Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Dire Straits got a raw deal. Their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class that should, in all rights, include Radiohead. This was the first year the band was eligible, and they in particular seemed like a shoe-in. No luck. Instead, Dire Straits are getting lined up right next to Bon Jovi and the Moody Blues in yet another slate of honorees inspiring endless articles about how out-of-touch the Hall is.
And I have nothing against Bon Jovi or the Moody Blues, but I hate seeing Dire Straits lumped in with the “classic rock for aging boomers” crowd. I mean, I get it, but Dire Straits are so much more than that to me. (Sidebar: I’d be remiss without nothing that Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe are getting in, though it’s a shame the Rock Hall voters couldn’t find any living women or minorities to celebrate).
I first discovered Dire Straits as I discovered many bands growing up: Through the “Weird Al” Yankovic parody. He took the “Money for Nothing” music and sung the Beverly Hillbillies theme lyrics song over it. It’s a simple idea, more a mashup than a parody, really, but it works. He even aped the “Money for Nothing” music video:
It was only a short journey from there to the original. And I was hooked. I got the Greatest Hits, then Brothers in Arms. Eventually I got the other five albums too. What really sold me before that, though, was a live bootleg DVD I traded for in the mail. It’s from a Sydney concert in 1986, the final night of a long stand. It might be my favorite concert film ever, cheesy ’80s-television visual effects and all. I watched that DVD endlessly; the band are insane not to release this more widely.
Thankfully, in the era of YouTube it’s much easier to see than it was when I had to send a blank DVD and self-addressed stamped envelope to a kind stranger I found on a message board. Watch the concert in full here (high point: the 12-minute “Sultans of Swing” that starts at 50:28):
There’s the effortless way Mark Knopfler pulls off insanely impressive solos – no rock-star poses, he looks like an aging and somewhat bored tennis instructor. The exuberance of rhythm guitarist Jack Sonni’s dancing, playing off of Knopfler’s nonchalanace. The glorious spotlighted sax solos of Chris White. And, of course, the funky and melodic bass lines from John Illsley, the only permanent member besides Knopfler.
So to honor Dire Straits finally getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I’m going to go back to the song that initiated my fandom: “Money for Nothing.” Here are the five best covers of it. Plus – because it’s one of their most-covered songs – five bonus versions.
Big Daddy – Money for Nothing
Big Daddy were a novelty covers band long before that category was a cottage industry. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, they released several albums full of old-timey renditions of recent hits. They would do Michael Jackson as doo-wop, Talking Heads as calypso, and, on this track, Dire Straits as cool swing jazz.
Dinosaur Pile-Up – Money for Nothing
The most recent cover of the bunch comes from English alt-rockers Dinosaur Pile-Up (good name) a couple years ago. The basic template is the same as the original – the riff, the drum fills – but there’s a key difference. If you watched that 1986 concert video, a key word is “big.” Banks of synths and keyboards, a ridiculously large drum kit, sax and flute players, etc. Dinosaur Pile-Up takes the opposite tack: power trio in a garage. The song works great that way too.
The Lil Smokies – Money for Nothing
There are a number of acoustic/bluegrass type covers of this. They’re all good, but my favorite by a hair is this live version by Montana quintet The Lil Smokies. I prefer this version on their New Year’s Eve 2013 live album, but if you want to see what those mandolins and banjos look like playing it, here’s a decent video shot a couple years later.
L’Os Clodos – Money for Nothing
Once you hear a marching band play this song, you wonder why it isn’t in every marching band’s repertoire. It sounds like Dire Straits combined with the brass-and-drums breakdown in “Tusk.”
Wille and the Bandits – Money for Nothing
This is the most surprising of the covers, and maybe my favorite. It sounds like Les Claypool combined with world music combined with country-fied slide guitar combined with a creepy sound-effects library. It’s an odd sort of gumbo, but one that works beautifully.