Paul McCartney: vocals, backing vocals, piano, guitar, Moog synthesiser
George Harrison: backing vocals, lead guitar, bass guitar
Ringo Starr: backing vocals, drums, anvil
George Martin: Hammond organ
Maxwell's Silver Hammer, a jaunty McCartney-penned song about a homicidal maniac, was considered by its author to be a potential Beatles single. Instead it ended up as a track on the group's 1969 album Abbey Road.
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.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The roots of the song are older still. On 10 January 1966, while driving to Liverpool in his Aston Martin, McCartney heard a version of playwright Alfred Jarry's Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) on BBC radio. The play was described by the Radio Times as "A pataphysical extravagana", and made a deep impression on McCartney.
It was the best radio play I had ever heard in my life, and the best production, and Ubu was so brilliantly played. It was just a sensation. That was one of the big things of the period for me.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
In July 1966, Jarry's Ubu Roi (King Ubu) was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London, with Max Wall playing the protagonist. McCartney and Jane Asher watched one of the performances, which had set and costumes designed by David Hockney. Just as "Mitchell" may have previously morphed into "Michelle", there remains a possibility, even subconsciously, that Max Wall was an antecedent to Maxwell.
McCartney read many of Jarry's works, and was taken with the idea of pataphysics – a surrealist art and literary 'science' created by Jarry. In London, McCartney's friend Barry Miles had been made a member of the College of Pataphysics and awarded the Ordre de la Grande Gidouille for pataphysical activity, and the band Soft Machine held the college's Chair of Applied Alcoholism for the English Isles.
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: "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.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
McCartney first brought the song to The Beatles in January 1969, during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions. The Let It Be film shows McCartney teaching the song to the band, who were clearly less than enthusiastic. This scene took place on 3 January, and also featured Mal Evans on percussion.
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…
Crawdaddy magazine, February 1977
Maxwell's Silver Hammer was particularly derided by John Lennon, who didn't play on it. It was recorded over three days while Lennon and Yoko Ono were recuperating from a car accident sustained in Scotland. However, they both attended the Abbey Road sessions.
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.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Lennon's assessment, however, is somewhat misleading; the song took just three sessions to record, plus a Moog overdub done alone by McCartney some days later. Additionally, it lacked the expensive orchestral overdubs that adorned several of the other Abbey Road songs.
They got annoyed because Maxwell's Silver Hammer took three days to record. Big deal.
Lennon was not alone in his distaste for the song. George Harrison generally disliked McCartney's whimsical songs, and in a 2008 interview Ringo Starr backed up Lennon's assessment:
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.
Rolling Stone, January 2008
In the studio
The proper recording of Maxwell's Silver Hammer began on 9 July 1969. McCartney, Harrison and Starr recorded 21 takes of the basic track (although there were no takes 6-10). The 21 takes had George Harrison's bass guitar recorded onto track one; Ringo Starr's drums on track two; McCartney's piano on track three, and his vocals on track eight.
Take five, recorded on that day, was preserved on the Anthology 3 album, revealing how the song sounded at this early stage. McCartney sings and plays piano, with Harrison on bass guitar and Starr on drums. Take 12, meanwhile, was included on some formats of the 50th anniversary reissue of Abbey Road.
The Beatles selected the final attempt, take 21, as the best, and spent over two hours overdubbing guitars during the first session.
On 10 July McCartney added more piano, George Martin played Hammond organ, Starr banged an anvil and Harrison recorded a guitar part, fed through a rotating Leslie speaker. McCartney also taped more lead vocals, and was joined by Harrison and Starr for backing vocals.
There was a proper blacksmith's anvil brought to the studio for Ringo to hit. They had it rented from a theatrical agency.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
More guitar and vocals were added on 11 July. At this stage the eight-track tape had bass guitar on track one; drums on two; piano on three; guitars on four and five; the anvil in verse one, McCartney's vocals in the chorus, piano arpeggios before the later verses, vocal harmonies and the backing vocals in the line "Maxwell must go free" on six; organ, anvil in verses two and three, and more lead and harmony vocals by McCartney on track seven; and McCartney's re-recorded lead vocals on eight.
The final words, "Silver hammer, man" featured McCartney, Harrison and Starr on vocals. They sang the higher notes onto track six, the lower notes on seven, and a mixture of the two on eight.
Maxwell's Silver Hammer was finally completed on 6 August, when McCartney recorded his Moog synthesiser solo. Prior to this a number of reduction mixes were made to free up space on the tape, and combined tracks six and seven. The best of the mixes became known as take 27, and was subjected to further overdubs.
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.
McCartney recorded the Moog onto tracks four, five and six.
Paul did Maxwell using the ribbon, playing it like a violin and having to find every note, which is a credit to his musical ability.