Lyrics Uncovered: The Beatles’ ‘Taxman’
It’s that time of year again — when we sort through all of our receipts and forms and pay more than our fair share to Uncle Sam. As we tried to figure out just how much we owe, one song in particular has been going through our heads repeatedly: “Taxman” by the Beatles.
Written by George Harrison, “Taxman” kicked off the band’s 1966 album Revolver. The lyrics are a scathing comment on Britain’s high rate of taxation. While its opening line “Let me tell you how it will be / Here’s one for you, 19 for me” may seem hyperbolic, it was actually quite true. At the time, the wealthiest in Great Britain were taxed at 83 percent, with a “surtax” that added an extra 15 percent. (The surtax was abolished in 1973.)
As Harrison, who came from an impoverished background, began to make millions of pounds, he soon found out about the unfairness of these policies and lashed out about them in song. He portrayed the government, in the voice of one of Her Majesty’s tax collectors, as unrepentantly greedy. The lyric “Be thankful I don’t take it all” echoes the famous remarks by former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, who, in 1957, said that “most of our people have never had it so good.” While Britain’s economy at the time was strong, many considered it to be dismissive and condescending.
Harrison was bipartisan in his attack. In the third verse, he (via the backing vocals of John Lennon and Paul McCartney) took aim at Prime Minister Harold Wilson of the Labour Party, and Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative Party. An earlier take, which was released on Anthology 2 in 1996, found John and Paul singing “Anybody got a bit of money?” in its place.
It’s been said that the only two things in life that are guaranteed are death and taxes, and the final verse of “Taxman” brings both of them together. The couplet, “Now my advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes” is a reference to the practice in ancient civilizations of placing coins on the eyes of the deceased as a fare for the mythical ferryman who brought souls across a river into the afterlife.
One quick note about the music. Though “Taxman” was written by Harrison, the Beatles’ lead guitarist, he did not play the song’s solos. They were instead performed by McCartney, who dashed off the seven-bar solo in the middle, which was then copied and tacked on to the end.
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