Retrospective Review: Dire Straits - Brothers in Arms

It's amazing how quickly a band can be forgotten once they break up. There's a few months of sadness that they'll never be heard from again, before the ever-moving industry that is music casts them aside in favour of the new blood coming through. That is often justified; you cannot keep making space for those who have been and gone when young talent is trying to make itself known. However, in some cases, this ruthless act of casting the old boys aside feels harsh.

Nobody really talks about Dire Straits anymore. There was the debate over the use of the word "faggot" in 'Money for Nothing', with calls for the song to be banned from radio airplay (very similar to the case regarding 'Fairytale of New York'), and a couple of references in the Cornetto Trilogy movies, but nothing else really stands out. This is remarkable, considering that the band were once one of the biggest in the world; indeed, the album we're reviewing today became the first ever to sell one million copies on the CD format.

Dire Straits, led by Mark Knopfler, were already hugely successful by the time this release came around, having proven themselves capable of delivering songs of a wide variety. There were the more straightforward songs such as 'Sultans of Swing' and 'Lady Writer', the beautiful 'Romeo and Juliet', the gritty 'Private Investigations' and other excellent tracks such as 'Tunnel of Love' and 'Telegraph Road'. It's fair to say that they had already built a Hell of a catalogue in just seven years.

But then came Brothers in Arms. Recorded on a digital tape machine, it was one of the world's first albums to be recorded using digital methods, a decision made by Knopfler in an effort to improve the record's sound quality. The album certainly sounds crisp and clear; it's in with a shout of being one of the best-produced records of the '80s. Whether that was down to the digital methods, who knows, but the production must be commended.

And what of the songs? From the moment it opens with the downbeat 'So Far Away' to the second it closes following the glorious title track, it's a fantastic record. It constantly shifts direction, with the ZZ Top-influenced 'Money for Nothing' - featuring none other than Sting as a guest vocalist - making way for the outrageously upbeat 'Walk of Life', which is itself replaced by the soft jazz of 'Your Latest Trick'. This twisting and turning of genres continues all the way through; 'The Man's Too Strong', for example, sounds like it was composed in Texas.

It's difficult to do this and ensure your album sounds like one flowing piece, but Dire Straits handle it with confidence and flair. There's no filler, no song that sounds like it shouldn't be there or could be replaced. Even the oft-overlooked penultimate track 'One World' is a brilliant composition, featuring some trademark guitar work from Knopfler and a funky as all Hell rhythm, making the song sound rather jovial in nature despite its rather dispirited lyrics.

This was a groundbreaking album in so many ways. Not only was it an early adopter of the digital age (due to both its recording process and its CD success), 'Money for Nothing' also features a unique video. It was one of the first to use computer animation techniques, particularly with human characters, and it was heavily rotated on MTV after its release. This was a big deal in 1985, unlike today now that MTV has gone down the pan.

Speaking of the song, let's address the lyrics. Are they homophobic? Well, there's certainly precedent for it. "Faggot", or indeed "fag", is certainly used as a homophobic slur. In the context of the song, Knopfler takes the character of a disgruntled and jealous working-class man, whom he describes as "a real ignoramus, [he has a] hard-hat mentality - somebody who sees everything in financial terms. I mean, this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars. He sees it in terms of, well, that's not working and yet the guy's rich: that's a good scam. He isn't sneering." The lyrics, then, don't express Knopfler's own opinion of gay people; rather, he was attempting to use the language of the average guy at the time. It should also be noted that the word was often replaced in live shows, with a televised 1985 performance at Wembley Arena using the world "Queenie" in its place. So, is the song itself homophobic? You could definitely say that the lead character is. It's a very, very fine line, and the only possible stain on an otherwise magnificent record.

For, apart from that, this is a nigh-on perfect album. It's ludicrous to think that, at the time, this got scathingly negative reviews from the press. It just goes to show that we aren't as influential as we like to think; despite those reviews, the album spent fourteen weeks at #1 in the UK, ten of those consecutively, as well as nine weeks at #1 in the US and an incredible thirty-four weeks at #1 in Australia. It has gone 10x platinum in the UK, 9x platinum in the US and sold thirty-million copies worldwide. The lesson to learn here? Make your own mind up.

Yet here we are today, in a world which barely registers Dire Straits anymore, despite this amazing success. It brings a grim reality to light - music is disposble, replaceable, ever-changing, with little room for nostalgia unless you are actively seeking it out. However, for those who are willing to look back, there is a gold mine of music waiting for them, and Brothers in Arms should be one of the first records on the list. Stupendous.