It’s easy to take a pot-shot at Dire Straits and/or Mark Knopfler these days; easy. The Knopflersauras and his dinosaur dad-rock gets chuckled on in much the same way that Phil Collins is instantly/easily reviled. But I’ll stand by the first four Dire Straits albums – in fact if my house is going down in flames (and having just picked on the new Fat Freddy’s Drop album I should think that’ll happen anytime soon) obviously I’m going to care for my wife and child as best I can – but in that first armful I’ll also be grabbing the first two Dire Straits albums. Communiqué is a classic; that self-titled debut also. It’s too easy to call it silly/boring pub-rock. Knopfler might have nicked licks from Richard Thompson and J.J. Cale, borrowed a warble from Dylan and others – but I’ll always argue that to do what he did, the way he did it, right at the height of punk was – in its own way – a form of rebellion; a type of punk move.
And fuck it, even if that’s stretching the definition for utmost convenience Knopfler was good. And the playing on those early Straits albums is killer-good; particularly the jazzy strut and bounce of drummer Pick Withers; so intuitive, sympathetic, guiding while following. And the end result is some strange utterly British version of a type of Americana; Knopfler’s influences finger-picking from country and folk and hillbilly styles. A light trace of blues.
Go on, go back – listen again. Or for the first time. Feel no shame at all for loving the first two Dire Straits albums; grab the third too – it’s good for a gander; shame that silly goose Knopfler killed the band with its fifth album, Brothers In Arms.
Oh, sure, you can say you like the title track (I do). Trust me, it won’t get you far. You can even claim to try to like side two – it seems to have its own theme, leading up to the title track and barring the final song it’s not ruined by any monstrous, ghastly singles. But that won’t do either. You see Brothers In Arms, one of the biggest sellers of 1985, sounds like musical wine-cooler. It, too, tastes like fermented jellybeans bathed in stray-cat piss.
That god-awful Walk of Life with its obnoxious keyboard line. An ordinary man could kill with that keyboard riff the CIA-implanted trigger. Hear that and off you pop, popping off at whoever you like, whoever you can. And it should be totally understandable too. No hanging in The Hague, just the perfect alibi: It weren’t me your honour, it were that bloody awful Funfair-music-gone-wrong, Walk Of Bleedin’ Life; that were wot did it!
I should think you’d get off.
That song is the death of Dire Straits. That and those fucking sweatbands.
Have you tried listening to Brothers In Arms any time recently? I haven’t – but still I don’t advise it. I grew up with that record so, sadly, I know every inch of it still – even though I’ll never play it again. I grew, very quickly, to hate it. It’s horrid light-blue sleeve and that giant guitar on the cover – it seemed to exist to promote a cartoon version of the band. And that’s what was lapped up by every Miami Vice-watching fuckwit of the time.
I saw Dire Straits live, on their farewell tour – the album after this, On Every Street (arguably the first Mark Knopfler solo album, not counting his soundtrack work of course). And it was good. But, second song in, they played the fucking Walk of Life. My buddy told me if they played it he was leaving. And he did. Walked off two songs in. I thought he was an idiot at the time. But I also respected the commitment he showed – and having now played in bands at RSA clubs where audience clap-alongs make you feel you’re on the podium at music’s Special Olympics and everyone is egging you on – in their own time, natch – I reckon I’d have taken that walk too if I were to go back in time. It’d be the walk of life alright. A walk to save my own life – and anyone who got in the way.
But it isn’t just that song that kills the album – though it does a pretty fucking good job (and by good job I of course also mean an awful job; horrendous song, so thoroughly ghastly as to be an endurance test just sitting through it) – the treacly, trickled ballad Why Worry is an over-egged sentiment, the whispered fog of So Far Away is like trackpants. You might take some comfort from it, enjoyment even, when no one else is around, but that doesn’t mean it should actually be allowed to happen. There’s no actual justification for it.
And that jazzy-schmaltz of Your Latest Trick launched a thousand cruise ship covers. Gah!
How is it then that Brothers In Arms is a classic album? It continues to sell. Well, it did until people stopped buying records altogether – anywhere between 2003 and the present day. In the late 1990s/early 2000s Brothers in Arms still sold something like 1000 copies a week in the UK alone. Ludicrous. Tasteless people in trackpants no doubt. Their white wine in a sippy-cup with an ice-cube or two for good measure.
It is the band’s biggest seller, it made them a stadium rock-act, it unleashed their cartoon garishness and it is by far their worst album. Just so awful.
There were signs of this awfulness on fourth album, Love Over Gold. There really were. We know that now, listening back in reverse order. In that sense this was always (probably) going to happen.
But I’m most sad about it because a bunch of people have written off Dire Straits for ever existing simply because of this album. That’s almost fair enough actually – the record really is that shite; that horrible, that flossy and unadventurous and almost profoundly unmoving. But still I take issue with it because those first two records, sometimes the first three, sometimes even – almost – the first four – show a very good band. A great songwriter, a great guitarist. And all of that got clubbed over the head by a bottle of wine-cooler dressed up as a pop record.