"Money (That’s What I Want)," by Barrett Strong (1959) and The Flying Lizards (1979)
We begin with genuine pop music royalty. Barrett Strong, who died a year ago this month, was Motown royalty. Though he would become famous for writing the lyrics for many of the era’s greatest songs (including “Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Just My Imagination,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” all co-written with Norman Whitfield), he recorded his first and only major hit with this Berry Gordy/Janie Bradford plainspoken plea for cash back in 1959.
A rumbling blues piano riff opens the door for Berry’s pure-but-a-little-rough tenor singing the famous opening couplet – “The best things in life are free – but you can give them to the birds and bees – I want money.” This song is generally considered Motown’s first hit record, and when your name is first on any list about Motown, that’s a pretty good achievement.
Then, twenty years later David Cunningham and Deborah Evans, two art school students, got together for some lo-fi absurdly minimalist takes on a few classic songs. They did a version of “Summertime Blues,” but their huge success came with a truly bizarre take on that first Motown hit. Instead of the rumbling piano/horn/guitar arrangement on the original, the Flying Lizards open with what sounds like a kid banging on a trash can, before giving way to what might be an out-of-tune ukulele. And then Evans' atonal, slightly pissed-off vocals seal the deal. This is truly a cover that attempts something different and succeeds.
(Fun side note: There was this other band that recorded the song in between these two versions, but they didn’t have a hit with it. It’s OK, because they had a few other hits along the way. Many years ago, I used to listen to a radio show that would match-up two versions of the same song every week and have listeners vote on which one they liked best. That other band, who I think came from Liverpool, was undefeated in such match-ups. They had won about twenty in a row. Until they tangled with the Flying Lizards. Yes – the Flying Lizards’ “Money” was the only song to beat the Beatles in one of those face-offs.)