It’s really difficult for me to switch allegiances once I discover a song. By that I mean I become so accustomed to the first version I hear that, most of the time, any other version or cover (or original) just sounds wrong to me. I can appreciate and often even enjoy different renditions, but I’ll usually return to my initial introduction. It’s why I always get stoked when one of my favorite artists releases a massive box set filled with demos and alternate takes, which I subsequently listen to one time and then disregard in favor of the album versions I’ve known all along.
Ah, but there are exceptions, and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is very much one of them. I blame my father, actually. For some bizarre reason, his vintage record collection included a mere two Beatles releases–the classic Red and Blue best-of albums–but also offered up the double-disc soundtracks to two 1970s films best left forgotten, the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie and All This and World War II, which paired contemporary covers of Beatles songs with World War II newsreel footage (naturally). Both actually do feature some neat recordings, but scouring the tracklists, the most intriguing to 12-year-old Anthony was by far “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” as performed by…Steve Martin.
Yes, three decades before issuing several critically acclaimed bluegrass albums, the man who gave the world “King Tut” and “Cruel Shoes” covered a Beatles song as part of the aforementioned Sgt. Pepper soundtrack. With my Saturday Night Live obsession predating my Beatles one, it was a match made in heaven…or so I thought before I actually listened to it. Things started well enough, with a smoky, funky jazz intro, but Steve’s hammy lyrical reading is so self-aware in its goofiness that it loses any intended sense of fun. Maxwell’s teacher isn’t the only one getting annoyed in the second verse, usually the point at which I would lift the stylus off the record.
Fortunately, the Beatles’ version is much better, albeit polarizing because I know it has its share of detractors. It’s obviously a strange concept–a bouncy, comical song about a boy who uses the titular tool to murder his date, his teacher, and eventually the judge who sentences him. But like nearly everything Paul McCartney creates, it’s so inherently catchy that the lyrics could consist of nothing but him burping and it would still be an enjoyable listen.