Song of the Day: Travel in Music (Day Four). “Well It’s Alright, We’re Going to the End of the Line”.

The Traveling Wilburys were an English-American supergroup made up of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty.  The band recorded two albums, Traveling Wilburys (Vol. 1) (1988) and the mischievously and misleadingly titled Traveling Wilburys (Vol. 3) (1990).  Orbison died in December 1988, two months after the release of the first album.

Harrison had first mentioned the Traveling Wilburys during a radio interview with Bob Coburn on the Rockline Radio station in February 1988.  In answer to Coburn asking Harrison what he planned to do as a follow up to his 1987 album, Cloud Nine, Harrison replied:  “What I’d really like to do next is … to do an album with me and some of my mates ,,, a few tunes, you know.  Maybe The Traveling Wilburys … it’s this new group I got:  it’s called the Traveling Wilburys, I’d like to do an album with them and later we can do our own albums again”.

The band’s name derived from a slang term first used by Harrison during the recording of Cloud Nine with Lynne as producer.  ‘Wilbury’ referred to any small mistake in the performance, with Harrison saying to Lynne, “We’ll bury ‘em in the mix”.  Harrison originally suggested the name Trembling Wilburys for the band but Lynne suggested Traveling Wilburys, to which all members agreed.

The band name uses the American-English spelling, ‘Traveling’ in order to compliment the American / English membership of the band.  The ‘Wilbury’ joke was extended to the pseudonyms used by the band.  Taking on the guise of the Wilbury brothers, Harrison became Nelson Wilbury; Lynne became Otis Wilbury; Orbison became Lefty Wilbury and Petty became Charlie T. Jr. Wilbury.  Harrison had already used a number of pseudonyms in the past.  Take for example on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

Additionally, as a session musician, he had gone under names such as L’Angelo Misterioso, George O’Hara and Hari Georgeson.  The five men stated that they were half-brothers and sons of the fictional Charles Truscott Wilbury Sr.  The real names of the band members never appear anywhere on any Traveling Wilburys release.

The band began with a meal between Harrison, Lynne and Orbison.  Shortly afterwards, they convened at Dylan’s home in Malibu, California to record a B-side for Harrison’s single, This Is Love (Cloud Nine, 1987).  Petty’s involvement came by chance due to Harrison leaving his guitar at Petty’s house.  When Harrison went to collect it, he took Petty back with him.  The resulting song was Handle with Care.  Those involved in the recording and Harrison’s record label felt that the song was too good to be thrown away on a single flipside and the five friends set out to record an entire album.  Recording took place in the home and garden of Eurythmics member, Dave Stewart.  Handle with Care is the opening cut on the resulting album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1.

The theme of travelling in the music of the Traveling Wilburys is most prevalent on the band’s second single and closing track of Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, End of the Line.  The single was released in January 1989.  The riding-on-the-rails rhythm of the song compliments the travel by train themed lyrics and the on-the-move nature of the band.  The whole band take on main vocal duties on the song, with the exception of Dylan.  Harrison, Lynne and Orbison take turns in singing the chorus whilst Petty sings the verses.  By the end of the song, the riding-on-the-rails rhythm has expanded into a freight train style rhythm.  Due to the video for the single being shot after the death of Orbison, the band opted to pay tribute to him with a single shot of a guitar sitting in a rocking chair next to a photo of their late friend.  The video shows the band members in a carriage of a steam train playing the song.

The song’s title refers to the train’s last stop whilst the lyrics contain the folk style wisdom derived from the band members’ past experiences.  As the song starts, Harrison takes the lead vocal with backing vocals from the other Wilburys.  The opening chorus sets the scene for the song, portraying the band members as free spirits:  “Well it’s all right, riding around in the breeze, Well it’s all right, if you live the life you please, Well it’s all right, doing the best you can, Well it’s all right, as long as you lend a hand”.

In the first verse, with lead vocals by Petty, the band tell of how they are unconstrained by every day things:  “You can sit around and wait for the phone to ring, Waiting for someone to tell you everything, Sit around and wonder what tomorrow will bring, Maybe a diamond ring”.

Following this, the second chorus, with lead vocals by Lynne finds the band telling the listener not to take any notice of what anybody else says:  “Well it’s all right, even if they say you’re wrong, Well it’s all right, as long as you got somewhere to lay, Well it’s all right, everyday is Judgement Day”.

Verse two, with lead vocals from Petty, finds the narrator thinking of somebody he has left behind:  “Maybe somewhere down the road aways, You’ll think of me, wonder where I am these days, Maybe somewhere down the road where somebody plays, Purple Haze”.  “Purple Haze” refers to the Jimi Hendrix song, Purple Haze.  Purple Haze was released as the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s second single in 1967 and was the opening song on the North American edition of his debut album, Are You Experienced?, also released in 1967.  Here, Petty is expecting his muse to associate the song with him whilst she is thinking of him.

The third chorus, with lead vocals by Orbison, continues the joyous celebration of being unfettered by worrying about the troubles of life:  “Well it’s all right, even when push comes to shove, Well it’s all right, if you got someone to love, Well it’s all right, everything’ll work out fine, Well it’s all right, everything’ll work out fine, Well it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line”.  This verse is poignant due to “the end of the line” being an analogy for death as well as the end of the railway line.

The third verse, with lead vocals by Petty, tells of how the narrator cares little about material possessions and states that he doesn’t even mind if anybody is “by his side”, perhaps meaning a loved one or those who criticise him in general:  “Don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive, I’m glad to be here, happy to be alive, It don’t matter if you’re by my side, I’m satisfied”.

The fourth chorus, sung by Harrison, begins with the lines, “Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey, Well it’s all right, you still got something to say”.  When the band formed, Harrison was 45 years old Dylan and Orbison were even older.  Whilst traditional societies have often emphasised the wisdom of older people, modern rock music usually considers even the relative middle age of 45 as being too old to be relevant.  This verse is notable for being adapted as the theme tune for the BBC series New Tricks (2003 – present) and sung by cast member Dennis Waterman.

As the fourth chorus continues, we find the line “Well it’s all right, remember to live and let live”.  “Live and let live” was the name given to the strategy used by soldiers of both sides in World War One to avoid killing each other if it could be helped, often via the negotiation of truces between low-ranking soldiers.  The war was essentially a pointless one, with the common man not having much to gain or a cause to fight for.  As a result, these truces were quite common.  The most famous truce occurred on Christmas Day, 1914 when the opposing sides took part in a football match.  Unfortunately, such truces were easily broken with high ranking officers organising raids to encourage the violence to start again or disciplining soldiers for cowardice if they objected to killing.  The punishment for cowardice was death.  In the context of this song, however, “live and let live” means something akin to “let sleeping dogs lie”; i.e. live your life without harming others if necessary.  The final line of the fourth chorus, “Well it’s all right, the best you can do is forgive” suggests that we should forgive those who have wronged you in order to be free of bitterness and therefore, happy.

The song comes full circle with the final chorus, with lead vocals by Harrison, which starts with the same two lines found in the first chorus.  The verse continues with the line, “Well it’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine”.  The sun and clouds were reoccurring metaphors in Harrison’s songs, representing peacefulness and clarity.  For the best examples of this, see All Things Must Pass (All Things Must Pass, 1970); …

… Blow Away (George Harrison, 1979) …

… and Here Comes the Sun (The Beatles, 1968).

The song and the journey are neatly brought to a close with the line, “Well it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line”.

In 2000, End of the Line was used at the close of the last episode of BBC television comedy One Foot in the Grave, Things Aren’t That Simple Anymore.  The song was played over a montage of clips from the lifetime of the show, following the death of its main character, Victor Meldrew.  Interestingly, Eric Idle, who provided provided the liner notes for Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 under the pseudonym Prof. Tiny’ Hampton, wrote and sang the theme tune for One Foot in the Grave.

Song of the Day: Music Inspired by Television Shows (Day Seven). “‘Cause I’m the Taxman, Yeah, I’m the Taxman”.

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”.