When was it recorded? Jul. 9-11 and Aug. 6, 1969
When was it first released, and on which album? Sept. 26, 1969 on “Abbey Road”
Who wrote it? McCartney
Have I heard this song before? Yep
What my research dug up:
Every time I put my iPod on shuffle today, it played this song. My devices are gaining sentience. (It also played “Christmas in Hollis” three or four times, so maybe not.)
Paul wrote “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” in Oct. 1968 with the intention of putting it on The White Album. He missed the boat with that one, obviously, but the demo from that era has turned up for our amusement.
According to Linda, Paul “had become interested in avant-garde theatre and had immersed himself in the writings of Alfred Jarry” (Wikipedia). Jarry (1873-1907) was a French Symbolist writer and pioneer of absurdist literature and postmodern philosophy. Quoth Wikipedia, “Jarry was best known for his play Ubu Roi (1896), which is often cited as a forerunner to the Surrealist and Futurist movements.” Jarry also coined the term “pataphysical,” which shows up in “Maxwell’s” lyrics. The influence definitely shows, although the lyrics wouldn’t be half as absurd without the melody; as Richie Unterberger wrote, “It’s not exactly told like a Jack the Ripper storyline; both the melody and McCartney’s vocal exude a cheerful bounce, as if in deliberate contrast to Maxwell’s macabre doings. When McCartney goes into the chorus, he sounds more like he’s celebrating a birthday than like he’s announcing the death of victims by cruel and unusual means.”
“‘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.” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
The Beatles rehearsed “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” during the Get Back sessions three months later. Quoth the Beatles Bible, “The ‘Let It Be’ film shows McCartney teaching the song to the other Beatles, who are clearly less than enthusiastic.” This video is really just the audio from that session – you might recognize the video from “I Me Mine.”
The Beatles began recording a real version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on Jul. 9, 1969. This was the first session John attended after being injured in a car accident in Scotland and being absent from nearly a week’s worth of “Abbey Road” recording. He doesn’t play anything on the track, however, and probably wished he hadn’t returned for it. OK, he definitely wished he hadn’t returned for it.
“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.” — John Lennon (David Sheff, All We Are Saying)
To be fair, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was recorded in three sessions (with Paul coming back later to dick around with the synthesizer). Sixteen takes of the rhythm track were on the first day; Paul, George, and Ringo then spent two hours overdubbing guitar parts. Take Five (which lacks these overdubs) was used for a mix released on “Anthology 3.”
Quoth Wikipedia, “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.”
Timeliness (or lack of timeliness) aside, this recording session was not remembered fondly.
“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…” — George Harrison (Crawdaddy, February 1977)
“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.” — Ringo Starr (Rolling Stone, January 2008)
“We put together quite a nice album, 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.” — Paul McCartney (Anthology)
George said in a 1969 interview that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was “one of those instant whistle-along tunes which some people hate, and other people really like. It’s a fun song, but it’s kind of a drag.” I have to say, I’m leaning more toward the “Hate It” camp than the “Love It” camp. Of course, that’s as apt a description for this song as any – camp. Quoth Alan Pollack, “The music itself is ‘okay’ as far as facile, singable pop song fodder go, but the attempt to cut the cutsey cloying cliché with straight-faced black comedy about a brutal serial killer would seem to fall flat.” I love a good black comedy but this song just doesn’t work for me. I’ll blame it on the melody.