Thirty years ago on this day, an album with a lead-off single about "money for nothing and chicks for free" was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. The tune continues to play on radios to this day and Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms has since gone on to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide and become one of the classic rock albums of all time.
Mark Knopfler’s band wasn’t exactly an unknown quantity when Brothers In Arms was released on May 13, 1985. This was a group that had already burned up charts around the globe with its debut self-titled album and the single "Sultans Of Swing" in 1979.
But the band’s savvy use of music videos, especially the one for "Money For Nothing" that was perfect for MTV with its opening refrain of "I want my MTV", a tight collection of tunes that rocked hard and swung gently, and the production by Knopfler and Neil Dorfsman clearly set Brothers In Arms apart from what other musicians were offering.
Watch: Money for Nothing video VIDEO
Brothers In Arms was also one of the albums that introduced people round the world to a new music format – the CD or compact disc. It became the first album to sell a million CDs and the snare and tom-tom intro to "Money For Nothing" continues to be a favourite track for testing music systems.
The album was also one of the first to be recorded on a 24-track digital tape machine, thanks to Knopfler’s knack for using the latest in recording technologies.
But the choice of the digital tape machine wasn’t a fortuitous one initially. Three weeks into the recording of the album at AIR Studios on the island of Montserrat, the band found out that digital machine had wiped out much of what they had laid down on tape.
Dire Straits in Montserrat in 1985 during the recording of Brothers In Arms.
"Overnight, the digital tape machine decided to wipe something like 70% of all the stuff we’d recorded. This was the early days of digital and we had to start recording all over again," John Illsley, the bassist of Dire Straits, recently told Classic Rock magazine.
But there were other unplanned developments that had a more fortunate effect on the album. One was the decision by Knopfler and Dorfsman to replace drummer Terry Williams, who had been with the band for three years, and all the drum parts he had recorded.
Watch: Your Latest Trick video VIDEO
Though Knopfler had written all the songs and rehearsed them with the band before arriving in Montserrat, the band realised something was wrong with the recorded tracks.
"I'd always had my doubts that we were getting what we needed on the rhythm tracks, and I remember telling Mark early on that the drums weren't really happening… So, we decided to ditch the drums and bring in a new drummer to overdub onto the existing tracks," Dorfsman later told Sound On Sound magazine.
After considering Andy Newmark of Roxy Music and jazz drummer Peter Erskine, the band called in jazz-fusion drummer Omar Hakim, a former member of Weather Report and, at the time, a member of Sting’s touring and studio band.
Dire Straits during world tour to promote Brothers In Arms.
Dorfsman blamed the laidback vibe of Montserrat for the lack of energy on the tracks recorded by the band. But once Hakim stepped in with his energy and jazz-influenced styling, the songs took on a new life. Within three days, Hakim completed the drum parts and left for the US.
"The difference, once he played, was night and day. It really started to sound like a record. 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," Dorfsman said.
Another happy accident was Knopfler’s decision to ask Sting, the frontman for The Police who was vacationing in Montserrat, to sing on "Money For Nothing". Sting got a co-writing credit for the song – a rarity as Knopfler has written most of the tracks on his solo and Dire Straits albums – and finished his part within an hour.
Watch: Walk of life video VIDEO
After a few overdubs at the Power Station studio in New York featuring musicians such as saxophonist Michael Brecker, who played the classy horn intro to "Your Latest Trick" with his brother, trumpet player Randy Brecker, the album was finished.
The album’s classic cover featured Mark Knopfler's treasured 1937 National Style 0 Resonator steel guitar, seemingly floating up into the sky against a backdrop of clouds, just like the ethereal tunes within.
But more than all the technology and the musicians, Brothers In Arms is all about the songs. There isn’t a single throwaway cut on the album, which flows seamlessly from the opening tune, the jazzy ballad "So Far Away" to the punchy rock of "Money For Nothing" to the spare "The Man’s Too Strong" to the dreamy closing track, "Brothers In Arms".
Watch: So Far Away video VIDEO
Both Dorfsman and Ed Bicknell, Dire Straits manager, have said Knopfler’s guitar riff on "Money For Nothing" was influenced by the sound of ZZ Top, the kings of southern boogie blues.
"Walk Of Life", one of the biggest hits from the album, originally wasn’t even going to be part of Brothers In Arms.
"I walked into the studio in New York when Mark and Neil Dorfsman were remixing the track and I hadn’t heard it. Mark said it was a B-side. I told him it was a hit song on a B-side and it should be on the album. It was actually a bigger selling single worldwide than Money For Nothing," Bicknell later recalled.
The album went on to spend 10 weeks at number 1 on the UK album charts, nine weeks at number one on the US Billboard charts and 34 weeks atop the Australian charts, and turned Dire Straits into one of the biggest bands of the mid-1980s.
But Knopfler’s work on Brothers In Arms provided hints of his desire to take his music away from the original sound of the Dire Straits by incorporating more of jazz, country and folk. After just one more album with Dire Straits six years later, Knopfler would disband the group and move on to a more low-key solo career.
The music on Brothers In Arms continues to be timeless. Just how timeless? Well, the album was back in the UK Top 10 as recently as February this year.
Watch: Brothers In Arms video