Here’s a very popular theme in Pop music. I knew some (and loved a few), but I had no idea on how many songs about money there are. Of course early in their career, songwriters talk about the lack of it, or what they would do if they had plenty. Later on, they get different inspirations, as in The Notorious B.I.G.’s hit Mo Money Mo Problems♾. Rapper 50 Cent (who named himself after money), often posts Instagram photos of himself playing with wads of dollar bills. Here’s a selection of money tunes, by no means complete: for that, I’ll want some cash.
The Flying Lizards: Money (1979)
This is a much older song. Actually, Money (That’s What I Want) is the very first Motown hit (when it was still called Tamla), written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, and recorded by Barrett Strong☊ in 1959. This arrangement is the blueprint for all later versions: the Beatles‘♾ in 1963, The Kingsmen‘☊ in 1964, The Rolling Stones‘♾ also in ’64, Jr. Walker & the All Stars‘☊ in 1966, The Doors‘☊ in 1970, and The Flying Lizards’ in 1979.
The lyrics are pretty straightforward:
The best things in life are free
But you can give then to the birds and bees…
Your love give me such a thrill
But your love don’t pay my bills…
Money don’t get everything, it’s true
But what it don’t get, I can’t use…
I need money (that’s what I want)
That’s what I want (that’s what I want)
So it’s all down to the interpretation: you can sing it carelessly like the Beatles*, mean it a bit more like Jr. Walker, wail it like a banshee after Jim Morrison, or even recite it deadpan. Which was the trademark delivery of The Flying Lizards, a very unusual english New Wave band (founded by sound artist and producer David Cunningham) that included, among others, author and musician David Toop, (whose writings on music are often illuminating), and composer Michael Nyman. They had a very distinct musical style: recited lyrics, deconstructed synth arrangements and ostinato drum patterns. Money was their sole hit, which is a pity because they were smart, funny and contemporary: their version of Sex Machine♾ (also deadpan) is still absolutely hilarious – and musically perfect (there’s even a prepared piano).
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*The Beatles sung about money throughout their career: Can’t Buy Me Love (1964), You Never Give Me Your Money (1969) and the somewhat disturbing Taxman (written in ’66, when they were already substantially wealthy): Let me tell you how it will be, there’s one for you, nineteen for me, cos I’m the taxman, yeah.
Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers: We Need Some Money (Bout Money) (1984)
This is not just a great song about money, but also a perfect example of Go-go, the infectious beat from Washington DC. Plus, it includes one of my favorite credit card quotes ever:
I’m gonna lay it right on the line, a dollar bill is a friend of mine.
We need some money, talkin’ about money, money, money
Mastercard and Visa, American Express
I ain’t got nothing against no credit cards, but the cash is the best!
We need some money, talkin’ about money, money, money
We need some money, talkin’ about moolah*, yo
We need some money, talkin’ about money, money, money
Need some moolah, talkin’ about mooly, mooly, moolah
Chuck Brown’s biography reads like a tale: in 1950, at 14, he killed a man and served 8 years in prison, where he learned to play the guitar. He went on to create Go-go in the 70s, a beat you can still hear today in Hip hop and R’n’B. We Need Some Money is perhaps his most famous song, to this day a hit in Funk clubs everywhere. But don’t let the subject matter distract you: he’s a fantastic performer, the horn arrangement is absolutely top notch, and the Soul Searcher are as funky as it gets.
*Slang term for money.
Randy Newman: It’s Money That I Love (1980)
As I’ve written before, Newman is a master in writing songs from the point of view of some disturbing characters: rednecks, racists, dirty old men. In this case he’s a heartless, money-loving monster:
I don’t love the mountains, don’t love the sea and I don’t love Jesus, he never done a thing for me, I ain’t pretty like my sister, or smart like my dad, or good like my mama. It’s money that I love.
They say that money can’t buy love in this world, but I’ll get you a half-pound of cocaine and a sixteen-year old girl, and a great big long limousine, on a hot september night, now that may not be love but it is all right. One, two it’s money that I love, wanna kiss you three, four it’s money that I love.
Used to worry about the poor, but I don’t worry anymore, used to worry about the black man, now I don’t worry about the black man, used to worry about the starving children of India, you know what I say now about the starving children of India? I say, oh mama, it’s money that I love.
Published in 1980, this is a very prophetic song about the following years: the Reagan presidency, the fake economic boom, and the cultural shift towards business, and money, that happened in the 80s*. It’s included in an album with a meaningful title, Born Again, that contains a few gems, like Mr Sheep♾ and Pretty Boy (covered by Kurt Vile☊ in 2015). Unfortunately the whole album sounds a bit overproduced, but I dare you find another band that can carry this beat so tight.
*In 1988, at the end of the Reagan presidency, he came back on the topic with It’s Money That Matters♾)
ABBA – Money, Money, Money (1976)
This must be the most dishonest song ever written. By 1976 ABBA, whose “record sales estimates range from over 140 to over 500 million”, had had several monster hits, including SOS and the despicable Mamma Mia. So it’s a bit weird to hear a very rich woman sing:
I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay, ain’t it sad.
And still there never seems to be a single penny left for me, that’s too bad.
In my dreams I have a plan, if I got me a wealthy man
I wouldn’t have to work at all, I’d fool around and have a ball…
Money, money, money, must be funny in the rich man’s world
Money, money, money, always sunny in the rich man’s world
Aha-ahaaa, all the things I could do, if I had a little money, it’s a rich man’s world.
On top of being millionaire, at the time Anni-Frid Lyngstad (lead vocalist on this song) was married to Benny Andersson, the bearded ABBA, so she even had a wealthy husband. The song, just like the rest of the band’s repertoire, is neglectable. The video, on the other hand, is atrocious.
Pink Floyd: Money (1973)
The go-to dinero song for lazy tv music programmers, Money opens part two (or side two, if you’re a vinyl enthusiast) of one of the most fetishized albums in Pop music’s history, The Dark Side Of The Moon, 50 million copies sold and 741 weeks in the top 100 charts (from 1973 to 1988). Ironically, given the title, this is Pink Floyd’s first chart hit. Money must be one of the very few hit singles with a tempo change (besides the Beatles’ truly bizarre All You Need Is Love). What’s more, the song’s verse and chorus are in 7/4 (rare and unusual time signature for Pop music), switching to a more reassuring 4/4 only in the (sax and guitar) solo section. Yet the tune is so well devised that the audience quickly got used to the odd meter (for many it must have been the first exposure to 7/4), and I believe today you can find Money in a Karaoke bar near you.
This song features a very neat recording trick, that you might not even notice at first, but that makes a difference in the overall economy of the song. It’s explained very well in the very informative Money Wikipedia page: “One of Gilmour’s ideas was that, for the second chorus of the guitar solo (3:49 into the song), all reverb and echo effects would be completely off, creating the sense of just four musicians playing in a small room. For this “dry” chorus, all musicians played softly and subtly, with Gilmour’s solo playing very sparsely. Then, for the third chorus (4:24), the dynamics would suddenly rise, with heavy use of reverb and echo (a “wet” sound), additional rhythm-guitar parts in the background, and the drums becoming heavy and almost chaotic.”
Interestingly, Money was re-recorded (because of legal issues) in an identical version for the 1981 album A Collection of Great Dance Songs. Yes: there was a time when this song was a party item, 7/4 and all.
Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters: Money Honey (1953)
The Drifters’ first single had a very basic message: Money, honey, if you wanna get along with me. It was a #1 hit in ’53, and it’s a fantastic musical photograph of Doo Wop becoming Rock’n’Roll: the beat is heavier, the swing’s a little meaner and McPhatter doesn’t really hold back: the scream he lets out in the middle of the sax solo is clearly a sign of things to come.
Dire Straits: Money For Nothing♾ (1985) This is one nasty yet very prophetic song. Sung from the point of view (and using the crude language) of blue collar workers, the song seems more true every day: See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup? Yeah buddy that’s his own hair. That little faggot got his own jet airplane, that little faggot he’s a millionaire. That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it, you play the guitar on the MTV. Just replace MTV with YouTube, and the guitar playing with, well, whatever.
Johnny Guitar Watson: It’s About The Dollar Bill☊ (1977) Words of wisdom from one of the great guitar heroes of all times (Watson recorded the first guitar tune ever in ’54, the visionary Space Guitar☊). He influenced everybody, from Hendrix to Zappa, and managed to retain ghetto street cred, a pimpish sense of fashion and great musical quality right to the end.
Ray Charles: I Got A Woman (1954) I got a woman, way over town, She’s good to me, oh yeah. She gives me money when I’m in need, yeah. There are a thousand covers of this song (including Elvis’ and The Beatles’), plus the one Jamie Foxx recorded♾ for his Ray Charles biopic, famously sampled by Gossip virtuoso Kanye West in his song Gold Digger♾ (warning: NSFW).
Patti Smith: Free Money☊ (1975) Sometimes poetry comes from taking two distant concepts and making them collide, as in the title of this song. Again, a very prophetic tune, in a million ways: We’ll dream it, dream it for free, free money, free money.
Donna Summer: She Works Hard for the Money♾ (1983) Inspired by a chance encounter with a waitress (later featured on the back cover of the eponymous album) this tune has become one of Summer’s signature songs, as well as a minor anthem for working women: She works hard for the money, so hard for it, honey. She works hard for the money, so you better treat her right.
Liza Minnelli: Money♾ (1972) If you ask a cinephile, this is THE song about money. From the legendary Bob Fosse film Cabaret (8 Oscars, including best director, leading and supporting actress, and original score), Money one of the most inspired performances by Liza Minnelli, then at her very best. She’s fabulous, the singing is magnificent (and so are the choreography and the filming), the song is perfect: A Mark, a Yen, a Buck or a Pound, that clinking, clanking, clunking sound, makes the world go ’round!
Willie Nelson: If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time☊ (1976) A Country & Western hit for author Lefty Frizzell in 1950, this tune went back to #1 thanks to this Willie Nelson cover. The message is very simple: If you’ve got the money honey I’ve got the time, we’ll go honky tonkin’ and we’ll have a time. We’ll have more fun baby all way down the line, if you’ve got the money honey I’ve got the time.
Prince: ♥ Or $ (1986) The B side of the hugely successful single Kiss, it introduces the innovative experimental Funk later explored in the Black Album, the most mysterious record in Prince’s discography (and one of my favorites). The fan site Princevault.com informs us that “♥ Or $ is the earliest occurrence of Prince using a non-alphanumerical symbol in the title of a song, something now commonplace.”