Great Guitar Solos Of The 1980s (Take Two)

We continue our rundown of classic solos from the 1980s. You can check out the first part here. Any missing? Of course. (Wanted: a lot more classic metal/post-punk solos). Let us know in the comments section below.

37. Bireli Lagrene: ‘Rue De Pierre Part 3’

A triumph of solo guitar, and the only acoustic solo in this list, Bireli stunned the cognoscenti with this track from his 1988 Steve Khan-produced album Foreign Affairs.

36. Bros: ‘Chocolate Box’ (Guitarist: Paul Gendler)

Yes, Bros… Gendler had been a fully-paid-up member of New Romantic nearly-men Modern Romance before becoming an in-demand player on the UK scene, and he enlivened this hit with a raunchy, nimble classic.

35. REO Speedwagon: ‘Keep On Loving You’ (Guitarist: Garry Richrath)

Unreconstructed, huge-toned, weirdly double-tracked solo which revels in being almost out-of-tune throughout. Its sheer in-your-faceness always comes as somewhat of a shock.

34. George Benson: ‘Off Broadway’

Slick, tasty solo from a truly great player, exploding out of the speakers from about 3:13 below. The tune is of course a Rod Temperton-penned, post-disco beauty from Give Me The Night.

33. Killing Joke: ‘Love Like Blood’ (Guitarist: Geordie)

This is ‘just’ a melody, but it’s a great melody, escalating in volume and intensity.

32. Phil Upchurch: ‘Song For Lenny’ (Guitarists: Phil Upchurch/Lenny Breau)

A couple of superb solos from a great, totally forgotten 1984 Upchurch solo album Companions. Breau stuns with his array of false harmonics and jazzy runs, while Upchurch brings the blues feeling.

31. Frank Zappa: ‘Alien Orifice’

It’s nice to hear Frank blowing over a few changes rather than his usual one or two-chord vamps. And he really gets a nice ‘flowing’ thing going here, right in the middle of one of his densest compositions. Starts at around 1:32:

30. Cameo: ‘A Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Fred Wells)

From the classic album Single Life, this solo goes way over and beyond the call of duty for an ’80s soul ballad. But it’s mainly included for its brilliant final flourish, spitting notes out like John McLaughlin. Who is Fred Wells and where is he now?

29. Rush: ‘YYZ’ (Guitarist: Alex Lifeson)

Hard to do without this flowing, creamy, Strat-toned classic on one of the great rock instrumentals of all time (though inexplicably it lost out to The Police’s ‘Behind My Camel’ at the Grammies…).

28. Kevin Eubanks: ‘That’s What Friends Are For’

A real hidden gem from the almost impossible-to-find Face To Face album, Eubanks lays down a short but beautifully-structured solo on a cool cover version, from about 2:45 below.

27. Steve Miller Band: ‘Abracadabra’

Good fun and totally unpredictable. Also notable for its lovely Spanish-style flurry of triplets in its last two bars.

26. Starship: ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ (Guitarist: Corrado Rustici)

Cheesy? Maybe a bit, but who cares when it’s this well-structured and performed. Add a great tone, nice string-bending and a lovely phrase at the end and you’ve got a classic. Starts at 2:58:

25. Queen: The Invisible Man (Brian May)

May played a lot of great solos in the late 1980s, mostly on other people’s records (Holly Johnson, Fuzzbox, Living In A Box etc) but this one was just a kind of ‘play as many notes as possible in eight bars’ solo, and it’s a killer. From about 2:30 below:

24. Lee Ritenour: ‘Mr Briefcase’

Rit found the sweet spot on his Ibanez many times in the early ’80s, no more so than on this single that kicked off the classic Rit album. The solo also sounds double-tracked too, no mean feat considering the crazy bunch of 32nd notes at the end of bar 10.

23. Michael Jackson: ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’ (Guitarist: David Williams)

Not so much a solo as a suddenly-foregrounded riff, Williams became one of the most in-demand US session players after laying down this classic.

22. Pat Metheny: ‘Yolanda You Learn’

A marvellous, ‘singing’ guitar-synth solo from the First Circle album, rhythmically interesting and reflecting a strong Sonny Rollins influence, also closing with a cool quote from the standard ‘My One And Only Love’.

21. Frank Zappa: ‘Sharleena’ (Guitarist: Dweezil Zappa)

Frank’s son was apparently just 14 years old when he laid down this absurdly fluid cameo, at 2:05 below:

20. Eric Clapton: ‘Bad Love’

Nice to hear Eric pushing himself for once, delivering a striking solo played right at the top of the neck, demonstrating a mastery of string-bending and precise fingering.

19. Sadao Watanabe: ‘Road Song’ (Guitarist: Carlos Rios)

A classic rock/fusion solo, all the more impressive because it’s apparently double-tracked, from the album Maisha. Rios is still one of the most in-demand session players in Los Angeles (and one of the few leftie fusion players…), probably best known for his work with Gino Vannelli, Chick Corea and Lionel Richie.

18. Prince: ‘Batdance’

It’s the unapologetic volume and raucous tone, almost distorting it’s so hot in the mix.

17. David Sanborn: ‘Let’s Just Say Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Buzz Feiten)

Feiten seems a weirdly unrecognised figure in the guitar fraternity, but he contributed some great stuff to Sanborn’s seminal Voyeur album including this tasty break over a killer Marcus Miller/Steve Gadd groove. There are some lovely moments when Sanborn’s sax cuts in to augment his solo.

16. Paul Simon: ‘Allergies’ (Guitarist: Al Di Meola)

I love hearing ‘jazz’ musicians turning up on ‘pop’ records, and this is a classic of its kind featuring all of Al’s trademark licks in one short, tasty burst. It’s a lot more fun than listening to his solo albums, anyway… Starts at around 2:46.

15. Manhattan Transfer: ‘Twilight Zone’ (Guitarist: Jay Graydon)

At a time when he was getting much more into the production game, Graydon still found time to toss off a double-tracked showstopper on this hit single. All in a day’s work for the session genius who of course unleashed the famous solo on Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’. Speaking of which…

14. Steely Dan: ‘Glamour Profession’ (Guitarist: Steve Khan)

A mini masterpiece of precision and invention. Khan is given his head and takes the classic tune OUT in the last three minutes. When the chord changes, he changes. Stay right through the fade too – he plays some of his best stuff towards the end. Kicks off at 5:30.

13. King Crimson: ‘Elephant Talk’ (Guitarists: Adrian Belew/Robert Fripp)

Two great solos for the price of one on this Discipline opener. Fripp supplies the opening horn-like curio, then Belew adds some fire and a bit of famous elephantosity for good measure.

12. Living Colour: ‘Funny Vibe’ (Guitarist: Vernon Reid)

A classic modern blues solo from a modern master, adding excitement and elan to an already burning piece, helped along by Will Calhoun’s cajoling kit work.

11. Steely Dan: ‘Third World Man’ (Guitarist: Larry Carlton)

Another day, another classic Steely guitar solo, this one recorded in 1977 during the Aja sessions but not unleashed for another three years. Again, double-tracked for lasting power, featuring a superb mastery of tone and melody.

10. Wendy & Lisa: ‘Waterfall’ (Guitarist: Wendy Melvoin)

Sadly this is my only female entry in the list (more suggestions please), but it’s a fuzz-toned, anthemic treat, with shades of Santana and McLaughlin. From around 3:04 below:

9. The Police: ‘Driven To Tears’ (Guitarist: Andy Summers)

It’s the random, off-the-cuffness that appeals on this one. Summers sounds a lot more p*ssed off than usual, possibly reeling from yet another Sting jibe.

8. Steve Vai: ‘Call It Sleep’

Just a superb guitar composition from top to tail, but the moment at 1:22 when he stomps on the distortion pedal and rips it up is a great moment of ’80s music.

7. Propaganda: ‘Dream Within A Dream’ (Guitarist: Stephen Lipson)

Lipson modestly provided three or four extremely memorable guitar features during his golden ZTT period (not least Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes’), but this one gets extra points for the beauty of its infinite reverb and a dynamite fuzz tone.

6. Orange Juice: ‘Rip It Up’ (Guitarist: Edwyn Collins)

Just a funny two-fingers-up to the well-made solo, and also a fond homage to Pete Shelley’s famous break on Buzzcock’s ‘Boredom’.

5. Frank Gambale: ‘Credit Reference Blues’

Just wind him and watch him go. It starts slowly, almost wistfully, but then becomes a fire-breathing classic. Still scary after all these years.

4. Dire Straits: ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (Guitarist: Mark Knopfler)

The closing solo is just an oasis of choice phrases and unique tones.

3. Van Halen: ‘One Foot Out The Door’ (Guitarist: Eddie Van Halen)

Of course ‘Beat It’ is the industry standard, and possibly the greatest guitar solo of all time, but I’m going for this curio which closes out the oft-forgotten Fair Warning album. He just blows brilliantly over the changes with a gorgeous tone.

2. Jeff Beck: People Get Ready

The second and last solo is the one, a feast of Jeff-isms. A rare good bit from the rather poor Flash album.

1. Stanley Clarke: ‘Stories To Tell’ (Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth)

No chucking out any old solo for our Allan – this is a brief but fully-formed, perfectly structured, wide-interval classic that is easily the best thing about the tune. He seems to get a bit ‘lost’ in the middle, but then regroups for a stunning closing section over the rapid chord changes. Starts at 2:04:

1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em. Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable ‘bits’ that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening. Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

35. Marc Almond’s spoken-word line in Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’

34. Mel Gaynor’s volcanic snare-drum fill after the breakdown in Simple Minds’ ‘Alive And Kicking’

There’s a similar eruption in ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, but this one wins out for sheer audacity. I wonder what ‘anti-muso’ co-producer Jimmy Iovine had to say about it… 

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern-sounding synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’

Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!’ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 

Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’

Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’

Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’

Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’

Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!’ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’

Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

Sending us out into that good night with a chill in the heart…

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs

Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’

Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

Or the whole damn song really… 

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’

Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’

It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’

Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Have I missed out some great moments? Of course. Let me know below.

Six Great ’80s YouTube ‘Shreds’

SWING IN DEAUVILLE 1992

Chick Corea – look away now…

YouTube ‘shreds’ didn’t take off on social media the way trolling and cat videos did. And yes, they are possibly a little bit ‘niche’. But what I really like about these musical parodies is that they take on a quality all of their own, producing a surreal, appealingly-amateurish mash-up of cheap synths, terrible guitar sounds and fake drums.

There is some intelligence behind them too – it’s not easy to sound this bad. You need a bit of talent. The clips also bring home just how great these players are.

But hey – some possibly need taking down a peg or two…

6. a-ha play ‘Take On Me’

I like the badly-played synth motifs, Morten’s little off-mic asides and the unexpectedly-early chorus. And also the drummer’s Herculean efforts juxtaposed with the tinny, inconsequential sounds he is producing…

5. The Chick Corea Elektric Band play…something

This band were always one of the more unsavoury fusion units of the late-’80s. Their freakily-flawless musicianship, cheesy synth sounds and ‘zany’ stage performances are ripe for a bit of a rave-up…

4. USA For Africa play ‘We Are The World’

This one gets in for sheer oddness. It sounds like it’s been overdubbed by people whose first language is not English. Chinese? French? Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner and Billy Joel always get me.

3. Miles Davis plays ‘Tutu’

Sorry Miles, but I like the way this classic piece is re-imagined as a kind of remedial reggae/world music/’50s rock jam. Check out the intensity of percussionist Don Alias’s performance. That little ‘tinging’ ride cymbal gets me every time.

2. Dire Straits play ‘Money For Nothing’

This is ‘Money For Nothing’ played by a bunch of teenagers who have just been given a few cheap synths, a crap bass and a few rubbish guitars for Christmas. I particularly dig John Illsley’s backing vocals.

1. Chick Corea duets with Herbie Hancock

Yes, yes, why not some more Chick? There’s something about his smug performance style that lends itself to these clips. And of course the fact that he has made so much tasteless music for someone so near to genius…

Good Lyrics Of The 1980s

Joni_Mitchell_2004It has to be said, it was a bit easier coming up with good ’80s lyrics than it was to come up with crap ones. I could probably have chosen three or four crackers from many of the artists featured below, but space permits only one.

Maybe it’s not surprising that it was a great decade for lyricists when it was surely one of the most ‘literary’ musical decades to date – it would have to be with people like Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Paddy McAloon, Andy Partridge, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Lloyd Cole, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and Springsteen around.

So here’s just a sprinkling of my favourites from the ’80s. Let me know yours.

PET SHOP BOYS: ‘Rent’

I love you/You pay my rent

 

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

THOMAS DOLBY: ‘Hot Sauce’ (lyrics by George Clinton)

Brother in the codpiece/I’ve seen him on the TV
I think he likes his ladies all sweet and sugary
I’m partial to a pudding/But that’s for second course
The main meal and the hors d’oeuvres must be smothered in hot sauce’

 

LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS: ‘Forest Fire’

I believe in love/
I’ll believe in anything/
That’s gonna get me what I want/
And get me off my knees’

 

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘I Want You’

I want you/
It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/
It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for’.

 

RANDY NEWMAN: ‘Mikey’s’

Hey Mikey/
Whatever happened to the f***in’ “Duke Of Earl”?’

 

JONI MITCHELL: ‘The Reoccurring Dream’

If you had that house, car, bottle, jar/
Your lovers would look like movie stars’

 

TALKING HEADS: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

‘Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
I might end up in the hospital’

 

DANNY WILSON: ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’

‘Once there was an angel/
An angel and some friends/
Who flew around from song to song/
Making up the ends’

 

THE SMITHS: ‘Panic’

Burn down the disco/
Hang the blessed DJ’

 

DIRE STRAITS: ‘Brothers In Arms’

‘Now the moon’s gone to hell/
And the sun’s riding high/
I must bid you farewell/
Every man has to die/
But it’s written in the starlight/
And every line in your palm/
We are fools to make war/
On our brothers in arms’

 

DON HENLEY: ‘Boys Of Summer’

Out on the road today/
I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/
A little voice inside my head said/
Don’t look back, you can never look back…’

 

PREFAB SPROUT: ‘Horsechimes’

‘Hello Johnson/
Your mother once gave me a lift back from school/
There’s no reason to get so excited/
I’d been playing football with the youngsters/
Johnson says don’t dramatise/
And you can’t even spell salacious’

 

KING CRIMSON: ‘Indiscipline’

‘I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat…’

 

PETER GABRIEL: ‘Family Snapshot’

‘Come back Mum and Dad/
You’re growing apart/
You know that I’m growing up sad/
I need some attention/
I shoot into the light’

 

XTC: ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’

‘People say that I’m no good/
Painting pictures and carving wood/
Be a rich man if I could/
But the only job I do well is here on the farm/
And it’s breaking my back’

 

DAVID BOWIE: ‘When The Wind Blows’

So long, child/
It’s awful dark’

 

THE POGUES/KIRSTY MACCOLL: ‘Fairytale Of New York’

I could have been someone/
Well, so could anyone’

Story Of A Song: Dire Straits’ Private Investigations

Andy Beckett’s excellent new book ‘Promised You A Miracle UK80-82’ has got me thinking about the early ’80s a lot. It was in many ways a bleak time in the UK (temporarily lightened by the Royal Wedding and Ian Botham’s cricket heroics against the Aussies), mainly defined by Thatcher’s deeply unpopular government, the Yorkshire Ripper murders, various terrorist attacks and fears of a nuclear war that were hardly appeased by the unintentionally-terrifying ‘Protect And Survive’ public information films.

dire straits

Contemporary pop music generally railed against this attitude, creating some much-needed fun and glamour out of the gloom. Although ‘Private Investigations’ shares almost nothing with prevailing musical trends of the period (and Mark Knopfler saved his reaction to the Falklands War for Brothers In Arms‘ title track), it continues to hold my fascination, ever since my Dire Straits-loving uncle played it to me sometime in the mid-’80s.

I would try to decipher the noirish lyrics in a typically teenage way (no change there, then) but these days it’s hard to read the song as anything other than a portrait of a love affair gone wrong, emphasised by the slightly dodgy video. The song’s protagonist is fixated on looking for clues of his paramour’s infidelities, so he goes ‘checking out the reports’ and ‘digging up the dirt’, finding some ‘confidential information in the diary’. We never found out exactly what he finds but it definitely ain’t good; in this song, to discover the truth of a relationship is a fate worse than death, leaving one ‘scarred for life’ with ‘no compensation’.

Love Over Gold Tour, Zagreb, 1983

Love Over Gold Tour, Zagreb, 1983

I love the track’s sonic detail. The sense of drama and use of dynamics leaves other contemporary pop for dust. The stereo spectrum is used as a kind of panaromic field across which various sonic events are ‘placed’ to fit the narrative, including Mike Mainieri’s intricate marimba and subtle bits of percussion. The result is a kind of mini-movie set to music, best listened to with headphones. Ennio Morricone couldn’t have done it better. You could argue that ‘Private Investigations’ was the catalyst for all Knopfler’s film soundtrack work.

He also demonstrates a mastery of many guitar styles on the track, from the nylon-string acoustic main theme/mini-solos through to the power-chorded interjections towards the end, the latter frequently inspiring some of my uncle’s most spirited air guitar-playing back in the ’80s. Then Knopfler’s volume-pedal swell perfectly imitates a cat’s nocturnal howl. The last section, with its picked-bass/kick-drum heartbeat and Alan Clark’s chiming piano chords, seems very influenced by the title track of Steely Dan’s ‘Royal Scam‘. I love that glass (window?) breaking and the click of a suitcase opening, or is it the latch of a door being tampered with? The space in the track forces you to focus on these details. It all adds up to something akin to Knopfler’s version of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Intruder’.

Astonishingly, in a slightly edited form, ‘Private Investigations’ reached UK number 2 in September 1982 (sitting incongruously in the top 10 alongside ABC, Duran Duran, Dexys, Shalamar and The Kids From Fame!), a sure signifier as to just how much better the charts were back then. The track’s accompanying album, Love Over Gold, is seen as somewhat of a disappointment in Dire Straits’ discography, and I can’t say that any of its other tracks have had much effect on me.

But now that the nights are drawing in and the blinds are being shut, it’s always fun to dim the lights and give ‘Private Investigations’ a spin. The game commences…

Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms: 30 Years Old Today

dire-straitsVertigo/Warner Bros Records, released 13th May 1985

Recorded: AIR Studios, Montserrat

Produced by Neil Dorfsman and Mark Knopfler

UK Album Sales: 3,086,000

UK Album Chart Position: 1

Weeks On UK Album Chart: 195

Singles Released (and UK Chart Positions):

Walk Of Life (2)
Money For Nothing (4)
Brothers In Arms (16)
So Far Away (20)
Your Latest Trick (26)

Whilst enjoying Mark Knopfler’s considerable guitar skills and knack for writing cinematic ballads (‘Romeo And Juliet‘ and ‘Private Investigations‘ would probably make my top 20 songs of the ’80s), Dire Straits’ mega success has generally puzzled me. Knopfler always seemed a Bob Dylan/Randy Newman/Donald Fagen kind of guy – subtle, intelligent and wry/wary – but Straits’ mostly meat-and-potatoes rock music told another story.

But Brothers In Arms hit at exactly the right time on its release in 1985; its digital sheen, beautifully-crafted songs, tasty drumming (Omar Hakim, except on ‘Walk Of Life’ and ‘Money For Nothing’) and mastery of various styles (ZZ Top-style boogie, roots rock, jazzy pop) created an ’80s perfect storm. It’s so much part of the furniture that it’s almost beyond criticism.

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Knopfler’s laidback, post-Dylan vocals are a great antidote to all those oversingers of the ’80s (and right up to the present day). On ‘So Far Away’ and ‘Walk Of Life’, his pitching is not perfect and his phrasing throwaway, but the overall effect is pleasing possibly because it’s such a contrast to the super-slick production and playing.

And he shows himself again to be a brilliant ballad writer – ‘Your Latest Trick’ carries on from where ‘Private Dancer‘ and ‘Private Investigations’ left off, a noirish classic featuring a famous sax break by Michael Brecker just as memorable as ‘Careless Whisper’ (for better or worse!). ‘Why Worry’ and the title track (apparently Knopfler’s response to the Falklands War) are timeless epics. I found myself unexpectedly very moved listening again to the latter the other day. In fact, I was surprised how generally downbeat the album was, not having heard it for a good few years.

Brothers In Arms outsold both Michael Jackson releases (Bad and Thriller) to be the UK’s best-selling non-greatest hits album of the ’80s, spending 14 weeks at number one. Surely a big reason for its success was that it was heavily promoted as a digital recording and as such was perfectly suited to the new CD format.

The fact that it was the ‘test CD of choice’ for yuppies on the lookout for new hi-fi equipment must have been a delicious irony for Knopfler and Straits manager Ed Bicknell, given the lyrics to ‘Money For Nothing’. There were even rumours that at the time other artists were struggling to get their albums pressed onto CD due to the overwhelming demand for Brothers In Arms. Happy birthday, chaps.