Taxman by The Beatles, from their 1966 album Revolver, is undeniably one of the greatest album openers in music history. A quick, sharp song informed by a pounding bassline which has inspired generations of future musicians, a unique and beautifully executed lead guitar line and topical lyrics which slated Harold Wilson’s government and in particular, their taxation policies, have made Taxman one of The Beatles’ many finest moments.
Written by George Harrison, and becoming one of his best known works for The Beatles, it is the only Harrison-penned track to take premier position on a Beatles album, testament to how strong the main songwriters, John Lennon and Paul McCartney knew it was. In fact, this was a time when Harrison’s song writing for the band was at its zenith, acknowledged by three of his songs, the most on any Beatles album apart from The Beatles (1968), being featured on Revolver: Taxman, the Indian-tinged Love You To and the beautiful I Want to Tell You. Taxman was actually one of the first songs that Harrison had written but became the sixth song to be featured on a Beatles record.
Musically, Taxman was inspired by the theme tune to the 1960’s TV series Batman (1966 – 1968), of which Harrison was a big fan. Take for instance, the way in which the word “Taxman” is sung in a similar manner to “Batman” in the TV theme.
The Batman theme was originally written by conductor and trumpeter Neal Hefti and covered by surf rock group The Marketts, who released the song as a single in January 1966, reaching number 17 in the US singles chart. It could be said that Harrison humorously draws comparisons between the ‘civil servant superhero’ in the song and Batman himself.
Over the years, there has been some confusion as to which of The Beatles’ played the lead guitar part on the song. According to various interviews, McCartney played the distinctive lead guitar part. In addition McCartney also played the song’s much imitated bassline, which itself is said to imitate the work of bassist James Jamerson, famous for his work on many 1960s soul records, including Wilson Pickett’s In the Midnight Hour (from the album In the Midnight Hour, 1965).
In a 1984 interview with Playboy, McCartney stated, “George wrote that and I played guitar on it”. In a 1977 interview with Crawdaddy, Harrison said: “I helped out such a lot in all the arrangements. There were a lot of tracks though where I played bass. Paul played lead guitar on Taxman and he played guitar – a good part – on Drive My Car [Rubber Soul, 1965]”.
Seth Swirsky, who worked as a staff songwriter before producing the Beatles documentary, Beatles Stories, said in a 2010 interview with Songfacts: “I think Paul McCartney was one of the greatest guitar players of the ‘60s. Nobody really recognised him as an electric guitar player, or an acoustic guitar player, but his leads on Taxman and on different songs that you think George played, they ripped. I think George is great, but when Paul played lead on some songs, they tore. They were just very unique. There’s no one like Paul McCartney in the history of the world”.
In his book, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles (2006), Geoff Emerick said of the recording session for Taxman: “There was a bit of tension on that session, though, because George had a great deal of trouble playing the solo – in fact, he couldn’t do a proper job of it when we slowed the tape down to half speed. After a couple of hours of watching him struggle, both Paul and George Martin started becoming frustrated. This was a Harrison song and therefore not something anyone was prepared to spend a whole lot of time on. So George Martin went into the studio and, as diplomatically as possible, announced that he wanted Paul to have a go at the solo instead. I could see from the look on Harrison’s face that he didn’t like the idea one bit, but he reluctantly agreed and then proceeded to disappear for a couple of hours. He sometimes did that – had a bit of a sulk on his own, then eventually came back”. Emerick then dubbed McCartney’s eventual guitar solo onto another piece of tape and cut it into the end of the song; therefore, the guitar solo in the middle of the song is exactly the same guitar solo which features in the song’s fade out. In a 1987 interview with Guitar magazine, Harrison said, “I was pleased to have Paul play that bit on Taxman. If you notice, he does a little Indian bit on it for me”.
Additionally, Lennon remembers Harrison asking for assistance in the song’s lyrics. In a 1980 interview with Playboy, he said: “I remember the day he [Harrison] called to ask for help on Taxman, one of his first songs. I threw in a few one-liners to help the song along, because that’s what he asked for. He came to me because Paul wouldn’t have helped him at that period. I didn’t want to do it … I just sort of bit my tongue and said OK. It had been John and Paul for so long, he’d been left out because he hadn’t been a songwriter up until then”.
Lyrically, Taxman attacks the high levels of progressive tax taken by the British Labour government of Harold Wilson. Of the song’s lyrics, Harrison said, in his 1980 autobiography, I, Me, Mine: “Taxman was when I first realised that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes. It was and still is topical”. As their earnings placed then in the top tax bracket in the United Kingdom, the Beatles were liable to 95% supertax, something that had been introduced by Wilson’s labour government. The 95% supertax is mentioned in the song’s lyrics, for example, “Let me tell you how it will be, There’s one for you, nineteen for me, ‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman”. “One for you, nineteen for me” refers to the fact that for every twenty pounds the band and other ‘super-rich’ people earned, nineteen was taken by the taxman. This high rate of taxation, which added a full 15% on top of the tax for less wealthy people, eventually led to The Beatles starting Apple Corp. By channelling their income through Apple, they could pay the much lower rate of corporation tax. The supertax was also the subject of The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, from the album Face to Face, released in the same year as Revolver.
The second verse continues the slating of the supertax and referring to the five per cent left over after the taxman had had his cut, “Should five per cent appear too small, Be thankful I don’t take it all, ‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman”. The line “Be thankful I don’t take it all” could be seen to echo the famous remark made by former Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, in 1957, that “most of our people have never had it so good”. Whilst the British economy of the time was strong, many people had considered this statement to be dismissive and condescending.
The final two verses of the song move into the territory of exaggeration; such was Harrison’s frustration with the supertax. Firstly, there is the verse, “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street, If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat, If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat, If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet”.
Following this, the songwriter questions where the where the money the band paid was going, with the taxman feeling that he does not have to give an explanation: “Don’t ask me what I want it for, If you don’t want to pay some more, ‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman”.
The lyrics in the final verse of the song, “Now my advice for those who die, Declare the pennies on your eyes …” refers to the way in which, in Greek history, pennies would be put over the eyes of a dead person as payment to the ferryman carrying the body to the underworld. In this verse, Harrison is suggesting that the taxman is so ruthless that he would even go as far as taxing those pennies; which in effect, would cause your body to drift into some sort of purgatory.
The backing vocals in the fourth verse of Taxman, “Haha, Mr Wilson” and “Haha, Mr Heath” were suggested by Lennon upon Harrison asking him for help writing the song, with “Mr Wilson” referring to Harold Wilson, prime Minister and leader of the Labour party and “Mr Heath” referring to Edward Heath, the leader of the Conservative Party. Wilson had nominated all four Beatles as Members of the Order of the British Empire a year before the release of Revolver. As heard on Take 11 of Taxman, featured on Anthology 2, released in 1996, the spaces in the song which came to feature the chanted names were originally filled by the lyrics, “Anybody got a bit of money?”
As with a vast majority of Beatles songs, Taxman has had a lasting legacy on British music, with bands often just stealing parts of song’s innovative composition for their own. For example, on their 1980 album, Sound Affects, The Jam included Start!, which pays homage to McCartney’s bassline and guitar part. Start! reached number one in UK singles chart in August 1980.
The Jam also used the bassline from Taxman on their previous single, Dreams of Children, a double A-side with Going Underground (1980), which also reached number one in the UK singles chart. This time, the bassline was played as the lead guitar riff.
Interestingly, the Batman theme which had partly inspired Taxman, was covered by The Jam on their debut album, In the City, in 1977.
Meanwhile, Harrison would later allude to Taxman on his 1988 single, When We Was Fab, from the album Cloud Nine (1987), in the line “Back when income tax was all we had”.