Well before it was derided by John as more “granny music,” George as “so fruity” and Ringo as “worst session ever” (in reference to the Abbey Road recording), “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on Jan. 3, 1969, was simply “the corny one,” a song The Beatles had yet to rehearse so many times that it literally caused bandmembers to refuse to participate or go ahead and quit the band.
Written in October 1968, just too late for inclusion on the White Album (per Lewisohn) — but apparently never rehearsed then — we hear it for the first time as Paul doodles on the piano to start the Jan. 3 sessions.
With Paul in novelty-song mode for much of the White Album (a planned topic of a post for the distant future, when I’m done with the Nagra timeline), this tune would have fit like a glove on that record. And, perhaps it’s in retrospect, but it didn’t fit at all with Get Back/Let it Be, at least what we’ve heard in these first few days.
Hours after the piano sketch, we get to hear the full band tackle the song for the first time in rehearsals that clock in at less than 35 minutes.
It’s an interesting contrast with the “All Things Must Pass” rehearsals that had just occurred earlier in the day. George played and sang his heart out, clearly exasperated and desperate for the band to appreciate the song. Paul, meanwhile, is slogging through “Maxwell’s.” He knows he band will learn it, even if they hate it (and they will in time!).
While George is desperate to bring “All Things Must Pass” to the band, he’s fully aware no one is listening.
Paul, meanwhile, laughs, scats the lyrics, has an extremely relaxed demeanor, especially impressive given the long day that’s near to ending.
This clip, from the film, captures the some of this pretty well, with Paul barking out chords. The first 45 seconds or so are indeed from these Jan. 3 sessions, with the edit coming right as the anvil hits.
With Paul in instructional mode, George is proactive in offering suggestions to the harmonies as well as guitar licks. Again, quite the opposite experience from “All Things Must Pass,” where the other members of the band did little to add to the song George brought to them.
The origin of the song’s most notable feature — the anvil — is discussed by Paul during one of the takes.
“Originally, I was trying to get a hammer, which we might get Mal [Evans] to do. A hammer, like on an anvil. A big hammer on an anvil.
You can’t make it with anything else. Bang, bang!”
As they had done earlier in the sessions on “Don’t Let Me Down” and “All Things Must Pass,” the band shakes up the lineup as the “Maxwell’s” rehearsals progress, with Paul shifting to piano and George taking over on bass, preferring the six-string. At one point, Paul asks George for his bass to sound like it was “from those movies” — a shivering sound during the “Joan was dead” bit.
It’s a fun, bouncy song at this point, none of the weight of the Moog on the Abbey Road version, and a circus-like groove from the rhythm section. There is the old-timey movie feel to it in a way that “Watching the Detectives” by Elvis Costello captures. It works for whatever the song at present is.
In something of a telling, but confusing exchange, George asks about the seemingly incomplete state of the lyrics. At this point, all we’ve heard in both the early solo piano sketch and the afternoon full-band rehearsals are just the two verses and the chorus.
To my ears, this is what they say:
Paul: There’s only two verses. … But I don’t really know where it goes after that.
John: Finish three of them. You need another one, yeah?
George: Do the words, like, resolve the story?
Paul: Well, they will do.
George: I mean, there’s no more to write?
Paul: No, no not more to write.
Here it seems Paul is content to have the song’s lyrics stay as they are in truncated form — no P.C. 31, testimonial pictures, Rose, Valerie or the judge — and perhaps the musical arrangement alone is what he plans to finish.
Again, the contrast with “All Things Must Pass” is fascinating. “Maxwell’s” isn’t brand-new — it’s a few months old — but it’s still incomplete. If anything, “ATMP” is newer, and it’s a finished product when it was brought to the band.
Really, I think what we’re learning here George is a saint — he not only brings polished work to the group only to have it passively embraced, he’s busy working to improve everyone else’s songs. Sure, we know he actually quits the band in a few days, but you’d have to think this is a pattern that appeared on prior records, but we only have tape of these sessions to hear it.
Further, and it’s a point I’ve obsessed on before, but why bring an incomplete song to a session that seemingly had a purpose and endgame, a live show soon to be recorded? Shouldn’t everyone be bringing their best material to the table? Was “Maxwell’s” — and we know, ultimately, on Abbey Road it didn’t change that much musically and would only get the extra verse — really something worth spending valuable time on when we know what great stuff Paul had in the bank already (“Two of Us,” “Long And Winding Road,” “Let it Be,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” etc.)? They’re rehearsing an incomplete song, they’d have to get back to it regardless. Paul makes a brief mention of where an orchestra would come in — clearly he was thinking beyond just the live rock show.
At least this early version of “Maxwell’s” gives us the memorable lines: “Back in class again/Maxwell is an ass again” and “She tells Max to stay/when his ass has gone away.” Alas, never to make the final cut.
With the end of the “Maxwell’s” sessions, the band wraps it up for the day, a Friday. The day’s tapes end with the band saying their goodbyes and, the working stiffs they were, agreeing to reassemble Monday at 10 a.m.