When George Harrison left The Beatles he was ready to take on the world and, for a time, he was the biggest name The Beatles had produced. With his solo album, All Things Must Pass, Harrison proved what he had already known for a long time; he was a great songwriter.
We’re taking a trip back to 1966 and revisiting the first song that truly landed alongside those of John Lennon and Paul McCartney — and it was enough to turn the former’s stomach over.
George Harrison’s songwriting contributions continued to increase from the moment he wrote and recorded ‘Don’t Bother Me’ for the Fab Four’s record With The Beatles. He composed the track while unwell in bed and while it’s not the landmark tune one might hope, Harrison once said, “At least it showed me that all I needed to do was keep on writing, and then maybe eventually I would write something good”.
A great songwriter himself, Bob Dylan, once accurately summed up Harrison’s place within The Beatles: “George got stuck with being the Beatle that had to fight to get songs on records because of Lennon and McCartney. Well, who wouldn’t get stuck?” he said in a 2007 interview.
It’s hard to argue with, it must have been relatively stifling to sit between two such musical powerhouses as John and Paul. “If George had had his own group and was writing his own songs back then, he’d have been probably just as big as anybody,” Dylan added. Instead, Harrison decided to tough it out and perhaps pick up a few tricks along the way, as he added his own compositions to the albums.
One such composition, however, would completely change The Beatles forever and ensure that the Lennon-McCartney reign was certainly over. The song in question was the 1966 effort ‘Taxman’. The opening track on The Beatles’ album Revolver, the track marked not only Harrison using his own life to help him write songs but the first moment he really ascended to match the levels of Lennon-McCartney.
The song’s anti-socialist message may not have been quite as in-keeping with their tone as others, but the track remains a favourite among fans. Musically, it was rich and textured, lyrically it was barbed and jagged. “I had discovered I was paying a huge amount of money to the taxman. You are so happy that you’ve finally started earning money – and then you find out about tax,” remembered Harrison for Anthology.
“In those days we paid 19 shillings and sixpence [96p] out of every pound, and with supertax and surtax and tax-tax it was ridiculous – a heavy penalty to pay for making money,” he added. “That was a big turn-off for Britain. Anybody who ever made any money moved to America or somewhere else.”
They did, too. A whole host of British rock stars of the time, targeted by the government, were effectively exiled from Britain as the sought countries with looser taxation laws. But the real ripples of change were felt within the group, not outside it. ‘Taxman’ proved that Harrison had caught up to his bandmates in the songwriting game and Lennon knew it all too well.
“I remember the day he called to ask for help on ‘Taxman’, one of his first songs,” Lennon told David Sheff back in 1980. “I threw in a few one-liners to help the song along, because that’s what he asked for. He came to me because he couldn’t go to Paul, because Paul wouldn’t have helped him at that period. I didn’t want to do it. I thought, Oh, no, don’t tell me I have to work on George’s stuff. It’s enough doing my own and Paul’s.”
However, Lennon was still more than happy to help out a friend: “But because I loved him and I didn’t want to hurt him when he called that afternoon and said, ‘Will you help me with this song?’ I just sort of bit my tongue and said OK. It had been John and Paul for so long, he’d been left out because he hadn’t been a songwriter up until then”.
After the release of ‘Taxman’, things changed. Suddenly Harrison’s songs were taken seriously, or at least more seriously. He was given more license to experiment and write his own tunes. The guitarist would go on a cracking run of songs too, providing some of The Beatles finest such as, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ to name two.
It all started with ‘Taxman’, the George Harrison song that changed The Beatles forever.