Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Maxwell's Silver Hammer

Maxwell's Silver Hammer paulmccartney.filminspector.com
Steve Martin did a notorious cover of a notorious song, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."

"Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is one of the more notorious songs in Beatles lore. It's not that "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" was a bad album track on "Abbey Road," but more the circumstances of its production. Paul McCartney wrote "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" in October 1968 for the White Album, but there was too much good material even for that double-album. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" came along late in the process, so it was held over for the next Beatles album. Although the Beatles rehearsed "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" during the "Let It Be" sessions in January 1969 in Twickenham Film Studios, it was held over again for "Abbey Road." And, that ultimately led to tensions.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer paulmccartney.filminspector.com
A rare Uzbekistan EP that includes "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" along with "Can't Buy Me Love" and "Lady Madonna." Beatles songs were banned in the USSR but crossed the border surreptitiously anyway.

I mentioned that the circumstances behind "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" are notorious. While rehearsing in January 1969, Paul decided to teach George Harrison how to play the guitar, er, how to play the song. This led to a notorious scene where George basically humors Paul while the latter shows him the chords. George later said:
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...
John Lennon supposedly was not involved in the final version because it took place while he was recuperating in Scotland from a car accident 9-11 July 1969. However, Lennon later said:
That's Paul's. I hate it. 'Cuz all I remember is the track – he made us do it a hundred million times. He did everything to make it into a single and it never was and it never could've been, but he put guitar licks on it and he had somebody hitting iron pieces and we spent more money on that song than any of them in the whole album. I think.
So, John seems to remember being there. There are "authoritative" sources that say he wasn't there. So, who knows, maybe the other sources are wrong, or maybe Lennon was thinking of another song. But, it is well known that the Beatles did literally dozens of takes of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" until they got it just-so.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer paulmccartney.filminspector.com

George had some definite thoughts about "Maxwell's Silver Hammer:
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is just something of Paul’s which we’ve been trying to record. We spent a hell of a lot of time on it. And it’s one of those instant sort of whistle-along tunes, which some people will hate, and some people will really love it. It’s more like Honey Pie, you know, a fun sort of song. But it’s pretty sick as well though, ‘cuz the guy keeps killing everybody. It’s good because I have this synthesizer and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was one of the things I used the synthesizer on, which is pretty effective.
To be fair to Paul, let's give his version of what he meant with the song:
Maxwell's Silver Hammer was 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. It was needed for scanning. We still use that expression even now when something unexpected happens.
When Paul mentions that he was "beginning to find out" about things going "wrong out of the blue," maybe he was thinking of Jane Asher walking in on him while he was with another woman at his house around the corner from Abbey Road Studios. He wrote "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" not long afterward.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer paulmccartney.filminspector.com

Ringo chimed in as well, a rare event because he seldom complained about anything, at least publicly:
The worst session ever was Maxwell's Silver Hammer. It was the worst track we ever had to record. It went on for f'in weeks. I thought it was mad.
John and Ringo exaggerated a bit because records show that the Beatles as a group only spent three days recording "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." However, when the group used to knock off classics in one or two takes and entire albums in one session (which literally is true), three entire days of constant takes, one after another, on one album track probably seemed a bit excessive. Paul knew the others were getting irritated:
We put together quite a nice album [editor's note: Abbey Road is just a nice album, huh!], and 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.' It was early-days Moog work and it did take a bit of time.
George's work on the Moog Synthesizer really does enhance "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." The frustration expressed by John, George, and Ringo undoubtedly had more to do with Paul's pronounced egomania at this point of the Beatles' life as anything about the song.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer paulmccartney.filminspector.com

I believe that aside from clean-up work on some "Let it Be" tracks, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" was one of the last songs the Beatles ever recorded and completed before they went on hiatus and eventually broke up. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" actually is a catchy tune and nowhere near as mawkish as, say, "Martha My Dear," but this was perhaps the straw that broke the camel's back. All of Paul's hard work (and by the others, as well) did pay off: "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as released is as precise as a metronome. If you had to pin one song on the Beatles break-up, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" would be the one, but, of course, there were plenty of factors to go around for the breakup. For all that, I think it "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is a brilliant production, way, way ahead of its time with the use of synthesizers and sound effects.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer paulmccartney.filminspector.com

One of the most famous covers of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" was by Steve Martin. Now, Steve Martin actually is quite a good singer and has a band of his own now, but his version of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" for the live-action "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" film was played for laughs. Unfortunately, Steve's version of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is not very funny. One must grant that trying to make a song about a serial killer, such as "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," funny is a tough task. Anyway, watch the scene and decide for yourself. Given that the Beatles did not create a music video for "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," Martin's performance is basically all we have for a visual interpretation. Steve Martin later made it up to Paul McCartney, though, by having him sing on one of Steve's own bluegrass albums.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer paulmccartney.filminspector.com


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