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Greil Marcus on The Beatles

In early 1964 a friend called people up and asked them if they wanted to hear the new Beatles album, With the Beatles. It had come out in the U.K. a couple of months before, but none of us in the U.S., our radios on all day for whatever Beatles song had broken into the Top 40 that week, had heard it, or for that matter heard of it. Our friend's father, an airplane pilot, had brought it back. We went to his house and looked at the four black-and-white faces on the cover – John, George, and Paul on a top row, with Ringo, somehow smaller, alone below – with the left side of each face shaded so that it only half emerged out of the black behind it. The faces were impassive, looking straight back at whoever was looking at them. It was a design made to cast a shadow, and it did: in 2001, two days after George Harrison died of cancer at fifty-eight, twenty-one years after John Lennon was murdered at forty, Jim Borgman, the editorial cartoonist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, redrew the album cover, with John and George now returned to the blackness out of which they'd stepped so long before, only Paul and Ringo left. Their faces were still young, still looking out, now as faces recognizable everywhere in the world. They were unchanged as images but changed by the history they had passed through. They no longer seemed impassive at all, but questioning: Was it worth it?

Even in 1964, the feeling that came off the picture was unsettling: the jacket matched Beatles songs as they'd sounded a few weeks before in St. Michael's Alley, a coffeehouse that along with Kepler's Books constituted bohemia on the San Francisco Peninsula. It was days after the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Up until then the place had played only folk music, maybe blues and hokum records from the twenties and thirties brought in by Jerry Garcia, who sometimes performed there with a jug band. This night "Don't Bother Me" felt like the spookiest song on earth.

Our friend played us the album, straight through to the last track, which, he announced, was the Beatles' version of "Money". And that, he said, would cost two dollars to hear. Per person: anyone not paying would have to leave. We paid. We listened. It would cost two dollars 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 Great 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 18 June 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 Barrett 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. The piano is a door to throw yourself against: a power source at the foundation of the song. Hearing the Beatles play the song onstage in Stockholm in 1963, two guitars, bass, and drums, you realize they don't need the piano, because, as they hear themselves play, they feel Barrett Strong behind them. And behind Barrett Strong is another ghost.

In the brief tape made in Liverpool on 6 July 1957, the day the Quarry Men played on a truck and John Lennon met Paul McCartney for the first time, you can hear John copying Elvis's "Baby Let's Play House" and a Lonnie Donegan number, as other boys all over the U.K. were doing at the same time. As Devin McKinney has written, what's so uncanny about this recording is that, beneath the static and distortion, there is no question at all who is singing.

After dark at that Woolton garden party of July 1957, Liverpool teenager and Lennon friend Bob Molyneux lifted the microphone of a Grundig recorder to the stage as John sang the new Donegan hit, “Puttin’ on the Style”. The tape that survives is a mere thirty-second shaving, and more than half its sound is surface noise, ambient racket, the cross-calls of Liverpool kids. You hear a hot, active summer night inside a provincial gymnasium. Pounded out for the dancing teenagers, the Quarry Men’s beat is admirably certain, a consistent thud – the beat is really all there is to the music. Except for the ghost of Lennon’s vocal: his sixteen-year-old voice, even half-heard, is simply not to be mistaken for any other. It flies like the cockiest, the looniest of birds over that low, dull thud; whines like a freighter steaming out of Liverpool Harbour.

The musical personality is strained, amateurish, shaky, not, in any formal sense, musical at all, but it is complete. You hear anger, resentment, discomfort, and determination – and a will to inflict that anger, resentment, discomfort, and determination on everyone in the world. After six years of playing for yobs and screaming girls in Liverpool, for old Nazis and young Exis in Germany, this is what Lennon brings to bear on "Money", a song that wants all of those qualities as much as he wants the song. You can hear what the Beatles did with it as the only recording they ever made that truly captured the chaos of Hamburg, what happened in the fourth set of the night, maybe the fifth, 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, three minutes and three seconds of the Big Bang in a box made of mastery and will. It is beyond belief that two guitars have built this wall of sound, but so much of what is happening is beyond belief; two months later the Rolling Stones would be recording their own version of "Money", but compared to the Beatles they were a skiffle band. You can only imagine how it made the Beatles feel to play this way, to find the pure pleasure of keeping every promise rock 'n' roll made to them when they first heard it, and then making it promise more than it ever had before.

The first words break the fanfare that opens the song; Barrett Strong is fierce, but John is appalled, hateful, and ravenous all at once, and so powerfully the music seems to fall away around him, letting him claim every molecule in the air for himself. The words begin to change: he puts so much pressure on free at the end of the first line it feels like death. He storms through the two-line verse, but Raynoma Singleton was right: it is the pause in her "That's... what I want" at the end of each chorus that seals the song. As she and the others sang it in Detroit, it was a whip cracking in the air; as Paul and George sing it, with the structure of the phrase now not made of wood but stone, that pause is frightening. It slaps back at the listener; you have no idea what's on the other side.

With the rhythmic force inside the song more impregnable with each measure, John can drive himself past anything the song has asked for, his I can’t use so full of hysteria you can see the words bursting into flames as they leave his mouth, knowing that that force will always bring him back to the song. He knows that; you don't. The ground shakes; you are in a new world where values are shattering like plaster, honour, decency, fairness, kindness, and love replaced by sound and desire, and absolutely nothing else. As a face in the maelstrom John grows wilder and more crazed; as a singer the way he cuts phrases and bites off words becomes more strict and precise. Whether or not they recorded separately, I can only picture the moment as it would have taken place onstage: Paul and George put their heads to one mike to scream out a doubled ooooooooo so demonic it can make you flinch, not at the sound but at the wish for destruction it carries. Like John they are burning off their Beatle masks and raising the spectre of a being so implacable it cannot be stopped and so consumed by urgency it can never be satisfied.

It powers on, until, near the end, Barrett Strong's coolly drawled lean green is replaced by a shout that is not musical, that is not part of the song, a cry that violates the rhythm that the Beatles have found in the song and that has given them the power to reduce Barrett Strong's record to dust. "I WANT TO BE FREE" John shouts off the beat, no longer hearing it, now merely an ordinary person utterly dwarfed by what the song has demanded, reduced almost to nothing in the face of the gauntlet the song has thrown against the world, 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, so brilliantly titled The Beatles’ Second Album. I was working in Washington, D.C., living in a basement in Chevy Chase with two roommates. They complained: why was I playing "Money" over and over? What was so great about it? I turned the sound up: Look –here’s what’s happening. Wait for the instrumental break – now listen. Listen to what’s going on. What you hear is a metaphorical representation of the out-of-control technological forces 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 roommates' incomprehension and my own pretentiousness. But in the middle of it all I thought, why not? This makes sense. That's exactly what's happening. It was an argument about life – an argument that, onstage in Toronto in 1969, performing with others as the Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon made even more starkly, hammering the fanfare on his own guitar, when he already had more money than he would ever spend.

From its first line, as 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 only form freedom can take or should. 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.

This extract is from The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs, published by Yale University Press. Greil Marcus has been a rock critic and columnist for Rolling Stone (where he was the first reviews editor) and other publications, including Creem, the Village Voice, Artforum and Pitchfork. Other books include Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century.

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