No matter how hard you fight it, The Beatles have seeped into every single pore on the cultural face of Britain. The band were our ultimate 20th-century conquerors and brought together the globe in their adoration for the four lads from Liverpool. Whether you were from the south or the north, or even the city’s arch-rivals, Manchester, The Beatles’ influence was hard to escape if you were a musician.
The band have been routinely credited with stoking the fires of an entire movement of rock and roll as they delivered masterclasses on changing the cultural landscape with almost every album release. It was a sound that washed over The Smiths’ guitarist and songwriting extraordinaire, Johnny Marr, was one of those musicians completely entranced by The Beatles growing up. Like the rest of us, Marr even has a favourite song by the band.
It’s not unusual to have a favourite Beatles song. However, Marr’s pick is a little out of leftfield. As part of a larger feature for NME, Marr picked out the Revolver classic ‘Taxman’ as his most cherished song from the Fab Four. The song is widely considered the moment George Harrison began to find his feet with songwriting while previously remaining in the shadows of the group’s songwriting partnership Lennon-McCartney.
“I remember the day he called to ask for help on ‘Taxman’, one of his first songs,” recalled John Lennon when speaking to Playboy’s David Sheff during his infamous 1980 interview. “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,” the singer continued. “It’s enough doing my own and Paul’s. 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.”
For Marr, it wasn’t just the fact it was Harrison’s first song that resonated with him but the sheer audacity to take on the British establishment through a pop song. But, The Beatles weren’t just any band, and their talent and fame made them formidable foes for any government. “It would take a band with that cockiness, and the character of George Harrison, to name names in the way they do,” said Marr of the song. “They didn’t hold back. It’s a very anti-establishment song, especially for those times. They name names and point the finger, and it might be the first directly anti-establishment song to get in the charts.”
At the time, Harrison was struggling to come to terms with the newly implemented tax laws and how his money was suddenly dwindling with such ferocity: “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. In those days, we paid 19 shillings and sixpence out of every pound, and with supertax and surtax and tax-tax, it was ridiculous – a heavy penalty to pay for making money. That was a big turn-off for Britain. Anybody who ever made any money moved to America or somewhere else.”
Considering Harrison would go on to pay the Inland Revenue a whopping £1,000,000 in 1973 for his contributions, it would seem that Harrison never gave up on his duty to pay tax. Instead, he decided to write more songs, release more records and make more money. ‘Taxman’ would give Harrison the kick he needed to turn his full attention to songwriting and try to break through on his own merit.
Listen to Johnny Marr’s favourite Beatles song of all time, George Harrison’s ‘Taxman’, below.