Friday, May 14, 2010

It Was 25 Years Ago...

25 years ago yesterday, on May 13, 1985, Dire Straits’ fifth studio album Brothers in Arms was released. It has the distinction of being the first compact disc I ever bought; I had got my first CD player as a high school graduation present (which I suppose suggests that that was 25 years ago, as well...oh, joy) and Brothers in Arms had just come out, so...

I was pretty much a Dire Straits fan from day one—I had their debut 45 “Sultans of Swing” back in 1978, and I pretty much kept up with them throughout much of the early 1980s. Mark Knopfler is a guitar god.

Having formed in Britain as part of the pub rock movement in the mid-1970s that preceded punk, Dire Straits were certainly out of step in their homeland, although they were a hit in the States (“Sultans of Swing” was a top 40 single). They began as a four-piece—Mark Knopfler on lead guitar and vocals, brother David on rhythm guitar, John Illsley on bass, and Pick Withers on drums. Only Illsley would still be in the band by Brothers in Arms.

Their first, eponymously titled record (1978) remains one of the great debuts, with scarcely a bad song on it (“Sultans of Swing” was in it), although their quickly recorded follow-up Communique (1979) had that “difficult second album” feel to it, and the scrabbling guitar solo in “Lady Writer’ was obviously supposed to be the next “Sultans of Swing.” It wasn’t.

David Knopfler had left by the third album Making Movies (1980), which was a great leap forward in style and complexity, and 1982’s Love Over Gold—boasting the compelling 14:25 “Telegraph Road” and one of the greatest, most intense guitar solos ever—went even further. (It remains my favorite of their six studio albums.) A retreat to simpler material resulted in the 1983 EP Twisting by the Pool, by which time Pick Withers had been replaced by ex-Rockpile drummer Terry Williams, albeit temporarily. (It was also in 1983 that Mark Knopfler recorded his first movie soundtrack, to the great Bill Forsyth film Local Hero, and started his career as a producer, producing Bob Dylan’s comeback Infidels.)

By 1985, Dire Straits was little more than Knopfler, Illsley, and a collection of other musicians and less of a proper band. (Session man and ex-King Crimsonsite Tony Levin plays his “stick”—a weird sort of bass—on “One World,” actually my favorite track on the record.) Odd, then, that Brothers in Arms became such a mammoth hit record. The first three tracks are still mainstays of FM radio—“So Far Away,” “Walk of Life,” and of course “Money for Nothing,” the anti-MTV song that ironically became an MTV hit (the computer animation—a novelty in 1985—helped). Actually, it wasn’t really an anti-MTV song; Knopfler often wrote from the perspective of characters, and in this case it’s blue-collar appliance schleppers who think that there’s nothing to being a musician.

I confess to not having been all that impressed with Brothers in Arms at the time; sure I liked it, but it was actually my least favorite of their records at the time. It’s hard to explain why; listening again to it 25 years later, it’s not especially dated like a lot of albums from the 1980s—perhaps the atmospheric pop jazziness of many of the tracks didn’t suit me at the time, but I appreciate it a lot more now. I remember using the new features of my first CD player to skip slower tracks like “Your Latest Trick” and “Why Worry” but with hindsight they’re actually quite nice. Perhaps I’ve mellowed in my old age. “Ride Across the River” always seemed a tad Peter Gabriel-esque, and the title track remains a haunting, beautiful classic.

I think part of the difficulty was that it was the first record I remember hearing that was released at CD length (actually, it’s only 54 minutes and change, although I remember it being longer, for some reason); as someone brought up in the vinyl era, you get used to the rhythm of two ~21:30 sides; song sequencing used to be a bit of an art, and even today albums that go on much longer than 45 minutes can’t always keep my attention. It’s hard to explain.

Following the tremendous success of Brothers in Arms, Knopfler was never particularly comfortable as the rock star, so he retreated into soundtracks and production and didn’t reconvene Dire Straits until 1991 and the so-so On Every Street. And then he called it a day and began a solo career. He remains a guitar god.

So let’s put on Brothers in Arms, celebrate the leaving forever of high school, and recall a time when this kind of computer animation was impressive.

Then we can check out the Weird Al version.