Exploring what went wrong on ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, the Paul McCartney song that all The Beatles despised
When you have an extensive catalogue 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 song in particular, though, didn’t just annoy John Lennon or George Harrison but the entire band.
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 ear and determination for perfection overrides his care for his bandmates.
The group were in the studio for the Abbey Road sessions and having recently experienced a creative false-start earlier in the year, the band were keen to make sure things ran as smoothly as possible. However, that notion didn’t deter the inter-band dissent for the song running rife.
The song was ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and Paul McCartney felt strongly it had to be played a certain way. It took hours and hours of sessions with Macca even employing a studio engineer to go out and fetch a blacksmith’s anvil. Even after which the singer wasn’t happy, “The worst session ever was ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’,” 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. He didn’t need any extra invitation 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 too. “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 often battled with McCartney about song’s compositions—in fact, it was part of the reason Harrison had quit 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.”
In the very same book, which was written by McCartney’s close friend, the Beatle attempted to back 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…’— “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.