Tuesday, 27 October 2015

100 LPs Shortlist #46: Dire Straits - "Brothers In Arms"

Before we start, let's have a quick show of hands.

Who has played this album to the point where you cannot stand to hear it ever again?

My my, there are a lot of you.

I will confess that I am one of those people who cringe whenever the opening organ phrase of "Walk of Life" appears on the radio, Such is the end product of exposure, self-imposed and external, to one of the most ubiquitous albums of the 1980s.

Now, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, the album has additional dimensions to its legacy as a classic album. What's more interesting than the contents of the album's grooves is how it was used as a marketing tool to bring about a paradigm shift in the music industry; how it can be seen as a symbol of the music industry's greed; and how its principle creator isn't a fan of it.

You see, "Brothers In Arms" was used by the music industry, specifically Dire Straits' parent record label Polygram (now Universal Music) to sell and market a new product known as the Compact Disc. Polygram's sub-company Philips, in league with tech giant Sony, had invested millions of dollars in developing a new product that would improve sound quality and create a more durable format than the existing vinyl and cassette formats.

The CD as a format was released in 1982. However, sales were still quite sluggish and so anticipating one of the biggest albums of 1985, "Brothers In Arms" was used as a carrot to lure the consumer into changing their listening habits towards the new technology. This was considered a high-stakes game. In previous years the industry had seen innovations such as consumer grade reel-to-reel tape, 8-track tape, quadraphonic vinyl and AM stereo radio die in the marketplace. With so much gambled on R&D for this new product, commercial failure wasn't an option, nor was a status tag of "novelty".

And so the original album (in Australia at least) was issued on vinyl in a standard, non-gatefold sleeve with a wraparound marketing brochure spruiking the merits of the new CD format. It wasn't going to change the fact that you've already laid out your hard-earned for a vinyl copy, but in the hope that maybe you just might buy something else on CD.

Like any new technology, on first release it was hideously expensive. CD players were twice the price, if not more, than a VHS video recorder and the discs themselves were exorbitant in cost. Single disc CDs in the 1980s were at least $10 more expensive than their vinyl counterparts, and for double albums, they could be as much as $30 dollars dearer (To wit: a copy of Bruce Springsteen's "The River" on vinyl in 1986 was around $16.99 whereby on double CD it was $48).

When vinyl sales dropped to the point necessitating the cessation of production in 1991, consumers were told the price of CDs would drop from the standard $28 dollars. By the end of the decade they were over $30. Despite this, people threw out vinyl and replaced everything on CDs that, in some cases, sounded worse than their old vinyl.

Clearly the marketing worked, but to the detriment of people who bought vinyl. "Brothers in Arms" had a track listing that was identical on CD and vinyl, but the devil was in the details. The CD states that the album is 54 minutes long. On vinyl, the album was almost 11 minutes shorter in length, with four out of the first five tracks considerably shorter than on CD (up to three minutes shorter for "Why Worry"). The argument was that vinyl had time space limitations, when in fact many albums of similar length sound perfectly fine on vinyl ("Dirt" by Alice in Chains being an example). It was a case of corporate dishonesty, less a case of outright lying than not quite telling the entire truth.

Since the sales of the CD version outstripped the vinyl sales, this was used as evidence to move an argument for the discontinuation of vinyl. It was also part of the ploy used in the 1980s for loading up CDs with bonus tracks not available on vinyl. Consumers swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Almost 25 years later, after file-sharing brought the music industry to its knees, vinyl is back on the shelves.

"Brothers in Arms" has been re-issued on vinyl in 2014 as a double LP with the full, unedited mix in the album as CD buyers have known it for the past 30 years. This no doubt aggrieves Mark Knopfler, who, in an BBC radio documentary in the late 1980s, thought the extended outros of the songs were too long and preferred them to be edited out. He also cited "One World" as a song he wouldn't release again if he had the choice.

Hindsight is always 20:20, isn't it? For what it's worth, after the first three songs, the rest of the record is incredibly slow going. Perfect for a very low noise audio format of CD, with all the languid quiet passages. It still features some of the best songs Knopfler has ever written, even if they are slightly too long in parts.

Take another listen below.

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