Wednesday, 2 June 2010

John Lennon and Money

One of the earliest releases from Berry Gordy's Motown stable was Barrett Strong's 'Money (That's What I Want)', a No. 2 hit on the Billboard R&B charts in 1960. The single was also released in Britain, and although it wasn't a hit, it caught the ears of John Lennon, who had added the song to the Beatles' live repertoire by the following year. He performed it at their Decca audition on January 1, 1962, on a BBC radio show in May 1963, and definitively at Abbey Road studios two months later. It provided a riotous conclusion to the With The Beatles album at the end of that year.

As Lennon screamed out the final chorus, he made the song his own by adding a single ad-lib: "I wanna be free!" Prestigious critics have interpreted this as an existentialist cry from the heart, widening the context of the song from a love affair to a desperate urge for liberation from the banality of human existence.

But there's a simpler explanation. The Beatles' version has effectively erased Barrett Strong's original recording from history, but if you dig out Strong's original 45, you'll hear him cry: "I want some green!" Americans knew exactly what he meant, but few 20-year-old rock'n'roll fans in the Britain of 1960 knew about the greenback dollar. It's easy to imagine Lennon and McCartney hunched over their Dansette, replaying the same few seconds of Strong's record over and over, in a vain attempt to decipher what he was singing. Instead, Lennon opted for the closest equivalent he could imagine, and a myth was born.

Strong's record is one of the tracks on the first of Motown's epic CD anthologies, The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 1: 1959-1961. And so is its much more obscure B-side, 'Oh! I Apologize'. (Spelling wasn't Motown's forte, so the label listed the song as 'Oh! I Apoligize'.) Lennon obviously loved this track almost as much as 'Money' - because he borrowed the structure of the middle section of 'Oh! I Apologize', much of its tune, and even a couple of its lyric lines, and pasted them into his own song, 'Isolation', on the 1970 album John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band.

Lennon never hid the fact that he took inspiration from his American heroes. But what's striking about this particular 'theft' is that he was already being sued by the publishers of Chuck Berry's tune 'You Can't Catch Me', because of the similarity between that song and the Beatles' 'Come Together'. Once bitten, twice shy? Twice clearly wasn't enough.

Listen for yourselves to Barrett Strong's Lennon-esque apology here . . .

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