In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In the early ’80s, when cable television was still a new thing, every cable provider didn’t carry every cable channel. Even as MTV was changing the face of pop music in America, the channel struggled to gain a foothold in a landscape that was only just taking shape. So the network hired George Lois, a ’60s-vintage ad man, who came up with a whole new slogan: “I want my MTV!” In ads that ran constantly on the network, the stars of MTV would urge people to call their cable providers and demand their MTV.
As a symbol of the early days of MTV, that catchphrase has proven just as enduring as the network’s moon-man symbol. A whole lot of that is down to “Money For Nothing,” the biggest-ever hit from a British roots-rock guitar wizard who, as far as anyone can tell, really hated MTV, at least until MTV helped make him absurdly rich. “Money For Nothing” was a sort of satirical broadside against MTV that also worked as an advertisement for MTV. It’s complicated. Everything about it is complicated.
Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler was not an MTV star. He was a balding, middle-aged guitar player — exactly the sort of boomer-establishment rock ‘n’ roll insider that MTV was putting out of business in the early ’80s. Before “Money For Nothing,” Knopfler’s band Dire Straits had only scored one American hit, and they’d done it in the last few years before MTV became a concern. I’ve always been curious how much of “Money For Nothing” was sincere and how much was satire. But ultimately, it didn’t matter. The song took off, and it helped define the period after that initial rush of MTV excitement — the time when the corporate rockers reclaimed their spot at the top of the food chain.
Mark Knopfler was born in Scotland, the son of an English woman and a Jewish father who’d fled Hungary just before the Nazis took over. Knopfler was in love with American blues, and he started playing guitar as a kid. As a young man, Knopfler played in a series of bands, but music wasn’t his career. Instead, Knopfler went to college in Leeds and found a job as a newspaper reporter, then as a teacher. In 1977, Knopfler and his brother David formed the Café Racers, the band that would become Dire Straits. At the time, Mark was pushing 30.
Dire Straits got signed in 1978, after going to see a BBC radio DJ to ask for advice. That DJ liked their demo tape enough that he played their drawling, drowsy roots-rock song “Sultans Of Swing” on the air, which brought labels around. Dire Straits’ self-titled debut album took off on both sides of the Atlantic, and “Sultans Of Swing” hit the top 10 in a bunch of different countries. (In the US, “Sultans Of Swing” peaked at #4. It’s a 4.)
After that first LP, Dire Straits cranked out three more albums in quick succession, and all of them sold pretty well, going either platinum or gold in the US. Knopfler found himself accepted by the rock establishment. He produced Bob Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels and wrote Tina Turner’s 1984 single “Private Dancer.” (“Private Dancer” peaked at #7. It’s a 6.) Knopfler also got into film scoring, starting with the pretty great 1983 movie Local Hero. So Knopfler was doing fine. But Dire Straits weren’t really a singles act. In the UK, a couple of the band’s post-“Sultans Of Swing” singles made the top 10. In America, though, they barely charted. You could see why someone like Knopfler might regard MTV as an existential threat.
One day, Knopfler was at a New York appliance store, where a wall of TVs was showing MTV. One of the store’s employees was watching those TVs and talking shit about what he was seeing. As Knopfler saw it, that appliance-store guy had a sort of grudging admiration for the rock stars he saw on that TV. Talking to Rolling Stone after “Money For Nothing” blew up, Knopfler said:
The singer in “Money for Nothing” is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality — somebody 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.
When Knopfler heard that guy talking, he grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper and wrote down everything he was hearing, an impulse that Knopfler has credited to his days as a reporter. Knopfler has said that many of the lines on “Money For Nothing” came verbatim from what he heard in that appliance store. The appliance-store guy never got a songwriting credit. If you’re ever talking shit and you see someone taking note of what you’re saying, pay attention. I wonder if that appliance-store worker ever found out how much money his money-for-nothing rant earned for other people.
But here’s the question: Did Mark Knopfler agree with the appliance store guy? Did he sympathize? I’m not sure. Knopfler has said that “Money For Nothing” is satire, that it’s him writing from the point of view of a character and not his own. He’s said that people take the song too literally, that people smart enough to write about the song should understand that he’s clowning the stupidity of the narrator. But Knopfler also hated music videos. You never saw him with an earring or makeup. There’s a real generational divide between Knopfler and most of the musicians who were benefitting from MTV. Maybe Knopfler had a problem with younger artists who, he might’ve thought, didn’t have to work as hard as he had.
There are a lot of divides at work in “Money For Nothing” — between the appliance-store worker and the people on MTV, but also between the appliance-store worker and Knopfler, and between Knopfler and the people on MTV. There are class divides and generational divides. There might be racial divides, too. (Knopfler has never mentioned the race of the guy working in the appliance store.) And then, of course, there’s the divide caused by the use of one particular word — an anti-gay slur that I don’t really feel like typing out here.
I’ve been wrestling with the idea of how to address this side of the song. Even if you’re just singing in character, that word isn’t really the type of thing that a straight white rocker should play around with. This isn’t a case of 1985 being a different time; plenty of people were mad about the “Money For Nothing” lyrics in the moment. Using that particular lyric, in character or not, is a dick move. (A bunch of early-’00s rap hits that I really like also use that slur, and those ones definitely can’t make the argument that the word’s use is satirical, but I guess I’ll wrestle with those ones when this column gets to them.)
I keep talking about the lyrics because they’re so striking — a huge MTV hit comprised of nothing but a guy complaining about MTV hits. But the lyrics aren’t the only thing striking about “Money For Nothing.” Musically, the track is a pretty amazing example of mid-’80s studio-rock excess. The intro — the falsetto “I want my MTV,” the eerie synth pulses, the shattering drum noises, the way the riff enters the song and kicks everything over — is enough to blow your hair back.
That riff rips. Most of the time, Mark Knopfler was more of a tasteful guiter-hero type — a guy who liked doing flowery and lyrical finger-picked solos. But the “Money For Nothing” riff sounds like a dial-tone coming to life and attempting to eat your face. It’s monstrous, and it kicks ass. I love it, and I love the way Knopfler surrounds it with expensive, discordant synth noises. Production-wise, “Money For Nothing” is grimy and futuristic at the same time, like one of the broken-down spaceships from Star Wars.
Knopfler co-produced “Money For Nothing” and the rest of the Brothers In Arms album with Neil Dorfsman, the engineer who he’d worked with on the Local Hero score. At the time, Knopfler was obsessed with ZZ Top, the baby-boomer blues-rockers who’d somehow figured out how to tap right into the MTV zeitgeist. ZZ Top were sillier than Dire Straits, and they had a more indelible image, but they also figured out a way to convey processed grit with their ’80s guitar sound. ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons has said that Knopfler once called him up to ask him how he got that guitar tone. Gibbons didn’t tell Knopfler anything, but Knopfler figured it out anyway. That dog-howling bit late in the track is a total ZZ Top move, too. (ZZ Top’s two highest-charting singles, 1984’s “Legs” and 1985’s “Sleeping Bag,” both peaked at #8. “Legs” is a 8, and “Sleeping Bag” is a 7.)
Dire Straits recorded the Brothers In Arms album on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. While they were recording, Sting was on vacation, windsurfing on the island. He came to the studio and had dinner with Dire Straits, and they played him “Money For Nothing.” Sting loved it, and he jumped into the booth to sing backing vocals. Sting’s a great addition to the track. He sings the high-falsetto “I want my MTV” intro, and his more melodic voice makes a great counterpoint to Knofler’s in-character shit-talk.
Sting recorded his vocal in about an hour, and he ended up getting songwriting credit on the song. When he sang the “I want my MTV” bit, he did it to the tune of the Police’s 1980 single “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” (“Don’t Stand So Close To Me” peaked at #10. It’s a 6.) Sting later told Dire Straits that he didn’t actually want songwriting credit but that his label insisted on it. You might even say that Sting got his money for nothing. In any case, there was no beef. Sting sang the song with Dire Straits at Live Aid in London. (As a solo artist, Sting will eventually appear in this column.)
The people at Warner Bros. thought MTV might be upset about “Money For Nothing,” but MTV loved the song and wanted a video. Knopfler had to be talked into making one. Steve Barron, the early-MTV titan who’d already done the clips for hits like the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” wanted to use new computer-animation toys, and he convinced Knopfler that it could work. A few years ago, Rob Tannenbaum and my former boss Craig Marks wrote an early-MTV oral history book called I Want My MTV — there’s that catchphrase again — and they got Steve Barron talking about the video’s intent:
The song is so 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, and they needed some waking up. And MTV went nuts for it. It was like a big advertisement for them.
In the same book, Adam Ant complains about the “Money For Nothing” video, saying that it changed the MTV landscape. Dire Straits were a visually boring band, but they had the budget for computer animation. If an act had enough money, then, they could get away without putting much work into their performance. They could get over on flash. I don’t know if that’s true or not; visual flash was always important to music videos, regardless of budget. But it’s true that MTV went nuts for “Money For Nothing,” ironic or not. When MTV Europe launched, “Money For Nothing” was the first video it aired. (Adam Ant’s highest-charting US single, 1982’s “Goody Two Shoes,” peaked at #12.)
The computer animation in the “Money For Nothing” video is one of those things that was cutting-edge at the time and now looks like absolute dogshit. Even the cartoonish visual gags don’t really play anymore. (The two animators who created those characters later founded a studio called Mainframe Studios, and they produced the ’90s TV cartoons ReBoot and Beast Wars: Transformers. These days, the studio works on The Octonauts and Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures.) I think the rotoscoped neon scenes of the band playing have aged a lot better that the animation. The image of Knopfler’s guitar and hands floating in a black void were instantly iconic — exactly the kinds of things that could entrance any little kid who saw them.
Whether or not they wanted to make videos, Dire Straits were into flash and technology. They recorded Brothers In Arms digitally, and its chilly, airless sound pointed towards a new way forward in the music industry. The compact disc format was still young, but Dire Straits took advantage, putting longer edits of the songs on the CD and making it too long to fit a single LP. If you bought Brothers In Arms, you got more music. The gambit worked. Brothers In Arms was the first album ever to sell a million CDs, and the record’s success probably had something to do with getting the public to accept the format.
Brothers In Arms was a huge record. It sold nine million copies in the US and dominated charts around the globe. “Walk Of Life,” the band’s next single, made it to #7 in the US. (It’s a 7.) Dire Straits became big enough that Knopfler got uncomfortable with the whole thing. In 1987, Knopfler took time off from the band and did the score for The Princess Bride, which slaps. Dire Straits basically went on hiatus for the next few years, and when they got back together for the 1991 album On Every Street, their moment passed. On Every Street sold a lot of copies, but it didn’t do anywhere near Brothers In Arms levels of business, and none of its singles got near the top 10.
In 1995, Knopfler ended Dire Straits, and he went on to release a bunch of not-terribly-successful solo records. He’d already made a ton of money, so he pursued passion projects, like his love of American country music. He formed a band called the Notting Hillbillies and made records with Chet Atkins and Emmylou Harris. When Dire Straits were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame a couple of years ago, Knopfler skipped the ceremony. Maybe he’d had enough of being on TV.
BONUS BEATS: In 1989, “Weird Al” Yankovic made UHF, an extremely unsuccessful movie that I watched many times as a child. There’s a bit where the movie completely stops so that Yankovic can do his “Money For Nothing” parody “Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies.” Knopfler played guitar on it. This was Knopfler’s demand; he would only agree to allow the parody if he could play on it. Here’s Yankovic’s version:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the extra-grimy “Money For Nothing” cover that Royal Trux released as a 1998 B-side:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Waka Flocka Flame and French Montana sampling the “Money For Nothing” intro on their 2011 mixtape track “Promise”:
(Waka Flocka Flame’s highest-charting single, the 2010 Wale/Roscoe Dash collab “No Hands,” peaked at #13. French Montana’s highest-charting single is the 2017 Swae Lee collab “Unforgettable,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In its opening shots, Matthew Vaughn’s 2015 film Kingsman: The Secret Service made some pretty amazing use of the “Money For Nothing” intro. Here’s that bit of filmmaking:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2015 episode of Empire where Hakeem and Jamal Lyon perform a perfectly ridiculous version of “Money For Nothing” in a nightclub: