Although the song “Sultans of Swing” might have introduced the world to Mark Knopfler’s band Dire Straits back in the late 1970s, it was a cynical little song about music videos that captivated the world back in 1985 and shot their “Brothers in Arms” album into the musical sales stratosphere. The song was called “Money for Nothing.”
In a 1985 interview for Musician Magazine, Knopfler explains the genesis of the tune: “The lead character…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.” The line “money for nothing, and your chicks for free” ultimately became part of 1980s pop culture history.
Sting, who takes writing credit on the song, was only responsible for the “I want my MTV” line in the song – which was sung somewhat to the tune of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” Sting happened to be in Montserrat during the recording of the song, and that’s why he appeared. He also joined Dire Straits on stage in London during Live Aid in July 1985, and the live performance of the song is widely credited for the huge worldwide success of the song several months later and the international multi-platinum sales of the “Brothers in Arms” CD.
Another possible reason for the song’s success was the adoption of the groundbreaking video (one of the first to utilize computer animation) in “heavy rotation” status on MTV in the U.S. It later became the first music video played on MTV Europe in 1987.
Although deemed by some to be offensive for some of the language used, and subsequently edited for airplay, Knopfler was adamant that the song was written and sung in character, and in no way reflected his personal feelings. In a 1985 Rolling Stone interview, Knopfler said, “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.” It was a small controversy, and didn’t take away from the song’s amazing popularity. It hit the top spot on the Billboard Charts in September 1985, and went on to win awards for Knopfler and the band at the Grammy’s, the Brits, and the MTV Music Awards.
“Money for Nothing” trivia:
– Knopfler allegedly adapted his line “with the earring and the tutu,” when Jack Sonni, his rhythm guitarist at the time, suggested substituting the word makeup for tutu.
– Terry Williams, Dire Straits drummer, is not the only drummer recorded on this particular track. Famed session musician Omar Hakim, who has performed with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Weather Report, and many many others, also provided some of the percussion work.
– In an article in Mix Magazine, engineer Neil Dorfsman recalls that Knopfler now-famous guitar riff was accomplished using a “Les Paul Junior through a Kelly amp miked with two Shure SM57s, one close and the other ‘in that weird spot, like seven inches back and pointing to the side.'”
– In 1989, “Weird Al” Yankovic recorded his own version of the song by blending Knopfler’s music with the lyrics from the Beverly Hillbillies television show theme tune. Knopfler allowed the parody as long as he was able to perform the guitar solos, which he did. The video can be seen in the feature film UHF.