Guest Blog: Dire Straits - Brothers Arms
You'll remember that I asked you all to Gush Over Just One Album - we kick off the guest-post series today with duckduck girl.
Brothers Arms is singularly the most important album of my life. I regularly describe it as the key anchor of my life when I meet new people and that's because it is like an anchor. It's a great touchstone and over the years I've become close buddies with some of New Zealand's coolest musicians because of it, like Greg Johnson and Mark Tierney. There is an invisible chain that ties me back to this album all the way back to 1984 and any time I find myself in doubt or feel like I'm getting too far away from me, well, I just remember Brothers Arms and I can reel myself back in along that invisible chain until I'm back in Levin, high school, 1984, when I used to be popular with the girls.
In the first song - So Far Away From Me - Marc Kofler's girlfriend has gone on holiday - "you've been in the sun" - perhaps Spain, or Cairns, and he is alone and therefore sad that he can't see her. He sings the words "so far away from me" about eighteen times in the song, which shows how much he really feels the distance. You have to remember this was 1984 so when Kofler sings, "I'm tired of making out on the telephone" it's because there was no Internet, otherwise he could have Skyped his girlfriend or used Facetime.
No one could reasonably sing, "so far I just can't see" these days unless they were in a very poor country with no world wide web or smart phones - today that would be a slightly more third world version of New Zealand such as Moldova for example. Thus we can see this song is a portrait of the eighties. The hook is gorgeous, chiming, and the synths icy, airy.
The song's closest cousin would have to be something off Heartbeat City by The Cars, that one other classic eighties band whose credibility and fan base has only increased in the years since their disbanding. Listen out for the heavy grunge chord in this song - clearly a precursor to the grunge movement that began four years later with Dinosaur Jr's grunge classic Bug and led to the grunge anthem Smells Like Teenage Spirit by the 90s grunge band Nirvana.
We can draw a lineage here with that chord alone. You see while everyone knows The Beatles kick-started the heavy metal with Helter Skelter, the genre only truly came into its own during the eighties with bands like The Twisted Sisters, My Dying Bride and Black Sabbath. Yes, even Dire Straits did the heavy metal in their song known by fans the world over as the MTV song, which was a collaboration with The Police.
The riff is on fire in that song, the drumming propulsive, and Kofler gruff-growls like a demon being toasted over hot coals. Why? Well, it's because Kofler is satirizing heavy metal bands by doing metal heavier than the bands he parodies!
Just look at the lyrics. He makes fun of how stupid heavy metal members are and how easy it is to make the heavy metal. He calls them "yo-yos" and "chimpanzees" and he even calls them "faggots" (please remember, this was back in the 80s when it was still okay to call people you didn't like "faggots.")
He makes fun of heavy metal members' earrings and their make-up such as Kiss, Pantera and The Twisted Sisters. As mentioned above, The Police, who were known for being a band only in it for the money, help sing the chorus line "money for nothing" which is a real kick in the ribs for the heavy metal bands because it is doubly ironic.
Boy, talk about cutting satire! The song is absolutely hilarious while making a very serious point (that heavy metal is a shyster's genre) yet it is also absolutely imperative that Kofler rocks a nasty groove better than the bands he parodies or else the song would fail. Far from failing, Dire Straits's MTV song is probably the best song of the 80s and barely surpassed by Dire Straits or anyone ever since.
Now the third song on Brothers Arms that I probably love more than any other song in the world except for So Far Away From Me and the MTV song is The Walk Of Life. Why is it called this title? Well, you see 'the walk of life' is a kind of dance performed by Kofler's greatest character since Juliet. Johnny is his name (and he may even be a secret persona of Kofler himself) and Johnny is a great dancer.
He dances to "oldies" and "goldies" such as Be-Bop A-Lula. Naturally, to write a great song about a dancer, Kofler had to produce a song that was extremely danceable. Boy oh boy, I remember dancing to this in 1984 in the roller discos around Levin.
This song was high on the Top 40 back then which is proof that the whole of New Zealand loved this song, but I doubt any kiwis of 1984 loved it as much as me. The chorus goes "he do the walk, he do the walk of life", and when you dance to this song, what you do is you suddenly stop dancing and do a funky walk, then when the verse comes back on, you quickly switch back to boogieing. Geeky and cool at the same time!
Well, the rest of the album is amazing too. There is jazz on Your Latest Trick (a song about a conman in New York who tricks drunken people out of their cash). That Kofler and his crew can suddenly switch to jazz on a pop album is testament to their sheer versatility.
In some ways, Brothers Arms can also be thought of as a concept album because in the next song Why Worry Now? Kofler is asking his girlfriend who is still overseas on her holiday not to worry. Remember how she was enjoying the sun back in the opening song while Kofler was stuck in the rain?
Well, after being away from her beau for such a long time the girlfriend gets heartache so in this song Kofler reassures her: "I'll chase away those fears that turn your blue skies into grey." So basically, where it was Kofler feeling anxious and melancholy before, here he plays a masculine role and offers an arm of comfort to his sweetheart. It's very moving, the most romantic song on the album. The music is dreamy and comforting. The guitar player picks some incredible licks and riffs. The arpeggios and lead guitar are liquid and sublime.
I'm running out of word space and I don't want to write an entire thesis, so I'll jump forward past the next three superlative tracks to the eponymous title track Brothers Arms. To end the album on this song in 1984 was just an incredible move to make, all credit to the production designer, because you see, 1984 was also the name of George Orwell's book about the end of the world, PLUS, in 1984 we had the Cold War with movies like The Day After.
Kofler addresses this issue in a poignant and heartfelt way. In Brothers Arms Kofler tells us how we shouldn't make war against other countries because if we hold each others' arms like brothers we can all be in love as one world. Look at this lyric: "We have just one world / But we live in different ones." This lyric resonates across time and space to 2014 with the ongoing crises in Kosovo, Ukraine, Egypt, Libya,Uganda, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea. You see, these are all different cultures so "we live in different [worlds]" just as Kofler says, yet, it's all part of the same world - the Earth!!! Besides that example of lyrical genius, the song puns on the word "arms" too.
It means 'arms' as in the limbic appendages hanging from our shoulders but it also means weapons. So, if aliens came to attack us for example, how quickly we would understand we are all brothers. Kofler sings this one for the men, the fraternity of all men in the world. And we could all take up arms against the aliens as one world of brothers.
What a truly beautiful thought for the world. To match the sheer beauty of that sentiment, Kofler's guitar playing here is liquid and sublime. Every note resonates with the power of his heartfelt sincerity, his belief that as one fraternity, we can rid the world of war and protect our womenfolk just as Kofler offered a protective arm to his girlfriend back in Why Worry?
Have you ever heard Brothers Arms? What is your favourite song on the album? Did you know how to do The Walk of Life dance back in 1984 or did you have your own special dance for that song? Tell us about it in the comments below. Thanks for reading and kudos to Simon for allowing me to show you how a blog that truly analyses an album with reference to the appropriate cultural tropes should be written.
Duckduck girl aka David Williams
Simon's Postscript: For those of you who think Simon Sweetman and duckduck girl might be the same person - and that goes for David Williams/aka duckduck girl too - I'll remind you that Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits is one of the [classic] albums I can never listen to again.
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts