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Notes on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"


Notes on ... Series #179 (MSH)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: D Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Verse | Refrain | Interlude |
            Verse | Refrain | Refrain (instrumental) | Interlude |
            Verse | Refrain | Refrain (instrumental) |
            Interlude/Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "Abbey Road", Track 3 (Parlophone CDP7 46446-2)
  Recorded: 9th, 10th, 11th July 1969, Abbey Road 2;
            6th August 1969, Abbey Road 3
UK-release: 26th September 1969 (LP "Abbey Road")
US-release: 1st October 1969 (LP "Abbey Road")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note So here we have Paul, bless him, seemingly unable to resist doing one more campy, musical hall style number. The music itself is "okay" as far as facile, singable pop song fodder go, but the attempt to cut the cutsey cloying cliché with straight-faced black comedy about a brutal serial killer would seem to fall flat. Could it ever have been in style or good taste?
  Next note Although the song begins with the start of the first verse without any intro, we eventually encounter a very intro-like interlude that trails each of the Verse/Refrain pairs.
  Next note The "bang bang" lyrics lead one to wonder about other appearances of onomatopoeia words in the Beatles catalog, which turn out to be surprisingly rare; especially if you filter out nonsense phonemes and expostulation words (like "woah" or "oh") and focus strictly on words that imitate noises found in real life.
  Next note In aphabetical order we find:
  Next note My all time favorite though is "boom" in "I Saw Her Standing There" both because it's the earliest example as well as the only one in which the reference is more metaphorical than literal; or does your heart really make such a noise? :-)

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune covers the wide range of a ninth (from D up to E) and includes a relatively large amount of triadic outlining. Melodic peaks are carefully placed throughout. The front part of the verse creates a melodic arch whose apex is on C# (on the word "with" in the phrase "with a test tube). The connecting phrase pushes it a small notch to D (on the word "ready" in the phrase "ready to leave"), and the refrain finally tops out at e.
  Next note The home key is clearly D Major throughout. The set of chords used includes a larger than average number of secondary dominants in spite of the lack of any modulation.


  Next note The backing track is based on a small ensemble of piano, bass guitar, and drum kit. Paul's single tracked lead vocal is delivered high in his range with remarkably laid back control. Lead guitar, anvil, and synthesizer play decorative intermittment roles. George (and John or is it Ringo?) provide equally intermittment backing vocals.
  Next note No matter that the Moog synthesizer used on "Abbey Road" is a bumbling behemoth dinosaur by the standards of current digital MIDI technology; it was state of the art at the time of this recording. Your personal reaction to its use here demands you apply some historical perspective.
  Next note The details of the arrangement are particularly fussy. I'm going to wimp out this time on tracing it all the way through for you, but will list a number of things worth keeping an eye out for:
  • Prominence given by the arrangement to frequent stepwise motion in the bassline.
  • The switch of drumming texture in the verse's connector phase, including those ever so gentle cymbal slashes on the downbeat of measures 1 and 3.
  • The varied use of the synthesizer; providing woodwind like obbligato parts in the second and third verse, and brass-like accompaniment for the second and third refrains.
  • The lead guitar solo in the second refrain alternated with a similar part for synthesizer in the final refrain. The similar variation in the arrangement of the Interlude phrase.
  • The restrained, limited use of the lead guitar elsewhere on the track.
  • And the equally restrained backing vocals, mostly providing scat sung punctutation, but also, late in the piece, a couple of lines set to words.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The verse adds up to twenty measures in length, opening with a four square sixteen-measure section that repeats the following eight measure AB phrase twice:
      |D             |B             |e             |-             |
   D:  I              V-of-ii        ii

      |A9            |-             |D             |A             |
       V                             I              V

   [Figure 179.1]
  Next note The harmonic shape opens out from I to V. Savor the ninth added to the V chord in the second phrase.
  Next note Downward stepwise motion in the bassline appears right in the first two measures of this section, even implying an f# 6/4 chord for the second half of the first measures. This is followed by a downward scale that fills out measure 4, and an upward scale that fills out measure 8.
  Next note This opening is followed in every case by a four-measure connecting phrase that leads into the refrain:
   |E7            |-             |A             |-             |
    V-of-V                        V

   [Figure 179.2]
  Next note In this phrase, upward scale motion appears in the tune of measure 3, and is immediately imitated by the bassline in measure 4.


  Next note The refrain is constructed from two variant phrases.
  Next note Variant #1 appears three times, sung in its first appearance, but otherwise set as an instrumental break the remaining two times. Its harmonic shape is fully closed. It appears on its own in the first Refrain, and as the second half of the second and third refrains:
   |D             |-             |E7            |-             |
    I                             V-of-V

   |A7            |-             |e      A      |D             |
    V                             ii     V       I

   [Figure 179.3]
  Next note Variant #2 appears twice and is sung both times. Its harmonic shape opens from I to V. It appears as the first half of the second and third refrains:
   |D             |-             |E7            |-             |
    I                             V-of-V

   |A7            |-             |e             |A             |
    V                             ii             V

   [Figure 179.4]


  Next note The interlude is just four measures long and could have easily served as an intro to the track. As used, it works just as nicely as a soft-shoe dancing kind of break between the middle sections.
  Next note The harmonic shape is fully closed, through the opening chord progression creates a momentary illusion of wide ranging movement:
   |D      F# 6/3 |b      D 4/3  |G             |D             |
    I      V-of-vi vi     V       IV             I

   [Figure 179.5]
  Next note Here the bassline descends from D down to G then right back up again to D.


  Next note The outro is just a closing repeat of the Interlude phrase, set for the first time in the song to a vocal part.
  Next note Every time the anvil had appeared in the rest of the song to this point it was on beats 1 and 2 of the measure. The shift here at the very end to beats 2 and 3 of the final measure helps seal the ending, and is also a very clever detail in and of itself.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note As predicted, we have hear another group of thematic cross references:
  • The home key of D flashes back to the "Come Together" as well as it anticipates "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". You might say that the first side of the album is as much in the keys of D as the second side is in the key cluster of C and A.
  • The prominently scalewise bassline flashes back to "Something".
  • Two character studies this time instead of just one. The title character here is obviously yet another unsavory male figure to go with Mr. M and old flattop.
  • But the really novel touch is the way in which studious Joan resonates with another seriously competent woman on the album, one go-getter Pam.
  Alan (103199#179)
Copyright © 1999 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.