Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits’ fifth album, was released in 1985. The album charted at number one worldwide, spending ten weeks at number one in the UK and nine weeks at the top spot in the US and thirty-four weeks at number one in Australia. It became the eighth best-selling album in UK chart history, is certified nine times platinum in the US and is one of the world’s best selling albums, having sold over thirty million copies worldwide. It was also one of the first albums to be released in the CD format. Following the release of opening track So Far Away as the first single just prior to the album’s release, the second single was one of Dire Straits’ most recognisable, famous and enduring songs, Money for Nothing.
Money for Nothing is notable for several reasons: Its controversial lyrics, groundbreaking video and cameo appearance by Sting, who sings the song’s falsetto introduction and backing chorus, “I want my MTV”. The single’s accompanying video was also the first to be aired on MTV Europe when the network started on the 1st August 1987. The single was one of the band’s most successful, staying at the top spot in the US for three weeks and peaking at number four on the UK charts. Money for Nothing went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1986 at the 28th Grammy Awards.
The lyrics of Money for Nothing are written from the point of view of a working class man working in a hardware store who is watching music videos on MTV and commenting on what he sees. Singer, guitarist and songwriter explained the song’s meaning in a 1984 interview with critic Bill Flanagan, saying:
“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 the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real …”
In a 2000 interview with Michael Parkinson on his television programme, Parkinson, Knopfler explained the origin of the lyrics again, saying that he was in New York and stopped by an appliance store. At the back of the store, they had a wall of TVs which were all showing MTV. Knopfler continued to explain how there was a man working there dressed in a baseball cap, work boots, and a checkered shirt delivering boxes who was standing next to him watching. As they were standing there watching MTV, Knophler remembers the man coming up with lines such as “what are those, Hawaiian noises? … that ain’t working” and so on. Knopfler asked for a pen to write down some of the lines to eventually put them to music.
The character in the song, speaking in the first person, refers to a musician that he sees on the screen “Banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee” and a woman “Stickin’ in the camera, man we could have some fun”. He moans about how the artists that he sees get “money for nothing and chicks for free” and describes a singer as “that little faggot with the earring and the make up” and moans about how the artists that he sees get “money for nothing and chicks for free”.
In an interview with Blender magazine in 2007, Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx claimed that the song was written about his band, saying: ““Money for nothing and the chicks for free … that little faggot got his own jet airplane”. They were in a store that sells televisions, and there was a row of TVs all playing Motley Crue – and that’s where it came from. Isn’t that great?”
The lyrics in the song’s second verse, “See that little faggot with the earring and the makeup, Yeah buddy that’s his own hair, That little faggot got his own jet airplane, that little faggot he’s a millionaire” sparked much controversy, with several publications deeming them to be homophobic. In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Knopfler said of the criticism:
“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 too 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. The singer in Money for Nothing is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality – someone who sees everything in financial terms. I mean, this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars. He sees it in terms of, well, that’s not working and yet the guy’s rich: that’s a good scam. He isn’t sneering”.
The songwriting credits for Money for Nothing are shared between Knopfler and Sting. Whilst Dire Straits were recording the song in Montserrat, Sting was also visiting the city and Knopfler invited him to add some background vocals. Sting has said that his only writing contribution to Money for Nothing was the line “I want my MTV”, which follows the melody from The Police’s song, Don’t Stand So Close to Me (Zenyatta Mondatta, 1980).
In terms of the song’s music, Knopfler modelled his guitar sound for the distinctive riff after ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons’ trademark guitar tone, much due to the fact that ZZ Top’s music videos were very popular on MTV. In an interview with Musician magazine in 1986, Gibbons stated that Knopfler had asked for his help in creating the right guitar sound for the track, but also said, “He didn’t do a half-bad job, considering I didn’t tell him a thing!”
The video for Money for Nothing, directed by Steve Barron, who also directed the videos for A-Ha’s Take On Me (Hunting High and Low, 1985) …
… and Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded Me With Science (The Golden Age of Wireless, 1982), was seen as highly innovate at the time.
The video was the one of the first to feature computer generated animation by means of the early program, Paintbox. Apparently, the characters in the video were supposed to have more detail, such as buttons on their shirts, but the project went over budget. The video won the award for Best Video at the MTV Music Awards in 1986.
In the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (2011), it is explained by various people who worked at the network that Dire Straits’ manager Ed Bicknell asked MTV what they could do to get on the network and break America. MTV’s answer was, for them to write a hit song and have a top director make a video. In a 2011 interview with Culturebrats, Barron said of the video:
“The song is damning to MTV in a way. That was an iconic video. Te characters we created were made of televisions, and they were slagging off television. Videos were getting a bit boring, they needed some waking up. And MTV went nuts for it. It was like a big advertisement for them”.