Everyone needs it -- and, increasingly, everyone around the world seems to be suffering from lack of it. The paradox of money is a subject well-represented in popular music, and with rock getting so much of its fuel from blues and R&B, oldies music tends to hit the subject even harder. Enjoy this list of the greatest oldies about money, the need for it, the things we do to get it, and, sadly, its highly volatile nature.
The greatest of all Gamble-Huff productions belies the notion that Philly Soul was all sweetness and light; indeed, many consider this to be one of the Seventies' finest protest songs. That ominous opening bass line, for example, alternately drenched in echo and slapped in your face, sets up the stark no-bull reality of the lyrics to come, which detail just how far humanity will sink in pursuit of what the song itself calls "mean green." What will people do for the love of money? "A woman will sell her precious body." "People can't even walk the streets." And the most damning words of all, which no folkie protester could surpass: "For a small piece of paper, it carries a lot of weight." A line so on they didn't even bother rhyming it.
This early Motown classic put the great label on the map; almost a stark blues, it lays out the necessity of the subject as a commodity worth more than most emotions: "Your lovin' gives me such a thrill / But your love don't pay my bills." Strong would go on to become one-half of a legendary Motown songwriting team, one that gave the world "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "War," and "Ball Of Confusion"; the hard-headed practicality in those later hits is already in display here. John Lennon, when covering this with the Beatles, ad-libbed "Yeah, I want to be free": the Freudian slip of a class capitalist, or the exhortations of a free spirit yearning to rise above the physical world?
A classic R&B story song where the everyman singer just can't catch a break -- everywhere he goes, he finds himself lacking the one thing everyone wants from him. Asking your significant other for rent money is probably a bad idea, especially if he or she is already in the process of trading you in for a richer model. The dubious moral: Always get a mate with money of their own. Forget the strutting nature of the rhythm section or the too-cool snap of the production: in the world of this tune, money's a joke for which the listener is always the punchline. Too bad it rings so true for so many of us.
Graced with one of the most ingenious uses of sound effects in rock history, the odd 7/8 rhythm of "Money" is suggested by a symphony of cash registers shot through with an appropriately ominous low guitar line. Roger Waters is well known for providing some of the Seventies' more misanthropic lyrics, but for once he has a (universal) subject worthy of his bile: the less-than-golden rule which states that them what has, gets. The utter frivolity of the rich ("Think I'll buy me a football team") balanced against the utter neglect shown to the poor ("I'm all right, jack / keep your hands off of my stack") makes for an intriguing little polemic.
Done in the Swedish supergroup's usual light-but-theatrical Europop style, this bit of cabaret functions as a sort of distaff update to Fiddler on the Roof's "If I Were A Rich Man" (and this decades before Gwen Stefani!) Although delivered with a deadpan audacity, the mix of jangly, nervous piano and dark guitar filigrees underlines the heart-breaking fallacy behind thoughts like "I wouldn't have to work at all, I'd fool around and have a ball." Consider this Bertolt Brecht for disco-era females. Or desperate housewives of any era.
Brother Ray held forth on the bipolar nature of money in several of his songs, decrying the necessity of it to buy love in "Greenbacks" and yet still fantasizing about just how much love it could buy him in "Smack Dab In The Middle." But it's in this swinging soul smash, which occurs smack dab in the middle of his fertile early-Sixties period on the ABC label, that he best described the pervasive and insidious nature of the beast: reduced to begging from friends and family, he soon finds that everyone's in the same bout he's in. Things are, indeed, tough all over, and the hard-luck stories really hurt: "My wife and my kids are all down with the flu, and I was just thinking about calling on YOU."
Speaking of story songs! Best known for its mid-Seventies Steve Miller cover, this 1954 R&B hit tells the ultimate shaggy-dog tale. Not only can our unlucky friend here get what he needs to get the girl of his dreams, he winds up getting mugged in the bargain and left to rot in jail, mistaken for a drunk loiterer and without a nickel to put towards bail. (Okay, he actually has one nickel: the "buffalo" mentioned near the end.) Maybe the reason it took 20 years to get this song some recognition in the mainstream is because you have to be in a state of near-poverty to appreciate it.
The Contours will always be best remembered for boldly passing off the ability to dance as a sign of sexual attractiveness (1962's "Do You Love Me?") But thanks to bar bands everywhere, especially The J. Geils Band, who made this song famous for a whole 'nother generation, this nearly-forgotten proto-soul gem is now established in the annals of gigolo fame. An unrepentant ode to the art, it not only suggests that love isn't as important as money, it suggests one feeds the other. One of the great gender-role reversals on wax, to be sure.
Like a lot of funk and hip-hop classics, this transmission from the P-Funk mothership moves beyond bitching about being stuck in a capitalist bag and just accepts money-grubbing as a kind of modern urban blues: hard, yeah, but completely natural, and utterly unavoidable. To that end, the freaky psychedelic music seems to be telling you to get that money anyway: better to err on the side of caution. Hate the game, in other words, not the player. And that game's spelled out pretty well, in just a few quick strokes: "It'll buy you life. But not true life."
You can always count on Randy Newman to make pointed commentaries on society, speaking through characters so offensive they'll immediately scandalize anyone who doesn't get his meta-joke. And this 1979 song is surely no exception, an autobiography of a man who isn't smart, pretty, or good, but thanks to money, he doesn't have to be. He doesn't have to deal with petty things like emotions, either, especially like love, pity, concern or faith. Example: "They say that's money can't buy love in this world. But it'll get you a half-pound of cocaine and a sixteen-year-old girl." What recent celebuwreck can't relate to that?