The summer of 1985. Has it really been 25 years since those halcyon days of rubber band bracelets and Pespi Free? A quarter of a century sure flies by.
At that point MTV had been around for four years and had seen its share of japes and parodies, but 1985 seems to mark the moment when music video officially became self-referential. Every time you turned on the channel there was someone demonstrating the ridiculousness of the medium while simultaneously glorying in it (and reaping hefty profits from video’s boost to record sales).
In JUST A GIGOLO, David Lee Roth crashed the “sets” of popular music videos, electrocuting a Billy Idol lookalike and wrestling with Cyndi Lauper’s double. Phil Collins’ DON’T LOSE MY NUMBER clip featured the singer in a variety of familiar video roles – he’s Elton John at the beach, Sting in high-contrast black and white, and Rik Ocasek with his head on a fly’s body. Madonna was sending up Marilyn in MATERIAL GIRL, Weird Al was sending up Madonna in LIKE A SURGEON and the Motels were sending up the commercialism of their own MTV image in SHAME. In 1985, biting the hand that fed them was all the rage among rock stars.
Amidst 1985’s slew of scathing lampoons and good-natured mockery, one clear triumph emerges: Dire Straits’ MONEY FOR NOTHING video. From the moment it premiered in July, MONEY FOR NOTHING was an instant classic placed on MTV’s “power rotation,” which was one step above “heavy rotation.” Power rotation meant that viewers were seeing the video roughly every five minutes, or at least so it seemed.
And why wouldn’t MTV want the clip aired night and day? Any subversive skewering of video culture in MONEY FOR NOTHING was deep beneath the glossy surface. To the layman’s eye, it was just one big commercial for Music Television, filled with moonman logos and chants of “I want my MTV!”
How the song was written is the stuff of rock legend by now – Mark Knopfler visited a New York appliance store that featured a wall of TV sets tuned to MTV, overheard a worker’s tirade about how he shoulda learned to play the gee-tar to get his money for nothing (and chicks for free), applied a ZZ Top-esque guitar riff to it, and a hit was born. Sting just happened to be in the recording studio at the time and came up with the “I want my MTV” line to the tune of the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and the final touch was added.
But the story could have ended there. According to video director Steve Barron, “the problem was that Mark Knopfler was very anti-videos. All he wanted to do was perform, and he thought that videos would destroy the purity of songwriters and performers.” Knopfler was willing to grant Barron a live clip, but MTV wanted a strong concept. And Steve Barron had one in mind.
Earlier in ‘85, Peter Conn had directed a video called BONGO BONGO for the Steve Miller Band, in which the Bosch FGS-4000 CGI system was used to create some animation mixed in with the 35mm film footage.
Though the BONGO BONGO clip never got much airplay, Barron and the guys at Rushes in London made history by using the same Bosch technology to animate entire scenes in MONEY FOR NOTHING after the ice was broken. Once Knopfler's girlfriend wrenched a grudging nod of approval from the singer/songwriter for the concept video, the animation team went to work.
In what was a cutting-edge (and painstaking) process at the time, animators Ian Pearson and Gavin Blair created Sal, a gruff cigar-chomping handyman based on Joe Pesci’s Raging Bull character Joey, Sal’s vidiot buddy Harv and Harv's dog. They then invented some videos for them to critique (in pre-Beavis and Butthead fashion) and the rest wrote itself, right down to the “heavy rotation” in-joke for the boys at MTV.
While crude by today’s standards, the CGI characters in MONEY FOR NOTHING are perfect for the video world they inhabit: the assembly line monotony of blue collar work. The slow-moving repetition of primitive computer animation effectively contrasts the vibrant music video stratosphere of Dire Straits performing live (from concert footage in Budapest); the geometric workmen are yesterday’s model robots, programmed to haul fridges and microwaves for eternity and bitch about never becoming rock stars.
But what exactly is being parodied in MONEY FOR NOTHING? In the song, Knopfler clearly takes the tone of devil’s advocate, ironically voicing an ignorant, derogatory take on his own profession of rock musician. Yet, if Knopfler himself is “anti-videos,” isn’t he partly siding with the blue collar criticism of the hollow MTV lifestyle? Is Sting celebrating the channel that made him famous, poking fun at it, or mocking himself? After all, he did appear on an MTV ad in 1982, earnestly demanding his right to the channel.
So as we watch the “futuristic” animated characters in a Dire Straits video, they watch a wall of Dire Straits videos, commenting on the video from within the video. The effect created is self-referential to an infinite degree, like a wall of mirrors reflecting a wall of mirrors. Particularly now that the video is 25 years old, and we see it through the added layer of time, through a telescopic lens of the future.
The major difference between the summer of 1985 and the summer of 2010 is not the quality of CGI technology, it’s that Sal and Harv were watching videos on MTV, and we know how impossible that is today. The trouble with our times, as Paul Valéry once observed, is that the future is not what it used to be. “I want my YouTube” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.