George Harrison and the Taxman

For me it is life and taxes that are inseparable: I was born on April 15.  Only when I turned forty, six years ago did my friend David Borden, founder of the pioneering synthesizer trio Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company (of which I am a proud and long-standing member), wish me happy birthday this way: “I guess I could say many happy returns.”  Four decades of life, and some twenty years of doing my taxes and no one, not even myself, had made that painfully obvious pun.

The mad tax scramble of my birthday has become an intrinsic part of the rhythms of my existence. When such rituals are disturbed it feels like an imposition, un upturning of the proper order of things. This year’s weekend-long reprieve to April 18th rewrites an immutable line of life’s script. The granting of this extra time only serves to highlight the arbitrary power of the tax authority: that dark priesthood alone can tinker with the absolute, blithely realigning the sacred calendar of financial tribute.

Tossed amidst the sea of receipts seething on my study floor, I assuaged my tax-sickness last year with Bach’s Cantata, Nur Jedem das Seine. The whitecaps are spitting foam again this year, but this season the soundtrack for the misery of a birth connected umbilically to taxes is more recent—George Harrison’s “Taxman,” a song that combines an appealing, if impotent, discontent with New Age visions of a tax-free Utopia.

“Taxman” was among George Harrison’s first songwriting triumphs, overshadowed and crowded out as he had been as a contributor to the Beatles repertoire by his bandmates, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  The first number of the 1966 album Revolver, the group’s seventh release, “Taxman”is the only Harrison song that ever opened one of the group’s albums. With this tune the so-called “Quiet Beatle” created a musical forum for glowing anger, stoked by the musicians around him, and, as always, the interventions of the Beatles’ producer, George Martin.

The opening count-off  mocks itself: George Harrison’s voice is apparently slowed down by the tape and is heard with a nasal fustiness, as if he were counting money rather  than launching one of the up-tempo album openers beloved and expected of the Beatles when Revolver was snapped up by eager fans in the summer of 1966.  This count-off seems to to undo the Ancient Greek formulation that music is number in sound. Harrison’s vocalized numbers are precisely metronomic without being invested with the musical life we know as rhythm: the deadeningly accurate enunciations of  the taxman are an accounting of time not an animation of it. It is a brilliant lead-in, simultaneously parodying the idea of the count-off while also creating a vision of the auditor, who seems to hover the rest of a song so resistant to his ways and wants. The tone has been set before a note is played or sung.

As Harrison counts out his 1-2-3-4 impolite musicians warm up in the background.  A cough is heard, a lick on a guitar. The accountant’s count-off starts into a second bar but gets only as far as the number two before a shout of “four” from one of those musicians (Paul McCartney) prevents the bean-counting voice from even getting to “three.” The slow pace seemingly set up by the adenoidal count-off is overturned as the band breaks out into a much faster opening tempo implied in McCartney’s single number “four.”

In the vast Beatles literature, McCartney is credited with devising the bass line he plays to kick-start the song and that first chases away that Harrison’s metrical accounting. The bass figure is the thematic underpinning of the song in every sense: it provides the harmonic basis throughout, unchanging in melodic profile in almost every bar even when transposed from the home-key of D major (though one ringing with discontented D minor) to one of the song’s other two chords. Ostinato means obstinate, and there is gritty resistance in McCartney’s bass line, one powered by the electric urban energy and anger that gives funk its menacing bite. Urged on both by the punches of Ringo Starr’s bass drum and the rhythm guitar’s stinging off-beat chords, the bass exudes inner city discontent, though even this, like the bean-counter’s count-off, is a pose, even if perfect one.

When Harrison’s lead vocal enters at the end of the second bar of this bass riff, he sings in recalcitrant syncopations that seem to adopt the rejected slower pace of the count-off.  But this parallel does not project dolorous computation, but instead feet-dragging unwillingness, as the lyric lays out the cruel reality—at least from the point of view of the newly ascendant Beatles millionaires—of Britain’s 1960s steeply pitched tax rates: “Let me tell you how it will be: There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”  The Beatle literature often explains this disgruntlement by claiming that the highest brackets of the British tax code could be as high as 95 per cent in the period, though what the Beatles actually paid goes uninvestigated.

Why do the authorities have the right to take this all money from talented and hard-working earners? The answer of Harrison’s song is simple: “cause I’m the taxman.”  At these words the harmony feints not to the expected IV chord, but to a somewhat disreputable relation,VII—a modal-inflected harmony that casts the tax collector as himself furtive and grasping.

These initially-unexpected harmonies retain something of the shape and color of the 12-bar blues form, yet here too things are seditiously altered with a thirteenth bar thrown in to make the whole edifice seem more unstable: the creative imagination cannot be squared by the bean-counters metrics. Perhaps only future archival research will ever reveal whether these musical procedures might indicate that Harrison’s tax returns were filled out with a similar creativity.

The second  pass through the refrain is more bitter, still:

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.

Unusually, the ensuing bridge does not depart the home key, a fact that one might want to assign to the inescapability of the taxman’s menace. That this segment is also an odd number of measures long—nine to be exact— contributes to the sense of a bridling at formal constraints, a sentiment that has afflicted anyone who’s ever filled out a tax return. Foregoing harmonic variety, the bridge is instead marked out by increased agitation McCartney’s bass lines, and Harrison’s introduction of a dialogue between the back-up and lead vocals.

(if you drive a car, car;) – I’ll tax the street;
(if you try to sit, sit;) – I’ll tax your seat;
(if you get too cold, cold;) – I’ll tax the heat;
(if you take a walk, walk;) – I’ll tax your feet.

This then gives way to another oft-praised moment: a wild guitar solo that pleased Harrison for its Indian inflections, though I hear much more a blues-scale frenzy.

Rounding back into the refrain, Harrison sneers at the British Prime Ministers of the period, doling out sarcasm in equal measure to the Labour and Conservative Parties (“Ha-ha Mister Wilson” and “Ha-ha Mister Heath”). With slight adjustments to the scansion, the names of Obama and Boehner might just as easily be substituted by those of us singing along today and over the weekend.

What is perhaps most curious, one might even say fateful, about Harrison’s “Taxman” is that it was written before he and the rest of Beatles met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in London in 1967, a year after the release of Revolver. The group would  journey to his ashram in Indian a year later, but leave within weeks amid accusations that the holy man had sexual harassed female members (including Mia Farrow) of the Beatles entourage, though Harrison remained a life-long devotee.

The Maharishi was himself  the son of a tax collector, and underwent devastating audits that made him remove his headquarters from India.  His world-wide Transcendental Mediation empire, now extended through television and satellite and other forms of “outreach,” was roughly valued in the billions at the time of his death in 2008. Already by the 1970s it had made it to every corner of the U.S., including Bainbridge Island, Washington, where my parents and my three siblings did TM and added to the Maharishi’s coffers, and therefore too, I suppose to his tax woes.  In the late 1980s his offices in India were raided by the tax authorities, and he eventually left his native land for good to set up his ashram in southeastern corner of The Netherlands in a Franciscan monastery that the residents were eager to bulldoze as soon as they found out who might be moving in.

In 1992 the Maharishi and his followers founded the Natural Law Party, which to solve the yogic flying, and among other things, lower taxes. Harrison performed his “Taxman” at benefits for benefits for the party at the Albert Hall. Misdirected political action, financial self-interest and spiritual fulfillment all coalesced in a groovy 1960s song that could hardly have imagined such a fate for itself.

The Maharishi later plans included three hundred trillion dollar investment to remake every building in the world so that it would be “fortune creating.”  How this might have be financed without taxes remained obscure, though the idea seems to have been something like transcendental trickle down economics Yes, one can laugh or cry at schemes such as his proposed 1400-acre Maharishi Veda Land theme park near Niagara Falls, which would certainly have been an whacky alternative to the post-Industrial Squalor Theme Park that currently encloses this natural wonder.

As for Harrison, he had different problems with the Taxman than did the Maharishi. Some years after Revolver and soon after the break-up of the Beatles, he organized the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. The ticket receipts, recording, film, and merchandising raised something some fifteen million dollars but the U. S. demanded a million of it in tax. Harrison eventually paid the bill himself.

Even minus several zeroes, I know how Harrison felt.  All the yogic hopping and flying cannot change the real truth he revealed in 1966: one can gripe and complain, but the Taxman always get his due. Now back to those taxes: I want to pay the Taxman on my birthday.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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