Late '70s. The music world had already suggested that money can't buy you love and that, alternately, money was a crime and a hit. Now, courtesy of a homemade single, a band out of Atlanta named the Brains—led by songwriter/ keyboardist Tom Gray—was telling us that money changes everything. Folks around the Southeast heard this cynical gem, delivered in somewhat dry vocals by Gray and his synthesizers bonding with the edgy guitar of Rick Price (who'd go on to play in the Georgia Satellites) in the background kind of like a Peachtree State Cars. More folks got to hear the song when the Brains rerecorded it for their Mercury Records-backed debut, with Steve Lillywhite at the helm. And more, a lot more, heard it a few years later when Cyndi Lauper included it on her smash She's So Unusual. "Money Changes Everything" has had a resurgence of late, some 25 years down the road. Lauper revisited the song in 2007, placing it in a rootsy setting. And Gray, with his blues-leaning outfit Delta Moon, re-rerecorded the song, a version that brings to mind the late Warren Zevon with its rustic wit and sinewy vocals.
Here's what Gray had to say about "Money Changes Everything," circa 1980 and today.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: For the history portion, can you talk about the origins of the Brains and the origins of Delta Moon? And what did you do to keep busy musically between the two?
TOM GRAY: Before the Brains, I'd been working in nightclubs six nights a week with dance bands. It was fun and I learned a lot, but it was time to break out of that. Some friends of mine had an original band called the Fans. They'd been driving up to New York, playing CBGB and other clubs, and getting write-ups in the Village Voice, New York Times, etc. I made a trip to New York with them and then joined the band for a trip to L.A. and some gigs around Atlanta. By that time, I had my own body of original songs worked up, and I started the Brains. We played a few gigs around Atlanta and then immediately started following the path the Fans had blazed. That led to a record deal with Mercury. Another band the Fans encouraged to follow that road was the B-52s from Athens.
For several years after the Brains' demise I worked as a songwriter and session player in New York, Nashville and L.A., but home was always with my wife in Atlanta. When my son was born in 1995, I gave up traveling all the time and became a stay-at-home dad. But I couldn't give up playing. I fell in with Mark Johnson, who lived only a couple blocks away, and we started playing slide guitar together in the living room, Mark on bottleneck standard guitar and me on six-string steel guitar. Gradually we added some other members and started playing in clubs around town. Once my son started school, Delta Moon hit the road.
Was there was a feeling with "Money Changes Everything" that it had some extra durability and that it would become your signature song?
I remember the day I wrote the song I was worried it was too simple. But it had such a strong effect on everyone who heard it that I knew it was something special. When we pressed the Brains' 45, I played it for my parents. At the end of the song there was a long silence. Then my dad said, "Well, it's different."
What do you remember about the process for writing "Money Changes Everything"? Did you start with the phrase "money changes everything" and build it from that, or did that phrase emerge as the song evolved?
I had the keyboard lick and the chords of the chorus, just a little thing I'd bang on the piano. Then in a conversation my landlady said, "Money changes things." I said, "Money changes everything. ... Um, excuse me," and ran down to my apartment to write the rest of the song. It came pretty quickly.
You, of course, recorded the first versions of the song with the Brains, and then the song appeared on Cyndi Lauper's huge She's So Unusual. Do you know of any other versions of the song? If so, how were those other versions arranged?
A few years ago, my brother made me a CD of versions he'd collected from Napster. There was a pretty wide range. My favorite was an Australian lounge singer who'd recorded it with a string orchestra. It's almost unrecognizable.
Can you describe the two versions of "Money Changes Everything" that the Brains recorded? Other than budget, how was the homemade single different from the album version?
On the single, I was just starting to sing with a band and, to my ear now, I sound a little strangled. But we worked very hard on getting the sound the way we wanted. On the LP, we've got the Steve Lillywhite sound of course, since he produced it. I let others talk me into singing a different second verse on that version, since I'd originally written three, but we'd trimmed it to two for the 45. I think I made the right choice the first time. Cyndi must have felt the same, since she sang the second verse from the 45, not the one on the LP.
How difficult or easy was it to reimagine "Money Changes Everything" to fit Delta Moon's musical vision? What was that process like?
Well, Delta Moon's signature sound is the two slide guitars, but that didn't really fit this song. So we ended up using electric guitar and dulcimer, and we invited Zeb Bowles to play fiddle on the record. I'd always pictured a fiddle on the song anyway. Tonally, the song stands a little apart from the others on the CD, but it's not out of the ballpark. We've got other songs that vary the sound, too. It's interesting that Cyndi Lauper recorded an acoustic version last year, and while hers is very different from Delta Moon's, she also went with a dulcimer and fiddle. That's something I'd been doing off and on since the 1990s, but I'm sure she never knew that. So maybe that's just where the song belongs right now.
From the stage, have you witnessed the light coming on for people as they hear Delta Moon perform the song—as in they know that they know the song but can't quite place it and then it finally clicks? And I imagine that more than one person has asked you afterward about your cover of the Cyndi Lauper song... .
Yes, all of that. But it doesn't always click. One recent reviewer accused me of using a cliché for a title. Well, it wasn't a cliché when I wrote it.
Are you still as cynical as you were when you wrote the song about 30 years ago?
Delta Moon is at Hideaway BBQ Saturday, Jan. 19, for that venue's last show. The music starts at 9:30 p.m. courtesy of openers the Filmore Valley Boys, and tickets are $5. And you can catch Delta Moon the night before at the Blue Bayou Club in Hillsborough. That show also has a 9:30 p.m. start.