Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rock & Taxes: A Treasury of the Whiny Rich

The tax man's taken all my dough,
And left me in my stately home,
Lazing on a sunny afternoon.
And I can't sail my yacht,
He's taken everything I've got,
All I've got's this sunny afternoon.
So sang The Kinks' Ray Davies in 1966, in "Sunny Afternoon." That was the same year that George Harrison kvetched about the taxman taking 95% of his income. There was quite a bit of artistic license in these gripes from newly wealthy rock stars.

It turns out Davies and Harrison weren't the only classic rock legends with money on their mind. Indeed, nearly every British classic rock band of the 60's and 70's has tussled with taxes in song or in their lives. It's astounding, actually, the lengths to which these groups--all of these groups--went to complain about paying taxes and protect their assets.

For a genre that reveled in revolutions in consciousness, politics and sex, it was an unusually conservative stance. In more ways than one, these guys had regressive attitudes towards tax policy.

Many of these acts were happy to take on the mantle of the working man. They just didn't want to help pay for his health care, his children's education, or his public transit. And why would they, when there were mansions to buy. So who were these tax-averse Brits?
  • The Beatles--George Harrison's "Taxman" has become an iconic song to American conservatives, and not for its richeous Paul McCartney guitar solo. Bob Dole used it in his 1996 campaign, and online you can find organizations like Americans for Tax Reform claiming that taxes broke up the Beatles. Harrison and Ringo Starr both chose to leave the UK in the 1970s as "tax exiles."
  • The Rolling Stones--The Stones fled England in the early 70's, penniless, to escape onerous british taxes. That's the story Mick and Keith tell about how the Stones wound up recording their 1973 classic Exile On Main Street in a French Chateau. But, if the Stones ever had real problems with taxes, those days are long behind them. Between 1986 and 2006 they paid just 1.6 percent in tax on hundreds of millions of pounds in income.
  • Rod Stewart--Probably the second most famous tax exile on this list. Stewart's "Atlantic crossing" to Los Angeles came as his solo success eclipsed The Faces' profile. According to Stewart, taxes had made it "not worth living in England any more." 
  • Pink Floyd--The Floyd spent the entirety of 1978 abroad, for tax purposes. This seems to have been a more important concern than visiting Syd Barrett. Roger Waters has changed his tune on taxation since, and is currently promoting himself as a pro-Occupy musician.
  • Led Zeppelin--Taking their accountants' advice, Led Zep left the UK for 1975 as tax exiles. During this time, Jimmy Page would screen his answers to questions in interviews, to make sure they didn't jepordize his tax status. And Robert Plant was whisked out of the country shortly after a serious car accident, so that Led Zep's tax status wasn't affected.
  • The Who--The quartet went on their own 1970s tax exile. Bassist John Entwistle's song "Success Story" contained the lyrics: "Away for the weekend/I've gotta play some one-night stands/Six for the tax man and one for the band." Sounding a different note, Roger Daltry recently criticized U2's efforts to dodge taxes in Ireland.
  • David Bowie--Bowie kicked off his "Berlin period" by moving to Switzerland--a decision motivated, in part, by the desire to avoid British tax rates.
This is hardly a complete list. The next generation, including Sting, Phil Collins, Ozzy Osbourne and Queen, carried on the tradition of tax-dodging. More recently, Adele claimed her tax bill made her want to "go and buy a gun and randomly open fire."

So what is it with Brits and taxes? American musicians haven't made a similar stink about taxes, and anti-tax sentiment is far higher in the US.* Of course, British tax rates are somewhat higher. But structuring your life to avoid paying taxes--as all the above artists have done--is about the least rock and roll thing you can do. Seriously, even Drake is cooler on the subject of taxes than Jagger, Bowie or Page.

In a definitive article on this subject, Simon Firth chides tax exiles for not taking advantage of a great number of options for reducing their tax bills in the UK. He also makes the point that taxes apparently don't pose a threat to artistic innovation, as free market fetishists might claim.

And let's talk about that term--tax exile. Exile is a strong word. Musicians have been exiles before: Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil had to leave their native Brazil for England, to escape political persecuption. Arnold Schoenberg was driven from Germany by the Nazis. These are not remotely similar to the situation that Led Zeppelin faced. Tax exile is a histrionic turn of phrase for millionaires who want to keep more money to themselves. These wealthy Brits haven't been persecuted or exiled out of principle. They were just greedy.

*American musicians do complain, sometimes. Take Big Boi's verse in "Gasoline Dreams," where he complains that even though he has the key to the city, "I still got to pay my taxes and they give us no pity."