September 21 – Not Nothing, But Lots Of Money From It

It was working…it’s way up the charts. And it hit its peak 35 years ago. Dire Straits‘ great “Money for Nothing” hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1985. It was the second single off their groundbreaking Brothers in Arms album that would quickly lift them from the ranks of moderately popular bands to the elite rarified air of the superstars of the music world.

Like the band’s previous big hit, “Sultans of Swing”, “Money for Nothing” came about simply from Mark Knopfler paying attention to his surroundings. The former was a close to real life recounting of him walking into a bar with a second-rate band on a rainy night; this hit was born when he was in the States in a big box store. He recalls that they had a wall of TVs, all tuned to MTV. “A guy (employee) in a baseball cap, plaid shirt and workboots” was unloading boxes, watching the videos and was complaining to his co-worker with phrases like “he’s banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee” and “that’s not working – play the guitar on your MTV!”. Knopfler knew he was onto something and the song began to take shape in his mind. “I borrowed a piece of paper and started to write” before he left the store.

The band was in Monserrat recording the album; Knopfler decided to imitate ZZ Top in the guitar sounds since ZZ Top at the time were at the top of the MTV game and probably one of the bands that store clerk was referring to. Billy Gibbons of the Texas band says of the Dire Straits sound on the song”he didn’t do a half bad job considering I didn’t tell him anything.” The coup de grace of the song happened coincidentally. While they were recording there, Sting was nearby, finishing up his Dream of the Blue Turtles album and relaxing in the waters. He dropped by the studio to visit.

Sting remembers listening to the demo of the song and telling Mark “you’ve done it this time, you bastard!”. They both laughed but Sting felt it could use a little something extra. He suggested the “I want my MTV” catchphrase, and sang it in a falsetto, eventually becoming one of the song’s most distinctive features and getting a co-writing credit for it!

The song was a long one the way the band meant it to be heard, 8:22 in fact. That’s the full-length version that appears on the CD (Brothers in Arms was recorded digitally and among the first albums actually designed to be a CD ), but to manage to fit the album onto an LP, it was shortened, as were a couple more songs. Vinyl purchasers got a seven minute version, while it was edited down more for the 7” single (4:38”) and video.

Speaking of the video…what a video! While perhaps looking a little kitschy or primitive by today’s standards, at the time it was a ground-breaking one using pixelated computer-animation of the little workmen installing microwaves and so forth. It won the Video of the Year at the MTV Awards, but almost didn’t happen. Knopfler wasn’t a fan of the concept of music videos and found it a bit hypocritical perhaps to have a song which lampoons the people staring at them publicized by one. However, Warner Bros. were rather adamant that it needed one and eventually Knopfler’s girlfriend won him over to the idea.

The song would go on to spend three weeks at #1 in the U.S., dethroning another of the decade’s biggies “St. Elmo’s Fire” from the top. It became the band’s biggest hit, also rising to the top in Britain, Canada, Australia and most other “Western” markets, helped along not only by the video but by a stellar performance on the biggest stage of the year, Live Aid, just a few weeks earlier. And along with songs like “So Far Away” and the title track, it helped Brothers in Arms top 30 million in sales and become the biggest record of the ’80s in their UK. Of course, that success didn’t come without a little controversy.

Among the lyrics, Knopfler twice refers to “that little faggot” (“with the earring and the makeup…he’s a millionaire.”) This of course was pretty much another direct quote of what he’d heard the store employee saying. “The guy is a real ignoramus. Hard-hat mentality,” the singer explained, noting the worker “has a grudging respect for the rock stars…he sees it in terms of ‘well he’s not working and yet the guy’s rich. That’s a good scam.” But rather than seeing it as a knock on such closed-minded thinking or a simple representation of a common way of thinking back then, critics piled on. First, they objected strenuously to the word itself, thinking it taboo and insulting. Secondly, they didn’t detect the fact that the singer was talking about guys who “install microwave ovens” and “move these refrigerators” and rather was describing his own feelings towards other musicians, and gays as well. Letters of complaint started pouring in to the band, the record label and radio stations almost as soon as it came out.

The problem was somewhat nullified by the edits; the 7” and most radio edits simply cut out the offending phrase (as well as many other things) to shorten it to a more “radio-friendly” length. However, some rock stations played the full version, and in 2011, the division of the Canadian government which regulates broadcasters banned the album version saying “faggot is one word even if entirely or marginally acceptible in earlier days is no longer so.” Most stations began playing the 7” version or digitizing the offending word out, but at least two stations played the full, unedited version for an hour straight to protest. Later in the year, the agency reversed itself, still saying it was inappropriate and should be avoided but leaving it up to the individual broadcasters to decide.

Being a little bit controversial didn’t seem to offput the oft-Conservative Grammy Awards; they gave the song the award for Best Rock Performance by a Group or Duo the next year.

19 thoughts on “September 21 – Not Nothing, But Lots Of Money From It

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    I haven’t seen that live version in years…that was great. I like it better live…it came to life again for me…because of so many hearings. Do you remember it getting banned for a while in Canada when it happened? I just read about it for a post I did…I knew nothing of that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, there were some outstanding performances that day besides just Queen everyone remembers.
      I remember the song being controversial but didn’ t recall the actual ban…most stations played the single anyways. I always prefered the long version (as I do with most songs…the short radio edit of ‘Sledgehammer’ still sounds jarringly wrong everytime I hear it.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        I do like the long versions also…that is the way the artist wanted us to hear it. I don’t see the big deal after Stairway to Heaven and other songs.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah…and how many DJs used to “live” for songs like “Stairway to Heaven” or “Layla” so they could get to the bathroom or outside for a quick smoke?

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  2. This is one of those songs that benefits from someone else (Sting) adding a dash of spice to the mix that lifts/adds/ contrasts it, just giving it a contrasting tone. Right person, right time; And I’m no massive Sting fan!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. yep, I guess a combination of factors, some burnout involved and a clash of egos too from what I’ve read. Pressure on a band to follow that up must be immense and perhaps the best reaction, for some, is to walk away. But, bet they would have sold a good few million more with anything that they did had they put out an album around ’87.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. hanspostcard

        Good points- it’s always easy sitting in the rocking chair and saying this or that….I have a friend who says if The Beatles had stayed together they would have stayed on top forever-but there were of course many factors leading to the break up– human factors.

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      3. the vast world of the hypothetical… if the Beatles had stayed together, well, it’s easy to say they would have put out ‘Imagine’, “Band on the Run’, “Photograph”, “My Sweet Lord” etc etc, and they all would have been a wee bit better with input from the others and would’ve been the top band of the 70s (after ’80,who knows, I mean theoretically John might not have been in NY in ’80 so who can say where they would have gone) , but the ’80s output wasn’t that spectacular. My guess is they wouldn’t have done as much together in the ’70s as they did individually and quite frankly might have had a public rebuke of sorts when disco came along, could have been a “enough with these old guys already” type response. But , who can say? Elvis might have had a career resurgence in the ’80s and ’90s too…but we’ll never know.

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      4. hanspostcard

        With The Beatles-How would George have been satisfied? Certainly not with 2 cuts an album- John and Paul would have to give up something- and they were both used to having their way running things. I think you are right they did better apart in the 70’s than they would have done together.

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