Continuing my look back at select songs from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album in the fiftieth anniversary year of its release, I turn to a song that is one of my favorites from the LP but is widely disregarded by other rock fans. I refer, as you may have already gathered from this post's title, to "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"
John Lennon was prompted to write the song from an old circus poster he bought in an antique shop in Sevenoaks, Kent while there with the other Beatles to film the promotional video for "Strawberry Fields Forever." Just about every lyric and character in the song came from the poster (shown above). Pablo Fanque (below), whose real name was William Darby, was a black circus performer and the first black man in Britain to own a circus. In his employment were all-around performer William Kite and acrobat John Henderson and his wife Agnes. The horses, the hoops, the wooden cask (the "hogshead") on fire, and the trampolines (the word referred to springboards rather than stretched canvases) were all part of the show; the particular gig this poster advertises took place on St. Valentine's Day, 1843. But on a Tuesday, not a Saturday, and at Rochdale in northern England, not at Bishopsgate, which is a ward of London; John changed the day of the week and town in order to fit the meter and the rhyme scheme. (When I first heard this song on a cassette, without a lyric sheet, I thought I heard that Mr. Kite would perform his feat "as bishops gaze." I had this vision of Anglican bishops staring at Mr. Kite in wide-eyed wonder! :-D )
The Beatles recorded "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" at EMI Studios at Abbey Road in nine takes in February 1967 with Paul McCartney's bass, Ringo Starr's drums, backwards guitar from George Harrison, harmonicas, and George Martin on a harmonium, an organ that requires a lot of foot-pumping to play. It was the perfect instrument for a song like "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", as it almost got the sound of circus music perfect. Almost. John didn't think the group captured the flavor of the circus, and he said to Martin, "I want to taste the circus . . .. I want to smell the sawdust on the floor." Martin knew exactly what he needed - a calliope, a keyboard instrument using steam whistles, which was quite commonly used in Victorian circuses.
Unfortunately, there were no steam organs around, so Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick had to create a circus atmosphere from existing calliope recordings. Since circuses are known for commotion and noise, Martin and Emerick decided to take recordings of authentic steam organs, chop them up and create a chaotic backwash. Emerick did just that, cutting up calliope tapes in different ways - straight across, diagonally, whatever - threw them up in the air, and reassembling them . . . only to have the pieces play in the same order as before. So he turned some of them around, turned some others upside down, and, according to some accounts, crumpled up others, stomped on some of them, dipped a couple of them in a glass of soda (which must have made the tape machine heads really sticky!) - anything and everything to distort the sound and make it random. The hurdy-gurdy middle eight and the chaotic steam-organ music at the end of the record, with an organ run of the song's melody running along, are the result of that experiment - which pleased John Lennon very much.
"Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" was banned by the BBC on the grounds that "Henry the Horse" was a reference to heroin, but in fact there really was a waltz-dancing horse in Pablo Fanque's show - except that he was called Zanthus. I love this song. Not only is it so musically inventive, but it shows what a genius John Lennon really was - I mean, how many other people would have the clever idea of writing a song around a Victorian circus poster? Of course, not everyone liked it. In fact, Lou Reed famously called it "absolutely unbearable." Even John Lennon didn't think much of it when the Beatles recorded it, but he'd changed his mind by 1980. By then he called the song "pure, like a painting, a pure watercolor."
"Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is the perfect song about the circus, its veneer of innocence contradicted by the cynical sneer of John Lennon's ringmaster character. Every time I hear it, I'm ready to see Mr. Kite challenge the world. Just remember, the band begins . . . right about now! :-) (Note the timestamp below.)