Monday 7 March 2011

12:19 Maxwell's Silver Hammer

Let's turn to one of the most despised songs in the Beatles catalogue. I can't say I hate it, but I certainly wouldn't take a bullet for it. For that matter, I wouldn't even take a gentle swat with a rolled up newspaper in it's defence. What makes this the Jar Jar Binks of the Fabs setlist. Bad taste? A chipper tune about a serial killer? As the writer of The Eglon Song I may not be the best qualified to judge on matters of taste. But as someone said “No life is wasted, it may serve as a horrible example to others” let's not let Maxwell die in vain. I want to unpack, nay tease out, just what makes this such an unpalatable song in order to spare YOU dear songwriter the shame of creating another such monster.

Here's my suggestions


First, the lyrics are bad, no doubt about it. HOW, I'll leave for another time. WHY? Well, McCartney paints himself into a corner by a demanding form and rhyme scheme. This leads him to make words up, leave words out, ignore the internal narrative and logic. The scheme AABBCD/EEFFGB (give or take a few failures) is massively ambitious, and to make matters worse Macca is drunk on 3 syllable rhymes – Valerie in the gallery, & Edison with his medicine are all very clever but Ira Gershwin he ain't.

Secondly, the big vocabulary rather than rendering the song cute makes it sound smarmy & smart arse. There are a million things wrong with using the word 'pataphysical' but the biggest is that it screams “Hi! I'm Paul McCartney and I know big words that you don't understand.”

Third there is no warmth or involvement. Lots of people like When I'm Sixty Four. It's 'our' song. I (the singer) am singing to you (the listener). I'm singing about our relationship. It's also very cleverly a young person's song about being old (now there's a brilliant way to draw everyone in). Maxwell is a song about a person we care nothing about sung by a narrator we know nothing about.

But the fourth and fatal nail in the coffin (would you like your metaphors shaken or stirred?) is it's a joke song that's not funny. It's a cheeky 20's style comedy song. But it has no jokes. At least When I'm Sixty Four raises a few wry smiles “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?” and the ridiculously named grandchildren. Where's the laughs here?


I'm finding out quite a few Beatles songs have lousy lyrics carried on the wings of beautiful melodies. Why doesn't Maxwell flutter heavenwards? No surprise. The tune is a turkey.

Try it yourself. Write a new set of lyrics. It's possible you'll come up with a better song. But unlikely you'll come up with a great one.

Put simply the solid repetition and shuffle rhythm make the tune predictable, while at the same time the combination of wide jumps and chromatic passages make the tune ugly.

So to sum up - structure and rhymes overrule logic and sense, and we have smarmy, patronising, cold, unfunny lyrics set to a predictable and ugly tune.

What's not to like?

Good points?

There's a C natural in the melody on “PataphysiCAL” that's neither in the key OR the chord. Clever. There's no intro (Ticket 2) and a single D chord to end (on the third beat) (Ticket 18). Both examples of economy. But I gotta confess I'm scratching around here.

There are two more posts to come. I couldn't sleep at night if I didn't banish Maxwell to the Lyrical Hall of Shame. And I want to look at why Macca thrashed this turkey to death and how you too can know when you're flogging a dead...erm...turkey.

Excuse me now, there's a strangely metallic knock at the door...


  1. I agree with all of these points.

  2. thanks Marv. Hate or dislike?

  3. I have a soft spot for this song. But your picture choice, given your position, is perfect! Hilarious.

  4. Thanks Phil. It's funny you should mention the picture, because by far the biggest referrals I get from google are people searching for Jar Jar Binks pictures! Ah well - keeps me humble I suppose!

  5. wow. That was a really amazing analysis. I actually enjoy the song and every time I play "Abbey Road" my 6 year old twins immediately run to turn the radio up and sing and dance (that goes for "Octopuses Garden" too) I actually used this song (& many other simple, "kid friendly" songs) to get my kids interested in The Beatles. I just found your blog, and am addicted to it!! Long time die hard fan here! Thanks for some awesome reading! Ill be up all night right here! LOL-

  6. THanks so much Kelly - great to have you around!

  7. Matt,
    I really enjoy Maxwell's Silver Hammer, but never really considered it anything but a lark. Not every song has to be epic, but I still think it's far from being associated with the word "shame". (The Beatles worst is often better than many others best work imho.)

    I have to add that I am about as biased as one could possibly be, since if there is a shrine for the fab four, I will be found bowing there. I am thrilled to have found your blog, and will be reading through it regularly.


  8. Thanks so much for agreeing to disagree so amicably Ken - it's great to have you on board! I've just finished writing up the last of the Let It Be posts which will appear over the next fortnight - after that we have the White Album - so you can expect a lot more gushing fanboy comments from me too!

    What I'm attempting to do, is find out why the great songs were great and the not so great ones were not so great, so I and other writers can emulate and learn from the masters...

  9. I always skip this one, but I do think it tells you something about PM's secret thoughts at the time. Change "Maxwell" to "Macca" and you see what Paul felt like doing to the people around him at the time.

  10. And the first victim is named "Joan," the closest female name to John.

  11. Wow - I've always liked that song! ha ha. Yes, it is morbid...but since I didn't understand the morbidity of it as a child, it didn't bother me. I can't think of a song that I despise but I could live without...Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.

  12. "... strangely metallic knock at the door." I see what you did there. Ha! Thanks for the thought-provoking analysis. As a side note of how the song is regarded, I actually know a family with the last name Silver who named their son Maxwell. His middle name is ... wait for it ... McCartney.

  13. Thanks Julian. Wow. Could be worse I suppose...could have named him Rocky Racoon or Bungalow Bill....

  14. About the "C" in "pataphysical". I think it's just a passing tone, no? So not too unusual in itself. I'm weak in rhythm, but I think it's on a weak beat, as you would expect for a passing tone, but the slight pause he makes on it does let it stand out a little more than you would expect. I dunno, I'm making this up as I go along....