12/4/2001 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett
Last week's death of ex-Beatle George Harrison brought forth a large amount of retrospection of his music and that of The Beatles. It reminded me that Harrison had written my favorite Beatle tune, "Taxman" -- one of the greatest tax protest songs of all time.
In the mid-1960s, the top British tax rate was 91.5 percent on incomes above 115,000 pounds. This was only slightly below the 95 percent top rate during World War II. By contrast, the top U.S. rate was just 70 percent at that time, thanks to the Kennedy tax cut.
Since The Beatles skyrocketed to fame so quickly and so unexpectedly, they never had time to arrange their finances so as to minimize their tax burden. As a consequence, all four members of the group probably paid about 90 percent of all the money they made in their early years to the British Treasury.
In "Taxman," which appeared on the album "Revolver" in 1966, Harrison wrote: "There's one for you, 19 for me." This suggests a 95 percent effective tax rate, which was pretty close to the truth. But there was little to be gained by complaining. "Should 5 percent appear to small," he went on, "Be thankful I don't take it all/'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah I'm the taxman." Then come these great lines:
"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/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 Beatles weren't the only British rock group to complain about high taxes in 1966. The Kinks also took a shot at confiscatory British taxes in their hit, "Sunny Afternoon," which reached No. 14 on the pop chart. "The tax man's taken all my dough," the song begins. "And I can't sail my yacht/He's taken everything I've got."
A few years later in 1971, The Kinks were still complaining about Big Government in the land of their birth. In "Twentieth Century Man" on their album "Muswell Hillbillies," they sing, "I was born in a welfare state/Ruled by bureaucracy/Controlled by civil servants/And people dressed in gray/Got no privacy/Got no liberty."
American rock groups have also complained about high taxes on numerous occasions over the years. Perhaps the first was The Kingston Trio. In 1959, they recorded "M.T.A." about Boston's Metropolitan Transit Authority, which ran the subways. This government agency levied "a burdensome tax on the population in the form of a subway fare increase," they tell us at the beginning. Apparently, the 50 percent fare increase took effect while a fellow named Charlie was riding the subway. When he tried to leave, he had to pay "one more nickel" that he didn't have. This doomed him to ride the subway forever.
In the 1960s, The Temptations were one of the hottest rock groups in America, with many top 10 hits. In 1970, they recorded "Ball of Confusion" about the woes of modern society. Among those they cite are taxes. "Politicians say mo' taxes will solve everything," The Temptations complained. Listening to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle lately, one would have to conclude that little has changed since then.
The latest rock group to go after the taxman is Cheap Trick. Probably best known for its huge 1979 hit, "I Want You to Want Me," this group has had a cult following for years. Two years ago, they recorded "Taxman, Mr. Thief" on their album, "Music For Hangovers." The title pretty much says it all. In any case, the lyrics leave little doubt as to how Cheap Trick feels about taxes, playing off The Beatles' "Taxman."
"You work hard, you make money/There ain't no one in the world who can stop you/You work hard, you went hungry/Now the taxman is out to get you/You worked hard/And slaved and slaved for years/Break your back, sweat a lot/Well, it's just not fair/He hates you, he loves money/And he'll steal your s**t and think that it's funny/Like the Beatles, he ain't human/Now the taxman is out to get you."
Of course, Harrison was much more than just a tax protester. Although his music was somewhat neglected by the group during Harrison's Beatles years, he emerged as a great singer/songwriter in his own right once out from under the shadow of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, after the breakup of The Beatles. Therefore, it is interesting that one of the few Harrison compositions that The Beatles did record was "Taxman." I make a special point of listening to it every April 15.