That’s the trouble with first love – it only ever happens once. While some of us finally find what we are looking for later in life, you can never turn the clock back and recapture that feeling you had when you were a goofy adolescent with your hormones bubbling over and lusting after someone that no one else in your class fancied, yet you always knew deep down was ultimately going to break your heart.
When it comes to the first band that sparked my quarter of a century long obsession with music, for the longest time I was almost ashamed to confess that it was Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms that was my first love. Back in mid-to-late 1991, while my peers were discovering Nirvana, rocking out to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, or throwing hilariously inept ‘gangsta’ shapes to Naughty by Nature, I had realised that I required something different to push my various buttons of musical appreciation and, following seemingly endless years of listening to my Uncle’s mix-tapes during various family roadtrips, I had found myself oddly fixated with what was in effect a stadium sized pub-rock band.
Brothers in Arms is an album so deeply rooted in the heavy-handed production of the 80s, that it’s almost impossible to imagine what it would be like without it. Dire Straits’ USP was, having risen to prominence in the late 70s, they hadn’t been around long enough to be considered a veteran rock band, despite the fact they showed the same blues rock roots as many of them, however they were also one of the few acts around at the time with a classic rock sound that the production methods of the time actually suited. This left them in a prime position when CDs started to gain sales traction, as they were one of the few acts that appealed to both the dyed in the wool rockers, as well as the pop kids in love with contemporary production sounds. As a result Brothers in Arms sold in eye-watering numbers and has since become one of the definitive albums of the 80s.
Given Brothers in Arms’ key position in the development of my music tastes, opener “So Far Away” is inevitably one of those songs that gives me tingles of anticipation from the its first opening bars. Taken on its own, it’s a solid mid-paced pop-rocker, but as a herald of the album to come, it’s almost transformative in its ability to get you in the right headspace for the rest of Brothers in Arms. It doesn’t sod about, it gets you in the mood for an album of very 80s pop-rock and reminds you about all the positive things about one of the biggest selling acts of the decade, perfectly lining you up for the album’s most iconic track.
If Brothers in Arms is one of the key albums of the 80s, then “Money for Nothing” is a track so familiar that it has effectively become shorthand for the entire decade. Or at least it would if it weren’t so damn long. In its single form, it’s a four and a half minute slab of well-executed commercial rock, however on the original vinyl album, with it’s slow-build towards the opening guitar feature, it clocks in at a heavyweight seven minutes plus, which becomes nearly eight and a half minutes on CD. Over the last thirty years it has become the most instantly recognisable Dire Straits song to even those with no interest in the band, yet Knopfler has aways been smart enough to have never let it become the track that defines his career. “Money for Nothing” is an iconic song which manages to capture the very essence of the period it was recorded, both musically and socially, and its a tune that both Knopfler and co-writer Sting should be very proud of.
You might expect “Money for Nothing” to absolutely dominate Brothers in Arms, but Knopfler was to much of a smart operator to let that happen. It’s an album where the sequencing of the tracks is key, therefore following the lengthy iconic track with the album’s lightest and frothiest number was something of a masterstroke. “Walk of Life” actually charted higher than “Money for Nothing”, although it didn’t quite match its sales. Whatever the case, from the opening keyboard line down, it captures Dire Straits at their most accessible and fun and it’s a handy reminder that for all their perceived seriousness as a band, Knopfler, Illsely and co were a handy pop band when the mood took them. As it so happens, the same mood then escapes them for the rest of Brothers in Arms, as immediately after “Walk of Life”, the whole album takes a journey towards the much more serious a straight-faced.
With its cliched smokey saxophone sound, “Your Latest Trick” purposefully steers Brothers in Arms away from feel-good pop sounds towards more dense and “serious” textures. Back in the 80s, featuring sultry saxophone was a well-trodden shortcut to proving how sophisticated an act could be musically. For me though, even in my teens, I always considered it to be a bit lazy and unimaginative. While “Your Latest Trick” allows the album to drop a gear, it doesn’t need the saxophone to give it gravitas and it swamps the whole song.
The last track on the first side of the old vinyl was “Why Worry”, a downbeat number which basically slows the album down to a crawl, but when you flip the disc, and the needle dropped you were greeted by the ghostly opening to “Ride Across the River”, a song which captures Dire Straits at their most moody and made the most of Knopfler’s lived-in vocals. It’s a slow paced number, but its evocative in its sense of resigned dread. It contrasts with the drama of “The Man’s Too Strong”, an overwrought and heavy-handed number which at least lends the second half of the album some volume, before the album makes one more break for commercial accessibility with “One World”, a song which I considered the album’s most disposable number even in my teens, and the subsequent quarter of a decade has not altered my view on this.
With the second half of Brothers in Arms having largely been overshadowed of its first, it is up to the closing title track to end the album on a high note. The slow-burning and moody epic “Brothers in Arms” recaptures the ground lost since the album’s opening trio of tunes. As a teenager I evidently had no idea what Knopfler was singing about, but it was obvious it was something that mattered to him and many others, with his emotive vocals and unmistakable percussive guitar work throughout the song bringing the album to a satisfying close despite the odds. Years later, “Brothers in Arms” remains one of the most effecting entries in the Dire Straits songbook, and a masterclass in how to close an album.
So what’s it like then, revisiting my first love after all these years? It’s an oddly thrilling, yet hopelessly geeky feeling if I’m to be totally honest. My parents vinyl copy of the album has long been replaced by my own remastered version on CD, and it’s still a good album that doesn’t get booted down with any distracting notions of cool. Trouble is, listening to it on CD, I feel an odd disconnect with it, which I initially put down to the fact that I’m now a quarter of a century away from being the kid who became besotted with its charms and the inevitably changes in attitudes and tastes which comes along with that. In fact it took me a while to realise that it wasn’t just down to me not being thirteen years old anymore. You see, I’d grown up listening to Brothers in Arms on vinyl, but on CD it’s a slightly different beast. While the track sequence is identical, four of the first five songs are considerably longer on CD, causing the run time of the album to increase by a further eight minutes. “Why Worry” alone is dragged out from an already not inconsiderable five minutes and twenty seconds, to an eight and a half minute endurance trial. Given the Brothers in Arms’ massive sales on CD, it’s probably what most people would consider the definitive version of the album, but it’s not quite the album the teenage version of me fell in love with. It’s like encountering your teenage crush when you’re an adult and realising they were just as flawed as anyone else.
I’ve made peace with the fact that Brothers in Arms, an album long dismissed by my generation, was my first tentative step on a path of musical discovery which has since dominated my life. Every music fan’s journey starts somewhere, and I take heart in the fact that I didn’t start from the same place as many people my age, and it gave me the confidence to explore the infinite realms of the popular rock song far beyond the well beaten path of what my contemporaries considered ‘cool’, allowing me to gather a range of experiences and opinions which are unique to me. Everyone’s relationship with music is different, and it just so happens that Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms was an absolutely crucial part of mine.