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Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms (1985)

December 17, 2013

[Album 270/1001]220px-DS_Brothers_in_Arms

“It’s like the comic who gets to play Carnegie Hall but shows up and plays the violin.”
– Christopher Walken, Man of the Year

Listening to this album, I feel a bit like watching Michael Jordan in the mid-90s…playing baseball.  Sure, he had some competence at the game.  He was/is also the greatest basketball player of all time and while it may have been personally rewarding to try his hand at another sport, it felt like a waste of his exceptional talents.

Mark Knopfler is among the most gifted guitarists of all time.  With the odd exception here and there on the disc, you wouldn’t know it based on his Brothers in Arms performance.

I’m somewhat torn as I recognize great guitarists shouldn’t play flashy ‘look at me!’ solos on every song.  Lead patterns should also fit the songs; since the first half of record is often more pop than rock and the second half is generally atmospheric, maybe it is more appropriate for the guitar to defer to the keyboards for several lead parts.

Then again the record has sold over 30 million copies, so I’m clearly among the minority that wasn’t blown away!

The hits appear early with Money for Nothing being one of those few standout guitar moments.  The song has had an interesting life cycle:

– A songwriting credit/guest backup vocals for Sting, as the opening vocal followed the same melody of The Police’s Don’t Stand So Close To Me
Its video was in heavy rotation on MTV, partly due to its groundbreaking animation and perhaps partly due to that “I want my MTV” opening line!
– The true litmus test to see if a song is a hit? Weird Al did a version (Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies) for his underrated film UHF
– In 2011, 26 years after the song’s release no less, the song was temporarily deemed unfit for radio play in Canada due to the repeated use of a homophobic slur.  Creative protests ensued and radio stations are now allowed to decide for themselves, which is probably the right move.  As a teacher, I have absolutely no tolerance for homophobic/sexist/racist language but I also believe teaching the notion of context is essential.  Censoring the song decades later seems a bit like editing the language in books like Huckleberry Finn: it’s a missed teachable moment.  Especially in this case as the slur was being used ironically.  Knopfler was singing from the perspective of an ignorant person, complaining that long-haired rock stars (like Knopfler) aren’t really working and yet they are well compensated for their lack of effort.

So I suppose the lessons with this album: don’t go in expecting killer Sultans of Swing-esque guitar solos & do recognize that the songs may not be delivered by an enlightened first-person narrator!

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From → 1980s

29 Comments
  1. I love this album!

    • Based on the 30 million copies sold, I think it’s safe to say you’re not alone!

      • Haha, you inspired me to listen to the album after I read your post…

      • Awesome – I find myself rediscovering albums after reading about them on other people’s blogs, glad to hear my review had the same effect!

  2. Great album, but when I’ve revisited it in recent years I often wondered how it would sound to people who weren’t there at the time. It was a mega release in ’85 & ’86, and I probably listened to it as much as anything else I owned at the time (which is dozens of times, at least). I’m glad I got my first CD player in ’85, so I was able to have the longest versions of these songs (the LP & cassette each had different edits). It was pretty cutting edge for its time, but definitely sounds dated now (which isn’t the case for most of their earlier work…Making Movies being my personal favorite).

    Excellent post, and bonus points for not only mentioning Weird Al’s “UHF” but for calling it “underrated.” I saw it during its brief theatrical run, on a rainy day during a week at the beach, and it still brings back fond memories (I will never not laugh at Conan The Librarian).

    • From what I gather this is one of the first albums to have major CD sales (as opposed to the other formats) – I hadn’t realized the lengths were different depending on the format.

      The Money for nothing video – also definitely cutting edge at the time – would likely qualify as dated as well.

      I am thoroughly impressed you saw UHF on the big screen, that’s amazing – I ordered ‘red snapper’ at a restaurant semi-recently, inspired by the UHF game show Wheel of Fish!

  3. Their 1978 eponymous debut album is a must (of course there’s Sultans of swing, but also Down to the waterline, and many cool bluesy tunes). I didn’t like Brothers in arms that much, but it is surely better than your average commercially-successfull 80’s album.

    • The self-titled one is on the 1001 list as well, I think I’ll probably do another eponymous themed month at some point so I’ll check it out then.

      It’s true – not all of the 80s has aged well – with the possible exception of 1986, for some reason most of the 1001 list records from that year (Peter Gabriel, The Smiths, Beastie Boys, Bon Jovi…) hold up nicely!

      • “It’s true – not all of the 80s has aged well”

        Indeed. I like practically no new bands from the 80s (some R.E.M. stuff is good, but that’s an exception), but even older bands suffered from very bad production/engineering/sound in the 1980s. Jethro Tull’s Under Wraps shows how even a good band could be led astray. (It’s not just technology. Just a few years previously, The Broadsword and the Beast had come out, which featured many cutting-edge keyboards (mostly played by Ian Anderson, who owned more keyboards than Rick Wakeman at the time—Vettese came in late and played mostly piano) and showed how an old dog could learn new tricks and still be faithful to the tradition. The album before that, A, was also quite electronic, but at least the first side and a song or two from the second are OK.) Rush lost me, or vice versa, in the 1980s. Pink Floyd were dormant during the worst phase, but Gilmour’s second solo album suffers.

        Iron Maiden cut many classic albums in the 1980s, and they don’t sound 1980s at all from a non-musical point of view (e.g. sound etc—of course musically this type of music was invented in the 1980s). Some of this is down to Martin Birch, who had also worked with Deep Purple, Wishbone Ash etc. So, it wasn’t something which couldn’t be avoided.

      • I have a theory that the key to a band aging well is by not sounding like their contemporaries. REM’s work in the 80s was unlike most of the typical synth driven sounds of the time, Jeff Buckley’s Grace sounds nothing like the ‘grunge’ of the early/mid 90s.

        Iron Maiden & Number of the Beast are on the 1001 list – I was thinking of exploring one of those as part of this ‘album art’ month (as in addition to distinctive sound, they definitely had distinctive artwork!) – is there one of the two that you’d recommend starting with?

      • “Iron Maiden & Number of the Beast are on the 1001 list – I was thinking of exploring one of those as part of this ‘album art’ month (as in addition to distinctive sound, they definitely had distinctive artwork!) – is there one of the two that you’d recommend starting with?”

        I don’t (yet) have the first, eponymous, album (by the way, this is one of the few examples of a song named X on an album named X by a band named X)—I only have the studio albums with Bruce Dickinson singing (11 of 15) and most live albums, so the only songs I know from the first album are those on the live albums. My guess, though, is that the first two albums are too “coarse” for me, for lack of a better word. Fans seem divided on whether the two albums made while Bruce was temporarily away are worth it. Although I’ve probably heard them already more often than most albums I have, the 11 studio albums I have still sound amazingly fresh.

        I can’t really see the point of having these 2 albums on the list, but none of the others. OK, the first album is the first album by a band which defined a genre, but it is far from the best. (Many first albums are quite different from what followed: Floyd with Barrett and without Gilmour, Rush without Peart, Tull without Barre and with Abrahams.) The Number of the Beast, the first album with Bruce (but still with the excellent, late Clive Burr on drums) is a good album, but if pressed I would probably put some other albums before it.

        The interesting thing to me about Iron Maiden is that all the albums I have are all good, really good. Many people predicted I would like the two “progressive” albums best, but actually they are probably my least favourite, though still head and shoulders above almost everything else in the world of heavy metal.

        Another interesting thing is that the last four albums are just as good as the classic albums, if not better. What other band has been around so long and is still putting out not just good albums, but albums as good as in their classic phase? Very few. (This might be helped by the fact that Maiden are still, or again, in essentially the classic lineup.)

        Interesting that you mention artwork. It was probably the artwork which prevented me from hearing anything by Maiden earlier. I have known that they exist for almost as long as they have existed, but don’t think I had ever heard anything (they are rarely on radio). I then somehow stumbled upon “Journeyman” from the Dance of Death album on Youtube, from a Hamburg show (where I used to live). It’s not typical—reminded me of Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind”, not that that’s not good—but led me to investigate more. Around the same time I started listening to internet radio and whenever a song came on which was both interesting and unknown to me it was usually Maiden (though these were only 3 or 4 songs altogether). I then got the Dance of Death album and was hooked. None of the albums has been a disappointment.

        In my view, Iron Maiden have much more in common with 1970s hard rock—Wishbone Ash, say—than with the rest of heavy metal. (And keep in mind that there is more variety within heavy metal than within the rest of music combined.) Also, they don’t really fulfill most of the heavy-metal cliches.

        I just have to put the following songs here. Anyone who likes good music and is not converted by these two songs (a new one and an old one, both with the current lineup) should have his ears checked. 🙂

      • Good news – after listening to the attachments, I do not require an ear inspection!

        Thanks for the suggestions Phillip – there’s definitely a bunch of band name = album name, countless album name = song name, but I can’t think of any other examples of band name = album name = song name!

        Nice to hear the band is still made up of primarily the classic lineup – I’ve heard of other groups where no original members remain, and yet the group name remains the same.

        I’ll try to get to Number of the Beast this month and then hopefully Iron Maiden in January, when I’ll look at debuts.

      • Talk Talk have a song called “Talk Talk”, but the album it is on is not called Talk Talk.

        IIRC, a while back there was an “Ask Fred” on group=album=song in Mojo.

  4. We got it all on UHF.

    Don’t you know the Dewey Decimel System?

    Today we’ll be learning how to make Plutonium, out of common household items.

    • haha – I had a science teacher in high school that looked just like that engineer Mylo!

      • I think it’s Filo. I may have mentioned this before, but I wanted so badly to use that Secrets of the Universe bit in one of my WTF posts. However the only YouTube video out there is so choppy as to be unwatchable to me.

      • It is Filo – my bad, I believe that means I need to re-watch ASAP! Love the echo effect on the ‘Secrets of the Universe’ – one year my siblings & I got each other spatulas as a nod to spatula city, may be time to restart that tradition as well!

      • That is so awesome. I bought my mom a spatula (and a nice card and cake too!) for mother’s day when I was a young fella. She didn’t get the spatula joke even though she’d endured the movie more than once.

      • A very nice Mother’s Day gesture – it appears UHF is definitely a ‘niche’ movie. A friend once found it in a video store, not under comedy mind you, but categorized as ‘cult’!

      • I can see that, today. But let me tell you, it seems a lot of people who have seen it sure do love it. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t a hit. I saw it the minute it came out on VHS and I have loved it steadily since.

      • I’m guessing it’s a longshot at best – but next year would mark the 25th anniversary of its release – I’d certainly invest in some sort of commemorative edition!

      • I could use it on blu-ray that’s for sure!

  5. Mark Knopfler’s awesome.
    So is Weird Al. I loved UHF so much, my sister and I saw it in the theatre twice.

    • To say I’m envious is putting it lightly – can’t believe you saw it twice in the theatre, well done!

  6. I agree, I think it’s a crime that this Knopfler’s most-known album. It also has not aged very well, especially that single “Money For Nothing.” As an artifact of the 80’s and of Knopfler’s career it’s worth study, but it’s not something I’d put on for pure fun.

    • For me, the 80s are a strange era as it was after the time that my parents were interested in popular music but before the time I really got into music.

      So there’s a decade + window of songs that I don’t have any nostalgia atttached to – for many of those who were in high school in the 80s, I’d imagine this one brings back fond memories. As I was too young and my parents were slightly too old at the time of release, I don’t think I’ll have the full appreciation for ‘dated’ records like this one that many others do.

      • I never thought about it, but I think you’re describing the reason for my own apathy towards the music of 1989-1995. My parents (who were young when they had me) got over MTV and I hadn’t yet become interested in pop music.

        I think the production of the era is also really off putting if you were “there” when it was popular.

  7. Money for Nothing is really when I got to know MTV as a kid. I remember thinking the video was like WTF!

    • Weird Al’s version was a nice tribute to the original video as well! ww.youtube.com/watch?v=id7Q4clO-ro

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