Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music and musicians from the 60’s to today. Enjoy the trip!
“Money for Nothing” is a song by British rock band Dire Straits, the second track on their fifth studio album, Brothers in Arms (1985).
This song is about rock star excess and the easy life it brings compared with real work. Mark Knopfler wrote it after overhearing delivery men in a New York department store complain about their jobs while watching MTV. He wrote the song in the store sitting at a kitchen display they had set up. Many of the lyrics were things they actually said.
Sting sings on this and helped write it (he and Knopfler are the credited writers). That’s him at the beginning singing “I want my MTV.” Sting did not want a songwriting credit, but his record company did because they would have earned royalties from it. They claimed it sounded very similar to a song Sting wrote for The Police: “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”
Dire Straits recorded this in Montserrat. Sting was on vacation there and came by to help out.
The innovative video was one of the first to feature computer generated animation, which was done using an early program called Paintbox. The characters were supposed to have more detail, like buttons on their shirts, but they used up the budget and had to leave it as is. It won Best Video at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards.The video was directed by Steve Barron, who also directed the famous a-ha video for “Take On Me” and Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.”
In the book I Want My MTV, various people who worked at the network explain that Dire Straits’ manager asked the network what they could do to get on the network and break through in America. Their answer was: write a hit song and let one of the top directors make a video. Mark Knopfler took the directive to write an “MTVable song” quite literally, using the network’s tagline in the lyrics. The song ended up sounding like an indictment of MTV, but Les Garland, who ran the network, made it clear that they loved the song and were flattered by it – hearing “I Want My MTV” on the radio was fantastic publicity even if there were some unfavorable implications in the lyrics.Steve Barron was dispatched to do the video, and charged with the task of convincing Mark Knopfler, who hated videos, to do one that was groundbreaking. Barron says that Knopfler wasn’t into the idea, but his girlfriend – an American – was at the pitch and loved the idea. Knopfler agreed (in part because he didn’t have to appear in it), and Barron hired a UK production company called Rushes to work on it. Said Barron: “The song is damning to MTV in a way. That was an ironic video. The 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.”
Twenty-five years after the song’s release it was banned from public broadcast in Canada after one person complained about it being homophobic. The original version included a description of a singer as “that little faggot with the earring and the make-up” plus two other uses of the word “faggot,” although a cleaned-up edition was made available, Oz-FM in Newfoundland played the first edition in February 2010 at 9:15 at night. The result was a single complaint and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled that the unedited version of the song was unacceptable for air play on Canadian radio stations because it “refers to sexual orientation in a derogatory way.”Knopfler has pointed out the song was written from the viewpoint of a stupid character who thinks musicians make their “money for nothing” and his stupidity is what leads him to make ignorant statements. Speaking in late 1985 to Rolling Stone the Dire Straits songwriter expressed his feelings about people who react angrily to the song. He said: “Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you have to be direct. I’m in two minds as to whether it’s a good idea to take on characters and write songs that aren’t in the first person.”Common sense finally prevailed on August 31, 2011 when the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council put an end to the ban and allowed individual radio stations to once again decide for themselves whether to play the classic rock tune.