In the summer of 1985, a watershed moment occurred simultaneously for the music and digital media industries, the release of Dire Straits ground breaking Brothers in Arms compact disk. Not only was the album one of the first to be fully digitally recorded, mastered and made available on compact disk, but it was the release that compelled mainstream listeners everywhere to switch from analog vinyl records, invest in CD players, and forever change the way the world experienced recorded music.
The period during the first half of the 1980’s was an exciting time for the music industry. As a teenager growing up during these years, the changes were dramatic and still reverberate to this day. The launching of the MTV music video network, early releases from U2, Madonna, British heavy metal icons Judas Priest & Iron Maiden, and their US counterparts Van Halen and Cheap Trick, Michael Jackson, the Police and a host of others were all producing fresh new sounds. They were golden years producing many songs and artists that have stood the test of time.
Released to stores in May 1985, Brothers in Arms was the fifth album for Dire Straits, the smooth sounding British rockers who had built a considerable global following on the strength of their releases ranging from the early Sultans of Swing demo tape sensation (1977) to the more pop oriented sounds of Romeo and Juliet from the 1980 album Making Movies. Both Making Movies and cuts from the 1982 debut of Love Over Gold displayed the bands art of creating misty sounding, atmospheric musical textures around smoky sounding lyrics and crisp classically oriented guitar. The sound had deep sonic qualities, demonstrated a dynamic range that touched us emotionally, and pushed the limits of early 1980’s recording and playback technologies. By this time in the band’s career, Mark Knopfler , the creative genius behind the Dire Straits sound was in a perfect position to take advantages of changes in recording technology, which would support a bigger, evolutionary sound.
On August 17, 1982, Germany’s Royal Philips Electronics manufactured the World’s first Compact Disk at its factory in Langenhagen near Hanover Germany . The CD was smaller, less susceptible to scratches and skipping, and could play up to 80 minutes of uncompressed audio recordings, without the necessity of flipping the disk. More importantly, rather than relying on direct contact of the record turntable stylus with the vinyl grooves of long playing albums, the compact disk worked digitally with a laser reading digital bits off of the medium. The digital reading process required music producers to encode their music for very broad dynamic ranges, and also had the potential to move the digital technology up the recording process using digital methods for mixing and mastering the recording, as well as digital capture of the musicians in the studio. In the early days of the compact disk standards, these stages were noted by a three letter code – AAD represented older analog recording and masters published on the CD format, while DDD represented a fully digital music work. By 1985, the compact disk was experiencing limited success in the music industry with approximately 1000 titles available, but none had reached the potential of the DDD fully digital release. Early adopters of the technology were typically classical music fans or audiophiles, but by early 85, the technology had failed to break into the mainstream music industry.
The timing was perfect for Knopfler and Dire Straits, who wanted to try something different artistically, with a new complementary technology to help deliver the experience. After recording sessions in late 1984 at Air Studios Montserrat, Brothers in Arms was produced in fully digital splendour in partnership with Philips. As Robert Sandell mused on the liner notes of the 20th anniversary edition of Brothers in Arms, on listening to the disk in its entirety for the first time, “…there lay the surprising beauty of it. Where others shouted this album talked. Having little in the way of front, it offered instead a world of interiors. It opened not with a bang but with a gently ticking hi-hat and it faded away, 9 tracks later, on a defiantly untriumphant wash of moody keyboards and achy, echoey guitar.” Musically it was unique, and a stark contrast to many other world artists of the time. Sonically it was a whole other world.
I remember looking at CD players in our local stereo shop in 1984/early 1985 with one of my school friends. We were musical fanatics, and had weekend and night time jobs while going to high school so there were always a few dollars for luxuries like LP albums and cool audio gear. Our first exposure to a CD experience was a GRP Jazz sampler which highlighted the potential of the CD on a great stereo(the big Cerwin Vega speakers nearly jumped out of their cabinets) , but we didn’t like the available music enough to buy a player.
As a fan of Dire Straits I can remember buying a vinyl copy of Brothers in Arms shortly after it was released in May 1985 (which I still own and cherish). My initial reaction was mixed – although it was an album that grows in appeal with time. By July I had grown to truly appreciate the work, and around about the same time went back to our favourite stereo store. By this time, Brothers had been released in Canada on CD, and standing in that store we listened, and listened, and listened again always increasing the volume and discovering ever more interesting nuances and musical dimensions. The digital recording was the crispest, coolest sound we had ever heard. Hearing the guitar sounding like it was playing in front of you on an acoustic stage, or Sting’s voice ringing out “I want my MTV” felt like the musical candy we had been craving. That day I bought my first CD player, and another copy of Brothers, although this time on CD. Once getting the CD player setup, I must have played the disk straight for two weeks until I blew the bass sub woofers out of my speakers. I emptied my bank account on a pair of studio quality Cerwin Vegas , the same ones that had originally dazzled our ears and made our chests thump, and I was now set – an early explorer in a digital music age.
It was interesting to note, that even at this early stage of the CD, Dire Straits created longer versions of several songs for the digital versus LP versions of the release. So Far Away, Money For Nothing, Your Latest Trick, and Why Worry were all longer on the CD, offering almost 8 minutes more in listening time. This made purchasing the CD more special and an exclusive club only available to those in the know.
My friend and I were not alone in this musical reaction to a digital Brothers in Arms. By the end of 1985, after seven months on the market, the album had achieved tremendous success, going 8X platinum in Canada, 3X Platinum in the UK, triple platinum in the US , and platinum in Germany. By the one year anniversary of the release, the album had achieved 10 times platinum status in Canada and 5 times platinum in the US. Most importantly, it was the first album to ever reach the one million units sold on CD, driving the technology deep into the hearts of mainstream music lovers, turning a sharp corner away from vinyl. Vinyl still had a few more years left, but by the end of the decade, we were living in a digital age.
With digital music now commonplace, it opened the doors for digital music file sharing services like Napster, and online digital music sales by iTunes and others, ultimately leading to the iPhone/ i-generation we currently live in. It is interesting to imagine if digital music via CD would have taken off as a technology as it did without Brothers in Arms, and if there had not been that watershed moment, where would we be today.
Twenty five years later, Brother in Arms has sold over 34,000,000 copies worldwide and is considered the ninth bestselling album of all time. The disk was relaunced two years ago with proceeds going to benefit Falkland Islands war veterans who still suffer trauma from that bloody war that was fought during the same time as the release of the original album. The disk remains an irresistible mixture of sadness and light that allows listeners to explore both ourselves, and the future potential of digital music and a future age of idealism.
Philips Press Release
Brothers in Arms Album Liner notes