Did the taxman break up the Beatles?

Move over, Yoko. The right wing has found a new villain to blame for the sundering of John, Paul, George and Ringo

Published September 15, 2009 7:52PM (EDT)

Americans for Tax Reform, the outfit founded by Grover "I want to drown government in the bathtub" Norquist, has a blockbuster scoop: High taxes broke up the Beatles!

That's right, one of the greatest cultural tragedies of the 20th century was caused by big government.

The sourcing for this revelation is a bit thin: An article in praise of the Beatles' first manager, Brian Epstein, in the London Times by Daniel Finkelstein, a former Conservative Party politician. I'm not sure how seriously we should take the argument that "without Epstein there wouldn't have been the Beatles," but whatever, Finkelstein quotes Tony Bramwell, a man who has made a living off of his service as a one-time road manager for the Beatles, as the relevant authority.

In his recent book Magical Mystery Tours (a wonderful insider memoir) Bramwell argues that it was penal tax rates that helped to destroy the group's cohesion.

First told to give away vast amounts to avoid tax bills -- which they did in a series of madcap ventures, offering money to any old person who dropped by with a demo tape -- then told they had to make £120,000 in order to keep just £10,000. Soon their finances were in chaos and their energy sapped, as nutters besieged Apple HQ pressing tapes on them. They also ran a clothes shop as a tax dodge.

Now it is true that the Beatles paid some stiff income taxes in their day -- as memorialized by George Harrison's song "Taxman" with its line "there's one for you, nineteen for me," referring to Britain's sky-high 95 percent tax bracket at the time. But was that the proximate cause of the breakup? Were high tax rates really more divisive than Yoko Ono?

Luckily, we can turn to a recent Rolling Stone cover story, "Why The Beatles Broke Up," by Mikal Gilmore, for some enlightenment. Rolling Stone bills the story (which is not officially online but can be found if you are willing to Google diligently) as a year in the making and including 1,440 pages of notes. Strangely, the epic saga, which delves deeply into the psyches of John, Paul, George and Ringo, and is loaded with analysis from numerous Beatle-member interviews, never once mentions taxes.

Which is not to say that financial considerations weren't causing tension. The Beatles' record label, Apple, was hemorrhaging money, but primarily due to mismanagement, not tax liabilities. The band members also engaged in a vicious struggle over who should manage the band: Paul fiercely opposed John's choice of Allen Klein to take over the band's business affairs. There were creative differences. There was exhaustion. There was Yoko. Any honest appraisal has to concede a complex intermingling of multiple issues resulted in the breakup of the Beatles. As with any marriage gone bad, there's rarely one single reason that can be pinpointed as the prime culprit.

And what, I wonder, would Grover Norquist make of Paul McCartney's explanation of why the Beatles started their own record company, Apple, in 1968, two years after the release of "Taxman."

"We're in the happy position of not needing any more money," McCartney said in May 1968, "so for the first time the bosses aren't in it for a profit... a kind of Western communism."

I think we can all agree, neither Apple-style nor Russian communism worked very well in the end. But judging by that quote, Paul certainly doesn't sound too worried about the punitive effect of high tax rates. Sing "Taxman" all you want. I'll choose a different song, and I invite you all to sing along: All you really need is ...

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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