By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Taxman’ is the opening track on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver, and sets the high lyrical standard of one of the band’s best albums, with even its title containing a double meaning (it’s a pun, with ‘revolver’ referring to both the gun and the LP, or record, spinning or ‘revolving’ on the turntable). But ‘Taxman’ wasn’t a Lennon/McCartney creation: George Harrison wrote it.
After ‘Here Comes the Sun’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, and ‘Something’, it is perhaps Harrison’s finest composition from the Beatles era. The lyrics are at once playful and humorous, and darkly satirical, railing against a heated political issue of the mid-1960s in Britain. Before we delve into the meaning and background of the song, it’s worth giving the song a listen here and reading the lyrics to ‘Taxman’ here.
‘Taxman’ has its origins in heavy taxation levied in the mid-1960s by Harold Wilson’s Labour government. The taxation measures included a supertax of 95% on the highest earners. Income tax, then as now, was levied at different rates in different brackets, so only the highest earners would pay such an eye-watering amount in tax, and even those would have to pay 95% on only their very highest earnings.
Still, to take £19 from someone for every £20 earned seems excessive, and even some socialists would blanch at asking people to pay such an amount.
By comparison, at the time of writing, the highest income tax rate in the UK is 45%. However, the 1960s was a very different era from our own times, and when you reflect that in 1970, Harrison bought the huge Surrey mansion Friar Park – now valued at $40 million – for just £140,000, which wouldn’t even get you a decent one-bedroom flat in the county now, you realise just how few people were earning the sort of money the Beatles were taking home in the 1960s.
Or would have been taking home, if it wasn’t for Wilson’s ‘supertax’.
‘Taxman’ is Harrison’s response to this supertax, which meant that the Beatles, who had worked their way up from humble working-class origins to become the biggest musical act on the planet, were earning huge sums of money but paying the majority of it straight into the coffers of the Inland Revenue (as then was).
The 95% rate on highest earnings is even directly referenced in the first verse of ‘Taxman’, with the reference to ‘one’ being for the artist and ‘nineteen’ (i.e. 95%) for the taxman himself. The reference to 5% appearing ‘too small’ in the second verse is another allusion to Wilson’s harsh levels of tax.
But what makes ‘Taxman’ a lyrical tour de force is the way Harrison builds the song from this simple premise and specific target, in those opening verses – short, clipped couplets – into something bigger in the third verse.
The idea of the UK government taxing everything they can think of – the seat people sit on, the street they drive on, the heating they require to keep warm, even their own feet if they want to go for a walk – is built up from the probable (streets are taxed, of course, in a sense: in Britain, council tax pays for their upkeep, and for roads to be mended and maintained) to the ludicrous and Orwellian (the notion of encroaching on a Briton’s individual liberties by taxing them even for going for a walk!).
But the insistence of the ‘eet’ rhymes in this quatrain, and the repetition of the same syntactical pattern throughout (‘If you…, I’ll tax…’), makes the slide from possible (and even actual) into the ridiculous (but then what is ridiculous in a country that has taxed windows, hats, bricks, windows, soap, pasties, and beards?).
‘Taxman’ ends with two further couplets, one of which explicitly mentions Harold Wilson (the British Prime Minister of the time) and Edward Heath (the Leader of the Opposition). The hint of menace in these later verses takes the song further into dystopian territory: don’t ask what your taxes will be used to fund, the taxman warns, or he might take even more of your hard-earned cash.
And when you die, even the pennies placed over your dead eyes should be ‘declared’ for tax purposes: this is a government bent on wringing every last penny, quite literally, from its populace, alive or dead. (The pennies over the eyes is an old tradition, of course, and originates in the idea of the dead paying the ferryman, Charon, to ferry them over the River Styx to the Underworld in pagan mythology.)
In the last analysis, ‘Taxman’ is a song whose meaning is clear, but the jaunty and infectious style of the song offsets the slightly sinister connotations of the song’s lyrics. It’s one of Harrison’s finest compositions, opening one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Yet its subject is hardly universal: few of the Beatles’ fans would have been personally concerned by the supertax. Yet it shows Harrison’s skill as a songwriter that he could spin a catchy tune and memorable lyrics out of fiscal policy.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.