50 Years Ago: Beatles Record Polarizing ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’
On July 9, 1969, they began recording the track with one of the most famous stories in Beatles lore -- and a memorably old-fashioned sound to boot. The Beatles were rock n' rollers, but except for the Kinks, no other major British rock band was as influenced by British music hall as they were. The style -- not dissimilar from American vaudeville -- infused their wit, and several other late-period songs: "Penny Lane," "Honey Pie" and "Your Mother Should Know" owe a debt to the genre.
Those tracks, as with "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," were all written by Paul McCartney, whose perfectionist and domineering ways had alienated the other three members throughout attempts earlier in the year to record the LP that would become Let It Be. The story of this song, in fact, stretches across two albums: A clip of them rehearsing it -- complete with Paul calling out the chords -- is in the documentary from those prior sessions. And while most of the recording for Abbey Road went far more smoothly, the other Beatles were none too happy when McCartney returned to this jaunty little ditty about a man who seduces and kills women.
"Sometimes Paul would make us do these really fruity songs," George Harrison once said. "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."
Ringo Starr concurred, saying "the worst session ever was 'Maxwell’s Silver Hammer' It was the worst track we ever had to record. It went on for f---ing weeks. I thought it was mad."
McCartney, however, comes to the defense of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer": "Some of my songs are based on personal experience," he said in Anthology. "But my style is to veil it. A lot of them are made up, like 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer,' which is the kind of song I like to write. It's just a silly story about all these people I'd never met. ... The song epitomizes the downfalls of life. Just when everything is going smoothly -- bang! bang! -- down comes Maxwell's silver hammer and ruins everything."
Listen to the Beatles' 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer'
John Lennon didn't appear on the song. July 9 was his first day back in the studio after spending a few days in the hospital due to a car crash while on vacation in Scotland. Yoko Ono, whom he had married that March, was pregnant at the time and had been ordered to complete bed rest. Lennon, who never liked to leave Ono's side even in good health, simply had a bed brought into the studio.
"We were setting up the microphones for the session and this huge double-bed arrived," engineer Martin Benge said in Mark Lewisohn's The Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes, 1962-1970. "An ambulance brought Yoko in and she was lowered down onto the bed. We set up a microphone over her in case she wanted to participate and then we all carried on as before! We were saying, 'Now we've seen it all, folks!'"
But it understandably was no laughing matter for Lennon or Ono, who suffered a miscarriage -- her second -- a few months later. As engineer Ron Richards told Lewisohn, "I popped into one of the later sessions in [Studio] No. 3 and there was Yoko in this blooming double bed. I couldn't believe it! John was sitting at an organ, playing, and I went up to him and said, 'What the bloody hell is all this?' and he was very touchy about it, so I kept quiet and walked out."
Still, contrary to Ringo's claim, it didn't take weeks to record "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" during the Abbey Road sessions -- even if it felt that way. The main track was recorded on July 9 after 21 takes, and the next day's session was devoted to overdubs, with a few more finishing touches on July 11 and Aug. 6.