“Money for Nothing” is a song recorded by British group Dire Straits, which first appeared on their 1985 album Brothers in Arms and subsequently became an international hit when released as a single. It peaked at number one for three weeks in the U.S., becoming their most successful single. In the band’s native UK, the song peaked at number 4. The recording was notable for its controversial lyrics, groundbreaking music video and a cameo appearance by Sting singing the song’s iconic falsetto introduction and backing chorus, singing the cable network’s slogan “I want my MTV” to the tune of the opening sequence of Sting‘s own composition “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” The video was also the first to be aired on MTV Europe when the network started on August 1, 1987.
“Money for Nothing” won the Grammy for the Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with a Vocal in 1985 at the 28th annual Grammy Awards.
The recording of the song contains a very recognizable hook, in the form of the guitar riff that begins the song proper. (The song is also notable for its extended overture, which was shortened for radio and music video.) The guitar riff continues throughout the song, played in full during each chorus, and played in muted permutation during the verse. Rolling Stone magazine listed it the 94th greatest guitar song of all time.
The song’s lyrics are written from the point of view of a blue-collar worker watching music videos and commenting on what he sees. To achieve the effect of such a layman making such casual everyday commentary, Dire Straits‘ lead singer and songwriter Mark Knopfler used a vocal style known as Sprechstimme.
Knopfler described the writing of the song in a 1985 interview with critic Bill Flanagan:
“The lead character in “Money for Nothing” is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television/custom kitchen/refrigerator/microwave appliance store. He’s singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real.”
According to an unsubstantiated claim in Nikki Sixx’s book, The Heroin Diaries, the references by the blue-collar character singing the lyric to the musicians he is looking at with disdain on TV were the members of his band Motley Crue. This claim has not been verified by Mark Knopfler.
The songwriting credits are shared between Mark Knopfler and Sting. Sting was visiting Montserrat during the recording of the song, and was invited to add some background vocals. Sting has stated that his only compositional contribution was the “I Want My MTV” line, which was sung to the identical melody of a section of his own song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”, originally recorded by The Police. Sting was reportedly embarrassed when his publishing company insisted on a co-writing credit (and royalties).
When Dire Straits performed “Money for Nothing” at the 1985 Live Aid Concert at Wembley Stadium, the performance featured a guest appearance by Sting. As a result of this performance, this helped launch not only the song, but Dire Straits themselves into international superstardom.
The observations of the character included references to a musician “banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee” and a description of a singer as “that little faggot with the earring and the makeup”, and lamenting that the artists got “money for nothing and chicks for free”. These lyrics were widely criticised as sexist and anti-gay statements, and in some later releases of the song the lyrics were edited for airplay; “faggot” for example is often replaced with “mother”: “little mother, he’s a millionaire”. The entire second verse was edited out for content and length for radio and video airplay, and on the 7″ single. This edited version is included in the compilation album Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits.
In a late 1985 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Knopfler expressed mixed feelings on the controversy:
“I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London – he actually said it was below the belt. Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you can’t let it have so many meanings – you have to be direct. In fact, I’m still in two minds as to whether it’s a good idea to write songs that aren’t in the first person, to take on other characters.”
Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, in an interview with Blender Magazine, says that the song is actually about his band’s excessive lifestyle, and that he heard the clerks in the store were commenting on Mötley Crüe videos shown on the in-store television sets.
The music video for the song featured early computer animation illustrating the lyrics. While the characters seem boxy and the animation appears a little crude by modern standards, the video was one of the first uses of computer-animated human characters and was considered groundbreaking at the time of its release. It was the second computer-generated music video shown on MTV. The lead characters vaguely resemble a CGI Laurel and Hardy.
Originally, Mark Knopfler was not at all enthusiastic about the concept of the music video. MTV, however, was insistent on it. Director Steve Barron, of Rushes Postproduction in London, was contacted by Warner Bros. to persuade Knopfler to relent. Describing the contrasting attitudes of Knopfler and MTV, he said:
“The problem was that Mark Knopfler was very anti-videos. All he wanted to do was perform, and he thought that videos would destroy the purity of songwriters and performers. They said, “Can you convince him that this is the right thing to do, because we’ve played this song to MTV and they think it’s fantastic but they won’t play it if it’s him standing there playing guitar. They need a concept.”
Barron then flew to Budapest to convince Knopfler of their concept. Meeting together after a gig, Knopfler was reportedly still unimpressed, but this time his girlfriend was present and took a hand. According to Barron:
“Luckily, his girlfriend said, “He’s absolutely right. There aren’t enough interesting videos on MTV, and that sounds like a brilliant idea.” Mark didn’t say anything but he didn’t make the call to get me out of Budapest. We just went ahead and did it.”
Ian Pearson and Gavin Blair created the animation, using a Bosch FGS-4000 CGI system. The animators went on to found computer animation studio Mainframe Entertainment (today Rainmaker Animation), and referenced the “Money for Nothing” video in an episode of their ReBoot series. The video also included stage footage of Dire Straits performing, with partially rotoscoped-animation in bright neon colors, as seen on the record sleeve.
The video was awarded “Video of the Year” at the third annual MTV Video Music Awards in 1986.
Two other music videos are also featured within “Money for Nothing”. A Hungarian pop band Első Emelet and their video “Állj Vagy Lövök” is displaying as “Baby, Baby” by “First Floor”. (The name “első emelet” translates to “first floor”.) Első Emelet was extremely popular at the time in Hungary, although their videos might not have appeared on Music Television. The other is a fictional, supposed MTV video “Sally” by the Ian Pearson Band (Pearson was one of the animators of the video).
Knopfler modeled his guitar sound for the recorded track after ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons’ trademark guitar tone, as ZZ Top’s music videos were already a staple of early MTV. Gibbons later told a Musician magazine interviewer in 1986 that Knopfler had solicited Gibbons on how to replicate the tone, adding, “He didn’t do a half-bad job, considering that I didn’t tell him a thing!” Knopfler’s “not a half-bad job” included his use of a Gibson Les Paul guitar, which he used on a couple of other Brothers in Arms tracks, rather than his usual (at the time) Fender Stratocaster, plugged into a Marshall amplifier. Another factor in trying to recreate the sound was a wah pedal that was turned on, but only rocked to a certain position.
As a footnote, the video for ZZ Top‘s “TV Dinners” from 1983 was also groundbreaking for its combination of animation (specifically claymation) with live footage. A scene in the Dire Straits video, where one of the lead character’s frozen head is defrosted in a carousel microwave oven appears to reference the earlier ZZ Top video as well.
Knopfler performed “Money for Nothing” using his namesake Pensa-Suhr signature MK-1 model with a pair of Soldano SLO-100 tube/valve heads and Marshall cabinets during the Nelson Mandela Tribute and Knebworth Charity shows in 1988 and 1990. These 1988 and 1990 versions were the same as the mid-1980s original recording, except for the addition of scorching guitar solos by Knopfler himself, backed by extended melodic riffs played by Eric Clapton and Phil Palmer. – adapted from Wikipedia