Maxwell's Silver Hammer
|"Maxwell's Silver Hammer"|
Cover of the song's sheet music
|Song by the Beatles|
|from the album Abbey Road|
|Released||26 September 1969|
|Recorded||9–11 July, 6 August 1969|
EMI Studios, London
"Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is a song by the English rock band the Beatles from their 1969 album Abbey Road. It was written by Paul McCartney, although credited to Lennon–McCartney. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is a pop song with dark, eccentric lyrics about a medical student named Maxwell Edison who commits murders with a hammer. The lyrics are disguised by the upbeat, catchy, and rather "childlike" sound of the song. The recording sessions for the track were an acrimonious time for the Beatles, as McCartney pressured his bandmates to work at length on the song. John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were vocal in their dislike of the song. Author Ian MacDonald began his description of the song by saying, "If any single recording shows why The Beatles broke up, it is 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer.'"
While in Rishikesh, India, in early 1968, McCartney began to write the first verse of the song. Having completed most of it by October that year, he intended for its inclusion on the album The Beatles, but it was never properly recorded during those sessions due to time constraints. It was rehearsed again three months later, in January 1969, at Twickenham film studios during the Get Back sessions but would not be recorded for another six months. The film features two brief rehearsal takes compiled together showing the band's progress on the song up to that point. Lennon is shown to be participating on electric guitar despite not featuring on the recording for Abbey Road at all. Road manager and Beatles associate Mal Evans participates by providing the anvil hits.
McCartney's wife Linda said that he had become interested in avant-garde theatre and had immersed himself in the writings of Alfred Jarry. This influence is reflected in the story and tone of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", and also explains how McCartney came across Jarry's word "pataphysical", which occurs in the lyrics.
Lennon dismissed it as "more of Paul's granny music". In 1994, McCartney said that the song epitomises the downfalls of life, being "my analogy for when something goes wrong out of the blue, as it so often does, as I was beginning to find out at that time in my life. I wanted something symbolic of that, so to me it was some fictitious character called Maxwell with a silver hammer. I don't know why it was silver, it just sounded better than Maxwell's hammer."
The Beatles began recording the song at EMI Studios (later Abbey Road Studios) in London on 9 July 1969. John Lennon, who had been absent from recording sessions for the previous eight days after being injured in a car crash, arrived to work on the song, accompanied by his wife, Yoko Ono, who, more badly hurt in the accident than Lennon, lay on a large double-bed in the studio. Sixteen takes of the rhythm track were made, followed by a series of guitar overdubs. The unused fifth take can be heard on Anthology 3. Over the following two days the group overdubbed vocals, piano, Hammond organ, anvil, and guitar. The song was completed on 6 August, when McCartney recorded a solo on a Moog synthesizer.
The recording process subsequently drew unfavourable comments from Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Lennon said, "I was ill after the accident when they did most of that track, and it really ground George and Ringo into the ground recording it", adding later: "I hate it, 'cos all I remember is the track ... [Paul] did everything to make it into a single, and it never was and it never could have been." Harrison recalled: "Sometimes Paul would make us do these really fruity songs. I mean, my God, 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' was so fruity. After a while we did a good job on it, but when Paul got an idea or an arrangement in his head …" Starr told Rolling Stone in 2008: "The worst session ever was 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer.' It was the worst track we ever had to record. It went on for fucking weeks. I thought it was mad." McCartney recalled: "The only arguments were about things like me spending three days on 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer.' I remember George saying, 'You've taken three days, it's only a song.' – 'Yeah, but I want to get it right. I've got some thoughts on this one.'"
In his 1969 review of Abbey Road, for Rolling Stone, John Mendelsohn wrote: "Paul McCartney and Ray Davies are the only two writers in rock and roll who could have written 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer', a jaunty vaudevillian/music-hallish celebration wherein Paul, in a rare naughty mood, celebrates the joys of being able to bash in the heads of anyone threatening to bring you down. Paul puts it across perfectly with the coyest imaginable choir-boy innocence." Robert Christgau referred to the song as "a McCartney crotchet".
Author Sean Pryor concludes, “That while "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is a break from much of the rest of the Beatles' collection, Paul’s exploration into the human condition comes out in full display.” 
Among Beatles biographers, Ian MacDonald said that "If any single recording shows why The Beatles broke up, it's 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer'." He continued: "This ghastly miscalculation – of which there are countless equivalents on his garrulous sequence of solo albums – represents by far his worst lapse of taste under the auspices of The Beatles … Thus Abbey Road embraces both extremes of McCartney: the clear-minded, sensitive caretaker of The Beatles in 'You Never Give Me Your Money' and the Long Medley – and the immature egotist who frittered away the group's patience and solidarity on sniggering nonsense like this." Author Jonathan Gould cites "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as an example of the selfishness inherent in the Beatles' creative partnership, whereby a composition by McCartney or Lennon would be given preference over a more substantial song by Harrison. He also rues McCartney's penchant for a light entertainment style that the Beatles had sought to render obsolete, and concludes: "The sorriest aspect of 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' is thus the way it demonstrates how Paul's workmanlike tendency to build on his past successes had caused him to translate the genuinely charming novelty and subversive parody of 'When I'm Sixty-Four' into a personal subgenre of glibly clever songs that had devolved in the two years since Sgt. Pepper into a form of musical schtick."
Notable cover versions
- In 1972, the Canadian band The Bells covered "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." Their version became a hit in Canada. It reached number 83 on the Pop chart and number two on the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart.
- In the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the song is performed by comedian Steve Martin, who portrays the character Maxwell Edison. Frankie Laine also covered the song as part of the musical documentary All This and World War II, which featured stock and newsreel footage of the Second World War set to performances of music by the Beatles.
- Paul McCartney – lead and backing vocals, piano, electric guitars, Moog synthesizer
- George Harrison – backing vocal, acoustic and lead guitar, six-string bass
- Ringo Starr – backing vocal, drums, anvil[nb 1]
- George Martin – organ
- Mulligan 2010, p. 127.
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- Gould, Jonathan (2008). Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. Random House. p. 578. ISBN 0-307-35338-9.
... the song is a preternaturally catchy music-hall number ...
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- Mulligan, Kate Siobhan (1 July 2010). The Beatles: A Musical Biography. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 0-313-37686-7.
- "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". The Beatles Bible. 2009. Retrieved 5 November 2009.
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- Sulpy, Doug; Schweighardt, Ray (1999). Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of The Beatles' Let it Be Disaster. Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-19981-3.
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