On 26 April 1986, the Brothers in Arms World Tour concluded at Australia’s Sydney Entertainment Centre. Dire Straits’ fifth studio album had propelled them up the charts all across the world, and while the critical reception was mixed, something had landed well with the international audience. In Australia alone, the album sat on top of the charts for 34 weeks and would prompt the biggest music concert in Australasian history — a record unmatched until the arrival of Ed Sheeran over thirty years later. But within two years, lead singer Mark Knopfler had announced that he was moving on, citing stress and fatigue from the lengthy tour. Though they would regroup and record briefly in the early nineties, the band never properly recovered from the first break up. Brothers in Arms struck at a peculiar moment in history, resonated intensely with a wide audience and then manufactured the end of Dire Straits.
Thirty five years ago, on 13 May 1985, Brothers in Arms was released through Vertigo Records. Steadily, the group had built a reputation on their brand of roots rock and narrative-based storytelling, but Dire Straits were largely unexceptional: they rejected punk counterculture, appeared on MTV wearing plain, ordinary clothes and wrote songs about people falling in and out of love. And yet, the record would become the first certified 10-times platinum in the UK, and is still one of the 30 top-selling albums of all time. The international success of the famed fifth album is, at a glance, bizarre. Critics found Brothers in Arms “lugubrious”, “trite” and “lacking”. Indeed, the record was never one to define a genre; few artists would say Brothers in Arms was the one to inspire a career in music.
What set Brothers in Arms apart, instead, was its songwriting; the album greatly explored the potential of Dire Straits’ pedestrian philosophy. It was, much more than those before it, accessible to those willing to listen. Its songs were considered, sometimes self-referential, winding and alluding to long walks around the grimy underbelly of London, or coming to terms with death, or reflecting on the opportunism of relationships. They would often tail off as incomplete thoughts, fading abruptly and without closure. Such is life. Where others may trade depth for broader appeal, Dire Straits set themselves apart by tastefully and sincerely dealing with the uncomfortable aspects of modern living. Commercial success was in virtue of this attitude — not in spite of it. ‘Brothers in Arms’ would become a military funeral song, and ‘Walk of Life’ a pub jukebox celebration of starving artists with uncertain legacies. And ultimately, when the band’s peers dissolved into New Wave or moulded into Adult Contemporary, Dire Straits took a break.
The sad irony of Dire Straits’ break up is that, in creating something meaningful and permanent, they would also ensure that the band never achieved the same artistic influence as their peers. Those 11 songs are remembered as something distinct from the previous four albums, and the band’s sudden dissolution determined that its central motifs would never be fleshed out any further: there is not enough source material to make copies. On Every Street (1991) was a solid album, but never positioned itself to build on its predecessor. Moreover, Brothers in Arms is 55 minutes long. Its density is difficult to translate or condense. Over time, the more radio-friendly hits — ‘Money for Nothing’ (album version 8:25; single version 4:38) and ‘Walk of Life’ — became saturated by overplay, shifting the attention away from the storytelling. But Dire Straits never really had an image to fill the void, and nor could their sound lend itself to the new era. What made the album interesting upon release did not adapt, and Brothers in Arms instead stayed in 1985, solidifying another incomplete thought about itself in one brilliant and misunderstood album about loneliness, regret and success.
And so, after the 1986 World Tour, Mark Knopfler left Dire Straits to pursue other interests. The band had resisted the allure of stardom, reverting instead to telling simple stories about ordinary life and its challenges. Brothers in Arms would earn its moment in the spotlight for the same reasons it would never achieve the lasting influence shared by The Smiths, The Cure or The Police. Dire Straits will be remembered for their hits: ‘Sultans of Swing’, ‘Money for Nothing’, ‘Walk of Life’. But they may also be remembered for something else — for being resolute and thoughtful, desperately in conflict with life and seeking to explore that feeling through a pretty melody and a sad song.
Words by James Reynolds