Monday, February 4, 2008

No. 351: Brothers in Arms

Band: Dire Straits
Album: Brothers in Arms
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The first album marketed specifically towards CD sales (it was the first album recorded in DDD), “Brothers in Arms” contains one of the first songs about the brave new world of music video, “Money for Nothing.”
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, the album isn't very good, it contains the wildly overplayed “Walk of Life” and the hit song is homophobic.
Best song: "Money for Nothing” is problematic, though it has a good riff.
Worst song: I've heard “Walk of Life” too many times at baseball games.

Is it awesome?: No.

I'm of two minds about Dire Straits:

1. Mark Knopfler is clearly an interesting guitar player. His arpeggio-style solos are pretty different from the straight blues-based soloing from his generation.

2. Dire Straits is, like BTO and ZZ Top, simply blue collar white guy rock. The famous single from this record was – according to Knopfler, though I don't know that I believe him – was supposedly written in the character of a hardware store worker first hearing about MTV.

Needless to say, the two controversial lines rub me the wrong way entirely. The first -- “banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee” -- is more subtle in its awfulness. You could easily argue that calling a drummer a chimp isn't necessarily racist, but considering black music gained popularity in the 1980s, it's a little too convenient.

Of course, the cover of “character” is what Knopfler always tries to use as his excuse for the infamous verse:

See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy thats his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot hes a millionaire

Robert Christgau takes on the controversial lines himself:

We know Mark Knopfler's working-class antihero is a thicky because he talks like Randy Newman and uses the same word for homosexual that old bluesboys use, a word Knopfler has somehow gotten on the radio with no static from the PMRC. I mean, why not "little nigger with the spitcurl" instead of "little faggot with the earring," Mark?

It's a great point, only backed up by the fact of the “chimpanzee” line.

Look, the song is catchy and the guitar riff is pretty amazing. Certainly, Sting's falsetto is remarkable to start the song and the fact that the song actually made MTV is cool. But, I just can't get behind those lyrics. Not cool.


kellydwyer said...

It's tough to take, especially coupled with the iffy "Les Boys" off the otherwise sublime "Making Movies."

That said, I'm bound to stick with the character-types. Waits, Newman, Patti Smith, Becker and Fagen. There's a pretty significant history of white singers using the n-word in their songs that Christgau decided to gloss over, 'ere.

I'll give Knopfler the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Garry Shuck said...

I was in high school when this song came out, and at the time I never really thought much about the line other than it always seemed to be aimed at Boy George and the Culture Club, or maybe Flock of Seagulls), who were also in heavy rotation on MTV at the same time. Whether these were really Knopfler's true feelings or not, it's the reality that MTV brought the often outrageous and/or shocking image of rock groups into people's living rooms for the first time--and those lines were very much a reflection of what many people's reaction to that was.

What I do find really interesting about this song is that when it is played today on the radio that entire verse has been excised and is now censored out. Right? Wrong? Hard to say. There is no question that by today's standards those lines are ignorant and offensive, but does that justify censorship?

R.J. said...

Garry, that's a good point and I don't want to single it out at all. That the music is on the radio is fine and that song is ridiculously catchy.

This was more subtle than it was in my Johnny Cash pieces, but I bring up the point because boomers often look to their music as totally nice and not violent or prejudiced (especially as compared to hip hop), but it's part of the purpose of this project. I'm trying to dispel boomer love and this was part of it.

Admittedly, it wasn't well-written and it's a hard argument to make (rap is much worse on both fronts).

kellydwyer said...

I don't know if the boomers can take credit for this batch ... can they?

R.J. said...

Maybe wrongly, I put Dire Straits in the same class as Springsteen as the kind of music that boomers see as their own, even if it came a little later. I think specifically of a reporter I used to work with. He loved BTO, Springsteen, Dylan, et al. Petty probably occupies this space, but I actually like Petty.

Anonymous said...

I don't like Dire Straits, either. I think they should have just cut their name in half, and it wouldn't matter which half they threw away because whatever remained would be an accurate description..."Dire" or "Strai(gh)ts"