Give Me Money, That’s What I Want!
In early 1964 a friend called me up and asked if I wanted to hear the new Beatles album, “With the Beatles.” It had come out in England a few months before but no one I knew had heard of it. My friend’s father, an airplane pilot, had brought it back across the pond. It was just days after the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
At his house a group of us looked at the four black-and-white faces on the cover – John, George and Paul on the top row with Ringo alone below. The left side of each face was shaded so that only half of their faces emerged out of the black background behind them.
We listened straight through to the last track, which my friend announced, was the Beatles’ version of a Motown record, Barrett Strong’s “Money.” And that, he said, would cost us $2.00 to hear, per person. And anyone refusing to pay would have to leave the house. We paid. We listened. He said it would cost $2 to hear it again and we did. We paid.
The Beatles loved Motown. They covered everything they could, even if it wasn’t a hit, like “Money.” It was released in Britain in 1960 and didn’t get anywhere. So much the better, the Beatles could take a little known song from the ground up and put it back together as something new.
What they made in the studio in 1963 was the biggest sound imaginable. It wasn’t pop, it wasn’t exactly entertaining. It was fun in the way that something somewhat disturbing can be interesting. But what they put together was shocking.
George Martin was the producer. He added Strong’s piano part to the Beatles’ recording of “Money” after the fact, but the Beatles would have heard that piano part in their heads as they were recording. Certainly it was playing in John Lennon’s head as he sang, a power source at the very foundation of the recording.
You can hear what John brought to bear on “Money”: anger, resentment, discomfort, determination and the power to inflict those things on everyone in the world. The performance is so fast, so big, so relentless and unforgiving. It feels as if it’s flying apart, 3 minutes and 3 seconds of big bang in a box made of mastery and will. You can only imagine how it made the Beatles feel to play this way, to keep every promise rock ‘n roll made when they first heard it and then made a promise to make it more than it ever had before.
From its first line to its last, as John Lennon rewrote it, this song is about nothing but freedom and the acceptance, insistence that money is the only freedom there is or ever will be. The Beatles gave themselves over to this argument, and they hold nothing back. That’s why listening to what they did in 1963 is like watching the best horror movie ever made – terrified of what’s coming and yet unable to turn away.
Adapted from an LA Times op-ed article by Greil Marcus, author of “The History of Rock ‘n Roll in Ten Songs” Yale University Press