected outburst on the middle of ‘Why Worry’ shows what a fine guitar player he can be when Knopfler isn’t dominating the sound). Amazingly, though, its jazz session drummer Omar Hakim who shines the most on this album: brought in at the last minute to replace Terry Williams (who himself had replaced long term drummer Pick Withers barely months before) and made to play his parts to the most basic of backing tracks, his recording was done and dusted within a fortnight, long before most of these songs would have taken shape – and yet he’s right on the money every time, giving the band a looseness and wildness they could have done with a lot sooner (although funnily enough the wildest and loosest passage – the outburst of solo drumming in the break of ‘Money For Nothing’ is William’s only work to make the finished album; on this evidence alone it’s a real shame the band didn’t use him more, although you do wonder whether he’d have had Pick Withers’ subtlety of sound from their earlier years). One of the other things that helped make the album such a success was its crisp, digital sound. Dire Straits weren’t the first to use digital recording (that was Stephen Stills in 1979, not that those tapes are available even now!) and ironically the technology came along just at the time when analogue recording processes had themselves reached a level of greatness they’d never had before (‘Love Over Gold’ being a case in point if you hear it on vinyl– I defy any listener to hear any real difference between the two if their record is still in a good enough condition to be up to the task!) But there’s no denying the ‘sound’ and ‘texture’ of this album is more important to it than most records, even in the aural fidelity loving 80s. Knopfler always had a keen ear for an arrangement and time and again this album excels: ‘So Far Away’ might be tired 60s pop as a composition but the opening bass vibrato and half synthed harmonies (very 10cc incidentally) is perfect for catching the ear; equally the wild drumming at the heart of ‘Money For Nothing’ is the most electrifying and memorable section of a song that has nowhere to go and no reason for being there; the title track too would be nothing without its eerie opening and supporting sound effects. Digital is still a dirty word in the collecting world and for good reason – some of the late 1980s re-issues of 1960s albums (the Beatles’ for instance) sounded horrid, tinny and flat, far worse than the records of the day and so much the opposite of the warm enveloping sound from that decade that, in Neil Young’s words, it’s the aural equivalent of taking an ice-cold shower instead of a warm bubble bath. But for albums that were designed from the first to fit the medium – as with this album – it can sound marvellous, albeit with some very 80s digital instruments in the mix that date the sound for today’s ears much more than the guitar-bass-and-drums of 1963. It’s hard making an album for the digital market where the best parts are subtle and underplayed, but ‘Brothers In Arms’ second half is even more extraordinary for getting the balance just right, for not overplaying the subtlety or burying the lyric s(and vocals) behind a sea of effects. Considering that this is only the second album Knopfler ever produced on his own (with ‘Love Over Gold’ the first and an equally impressive album production-wise), its a huge success, making the best of what was around at the time (and before younger readers get smug, just wait to hear how dated One Direction and Justin Bieber will sound in 25 years’ time!) Incidentally, the album did come out on vinyl – ‘Brothers In Arms’ wasn’t the world’s first CD-only album as some books and websites will tell you, but it was the first album deliberately written to CD ‘length’ (with several tracks shortened for vinyl). Ironically many of the songs sound better in these shorter edits (Dire Straits songs are traditionally longer than average and more so on this album than most), perhaps showing already the self-indulgence that will come with the 80 minute length albums later on in the decade. So – in essence – it’s easy to see why this album became such a big seller (being perfect for the times, cashing in on the CD age, hit singles galore) without necessarily meaning its a great album. Certainly there is good work on this album, with two maybe three songs as good as anything Mark Knopfler’s ever written and the whole album played by a band at the peak of their powers. But compared to the 100% success rate (for me at least) on ‘Love Over Gold’ this album remains a disappointment, a frustration that in the long term probably cost us fans more than we gained: there’s only one more Dire Straits studio LP after this one and it takes a ridiculous eight years, in which time Mark has seen another relationship crumble, got sick of the music business and the big tours and decided to do something, anything else in order to get the public pressure off his back. (‘People calling us the biggest band in the’s not about the music then, its about the popularity. I needed a rest’ is a very telling quote from the ‘Every Street’ period). Knopfler was never one of those musicians born to handle such sudden success, doing his best work in the shadows when nobody seems to be watching (his excellent last solo album ‘Get Lucky’ being a case in point, released with so little publicity I didn’t know it was out till a month ago) – the fact that he released the perfect album for the years 1985 (recording time) to 1987 (when this album won most of its awards) is in retrospect just an unlucky break. That such a shy, inward-looking soul should end up getting the feelings, fears and frustrations of a whole decade on one album and tour to several million people is one of those strange coincidences that seem to happen round such great musicians who can’t help but communicate what’s in their hearts and souls. It’s fitting that an album about communication breakdown should start with ‘So Far Away’, a 1980s echo of a song that’s been around for generations – and doubtless will for generations to come. It’s tempting to see this song as being about the fallout from Knopfler’s first marriage, especially the lines about being in ‘another town’ sounding like the age-old moan about touring and being away from home but, that said, it may well be the pop connoisseur trying to write his own take on a song about distance that pretty much every writer handles at some point in his career. There are some clever ideas in this song, though, which raise it from the average: the line about ‘being so in love – and being so alone’ just makes the song, as do the lines in the final verse about the distance between the pair being so wide geographically that ‘you’ve been in the sun and I’ve been in the rain’ a clever metaphor for the emotional distance between themselves too. I certainly prefer this song to the other singles taken from this album, as at least this one has a pretty tune and some clever lyrics, even if it doesn’t quite have the originality or uniqueness of the best Dire Straits songs. A surprisingly uptempo song for such a sad subject, the recording is highlighted by a tremendous band performance that has Illsey’s very Motown bass and Clark’s atmospheric keyboards turned up high in the mix, making the most out of a so-so song. By Dire Straits songs this one is rather compact, down to three verses and three repeats of the same chorus (no middle eight or instrumental this time around), but even this one has a curiously extended fade that seems to rattle on for a good 90 seconds after the track has ended (like many a song from this album, the shorter vinyl edit is preferable). ‘Money For Nothing’ is Dire Strait’s best known song, despite being nothing like the rest of their work. A contrast in dynamic tension, this collaboration between Knopfler and Sting (who sings the opening verse) pits a moody slow beginning against the loud brash second half. In fact, its structured very much like Wings’ ‘Band On The Run’ this song, complete with the un-related middle eight bridging the gap between the two distinct sections. By Knopfler’s standards this a rather sarcastic, insincere song, featuring a rare bit of play-acting and inspired by a day he spent trying to buy a TV from an electronic store and listening to the angry shop assistant listing everything wrong with the images from MTV appearing on the giant TV screens. Taking his comments as a metaphor for how the 60s generation was putting down the 80s generation (despite being in turn to badly put down by the 40s generation), it somehow manages to both celebrate and spoof 1980s youth culture. Knopfler was in the perfect position for this kind of balanced view, being a big hit in the music business between 1978 and 87 despite his age actually putting him closer to the stars of the late 60s and early 70s (like we said earlier, ‘Sultans Of Swing’ came out when he was 29, late for a pop star). It makes for a memorable song, especially the drum segue between the two parts and the moody opening chanting ‘I want my MTV’ over and over, but you have to say this song hasn’t worn well with repeated listening, being something of a one-line joke. The chorus also doesn’t fit, relating the details of the narrator’s day job a world away from the stars on MTV and yet not doing enough to make the differences between the two worlds distinct. Like many Dire Straits songs its also a good minute too long, with no less than four repeats of the chorus and an extended guitar solo on the fade which, by Knopfler’s high standards, is both simplistic and dull. Still, that’s listening to it with 21st century ears, now that MTV is itself a generation old and showing videos by the children of the people who were on it when this song was written and has come in for an awful lot more abuse than it did in 1985. Back when this song was written it was amazingly prescient and breaking ground, even if the song doesn’t always use it in the right way. Full marks to Sting for his contribution and ‘re-shaping’ of the song, though – by far the best hour’s work he ever did. ‘Walk Of Life’ is much parodied, with its ‘wa-hooh’ yells from Knopfler and its decidedly retro sound and lyrics. Unlike some musicians on our list Knopfler’s always done his best to stay true to his roots in the rockabilly of the 1950s rather than trying to ‘progress’ from album to album and ‘Walk Of Life’ is probably the one song on this album you could hear coming as long ago as the first album ‘Dire Straits’ in 1978 (if even more simplistic and poppy). A good time song about a hip singer named Johnny (who may or may not be John Lennon), the 1950s were just about far away enough in the mid-80s to be fashionable again, the sound of the teenagers’ garndparents rather than parents’ generation (which is why the 60s were back in fashion in the 90s, hence Oasis, and why we’re now having to suffer the horrors of the 1980s all over again now; its also why so many films were set then in the 1980s – Back To The Future being a famous and Paul McCartney’s ‘Give My regards To Broad Street’ being a less famous example; finally it’s also why The Kinks had their first hit in 13 years with the 1950s-set ‘Come Dancing’ in 1983 despite writing several; similar flop songs for several years prior to this). Sweet and simple, there’s little in this song to dislike – but there’s not much substance to it either and by Dire Straits standards again none of their unique contemporary sound (after all, 10cc had been half-spoofing half-praising the 1950s since 1972 on songs like ‘Donna’ and ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ – funny how everyone in that decade seems to have been called Johnny!) That said there’s one hint at something darker in the lyric, where the joyous dancing comes ‘after all the violence and the double talk...’, a hint that the setting isn’t as sweet and innocent as it pretends to be in the rest of the song. There’s also something uncomfortable with Knopfler’s vocal, which wanders around the place an awful lot compared to his usual precision and sounds like he’s got a heavy cold. Talking of which it’s Knopfler’s cracked vocal that ruins ‘Your Latest Trick’ for me, a surprisingly bitter put down of a loved one Mark sounds as if he’s doing his best not to be a part of the song at all (had the Dire Straits had more than one vocalist they’d no doubt have sung this on the record), something that really suits the song’s feeling of betrayal – as if the narrator doesn’t want to admit the breakdown of the relationship to himself never mind us. Unfortunately either the cold or a genuine reluctance to commit this song to digital tape means that Knopfler can’t handle the song’s subtleties and his heavy-handedness here robs what could have been a sweet little song of much of its power. It’s almost certainly about the break-up of his first marriage, given how real many of the details are – the narrator so unable to take in the news he instead records all the hustle and bustle of activity around him. There are some classic lines here and there (the garbagemen ‘doing the monster mash’) and the one about how, if the lady wanted out, she should have ‘used one of the keys on my chain’ instead of making her own ‘out of wax’ and abandoning him while he’s in another town (out on the road?) But alas the chorus isn’t one of them, simply cycling through the rather obvious hurt and betrayal that might have been better left hanging in the air as a mystery in the song – indeed with three full repeats its rather rammed down our throats. I’m also not a fan of the moody opening, which is about as 1980s as it gets: long slow and ponderous with saxophone and 80s synths playing to not much effect (why oh why is Knopfler’s great guitar work drenched with echo and buried in the mix?) A frustrating mis-mash of a song that could have worked very well but taken together falls apart. It did surprisingly well in the singles chart, though, despite being the fourth release from the album and despite being one of the least commercial songs on the LP – so what do I know? The side ends on ‘Why Worry’ which is kind of the mirror image of the last song: instead of a bitter betrayal from a distance this is the warmth of a new relationship up close, with the narrator seeking to calm the fears of his loved one. Despite being the last and poorest selling of all the album’s singles, it’s probably the most covered song Knopfler’s ever written (Art Garfunkel does a great version of this song), despite the fact that no one else could have come up with the lovely extended opening which is born for Mark’s crystal clear guitar work. His vocal is up to speed now, too, and the equal of his fine lyrics about turning problems around (another common idea, sure, but well handled here: would that other songs providing comfort had the chorus line ‘there should be laughter after pain, there should be sunshine after rain, so why worry now?’) The one real love song on the album, its moving indeed, the aural equivalent of a blanket a hot water bottle and a box of chocolates, looking for positives in negatives. Interestingly this song is very similar in mood, theme and structure to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – an album very close to ‘Brothers In Arms’ on the list of best-selling albums – suggesting that what a wannabe successful artist should record for their first album is a kind of warm audio hug; both songs are slow and ponderous but with enough going on to keep the excitement – perhaps more importantly both songs are closely rooted to gospel, although here the music is dominated not by an organ or piano but by Alan Clark’s subtle synthesiser work. Alas two things prevent this from becoming the highlight of the album: the mix of this song is awful; its much quieter than the songs either side of it (despite neither being particularly noisy) with Knopfler’s vocal, which should be the centrepoint of the song, ducked quieter than anything else in the mix; there’s also yet another extended ending which despite giving Knopfler’s guitar a good work out sounds more like a battle than act of comforting and undoes much of the atmosphere built up on the track’s first four minutes. Still, this is a lovely song even with all the ‘mistakes’ and it deserves its place in the pantheon of great AAA ‘covered’ songs. Side two is the real heart of the album, however, opening with the eerie and dramatic ‘Ride Across The River’, a song that sounds like across between ‘Apocalypse Now’ and a Michael Palin travelogue. The backing to this track is fantastic and would have made for a fine backing track in its own right: Clark’s keyboards are the perfect soundscape for the exotic and bizarre, sounding like cannibals playing percussion, and the call and answering between Knopfler’s sterling guitar work and a Mariachi trumpet band shouldn’t work but somehow does. It’s the lyrics, though, that excel, with the narrator a soldier searching for something - ostensibly the prey he’s been hired to shoot but as the jungle setting turns to night (with the sound effect of some crickets in the second half of the song) it becomes more about a search for the self. In short, its what Joseph Conrad was supposedly writing about in ‘Heart Of darkness’, his racist book about exploring Africa, but there the metaphor and images got mangled so badly the reader got lost – here the comparison is made explicit, that the ‘heart of darkness’ is inside the hired assassin who had gave no thought to his victims until he risked becoming a victim himself. The song then widens out in the last verse for some of the political sniping that made ‘Love Over Gold’ so memorable, with Knopfler coming up with the classic line ‘Nothing going to stop them as the day follows night – right becomes wrong and the left become the right’. The assassin in the song is then revealed as the band of revolutionaries out to overthrow the old regime – only to add another even more corrupted one in its wake. There are far too many good things about this recording to list for you, but here’s a few: just as the song is beginning to get boring near the end it suddenly jumps a key and the tension goes up another notch (the kind of thing the album’s other songs desperately need in the interests of variety and power), the extended finale using every exotic instrument in the band’s toybox and Knopfler’s screaming vibrato guitar part, sounding magnificent and crystal clear in this setting of hidden ambushes and human deception and lies. Despite being one of the longest songs on the album, it isn’t anywhere near long enough, keeping the audience’s interest to the very end. A real album highlight and one of the best Dire Straits songs of all. Even better is ‘The Man’s Too Strong’, a track which picks up with the last piece’s transformation from pride and stoicism to guilt and fear, with the breakdown of a former dictator facing ruin in the eyes. Dire Straits rarely played with dynamics before ‘Money For Nothing’ but here’s another, even finer example: Knopfler sings the verses to the accompaniment of his acoustic guitar in a typically understated way before his guilt and anguish spills over for a ‘WHAM WHAM ba-ba-bam’ wordless chorus that pulls the rug out from under his eyes and conveys perfectly the idea of rebels at his door. Knopfler sums up his latest character’s life story in a series of excellent stanzas, each one filling us in on his character and why such a nasty character deserves a shot at redemption. ‘I have legalised robbery – called it belief, I run with the money – I have a head like a thief’ – similar in style to the fall of Mr Flash in Ray Davies’ great Preservation rock opera on ‘Flash’s Confession’, this is a long list of nasty attributes that far from making him big, strong and powerful make him seem like just another small weak human gone wrong. It’s all here: the beginnings as a ‘drummer boy’ dazed by the majesty and the splendour of the old rulers, the jealously of the power of the old guard, the overthrow, the ‘re-writing of history’, the isolation behind walls that kept the ruler further away from the people he vowed to represent and the final betrayal by those he thought loved him. In other words a little power goes a long way – and absolute power corrupts, absolutely. Some commentators claim this song is about Stalin – that could well be, given Knopfler’s love of history (he taught the subject for a time) but for the record I reckon this song is about then prime minister Margaret Thatcher; Knopfler was born to socialist parents and as fans have already heard on the sterling ‘Telegraph Road’ hated the idea of one person having so much power over others. What Thatcher was up to in the 1980s (basically killing the industries and the working classes) beggars belief and the more I read about what was really going on the more horrified I get; there at the time, with some slight power to speak out against it, Knopfler may well have been inspired to put Thatcher into song. The ending of this recording is sheer class, Clark’s held sinister synthesiser note and Knopfler’s final flurry of notes on the acoustic summing up the aftermath of battle. A frankly brilliant song, the highlight of the entire album and possibly of the band’s career as well. Thankfully Knopfler’s headed towards this acoustic song’s soft-hardness and his political lyrics ever more on his solo albums but never quite with the power to match this superb recording. After two such strong songs ‘One World’ sounds like a let-down, but out of context its stilla fine second-division number. Half serious, half sarcastic, this is an update on the old Dire Straits humour of ‘Millionaire Blues’ and ‘Badges, Stickers and T-Shirts’, B-sides that like this song moan their socks off and then laugh at the rich, comforted narrator for daring to have problems. It’s a clever way out of a songwriter putting into words what their most likely to write about (frustration) but with enough humour to laugh at the self (as most people would kill to have problems like these). ‘Can’t get no sleeves for my records’ is a hilarious beginning – especially given that this is an album that effectively killed off vinyl records – but the song does get deeper by verse two, seemingly another about the end of Knopfler’s first marriage with lines like ‘Can’t find the reason for your actions – I don’t much like the reasoning you use’. The song then pulls out again for a view of the problem as one suffered the world over; basically why can’t we all just get along? (The TV has nothing ‘but the same old news’ generation after generation, full of fighting, overthrown Governments and natural disasters). The best part of the song, though, is a rare middle eight that slows down to take a look behind the narrator’s ‘mask’, with Knopfler telling us direct that ‘most writers write because of vanity’ , believing that their work can be of use or interest to some one else before saying that actually it’s what keeps him sane – and reaching out in the darkness to see if someone shares the sanity as yours is what keeps him going. It’s a fine moment in a fine song, where Knopfler’s supposedly jokey narrator lets his guard down and admits as to why he’s re-writing this song about little frustrations for the third time. The backing is much more traditional than what we’ve had on this album before, with the guitar bass and drums turned up high and the keyboards down a notch, although its not a patch on the group performances that graced ‘Dire Straits’ and ‘Makin’ Movies’. Still, a third straight success story in a row – and the third song not to have been released as a single. The title track of ‘Brothers In Arms’ is, rightly, regarded as one of Knopfler’s greatest masterpieces. In his own words its been sung at funerals and at weddings – something that’s puzzled him greatly given what a sad song it is, encompassing death and ghosts. There’s something uplifting about this song tool, though, with the dead narrator so close to his comrades in battle that he simply won’t let go, there at the scene of their biggest battles and watching on again proudly as they return ‘to their valleys and their farms’. The narrator himself cannot move on, he’s trapped to live out each battle over and over again without the ability to move on – yet strangely he’s not upset by it, more proud of his activity as part of a ‘brotherhood’. So far this quite a worryingly pro-war song, then, sadly closer in harmony with the pointless jingoism of the Falklands War (where men were lost for a few square feet filled with sheep), but Knopfler’s a better writer than that and another classy middle eight just makes the song, asking why – when our planet is all we know that exists in the universe – we’re so content to stay divided, fighting over differences instead of enjoying shared similarities. In short, if we all had the brotherhood of men at war, then there would be no war – and that the ‘Brothers In Arms’, though they may be fighting on different sides – are really all human beings together. We’ve moaned about the mixes and recordings elsewhere on this album, but not here: the band pull together magnificently, with an excellent atmospheric intro that might well be Alan Clark’s best work for the band before Knopfler’s guitarwork is atmospherically eased into the silence. Knopfler’s vocal too relates how close this song is to his heart, even though it originally started as a song about his Scottish heritage (though brought up in Newcastle he was born in Edinburgh) and does sound very much like a Scottish air (complete with ‘mist covered mountains’). An elegiac tribute to how precious our world is and why it should never ever be put under the strain it was in the 1980s (the decade with the most wars ever I think I read somewhere, and that’s without the cold war raging hotter than ever) this song is just one of many ‘warning’ songs that made it big in the 1980s. Unlike ‘Live Aid’ and ‘Two Tribes’, though, this song is much more than just novelty and rightly deserves its reputation as one of Dire Straits’ best. Overall, then, a so-so first side which everyone knows is joined by a majestic second side that deserves to be much better known. Not a bad hit rate for a supposedly well regarded album that’s so firmly rooted to the time period in which it was released (as we’ve seen on this site I rate ‘Sgt Peppers’ as the worst Beatles album and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ as the worst Simon and Garfunkel album). The call to sing the record’s better known but lesser songs in concert must have cheesed Knopfler off no end and probably led to his current lower profile, where he can play what he wants without too much fuss from his loyal fanbase. I hope, though, that Knopfler doesn’t forget the heights he reached on this album’s real peak moments on both this album’s second side and the whole of ‘Love Over Gold’ and that we may yet see the best from this most empathetic and subtle of writers. We did not desert you, your brothers in arms, your fanbase.

A Now Complete List Of Dire Straits Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

‘Dire Straits’ (1978)
'Communiqué' (1979)

'Makin' Movies' (1981)

'Love Over Gold' (1983)

‘Brothers In Arms’ (1985)

'On Every Street' (1993)
Surviving TV Appearances (1978-1991)

Unreleased Recordings (1978-1991)
Non-Album Songs 1977-1991
Live/Solo/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part One (1977-1999)
Live/Solo/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part Two (2000-2014)
Mark Knopfler’s Guest Appearances
Essay: From ‘Dire Straits’ To ‘Mass Consumerism’
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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