‘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.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

McCartney probably wrote the song in early 1968. In a notebook titled Spring Songs Rishikesh 1968 he kept lyrics and notes for many of the songs on the White Album, plus other songs used elsewhere. In the book he wrote words for the first verse, as far as “Let me take you out to the pictures Jo-o-o-oan”.

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.
Paul McCartney
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 the name “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.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Paul McCartney's lyrics for Maxwell's Silver Hammer

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.

Further rehearsals took place on 7, 8 and 10 January. The last of these featured just McCartney, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr; George Harrison had temporarily quit the band earlier that day.

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…
George Harrison
Crawdaddy, February 1977

‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was particularly derided by Lennon, who didn’t play on it. Harrison also generally disliked McCartney’s whimsical songs, and in a 2008 interview 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.
Ringo Starr
Rolling Stone, January 2008
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