The Complicatist : Songs About Money

The economics of rhythm and melody…..

by Gordon Campbell

This month we’re doubling down on badness, so without further ado, here’s a selection of songs about money, and paying the price thereof. Prior filtering has removed Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Jessie J, Bruno Mars, Simply Red and Madonna from this mix. Because.

1. Barrett Strong : Money A classic of hard-earned realism. Money can’t buy you love, sure…but honey, your lovin’ don’t pay the bills.

The best things in life are free
But you can give them
To the birds and bees

I need money
(That’s what I want)
That’s what I want
(That’s what I want)
That’s what I wa-a-ant
(That’s what I want)

And besides :

Money don’t get everything it’s true
But what it don’t get, I can’t use
I need money

This working man’s prayer gave Motown its first hit and – aptly enough – provided Berry Gordy with the seed money he needed to build the Motown empire. Yet the idea/lyrics for this song have always been steeped in controversy. Strong cut this track in August of 1959, but John Lee Hooker had been performing a song for years beforehand that he called “I Need Some Money” with almost identical lyrics. That aside, if it was fusion it worked beautifully – especially in the way Strong’s vocals and arrangement took Hooker’s old r&b sound, sped it up and modernised it. Later, working in unison with Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong was responsible for some of Motown’s greatest tracks including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” “War” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)….”

2. Swans : Failure A few years after Michael Gira ended the industrial noise phase of the Swans he released an excellent album called White Light From the Mouth of Infinity which includes this immensely brooding track. Imagine what Leonard Cohen would sound like if he was really, really depressed and you’re not even close to the depths plumbed on this number, which offered some thoughts about money, and its corrosive power :

I’ve worked hard all my life
Money slips through my hands
My face in the mirror tells me
It’s no surprise that
I’m pushing the stone up the hill of failure….
They tempt me with violence
They punish me with ideals
And they crush me with an image of my life that’s nothing but unreal
Except on the goddamned slave ship of failure….

When I get my hands on some money
I’ll kiss its green skin
And I’ll ask its dirty face “Where the hell have you been?”
“I am the fuel that fires the engine of failure.” Etc etc

In 2010, Swans released a pretty good comeback album that contained a track called “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” – which goes some way to conveying Gira’s typical joie de vie. The song “Blind” – also on Youtube – is a killer, too.

3. Nina Simone : Pirate Jenny
Whew, scary. This is a revenge fantasy by one of the have-nots, directed against the people who possess everything that Jenny the maid can only dream about. “I’m counting your heads/ while I’m making the beds” is only the start of it. By the end, they’re piling up the bodies of her victims on the dock, and she’s hissing “ That’ll learn ya!” into their dead ears. In Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles he says this inspired him to write his own apocalyptic revenge fantasy “ When the Ship Comes In…”

4. Chamillionaire : I’m In Love With My Money Long before Chamillionaire became a punchline on 30 Rock – check out the references to him in the “Jack the Writer” episode in the first season – the Houston rapper released this engaging homage to the superiority of money and other material things, over good ol’ love and commitment :

Not engaged with no lady,
Fall in love with em no
You may think I’m crazy never knew this type of love before
I’m in love with my foreign [car],
Yes I’m married to my dough I’m in love with my money…
Most marriages blossom and die
When its over I’m tellin her bye
But she acts like I’m tellin a lie
While you fallin in love with a she
I rather be doublin a G
Could you see me in a car that rhymes with ‘rent me’
and starts with a B ?

Hip hop is rife with product placement, but this is the only one I know that turns it into a riddle.

5. Tennessee Ernie Ford : 16 Tons Songwriter Merle Travis was the Shakespeare of mining songs. Years after it was written, Ford made this into a gigantic smash, one of the biggest hits of the 1950s. It conveys pure blues sentiments of fate determined at birth : “ I was born one morning when the sun didn’t shine / I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine…” And even though women couldn’t bring the singer to heel (“ No high toned woman gonna make me walk the line”) the simple pressure of making a living sure could : “ I owe my soul to the company store…” For completeness, I’ve included Travis’s definitive version of his other mining classic ”Dark As A Dungeon.”

6. Billie Holiday : God Bless The Child Legend has it that Billie Holiday got the idea for this song after having an argument with her mother.

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

7. Patsy Cline : Poor Man’s Roses Hard to resist the temptation to put an autobiographic spin on many of Patsy Cline’s songs. When she recorded this, she was trapped in a loveless marriage to Gerald Cline. Legend has it that her husband was the cold-hearted rich man in the song, with the “poor man” being Charlie Dick, who turned out to be the real love of her short and tragic life.
I must make up my mind today

What to have, what to hold

A poor man’s roses

Or a rich man’s gold 


One’s as wealthy as a king in a palace

Though he’s callous and cold


Even so, the song is generous. It says that salvation was still an option for the rich man, if only he could learn to be more kind :

He may learn to give his heart for love

Instead of buyin’ it with gold
Then the poor man’s roses
And the thrill when we kiss

Will be memories of paradise

That I’ll never miss…

Fat chance. In the song, the hand that brought the roses was the hand she would hold, and later marry. It would be nice to think this was Charlie Dick – but she recorded this track late in 1956, and didn’t meet Dick until May,1957.

8. Robert Earl Keen : The Road Goes on Forever There are entire film scripts that don’t pay as much attention to detail and the narrative arc as this song does…It relates the doomed love story of Shelley the waitress and Sonny, the gallant drug dealer who– eventually – gives his life in order to protect and provide for her. The need for money may have driven their brief foray into a life of crime, but it is also an expression of love – from the coin he flips into the tip jar after laying out the drunk who tried to put his hand up her skirt, to the dope deal proceeds that puts him in the electric chair and her on the road to freedom, behind the wheel of a brand new Mercedes Benz.

9. Liza Minnelli & Joel Grey “Money Money “and Abba “Money, Money, Money” Two celebrations of cash, one conveying decadence the other just fun, fun, fun. Obvious links exist between the two. Lasse Hallstrom, – who directed “Money, Money Money” and almost every other video made by Abba – doffed his hat here to the Cabaret musical from which Minnelli’s song came.

10. Mahalia Jackson “Satisfied Mind”

This song finds the right balance between money and everything else, and Mahalia Jackson adds the spiritual dimension :
How many times, have you heard someone say,
If I had his money, I would do things my way.
But little they know, that it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten, with a satisfied mind.

Money can’t buy back all your youth when you’re old
A friend when you’re lonely, or peace to your soul
The wealthiest person is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind.

The genius behind this song was Jack Rhodes, who also wrote “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” and a stack of rockabilly classics including the once heard never forgotten “Action Packed “ and “Rockin’ Bones” for young Ronnie Dawson, plus “Woman Love” for Gene Vincent. His stepbrother was Leon Payne, the writer responsible for “ I Love You Because” and “Lost Highway.” I’ve picked Mahalia Jackson’s version over Jeff Buckley’s better known one, partly because Buckley himself rated this as superior.

ENDS