“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, considered controversial at the time of the song’s release, are written from the point of view of a working-class man watching music videos and commenting on what he sees. The song featured a guest appearance by Sting singing background vocals, providing both the signature falsetto introduction and 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 a 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 coloured 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 recognisable hook, in the form of the guitar riff that begins the song proper. (The song is also notable for its extended overture, which was shortened for radio and music video.) The guitar riff continues throughout the song, played in permutation during the verses, and played in full after each chorus.
Mark Knopfler described the writing of the song in a 1984 interview with critic Bill Flanagan:
The lead character in “Money for Nothing” is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television/custom kitchen/refrigerator/microwave appliance store. He’s singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. 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….
The first-person narrating character in the lyrics refers to a musician “banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee” and a woman “stickin’ in the camera, man we could have some fun”. He describes a singer as “that little faggot with the earring and the make-up”, and bemoans that these artists get “money for nothing and chicks for free”.
In 2000, Knopfler appeared on Michael Parkinson’s interview program and explained again where the lyrics originated. According to Knopfler, he was in New York and stopped by an appliance store. At the back of the store, they had a wall of TVs which were all tuned to MTV. Knopfler said there was a man working there dressed in a baseball cap, work boots, and a checkered shirt delivering boxes who was standing next to him watching. As they were standing there watching MTV, Knopfler remembers the man coming up with lines such as “what are those, Hawaiian noises?…that ain’t workin’,” etc. Knopfler asked for a pen to write some of these lines down and then eventually put those words to music.
Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, in misinterpreting the lyrics as coming directly from Dire Straits rather than a character based on a store employee, claimed that the song was about his band, and that the members of Dire Straits were in an electronics store where a row of TVs were all playing Mötley Crüe.
The songwriting credits are shared between Mark Knopfler and Sting. Sting was visiting Montserrat during the recording of the song, and was invited to add some background vocals. Sting has stated that his only compositional contribution was the “I want my MTV” line, which followed the melody from his song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”.