How ZZ Top and MTV Inspired Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’
Dire Straits were already hugely successful by the mid-'80s, yet the single “Money for Nothing” elevated the band into the upper level of rock stardom. Credit for the song’s popularity can be partly attributed to another classic-rock group, ZZ Top.
Dire Straits’ manager had approached MTV, asking what his clients would need to do to receive more airtime. The response was simple: Write a hit song and enlist a top director to helm the video.
The network’s advice marinated in frontman Mark Knopfler’s brain. Hits weren’t a problem for Dire Straits. “Sultans of Swing,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Private Investigations” had all reached the Top 10 in their native U.K., though the response in the U.S. had been a little more tepid. Dire Straits had been slow, however, in embracing MTV.
“Mark Knopfler didn’t like doing videos,” noted music-video director Steve Barron in the book I Want My MTV. “Dire Straits had done them before, but they showed the band playing, and Dire Straits weren’t all that interesting.”
Determined to write an MTV-friendly hit, Knopfler looked to duplicate the sound of ZZ Top, one of the network’s new rock staples.
They'd become MTV mainstays thanks to memorable clips for “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs,” each of them featuring distinctive guitar parts. Knopfler attempted to emulate the sound for his new track.
"The tune originally began with the guitar riff,” producer Neil Dorfsman told Sound on Sound, admitting that the band was “going for a sort of ZZ Top sound.” Still, the “Money for Nothing” guitar part ended up taking on its own life by accident.
"One mic was pointing down at the floor, another was not quite on the speaker, another was somewhere else,” Dorfsman recalled. “It wasn't how I would want to set things up. It was probably just left from the night before, when I'd been preparing things for the next day and had not really finished the setup. Nevertheless, whether it was the phase of the mics or the out-of-phaseness, what we heard was exactly what ended up on the record. There was no additional processing on that tune during the mix.”
Dorfsman loved the guitar sound so much, he suggested Knopfler embrace more solos. “He wasn't into that idea,” Dorfsman revealed. “I remember him asking ‘Do you mean like a rock guy?’ I think he's one of the greatest soloists ever, so I really wanted to hear more of that. He'd kept saying ‘ZZ Top, ZZ Top,’ and in my mind I imagined that we hadn't nailed the part he was after on the basic track.”
Watch Dire Straits' Video for 'Money for Nothing'
It turns out, Dire Straits went directly to the source: Billy Gibbons later revealed that Knopfler asked him for advice on replicating the ZZ Top guitar sound. “He didn’t do a half-bad job, considering that I didn’t tell him a thing!” Gibbons joked in a 1986 interview with Musician magazine.
For lyrics, Knopfler decided to assume the perspective of a blue-collar worker. The words were inspired by an actual appliance-outlet employee who was making off-color remarks while staring at a wall of televisions playing MTV.
“I wrote the song when I was actually in the store,” Knopfler told Bill Flanagan in the book Written in My Soul. “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. It just went better with the song; it was more muscular.”
Which video the store employee happened to be watching was never revealed, but Nikki Sixx believes it was his band. “Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ was about Motley Crue,” he told Blender magazine in 2007. “‘Money for nothing and the chicks for free … that little faggot got his own jet airplane.’ They were in a store that sells televisions, and there was a row of TVs all playing Motley Crue — and that’s where it came from.”
Knopfler decided to drive home the MTV-ness of his song by incorporating the network’s jingle into its lyrics. For the part, he recruited his friend Sting.
“Mark asked him to sing on ‘Money for Nothing,’ lifting the tune from ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me,’” Dorfsman recalled. “I knew Mark had already written the line ‘I want my MTV,’ but I wasn't sure if he had the melody of ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ in mind. It was one of those things where Sting just sort of did it in three passes, I comped the thing, and then I walked around thinking ‘There’s something amazing about this.’ It was done in about an hour.”
Released in June 1985, “Money for Nothing” quickly became Dire Straits most commercially successful single, hitting No. 1 in the U.S. on Sept. 21. True to its intention, the song earned heavy rotation on MTV, though it took some convincing to get Knopfler to sign off on its distinctive video.
“I really wanted to use a new computer animation technology called Paintbox," Barron later explained. "Mark and his girlfriend and I had dinner together, I’m trying to broach the idea that MTV should be shaken up a bit. I can see he’s going to say no. And luckily his girlfriend, who was from the states, said: ‘Wow, you’re so right about that. That’s exactly what MTV needs.’”
Buoyed by the popularity of “Money for Nothing,” Dire Straits’ 1985 LP Brothers in Arms would go on to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. The song’s accompanying clip also won Video of the Year at the third MTV Video Music Awards.
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