Maxwell's Silver Hammer

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"Maxwell's Silver Hammer"
Maxwells silver hammer beatles.jpg
Cover of the Northern Songs sheet music
Song by the Beatles
from the album Abbey Road
Released26 September 1969
Recorded9–11 July, 6 August 1969
StudioEMI, London
Genre
Length3:27
LabelApple
Songwriter(s)Lennon–McCartney
Producer(s)George Martin

"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, but credited to Lennon–McCartney.[4] The song is about a student named Maxwell Edison who commits murders with a hammer, with the lyrics disguised by an upbeat, catchy, and "childlike" sound.[1] McCartney described the song as symbolic of the downfalls of life, being "my analogy for when something goes wrong out of the blue, as it so often does".[5]

The song was initially rehearsed during the Get Back sessions in January 1969. During the recording of Abbey Road in July and August, the band devoted four recording sessions to completing the track. These sessions were an acrimonious time for the Beatles, as McCartney pressured his bandmates to work at length on the song. All three were vocal in their dislike of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". In a 2008 interview, Ringo Starr remembered it as "the worst session ever" and "the worst track we ever had to record".[6]

Background[edit]

While in Rishikesh, India, in early 1968, McCartney began to write the first verse of the song.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

Lennon dismissed it as "more of Paul's granny music".[10] 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."[5]

Recording[edit]

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,[11][better source needed] 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.[12][13] Sixteen takes of the rhythm track were made, followed by a series of guitar overdubs.[13] 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.[13]

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."[14] 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 …"[15] 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."[6] 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.'"[16][better source needed]

Mal Evans is seen hitting the anvil in the Let It Be film. In his description of the subsequent recording for Abbey Road, sound engineer Geoff Emerick said that Starr "simply didn't have the strength to lift the hammer", so Evans did the anvil hits, although he did not have a drummer's sense of timing.[17] In his book Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald also credits Evans as providing the hits.[18] Authors Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon are noncommittal, citing either Evans or Starr as the performer.[19] Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn lists Starr as the performer of the anvil hits during the studio session on 10 July.[20]

Critical reception[edit]

Contemporary reviews[edit]

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."[21] Writing in Oz magazine, Barry Miles described the song as "a complex little piece" and said that, aside from McCartney's casual interest in Jarry's work, "The only British pop group holding any pataphysical honours are The Soft Machine". Miles also said it was also "a perfect example of Paul's combination of American Rock with British brass band music".[22] Derek Jewell of The Sunday Times found the album "refreshingly terse and unpretentious", but lamented the inclusion of "cod-1920s jokes (Maxwell's Silver Hammer)" and "Ringo's obligatory nursery arias (Octopus's Garden)".[23] Robert Christgau later referred to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as "a McCartney crotchet".[24]

There exists a taped recording of a band meeting conducted in September 1969. Lennon raised the possibility of individual songwriting responsibilities being split equally between the three of them in future. In this arrangement, each of the writers would contribute four songs to an album, and Starr would have the opportunity to contribute two. Mark Lewisohn comments on the exchange that proceeded between the three bandmates (Starr was not present):

Paul ... responds to the news that George now has equal standing as a composer with John and himself by muttering something mildly provocative. “I thought until this album that George’s songs weren’t that good,” he says, which is a pretty double-edged compliment since the earlier compositions he’s implicitly disparaging include Taxman and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. There’s a nettled rejoinder from George: “That’s a matter of taste. All down the line, people have liked my songs." John reacts by telling Paul that nobody else in the group “dug” his Maxwell’s Silver Hammer ... and that it might be a good idea if he gave songs of that kind – which, John suggests, he probably didn’t even dig himself – to outside artists in whom he had an interest ... “I recorded it,” a drowsy Paul says, “because I liked it.”[25]

Retrospective assessments and legacy[edit]

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.[18]

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.[26] 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.[27]

In 2009, PopMatters editor John Bergstrom concluded his list "the worst of the Beatles" with the song. He said that while McCartney had previously created "some borderline-schmaltzy, music hall-inspired songs", "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" was "where even the secret admirer of 'Rocky Raccoon' must draw the line". Bergstrom described it as "Unnervingly 'cute', unrelentingly obnoxious, too literal-minded by half" and "the single Beatles song out of nearly 200 that is basically unlistenable".[28]

Notable cover versions[edit]

Personnel[edit]

According to Ian MacDonald,[18] Andy Babiuk[30], Mark Lewisohn[8] and Philippe Margotin:[19]

The Beatles

Additional musician

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Mulligan 2010, p. 127.
  2. ^ Unterberger, Richie. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer - The Beatles | Song Info". AllMusic. Retrieved 31 December 2018.
  3. ^ Gould, Jonathan (2008). Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. Random House. p. 578. ISBN 978-0-307-35338-2. ... the song is a preternaturally catchy music-hall number ...
  4. ^ Sheff 2000, p. 202.
  5. ^ a b Miles 1997, p. 554.
  6. ^ a b "Interview with Ringo Starr". Rolling Stone. January 2008.
  7. ^ Howlett 2018, p. 21.
  8. ^ a b Lewisohn 1988, p. 179.
  9. ^ McCartney, Linda. Linda McCartney's Sixties: Portrait of an Era. Bullfinch Press. Page 153. 1992
  10. ^ Emerick & Massey 2006, p. 281.
  11. ^ "John Lennon crashes his car in Scotland". Beatles Bible. July 1969. Retrieved 17 January 2016.
  12. ^ Miles and Badman 2003.
  13. ^ a b c Lewisohn 1988.
  14. ^ "The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon and Yoko Ono". Playboy. Putnam Pub Group. 1981. ISBN 978-0-87223-705-6.
  15. ^ "George Harrison Interview". Crawdaddy Magazine. February 1977. Retrieved 1 July 2009.
  16. ^ "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". The Beatles Bible. 2009. Retrieved 5 November 2009.
  17. ^ Emerick & Massey 2006, p. 283.
  18. ^ a b c MacDonald 2005, p. 357.
  19. ^ a b Margotin 2013.
  20. ^ Lewisohn 1992, p. 325.
  21. ^ Mendelsohn, John (15 November 1969). "The Beatles Abbey Road". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
  22. ^ Miles (November 1969). "Abbey Road: The Beatles Come Together". Oz. Available at Rock's Backpages (subscription required).
  23. ^ Fricke, David (2003). "Abbey Road: Road to Nowhere". Mojo Special Limited Edition: 1000 Days of Revolution (The Beatles' Final Years – Jan 1, 1968 to Sept 27, 1970). London: Emap. p. 112.
  24. ^ Christgau, Robert (1974). "Rock Theater". The Village Voice. New York. Retrieved 3 March 2013.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  25. ^ "This tape rewrites everything we knew about the Beatles". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 September 2019.
  26. ^ Gould 2007, pp. 534–36.
  27. ^ Gould 2007, pp. 578–79.
  28. ^ Bergstrom, John (12 November 2009). "The 'Worst' of The Beatles: A Contradiction in Terms?". PopMatters. Retrieved 21 May 2020.
  29. ^ "Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". Collectionscanada.gc.ca. 21 October 1972. Retrieved 19 September 2018.
  30. ^ Babiuk 2002, p. 256.

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]