Brothers In Arms

This album was a mammoth success for Dire Straits back in 1985. In all honesty, I was never too fond of it. Maybe it was just over-played on the radio at the time, but I always thought that the mega hit, ‘Money for Nothing’ was too MTV glossy, ‘So Far Away’ was average at best, and the repetitive synthesizer melody on ‘Walk of Life’, was just annoying. The lesser hit, ‘Your Latest Trick’, as well as the haunting ‘Brothers in Arms’ were my favourites. Dire Straits had an ace in the hole though – even a mediocre song will sound great when you add in Mark Knopfler’s guitars. Unconventional and unique, he’s a genius. I never understood the fuss around Clapton, but Knopfler was the real deal.

Mark Knopfler

So personally, the album’s significance isn’t so much about what it was, but when it was. In 1985 I was in the first year of military service. The synchronicity of ‘Brothers In Arms’ with my own circumstances was remarkable. As a young guy sitting in a dusty army base in South West Africa, with a girlfriend back at home in Jo’burg, the lyrics, “Here I am again in this mean old town, and you’re so far away from me…”, felt very appropriate. Also, the overtly military theme of the title ‘Brothers In Arms’, made it feel like it was the soundtrack to my life at the time.

It’s impossible to write about 1985 and the army without touching on the politics of the day. The National Party government was starting to creak under the pressure applied by the international community to reform their segregationist policies. Enforced separation and the privileging of one group over another had resulted in economic sanctions and international isolation. And, if you managed to stay awake during the last two sentences…well done, you’re a better man than me. What a fucking snooze-fest, right? It’s all as boring now as it was back then. When it came to the complex domestic politics of the early 80’s, most guys I knew were more concerned with the looming two-year brown limbo we were all about to be bounced into. On induction, as our freedoms and dignity were diminished, our frustration grew. Plucked from our lives, displaced and bewildered, our resentment and anger were distilled and directed at the group of people we deemed responsible for our plight. A strange group, feared and misunderstood in equal measure. A peculiar culture that we should never have been forced to co-exist with. I refer, of course, to that loathsome group of people known, as Boneheads (also K’daars or Cylons). For me, ‘Brothers In Arms’, achieved the dubious distinction of being forever linked with 1985 – my, ‘Year of the Bonehead’.

Don’t get me wrong, Boneheads were objectionable before my spell in the army. But if school and general life were introductory lectures, two years in the military was an accelerated, condensed study course entitled, ‘How to Dislike a Bonehead’. Was it just me or did it seem like all the Boneheads in basics already knew each other? – Hey, Danie, hoe gaan ‘it, Ya Boeta, hoe lyk ‘it my maat? Nee, fokken piele, ou perd. It was as though they’d all been at a humongous family braai the weekend before they klaared in, and you didn’t get the invite.

Another decent song completely ruined by its association with basics was ‘Forever Young’ by Alphaville. In 1985 January basics, walking past rows of tents, you’d catch different parts of that song being played on separate boomboxes in EVERY TENT, EVERY DAY. You couldn’t escape it – ‘do you really want to live forever…’ – Err, no…no I really don’t. Kill me now. Happily, ‘Big in Japan’ from the same album made it out of basics intact.

Ahh, basics. When you took a young, power-happy PTI corporal (usually Van something – mine was Van Eeden) and mixed in that characteristic Bonehead arrogance we had all come to love so much, the result was every new troops nightmare. Now imagine a whole bunch of these little Heinrich Himmlers, with massive egos, competing against each other for the title of Most Cruel Arsehole. Then, to this recipe, add the first compulsory intake of immigrant recruits (a.k.a. ‘fokken punks wiv funny accents’) – it made for lively times.

Jumping ahead after basics, another album that brings back the blisters on my feet is, ‘Flaunt The Imperfection’, by China Crisis. I bought the cassette tape at a SAWI in South West after hearing the single ‘Black Man Ray’. Obviously, I played it to death and although I hadn’t heard their stuff before, I came to love that tape. ‘Black Man Ray’ was all over the radio, but for me the best song on the album is ‘Bigger the Punch I’m Feeling’. Another tape I bought at SAWI at that time was Bob Dylan’s ‘Empire Burlesque’. Not his finest effort, but ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’ was glorious. I also have to mention the two songs I consider the best to come out of 1985 – ‘Voices Carry’ by ‘Til Tuesday and ‘Rain on the Scarecrow’, by John Mellencamp.  

Two other albums I remember from the same time were, ‘Some Great Reward’, by Depeche Mode – ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ didn’t go down too well with the Boneheads – and ‘Be Yourself Tonight’ by The Eurythmics. There were several hit singles on ‘Be Yourself Tonight’, but my favourite was the non-hit, ‘I Love You Like a Ball and Chain’.

The Eurythmics album wasn’t mine. It belonged to a Cape Town Bonehead named Willemse (first name unknown) whom I’d befriended after hearing him play it. Willemse was an aberration – a short, red-headed, truly funny Bonehead with great taste in music. Without fail, he’d smoke a joint every morning before he got dressed. We were in South West for nearly 7 months, I never saw him completely sober, not once. I still don’t know how he wasn’t constantly bumping into things; his eyes were never more than half open. Thinking about it now, this might explain the aberration – he may have been Chinese.

Typically, the Boneheads’ taste in music wasn’t aligned with mine. I was a medic in the army, and we had a thing called a Casevac List (casualty evacuation). Whenever there was an injury that required more than patching up or very minor surgery, the patient would have to be ‘casevac’d to 1 Mil’ – i.e. transported by air to 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. When your name reached the top of the list, you had to fly with the patient, and you were able to spend a day or two (dependant on flights etc.) at home. I think I brought down two casevacs during my time there. Getting to the top of the casevac list felt like Xmas…for most of us. Another Bonehead (who’s name I can’t recall, although it was certainly Van something), also reached the top of the list a few times. Incredibly though, on these occasions, he’d forego a trip home and stay at the base, allowing the name behind his to leapfrog him. Whenever he did this, he would spend a few days standing at the window of the bungalow, his bottom lip quivering, staring tearfully at the planes taking off from the airfield nearby, with Tom Jones’, ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’ blaring from his tape player. Apparently, when given the choice between a self-pity party with Tom Jones and going home to get laid, a Bonehead will always choose the former. OK, maybe not always…but It’s Not Unusual (k’disshh – took me a while to work that one in).

‘The Green, Green, Grass of Home’, and some other dodgy music choices led to an ever evolving, loose compilation of songs we referred to as, ‘The Bonehead Top 10’. Other tunes to top that chart were, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree’, as well as – with 900 consecutive weeks at Number 1 – ‘The Ballad of The Green Berets’. Others to chart highly included, ‘American Pie’, ‘Lucille’, ‘We Built This City’ as well as sadly, two Queen songs, ‘I Want to Break Free’ and ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. Both adopted by Boneheads for reasons unknown.

So as you can probably glean from all of this – 1985 was a bit of a pig. Here’s a brief, bleak analogy for that year – As medics, one of our functions was cleaning the bodies of deceased soldiers and packing them in temporary coffins to be flown back home. At times, the number of bodies exceeded the capacity of the small refrigerated morgue on the base. When this happened, some bodies had to be taken to the bigger civilian morgue in the nearby town. On one such occasion, a young South West African Territorial Forces Soldier (he looked about 17) and I, along with a driver, Van something, went in a Unimog to drop off a body. Van something was a nasty individual already serving extra days for a list of offences. He’d been in the army so long; his browns were almost white. The morgue was just a large refrigerated room, with rows of square stainless-steel doors containing bodies on slide-out tables. Access was gained to the morgue through two heavy, insulated steel doors. After the younger guy and I had stored the body, I walked out of the room, past Van something who was standing at the doors. . With the youngster still in the cold, pitch-black morgue filled with corpses, for a gag, Van something slammed the doors closed. A split second later, I heard the thud as the young guy slammed up against the inside of the doors. Against my protests, Van something held the doors closed laughing, as the youngster pounded and screamed at the inside of the doors. There were no words, just shrieks of horror and blind panic like an animal caught in a trap. In his mind, he could see the small, square doors slowly swinging open behind him and he could hear the splat of the cold, broken bodies as they tumbled to the floor. I can’t remember how long he was in there for, but after a while his frenzied screams turned to sobbing, and then he went quiet. Eventually, when Van something was sufficiently amused and he was let out, he was the same grey colour as the body he’d just stored, and his eyes were bloodshot from screaming. He stared wide-eyed and silent into the distance as he walked past the Unimog. He didn’t look quite as young anymore. I sort-of knew how he felt.

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