“Money for Nothing” is a single by British rock band Dire Straits, taken from their 1985 studio album Brothers in Arms. The song’s lyrics are written from the point of view of two working-class men watching music videos and commenting on what they see. The song features a guest appearance by Sting singing background vocals, providing both the signature falsetto introduction and the backing chorus of “I want my MTV.” The groundbreaking video was the first to be aired on MTV Europe when the network launched on 1 August 1987.
It was Dire Straits’ most commercially successful single, peaking at number 1 for three weeks in the United States, number 1 for three weeks on the US Top Rock Tracks chart and number 4 in the band’s native UK. “Money for Nothing” won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1986 at the 28th Annual Grammy Awards and the video won Video of the Year at the 3rd MTV Video Music Awards.
Knopfler modeled his guitar sound on the recorded track after ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons’ trademark guitar tone, as ZZ Top’s music videos were already a staple of early MTV. Gibbons later told a Musician magazine interviewer in 1986 that Knopfler had solicited Gibbons’ help in replicating the tone, adding, “He didn’t do a half-bad job, considering that I didn’t tell him a thing!” Knopfler duplicated Gibbons’ use of a Gibson Les Paul guitar (rather than his usual Fender Stratocaster), which he plugged into a Marshall amplifier. Another factor in trying to recreate the sound was a wah-wah pedal that was turned on but only rocked to a certain position. The specific guitar sound in the song was made with a Gibson Les Paul going through a Laney amplifier, with the sound colored by the accidental position of two Shure SM57 microphones without any processing during the mix. Following the initial sessions in Montserrat, at which that particular guitar part was recorded, Neil Dorfsman attempted to recreate the sound during subsequent sessions at the Power Station in New York but was unsuccessful in doing so. (Knopfler also chose to use the Les Paul on a couple of other Brothers in Arms tracks.)
The recording contains a very recognizable hook, in the form of the guitar riff that begins the song proper. The guitar riff continues throughout the song, played in permutation during the verses, and played in full after each chorus. The song’s extended overture was shortened for radio and music video.
The lyrics for the song have been criticised as being homophobic.
In a late 1985 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Knopfler expressed mixed feelings on the controversy:
I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London – he actually said it was below the belt. Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you can’t let it have so many meanings – you have to be direct. In fact, I’m still in two minds as to whether it’s a good idea to write songs that aren’t in the first person, to take on other characters. 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.
Dire Straits often performed the song in live concerts and when on tour, where the second verse was included but usually altered slightly. For the band’s 10 July 1985 concert (televised in the United Kingdom on The Tube on Channel 4 in January 1986), Knopfler replaced the word faggot with Queenie (in this context also a term that implies homosexuality):
“See the little Queenie got the earring and the make-up” and “That little Queenie got his own jet airplane, he’s got a helicopter, he’s a millionaire.”
Rolling Stone listed the song as the 94th greatest guitar song of all time, noting how Mark Knopfler “traded his pristine, rootsy tone for a dry, over-processed sound achieved by running a Les Paul through a wah-wah pedal on a track that became one of the [MTV] network’s earliest hits.” The video was awarded “Video of the Year” (among many other nominations) at the third annual MTV Video Music Awards in 1986.
When Dire Straits performed “Money for Nothing” at the 1985 Live Aid Concert at Wembley Stadium, the performance featured a guest appearance by Sting. Knopfler performed “Money for Nothing” using his Pensa-Suhr signature MK-1 model guitar with a pair of Soldano SLO-100 tube/valve amplifier heads and Marshall speaker cabinets during the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute and the Prince’s Trust concerts in 1986 with Sting, as well as the Nordoff-Robbins charity show at Knebworth in 1990 and the On Every Street world tours in 1991/1992. These versions featured extended guitar solos by Knopfler, backed by Eric Clapton and Phil Palmer.