“When The Beatles returned to America in August, 1965, for their second tour and played the Sullivan show again, I got one of my favorites. Walking the aisles, one audience member caught my eye: an older man sitting with his fingers plugged in his ears to mute the high-pitched squeals. As I moved in for this terrific shot, I got a closer look and realized I was photographing the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.”
Decca and the Dectones - “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
If you’ve never read about the Mitford sisters, I’d highly recommend that you do so. The offspring of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney, they were a hybridization of eccentrics and debutantes who wound up becoming fixtures of British society during the interwar period, and stayed there for the rest of their lives. The sisters’ political views are particularly infamous, with different sisters ascribing to Fascism, Communism, and Nazism with what can only be described as fangirlish fervor.1 Perhaps the most famous anecdote regarding the sisters states that while Unity (a Nazi) and Jessica (a communist) shared a bedroom, they drew a line down the center of the room, and competitively decorated in favor of their cause, eventually going so far as to etch swastikas and sickle-and-hammers into their windows with diamond rings.
Today, we are interested in the latter of those two sisters: Jessica, who went on to be a noted author, journalist, critic, and political activist. She also became a far, far less noted musician far, far later in life.
Before we get to her musical works, allow me to touch briefly on her writing and activism. Her nonfiction book The American Way of Death was a scathing take-down of the American funeral home industry, which she viewed as exploitative and excessively expensive. Since its publication it has gone on to be considered a major work in the creative nonfiction canon.2 Equally popular is Hons and Rebels, her account of her and her siblings’ childhood, from which that anecdote in the first paragraph of this post originated. One of her biggest fans is Harry Potter series author JK Rowling, who even named her daughter in honor of Mitford. She was also a longtime far left activist. In the course of that advocacy, she wound up refusing to testify before Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, and once spent a night pinned down in a church by the KKK with a group of civil-rights leaders and supporters that included Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the age of seventy-seven she recorded two covers under the name “Decca” (an old family nickname for her) supported by a “kazoo-and-cowbell orchestra" called the Dectones. One was a rendition of the Strawbs’ "Grace Darling.” The other was the song above: the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
Luckily for us listeners, the “kazoo-and-cowbell” descriptor appears not to be a particularly binding one. Mitford’s backing band includes piano, drums, backup vocals, and guitar, along with the occasional cowbell hit, and some surprisingly bearable kazoo.3 Instrumentally, the track isn’t a major departure from the original, save a slight dip into lite-rock / easy listening territory. The most major change (aside from Mitford’s vocals) is that they replace the song’s two most striking elements: the literal strikes of a hammer on an anvil in the chorus, and the early Moog synthesizer in its outro. The hammer strikes are replaced by the group’s supposedly signature cowbell, and the synth part is performed on an almost country-n-western twanging slide guitar.*
But, the real focus here is on Mitford. Her voice clearly betrays each and every one of her seventy-plus years, equal parts creaky and brassy. But on the other hand, her performance does have an absolutely ageless sense of giddy energy, and an impossibly endearing commitment to her part. She’s utterly locked in, throwing herself into the track (and particularly into the chorus) with a gleeful abandon. Her performance may not be the sort that you appreciate or enjoy on a technical level, but I find her enthusiasm both winning and admirable. Any artist who’s able and willing to undertake such a left-field project at such an advanced age is worthy of commendation, regardless of the quality of the finished project. The life of an artist is an endless battle against complacency, and I’d call this track a clear victory for Jessica Mitford.
1. This footnote is just to stress that no one at Dolphin/Shark is a Nazi or likes Nazis or thinks Nazis are cool or has any positive opinion about the National Socialist Party. Once again: Nazis suck. Hitler sucks. All that stuff is awful. (Oh and fascism sucks too.)
2. BIH and I both studied it while getting our undergraduate degrees.
3. The supposed kazoo parts honestly sound more like soft, wordless harmonizing to me, but what do I know. I mean, I’m no kazoo expert! Who knows, man? Who really knows? Does anyone really know anything? [NOTE: This footnote was written by a high college freshman in a MADtv sketch.]
*ADDITIONAL BIH FOOTNOTE: The original track actually also contains a very twangy electric guitar part, an example of the Beatles’ late period interest in American country music that can also be seen in tracks like “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “I Will.”