When you have a back catalogue as expansive as The Beatles do, there is a fair chance that there will be songs that not everyone in the band will like. Even in Paul McCartney’s 71 songs that he wrote for the Fab Four, there are a few stinkers. One particular song, however, didn’t just annoy the usual suspects of John Lennon or George Harrison but the entire band.
It was a song that would not only showcase how close The Beatles were to the edge of their tether when recording, but just how much McCartney had begun to take control of the band. As the group approached the recording of this Abbey Road cut, it was clear that the end of The Beatles was already in sight.
Lennon being a cantankerous grump isn’t anything new, but to have both George Harrison and Ringo Starr join in on the bashing of a track, you know it must’ve been painful. That song, like so many others, became a pain for the band when McCartney’s meticulous musical ear and determination for perfection superseded the care for his bandmates.
The group were in the studio for the Abbey Road sessions and, having recently experienced some creative false-starts earlier in the year, the band were keen to make sure things ran as smoothly as possible. The group had spent much of 1969 at creative odds and dabbling with the idea of disbandment as each member of the band suddenly saw solo stardom on the horizon. The notion of change for Abbey Road didn’t deter the inter-band dissent for the song running rife.
The song was ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, and Paul McCartney felt strongly that it needed to be played a certain way. It took hours and hours of sessions with the bassist even employing a studio engineer to go out and fetch a blacksmith’s anvil as part of the production process. Even after which, the singer still wasn’t happy, “The worst session ever was ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’,” the usually affable Ringo Starr told Rolling Stone. “It was the worst track we ever had to record. It went on for fucking weeks.”
John Lennon had only gingerly returned to the studio following a near-fatal car crash alongside his partner Yoko Ono. It meant the ‘Imagine’ singer had a little more leeway to leave the studio when needed and often took up the chance. He didn’t need any extra invitation during this painstaking session and was quick to leave the awkward recordings as soon as possible.
“I hated it,” John Lennon told David Sheff for Playboy in 1980. “All I remember is the track – he made us do it a hundred million times.” He was quick to take aim at the track’s quality as well, adding: “He did everything to make it into a single and it never was and it never could’ve been. But [Paul] 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.”
Harrison was equally unimpressed with the track and had previously battled with McCartney about many different song’s compositions. In fact, it was part of the reason Harrison had quit the band from time to time. “Sometimes Paul would make us do these really fruity songs,” he told Crawdaddy as per Beatles Bible in the 1970s. “I mean, my God, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was so fruity.”
Despite the growing frustration about the track, McCartney remained positive at the time of its recording. “It was the best radio play I had ever heard in my life, and the best production, and Ubu was so brilliantly played,” he said in the Barry Miles book Many Years From Now. “It was just a sensation. That was one of the big things of the period for me,” proclaimed Sir Paul.
In the very same book, which was written by McCartney’s close friend, the Beatle attempted to doubled down in his adoration for the material and offered a deeper look at the formation of the track: “Miles and I often used to talk about the pataphysical society and the Chair of Applied Alcoholism. So I put that in one of the Beatles songs, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’,” he said, before explaining the lyrical content of ‘Joan was quizzical, studied pataphysical science in the home’, adding: “Nobody knows what it means; I only explained it to Linda just the other day. That’s the lovely thing about it. I am the only person who ever put the name of pataphysics into the record charts, c’mon! It was great. I love those surreal little touches.”
However, as years went by, the bassist confessed that the track missed the mark: “‘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,” he later commented. “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.”
While we won’t condemn the track like the rest of the Fab Four, the fact that John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr all disliked it means you’re probably allowed to, if you so choose.