This one is on for obvious reasons today. Hope you remembered to file!
As the lead-off song on 1966’s Revolver, “Taxman” has to be among the most significant of the songs written by George Harrison in The Beatles’ oeuvre, if only because it’s the only song by him that begins a Beatles LP. That alone should make it remarkable.
Harrison really began to come into his own in this period so that his contribution of a song to an album became more and more interesting. “Taxman”—like his later “Piggies”—shows that the “quiet Beatle” could be quite vitriolic. Here he’s the voice of the person fed up with how much of his money goes to taxes. The Beatles at this time had become so commercially successful that they were being taxed at 95%. “Should five percent appear too small / Be grateful I don’t take it all,” indeed.
The song is also in the spirit of “a plague on both your houses” as both Mr. Wilson (Labour Party) and Mr. Heath (Conservative Party) get jeered at. And that sentiment is appropriate to how I recall persons looking upon the government where I was from. Both parties, in the U.S. government, are only too happy to take your money for their bottomless “pork barrels.” Which is a way of saying that you didn’t have to be high rollers like the Fab Four to feel the pinch, and to take the song’s point of view.
In today’s world, it seems, big earners like The Beatles would find ways to get out of paying so much, but, yes, it was a more naïve world in those days, in so many ways. So much so that the song really seems like the gripe of the middle-class kid who suddenly strikes it rich only to see—as you would in cartoons—some Fat Cat government agent coming along to relieve him of the bulk of it. Easy come, easy go.
It’s also clever of Harrison to end the song as he does: “And my advice to those who’ve died / Declare the pennies on your eyes.” Which is a way of saying that death and taxes are indeed the only constants in life and that, even in death, there are taxes. Don’t we know it?
It’s a great, blistering song, with McCartney showing off on bass and on a distorted lead guitar solo, with a bit of Indian influence—an influence that surfaces significantly elsewhere on the album. It’s a style of rock that is somewhat akin to what would come to be called “acid rock,” with those heavy drums and the cranked-up guitar. It’s a far cry from the more subdued sounds of Rubber Soul, kicking off Revolver with a sense that the old happy-go-lucky Beatles are a thing of the past. Revolver shows signs of wanting to “say” more with their music, and this song indicates that the capitalist system which had made them its darlings was beginning to chafe.
There was also the further irony that leaders of the youth culture, still denigrated as noise makers in some quarters, should be contributing so much to the GNP of good old Blighty. Well, not so ironic if you consider that they were by this point MBEs all. All must pull their weight, lads!