I have a confession to make.
When I was a young boy growing up in rural Virginia, my family, like all of our neighbors, got only three televisions stations: Channel 7 (CBS), Channel 10 (NBC) and Channel 13 (ABC.) Sometimes, when the weather was just right, we could also make out the sound, and at least some of the picture, of a fourth channel, Channel 15, the UHF PBS station. Cable television had not yet come to our community, and would not until 1986.
No cable, of course, meant no MTV. This effectively meant that I missed the most important years of Music Television, and was deprived of seeing hundreds of videos that children across the rest of America were seeing. When I heard a song by an unfamiliar band on the radio, I had to imagine what the singer looked like, and quite often I was wrong. I had no idea, for example, that Boy George looked like that, until a year after “Karma Chameleon” came out.
Not that I was completely deprived of music videos. There were a few times during my junior high school music classes that we would research popular culture by watching the movie Purple Rain, or the extra-long version of the “Thriller” video. Why we got that treat, I don’t know. It was kind of a stretch to call it educational, but it was certainly “research” that I enjoyed.
But MTV was still in the realm of those things that junior high school boys hoped one day to have, but for the time being were forced to talk with their friends about how cool it would be, and what it would probably be like. There were, of course, the handful of boys from the city, who bragged about having it, and how awesome it was, and we, the deprived, listened in rapt attention as they described the details.
I Want My MTV
And then, one day in 1985, while visiting a friend in a bigger city, I got to see my first, real, honest-to-God video on MTV. Before I could see a video, though, there was the music news segment, which I patiently sat through, and then some commercials. And then it was time. After the last commercial faded to black, the experience I’d waited years for finally came to fruition: I was watching my first video on MTV.
The video? “Money for Nothing,” by Dire Straits.
I can’t tell you how badly seeing that particular video as my first-ever MTV experience warped my perspective on music videos. If you recall, this was the partially-animated videos-within-a-video story about movin’ these refrigerators and color TVs, complete with fake (which I didn’t know at the time) videos by fictional artists.
I was absolutely mesmerized as I watched it. And completely tricked into thinking that, in order to get your video played on MTV, you had to heavily promote MTV itself, and show clips from other bands.
This was something akin to “Pulp Fiction” being the very first movie you ever saw.
After Dire Straits was done, I was called away from the television and did not get the chance to see a second video that day. It was not until the following year, when the coveted cable line finally reached my house, that I was disabused of the notion that all videos were like “Money for Nothing.” It took several hours of MTV viewing, but I eventually was convinced that “Money for Nothing” was very much an exception to the average video shown on MTV.
That ain’t workin’
As the story goes, Dire Straits singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Knopfler was in an electronics store when he heard an employee mocking the pretty boys on MTV who were getting money for, well, nothing. Bemused by the man’s rant, Knopfler started making notes of the comments, which eventually formed the bulk of the lyrics to “Money for Nothing.”
As the band prepared to record the song, a call was placed to Sting to see if he would consider adding a send-up of his “I want my MTV!” spots to the record. Sting obliged, and added to the song his rendition of those the famous words, sung to the tune of The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” He also contributed backing vocals in other spots of the song (so many, in fact, that there are several spots on the record where Sting is singing, overdubbed, on top of Sting, while the only sounds Knopfler makes are with his guitar.)
There was a catch, however: since those six syllables would be sung to the tune of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” written by Sting, Sting’s publishing company insisted that he share writing credits on “Money for Nothing.” (Dire Straits complied.)
Released as the first single from their 1985 album Brothers In Arms, “Money for Nothing” made a huge splash through strong airplay on the radio, earning Dire Straits their first (and, to date, only) number one hit, as well as through their (I now realize) unique music video. The single boosted the band’s profile, helping sales of their follow-up singles, “Walk of Life” and “So Far Away,” both of which reached the Top 40.
A single edit was released that excised the problematic second verse and its references to the fella with the earring and the makeup (and his own jet airplane.) The edit trimmed the track time down from the eight-plus minutes on the album to just a little over four. Knopfler eventually found many ways of paraphrasing the second verse when performing the song live.
On the heels of the success of the album and its singles, Brothers In Arms was nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy, but lost to Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required, which, interestingly, also had a guest appearance by Sting (as backup vocalist on “Take Me Home.”) Sting, a very prolific singer that year, was also a nominee in his own right, with his debut solo album, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles.
And in 1987, MTV Europe selected “Money For Nothing” as the debut video for its August launch, six years after the original MTV debuted with The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star.”
Hopefully, the Europeans stuck around to see the second video as well.
Dire Straits - Money for Nothing Chart position: #1 (3 weeks) Chart debut: 08/10/1985 Song Length: 4:06 Written by: Mark Knopfler, Sting From the album: Brothers In Arms
Originally published August 30, 2002. Last updated February 3, 2023.
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