How Dire Straits Shattered All Expectations With ‘Brothers in Arms’
With their fourth studio album, 1982's aptly titled Love Over Gold, Dire Straits successfully subverted commercial expectations. When they returned in 1985 with their follow-up effort, Brothers in Arms, they shattered them completely.
They'd never come across as overly eager about courting rock radio — and really didn't need to be: Gold and platinum sales supported Dire Straits even during a lengthy stretch of records that failed to produce a single as successful as their breakout hit, "Sultans of Swing." Still, Love Over Gold found Dire Straits effectively turning their backs on the airwaves with a record anchored around an opening track ("Telegraph Road") that ran more than 14 minutes and a sound that was moody and reflective even by their standard.
That sound remained mostly intact throughout Brothers in Arms, which arrived on May 13, 1985 with the same impeccably clean performances and tasteful yet powerful guitar work as previous outings. But tucked in between more typically Straits-ian cuts like "Your Latest Trick" and the title track were a handful of relatively punchy, aggressively radio-friendly songs, two of which — "Money for Nothing" and "Walk of Life" — would open up the band's music to millions and millions of new fans.
But before it topped charts, sold millions and won Grammys, Brothers in Arms had a fairly humble birth. After working the songs out with the band in rehearsal, Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler took the group and co-producer Neil Dorfsman out to AIR Studios on the Caribbean island of Montserrat — a setting that proved idyllic in some ways and frustrating in others.
"It was pretty torturous," Dorfsman told Sound on Sound. "It was a good-sounding studio, but the main room itself was nothing to write home about. ... Still, we crowded everybody in there, recording with at least three or four guys on every tune, while I built little rooms out of gobos and baffles and blankets."
What saved the tracks — and helped make Brothers in Arms a benchmark recording for the early years of the nascent digital era — was the studio's Neve console, which combined with the overall Montserrat vibe to produce a purity of sound as well as intent. "It was a great place to hang out and it was very relaxed, so you could focus on what you were doing," explained Dorfsman. "And the board was so good that anything you put through it just sounded great."
One notable exception to that rule proved to be drummer Terry Williams' playing, which Dorfsman immediately found lacking — an opinion that, as the weeks dragged on, Knopfler came to share. Although Williams wasn't fired from the band, he was eventually dismissed from the sessions and replaced by Omar Hakim, then a member of Sting's Blue Turtles band.
While he acknowledged that he could have handled the situation more delicately, Dorfsman stood by the results, which he recalled making an immediate difference as soon as Hakim knocked out his first drum track — the start of a quick two days of work that ended with him replacing all of Williams' performances except his crescendos during the "Money for Nothing" intro.
"Omar is very, very confident as a musician and as a person, and what he brought to it was exactly what it needed, which was kind of a kick in the butt," said Dorfsman. "We were there in Montserrat, it was beautiful, there was a lot of swimming, a lot of hanging out, and basically we got into a thing where the energy slowly ebbed away. It was like being on a vacation for a while and losing a little bit of edge without even realizing it. The music needed that energy and we weren't really getting it. We weren't vibing at all, but then I remember Omar coming in and it was like a bulldozer — New York attitude, New York energy."
Hakim's presence wasn't the only Sting connection on the record. For "Money for Nothing," a tongue-in-cheek dismissal of the rock star lifestyle that Knopfler penned after overhearing a "hard-hat type" complaining in a department store while MTV played in the background on a wall of TVs, Knopfler reached out to Sting to sing a refrain that set the words "I want my MTV" to the tune of the Police hit "Don't Stand So Close to Me." Coupled with the song's distinctive video, it added up to the band's biggest single.
Watch Dire Straits' 'Money for Nothing' Video
Also aiding Brothers in Arms' steady ascent to No. 1 on the charts was Knopfler and Dorfsman's decision to record using a digital deck. Although the album wasn't completely digital, it came close enough to be marketed as one of the few titles whose sonics took advantage of the new CD format's capability for cleaner sound, and the sales bore that out: Brothers became the first record to move a million compact discs, and the first whose CD sales outmatched its LP's. For a variety of reasons, it was the right album at the right time — not that Knopfler ever professed to understand the huge surge in popularity that followed.
"It was a sheer fluke," Knopfler said years later. "If it hadn't been that album, it would have been something else. It was just an accident of timing. It got connected: 'Brothers in Arms' was the first CD single, or so I'm told, and I suppose it was one of the first CD albums. ... Plus, we had a couple of hits in America – 'Money for Nothing' and 'Walk of Life' – so it got connected with the American success, but people will always want to make something like that into something else completely."
As many artists have discovered, that level of success isn't always everything it's cracked up to be, and Dire Straits' quietly literate brand of rock was never really made for the arena-sized platform they commanded after Brothers in Arms. As the band's profile continued to grow, Knopfler viewed their increased fortune with a certain amount of alarm.
"We just picked the ball up and ran with it. Which is what most kids do when that happens," Knopfler told Barney Hoskyns in 2004. "And that’s fine. We had a really good run. It did get big, and I just felt that it got too big to be real and to be manageable. I think there’s an optimum size for things. I’m a pretty slow learner, so it probably just took me a bit longer than most sensible people to get the sense of proportion right."
What Brothers in Arms' out-sized success ended up doing – to the band's detriment the next decade – was make it impossible for Knopfler to slip unnoticed into the real world. "It feels like there’s a whirlwind going on outside but in the center of it all it’s actually remarkably calm. People on the outside go, ‘Wow, it must be amazing.’ And you’re just in a room with the guys doing whatever it is you’re doing. You’re not necessarily feeling all that different," he continued. "One thing I do recall is a switchover from where, as a songwriter, you become quite used to observing the world to where the world is observing you. That can be a tricky reversal."
In fact, as he admitted to BAM in 1990, Knopfler gave some serious thought to retiring the Dire Straits name after Brothers in Arms achieved world domination. "All this talk about being 'the biggest band in the world.' That was starting to take away from the music," he explained. "I forgot for a while just how important Dire Straits is, especially to other people."
But even as the band evolved from the gracefully stripped-down combo that recorded "Sultans of Swing" into a lumbering global machine, Knopfler was reminded that no matter how many platinum records you earn, it's the music that matters. "Babies are being born to it. Paintings are being painted to it. People have lived with it and loved with it. A song like 'Sultans of Swing' has become like a person, a living thing," he pointed out. "So why should I object to going and singing it? It has a whole other life apart from me. It would be pretty graceless not to let it go on living. Don't you think?"