On this date in 1985, Dire Straits released the definitive 80s album, Brothers in Arms. Naturally, some of its history-making was the result of coming along at the right time and place. But, there are so many interesting facts surrounding the album and its recording that a look back is in order.
The Cover: Mark Knopfler’s rare 1937 National Style O Resonator
The Basics: BIA is Dire Straits’ fifth studio album, and radically departs from the Mark Knopfler-led band’s roots rock and jam sensibilities. The album mainly consists of shorter, radio-friendly songs featuring more processed guitar sounds and transparent lyrics than any Dire Straits album before or since.
The Numbers: BIA came along as CD players, first introduced in 1982, became more popular and available. BIA secured a place in history when it became the first CD to sell a million units. You’d be hard-pressed to find a CD collection amassed in the 80s that did not include this album. BIA held the #1 spot on the album charts in every country that kept them, with the weird exceptions of Italy and Norway. The single "Money for Nothing" was also #1 in the US. The album has sold >30 million copies worldwide, is certified 9X Platinum in the US, and is the 7th best selling album of all time in the UK. BIA won 2 Grammys, and the MTV Video of the Year for “Money for Nothing”. The video was only MTVs second computer animated music video, and received seemingly hourly play, no doubt because of the line “I Want My MTV”.
BIA spun out 7 singles from a total of 9 tracks: “Money for Nothing” “Walk of Life” “So Far Away” “Your Latest Trick” “One World” “Brothers in Arms” and “Ride Across the River”. “Walk of Life” nearly missed being left off the album. Thankfully, the band overruled co-producer Neil Dorfsman
The Contents: Mark Knopfler receives sole writing credit for 8 of the 9 tracks on the album. Sting is listed as co-writer of “Money for Nothing”, though his only contributions were singing “I want my MTV” reminiscent of the tune to “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” at the beginning and end of the song, and backing vocals.
“Money for Nothing” is controversial and is famously based on a conversation between a couple of workmen overheard by Knopfler at a store where a wall of TVs showed MTV music videos (the sedative of the 80s). Knopfler immediately took pen to paper to record some of their homophobic, misogynistic, and arguably racist rant about rock stars’ lifestyles and “work” as compared to their own labor. The unedited song has been banned in Canada.
The Players: Besides the Knopfler brothers and their Dire Straits mates, Sting contributed as described above. He happened to be on holiday on Monserrat, British W.I., where the album was recorded (about which, more to come). Regular Straits drummer Terry Williams was simply not up to the task, perhaps due to the “vacation-y” surroundings and amenities. Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles band drummer, Omar Hakim, was called down from NYC. Hakim brought what Dorfsman described as “NY energy and attitude” and banged out the drum parts in two days. Hakim was “like a bulldozer” said Dorfsman. The fantastic Brecker brothers, Michael on tenor sax and Randy on trumpet, added some gorgeous jazz riffs on “Your Latest Trick”.
The Recording: BIA was recorded at one of the rock world’s favorite studios, AIR (Associated Independent Recording) Studios Monserrat. AIR was owned by “The 5th Beatle,” producer Sir George Martin. He founded AIR in London after leaving EMI, and soon built a second facility in the British West Indies, on the island of Monserrat that he so dearly loved.
Though it only existed for a decade, AIR Monserrat holds a special place in rock history. Some of the best known albums by the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Police, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Rush, Black Sabbath, Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Lou Reed were recorded there. Jimmy Buffett’s Volcano is named for the Soufriere Hills volcano that erupted with disastrous consequences in 1997. AIR Monserrat was heavily damaged and closed in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit the island. Today, it is a crumbling ruin, attracting only the occasional music-worshipping tourist.
The studio room itself was nothing to speak of, small and unremarkable. What made AIR Studios famous were their 3 custom designed Neve 8078 mixing boards. These were the last Neves made by Rupert Neve in the 80s, all hand-wired, analog models. For more information about the famous Neve mixers, see Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary, in part about the Neve 8048 used on Nirvana's Nevermind, that he bought when the LA studio closed. According to Dorfsman, whatever was put through the Monserrat board “came out magnificent.” AIR London still uses one of its original boards, sold its other to The Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, B.C., and sold the Monserrat Neve to A&M Records in LA.
The recording of Mark Knopfler’s Gibson Les Paul on “Money for Nothing” is an interesting demonstration of the art v. science of recording. Mark wanted ZZ Top’s signature guitar sound for the song, and visited Billy Gibbons, who gave nothing away. On the day the song was to be recorded, the guitar tech plugged in and hit the strings and there it was – that sound! The mikes hadn’t even been set up yet. One pointed at the floor, another toward the ceiling, and a third was aimed off-center at the speaker. Dorfsman was never able to reproduce that exact sound anywhere else. Despite its fuzzy sound, described by Gibbons as "pretty close" to his, Knopfler’s guitar on “Money for Nothing” wasn’t enhanced by any effects or processing.
That's the story of Brothers in Arms, released 31 years ago today.