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 Britain a couple of months before, but no one I knew had heard it, or for that matter heard of it. My friend’s father, an airplane pilot, had brought it back. 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, somehow smaller, alone below — the left side of each face shaded so that it only half emerged out of the black behind it.
We listened straight through to the last track, which, my friend announced, was the Beatles’ version of a Motown record, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” And that, he said, would cost $2 to hear. Per person: Anyone not paying would have to leave. We paid. We listened. It would cost $2 to hear it again, he said. We paid.
The Beatles loved Motown. They covered everything they could, even if it wasn’t a hit, as “Money,” issued in Britain in 1960, wasn’t. So much the better: They could start a song from the ground up, take it to pieces, put it back as something new.
What they made in the studio on June 18, 1963, was the biggest sound imaginable. It wasn’t pop. It wasn’t entertainment. It was fun in the way that watching Michael Corleone shoot Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey is fun. It was shocking.
George Martin was the producer. He added Strong’s piano part to the Beatles’ recording after the fact, but the Beatles would have heard the piano as a ghost as they played. Certainly it was playing in John Lennon’s head as he sang, a power source at the foundation of the record.
You can hear what John brought to bear on “Money”: anger, resentment, discomfort, determination and the will to inflict that anger, resentment, discomfort and determination on everyone in the world. You can hear what the Beatles did with the song as the only recording that truly captured the chaos of the Hamburg gigs, what happened when John put a toilet seat around his neck and all bets were off.
The performance is so fast, so big, relentless and unforgiving, it feels as if it’s flying apart, 3 minutes and 3 seconds of the 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 make it promise more than it ever had before.
The first words break the fanfare that opens the song; Barrett Strong’s singing is fierce, but John’s is appalled, hateful and ravenous all at once.
The best things in life are free
But you can keep ‘em for the birds and bees
Now give me money
That’s what I want
You can almost see the words bursting into flames as they leave his mouth. The ground shakes; you are in a new world where honor, decency, fairness, kindness and love are replaced by sound and desire, and absolutely nothing else. Paul and George scream out a doubled ooooooooo so demonic it can make you flinch. Like John they are burning off their Beatle masks and raising the specter of a being so implacable it cannot be stopped and so consumed by urgency it can never be satisfied.
The song powers on, until, near the end, John shouts, off the beat, “I WANT TO BE FREE,” and you realize that the person speaking will never be free. It is a record that in the years since it was made has lost none of its ugliness and none of its beauty.
A few months after I paid to hear the Beatles’ “Money,” I had it myself, on the Beatles’ second Capitol album released in the U.S. I was working in Washington, living in a basement in Maryland with two roommates. They complained: Why was I playing “Money” over and over? What was so great about it?
I turned the sound up: What you hear is a metaphorical representation of modern society grinding the individual down to nothing. Do you hear that scream? That’s the gears of the machine, destroying the soul!
I was laughing as I was talking, mocking my own enthusiasm. But in the middle of it all I thought: That’s exactly what’s happening. It was an argument about life — one that, onstage in Toronto in 1969, with the Plastic Ono Band, Lennon would make even more starkly, hammering the fanfare, when he already had more money than he would ever spend.
From its first line, as Motown’s Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford wrote it, to its last line, as John Lennon rewrote it, this song is about nothing but freedom, and the acceptance, the insistence, that money is the only freedom there is or ever will be. The Beatles give themselves over to this argument, and they hold nothing back. That’s why listening to what they did that day in 1963 is like watching the best horror movie ever made, terrified of what’s coming and unable to turn away.
Greil Marcus is an author, music journalist and cultural critic. This essay is adapted from a longer piece on “Money” in his latest book, “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs,” forthcoming from Yale University Press.,” to be published in September.
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