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”.

Song of the Day: Music Inspired by Television Shows (Day Six). “I Want My MTV”.

Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits’ fifth album, was released in 1985.  The album charted at number one worldwide, spending ten weeks at number one in the UK and nine weeks at the top spot in the US and thirty-four weeks at number one in Australia.  It became the eighth best-selling album in UK chart history, is certified nine times platinum in the US and is one of the world’s best selling albums, having sold over thirty million copies worldwide.  It was also one of the first albums to be released in the CD format.  Following the release of opening track So Far Away as the first single just prior to the album’s release, the second single was one of Dire Straits’ most recognisable, famous and enduring songs, Money for Nothing.

Money for Nothing is notable for several reasons:  Its controversial lyrics, groundbreaking video and cameo appearance by Sting, who sings the song’s falsetto introduction and backing chorus, “I want my MTV”.  The single’s accompanying video was also the first to be aired on MTV Europe when the network started on the 1st August 1987.  The single was one of the band’s most successful, staying at the top spot in the US for three weeks and peaking at number four on the UK charts.  Money for Nothing went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1986 at the 28th Grammy Awards.

The lyrics of Money for Nothing are written from the point of view of a working class man working in a hardware store who is watching music videos on MTV and commenting on what he sees.  Singer, guitarist and songwriter explained the song’s meaning in a 1984 interview with critic Bill Flanagan, saying:

“The lead character in Money for Nothing is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television / custom kitchen / refrigerator / microwave appliance store.  He’s singing the song.  I wrote the song when I was actually in the store.  I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store.  I wanted to use the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real …”

In a 2000 interview with Michael Parkinson on his television programme, Parkinson, Knopfler explained the origin of the lyrics again, saying that he was in New York and stopped by an appliance store.  At the back of the store, they had a wall of TVs which were all showing MTV.  Knopfler continued to explain how there was a man working there dressed in a baseball cap, work boots, and a checkered shirt delivering boxes who was standing next to him watching.  As they were standing there watching MTV, Knophler remembers the man coming up with lines such as “what are those, Hawaiian noises? … that ain’t working” and so on.  Knopfler asked for a pen to write down some of the lines to eventually put them to music.

The character in the song, speaking in the first person, refers to a musician that he sees on the screen “Banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee” and a woman “Stickin’ in the camera, man we could have some fun”.  He moans about how the artists that he sees get “money for nothing and chicks for free” and describes a singer as “that little faggot with the earring and the make up” and moans about how the artists that he sees get “money for nothing and chicks for free”.

In an interview with Blender magazine in 2007, Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx claimed that the song was written about his band, saying:  ““Money for nothing and the chicks for free … that little faggot got his own jet airplane”.  They were in a store that sells televisions, and there was a row of TVs all playing Motley Crue – and that’s where it came from.  Isn’t that great?”

The lyrics in the song’s second verse, “See that little faggot with the earring and the makeup, Yeah buddy that’s his own hair, That little faggot got his own jet airplane, that little faggot he’s a millionaire” sparked much controversy, with several publications deeming them to be homophobic.  In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Knopfler said of the criticism:

“I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London – he actually said it was below the belt.  Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you can’t let it have too many meanings – you have to be direct.  In fact, I’m still in two minds as to whether it’s a good idea to write songs that aren’t in the first person, to take on other characters.  The singer in Money for Nothing is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality – someone who sees everything in financial terms.  I mean, this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars.  He sees it in terms of, well, that’s not working and yet the guy’s rich:  that’s a good scam.  He isn’t sneering”.

The songwriting credits for Money for Nothing are shared between Knopfler and Sting.  Whilst Dire Straits were recording the song in Montserrat, Sting was also visiting the city and Knopfler invited him to add some background vocals.  Sting has said that his only writing contribution to Money for Nothing was the line “I want my MTV”, which follows the melody from The Police’s song, Don’t Stand So Close to Me (Zenyatta Mondatta, 1980).

In terms of the song’s music, Knopfler modelled his guitar sound for the distinctive riff after ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons’ trademark guitar tone, much due to the fact that ZZ Top’s music videos were very popular on MTV.  In an interview with Musician magazine in 1986, Gibbons stated that Knopfler had asked for his help in creating the right guitar sound for the track, but also said, “He didn’t do a half-bad job, considering I didn’t tell him a thing!”

The video for Money for Nothing, directed by Steve Barron, who also directed the videos for A-Ha’s Take On Me (Hunting High and Low, 1985) …

… and Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded Me With Science (The Golden Age of Wireless, 1982), was seen as highly innovate at the time.

The video was the one of the first to feature computer generated animation by means of the early program, Paintbox.  Apparently, the characters in the video were supposed to have more detail, such as buttons on their shirts, but the project went over budget.  The video won the award for Best Video at the MTV Music Awards in 1986.

In the book I Want My MTV:  The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (2011), it is explained by various people who worked at the network that Dire Straits’ manager Ed Bicknell asked MTV what they could do to get on the network and break America.  MTV’s answer was, for them to write a hit song and have a top director make a video.  In a 2011 interview with Culturebrats, Barron said of the video:

“The song is damning to MTV in a way.  That was an iconic video.  Te characters we created were made of televisions, and they were slagging off television.  Videos were getting a bit boring, they needed some waking up.  And MTV went nuts for it.  It was like a big advertisement for them”.