As I write this it is Tax Day, April 18, the deadline for filing tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service, and an opportunity to ponder the effect of taxes on The Music.
But first, do you know why the deadline is three days later this year? If you said “because April 15 fell on a Saturday,” you’d be half right, but wouldn’t have explained why it wasn’t on Monday, the 17th.
The reason — and I would say this is rich, but then the IRS would tax it — is that Monday was an official holiday in Washington, D.C. It was Emancipation Day, marking Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves during the Civil War. Certainly an important event, and worth commemorating — but the juxtaposition, of emancipation and taxes, is ironically ironic.
Anyway, back to taxation and rock and roll. For something as certain as death, there haven’t been a lot of songs written about taxes, although there are several notable references to what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called “the price we pay for a civilized society.” (But would that early-20th Century Supreme Court Justice call our society civilized?)
Several of those examples take the angle we have come to expect from the art form: a poke at the wealthy. (By people who mostly became wealthy — to paraphrase the Firesign Theatre, “Stories of non-working class people told by rich rock and rollers.”)
There’s Creedence Clearwater Revival’s“but when the taxman comes to the door/Lord the house looks like a rummage sale,” from “Fortunate Son.” (Were they talking about the property taxman?) And “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks: “The taxman’s taken all my dough/and left me in this stately home.”
But most of the songs that mention taxes take the opposite tack: carping about “the price we pay,” or about the rates. Cheap Trick, whose songs often took a jaundiced look at life, sang (before they made it sorta big) about the former in “Taxman, Mister Thief”: “You work hard, you went hungry/Now the Taxman is out to get you.”
Ditto, sort of, for Steve Miller in “Take the Money and Run.” Unsurprisingly, from the guy who wrote about “the pompatus of love,” it’s kind of a strained rhyme: “Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas/You know he knows just exactly what the facts is/He ain’t gonna let those two escape justice/He makes his livin’ off of the people’s taxes.”
Lots of commentary on how much the taxman taketh, though. Billy Joel, in “Movin’ Out,” sang “You can pay Uncle Sam with your overtime,” which would seem like a good deal, in some tax brackets. In “Success Story,” the Who complained about a higher rate: “I’ve gotta play some one-night stands/six for the taxman, one for the band.”
A critique of the highest rate, of course, came from the best-known song about taxation, the Beatles “Taxman”: “There’s one for you, nineteen for me.” Which is a reference to the United Kingdom’s then top rate, 95 percent.
It’s also a bipartisan swipe, the lines “Taxman, Mr. Wilson/Taxman, Mr. Heath” referring to the then British prime minister, Harold Wilson, and his opposite, Conservative Party leader Edward Heath. (And perhaps what Cheap Trick were channeling in the title of their aforementioned song.)
But the Fab Four’s commentary on what the really successful were paying points to a more interesting impact of taxes on rock and rollers, or at least their addresses. A Wikipedia list of 19 famous “tax exiles” — individuals who relocate to avoid high tax rates, or to escape paying taxes they already owe — consists mostly of entertainers, including 11 Makers of The Music.
Bad Company and Rod Stewart moved from the U.K. to CA in 1975 to avoid what was by then “only” 83 percent. British glam rocker Marc Bolan of T-Rex had gotten the jump on them, coming into Los Angeles two years earlier, but returning in 1976 — and dying the year after that, giving new meaning to that line about “death and taxes.”
Also in 1973, back when he wrote good songs, Cat Stevens tax-exiled from Britain to Brazil; members of Jethro Tull left Jolly Olde England for France the following year. Welsh warbler Tom Jones bailed on Britain in response to Wilson’s election in 1974, and David Bowie went U.K. to Switzerland in ’76. Pink Floyd, usually on the cutting edge, were late to the game in this case, relocating in ’78.
It wasn’t just the limeys, though. Perhaps thinking it was the island nation referenced in some Birther jokes, Marvin Gaye went from LA to Hawaii in 1980, to avoid IRS difficulties. That didn’t work, apparently, and Marvin moved first to the U.K., then to Belgium.
But the most notorious of the tax avoiders didn’t do their Exile on Main St., or in the U.S. particularly. The Rolling Stones started using trusts and off-shore corporations to escape U.K. taxes in the early ’70s, with a holding company in Holland (which didn’t tax song royalties) and offices in the Caribbean.
A 2006 newspaper story said the Stones had paid just 1.6 percent in taxes on hundreds of millions of pounds in earnings over the preceding two decades. I guess there was one devil that they didn’t have sympathy for …
Anyway, now that you’ve filed your taxes, you can look forward to getting your refund. But what to do with it? My advice, is (to paraphrase the Blues Brothers) to go out and by all the old rock and roll records you can.
Or, rather, records by old rock and rollers. Hey, they’ve got high healthcare expenses, and we wouldn’t want them dependent on Social Security.