The Beatles, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” from Sgt. Pepper (1967): Deep Beatles

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A vintage poster and some cut-up tapes: these two elements play key roles in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” the mostly John Lennon-penned Beatles track that ends side one of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A demented circus dryly narrated by Lennon, it reveals the chaos and dark side of a carnivalesque world. Thanks to the other Beatles, producer George Martin, and engineer Geoff Emerick, “Mr. Kite” stands as one of the most sonically dense songs on the album.

Lennon was inspired to write the song by an antique poster he purchased while the Beatles filmed the “Strawberry Fields Forever” promotional video. During a break, he wandered into a shop and found a Victorian circus poster from 1843. It advertised Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal, which was performing for the “benefit of Mr. Kite” and would feature acts such as “Mr. J. Henderson the Celebrated Somerset Thrower” and Zanthus the Horse. As Lennon began work on his contributions to Sgt. Pepper, he returned to the poster for song ideas. “I wrote that as a pure poetic job, to write a song sitting there. I had to write because it was time to write,” Lennon told Jann Wenner in his infamous 1970 Rolling Stone interview. “And I had to write it quick because otherwise I wouldn’t have been on the album.”

Looking at the poster, it is evident how many phrases Lennon recycled for the lyrics. For example, the advertisement lists Mr. Henderson’s “Trampoline Leaps and Somersets,” proclaiming that “Over Men and Horses, through Hoops, over Garters, and lastly through a Hogshead of REAL FIRE” that “Mr. H. challenges THE WORLD!” Lennon did change some details, however: he renamed the horse “Henry”; he changed the location of the circus from Rochdale to Bishopsgate; and he altered the line to Mr. K. challenging the world rather than Mr. H. Other than these and other minor details, Lennon retained much of the poster’s original text.

In a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, Paul McCartney stated he assisted with the lyrics. “He happened to have a poster in his living room at home. I was out at his house, and we just got this idea, because the poster said ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ — and then we put in, you know, ‘there will be a show tonight,’ and then it was like, ‘of course,’ then it had ‘Henry the Horse dances the waltz,’” he said. “The song just wrote itself. So, yeah, I was happy to kind of reclaim it as partially mine.” McCartney added the song to the setlist during his 2013 tour.

Recording began on February 17, 1967 at Abbey Road Studios; the Beatles completed seven takes of the rhythm track, which consisted of bass, drums, and harmonium (played by Martin). Lennon overdubbed his lead vocal onto the final take. On February 20, Martin worked on one of the most difficult aspects of “Mr. Kite”: creating a fairground atmosphere. As Martin stated in Anthology and other interviews, Lennon had given him vague directions, telling the producer he wanted to “smell the sawdust” while hearing the song.

In Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Martin stated that “I knew we needed a backwash, a general mush of sound, like if you go to a fairground, shut your eyes and listen: rifle shots, hurdy-gurdy noises, people shouting and — way in the distance — just a tremendous chaotic sound.” Martin sent tape operator Richard Lush to raid the Abbey Road sound effects cabinet for tapes of calliopes and organs; Emerick subsequently copied portions onto two-track tape. Next, they cut up the tapes, threw them in the air, and patched them back together randomly. In his book Here, There, and Everywhere, Emerick recalls having to repeat the process several times, as the tape fragments would somehow still fall in the correct order.

The Beatles resumed work on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” on March 28, when even more overdubs were added. Emerick states the process involved “chromatic organ runs and glockenspiel (all recorded at half-speed), normal speed oom-pah-style organ (played by John), and a chorus of bass harmonicas (played by John, George Harrison, Mal [Evans], and Neil [Aspinall].” The following day Martin added the fairground tape loops, and played an additional organ part. The final day of recording — March 31 — Martin contributed even more organ and glockenspiel sections.

What results is a masterpiece of not only lyrical content, but editing. Using sound loops and samples — all commonplace today — can be traced back to this groundbreaking track. McCartney’s bass lines dance across the song, conjuring pictures of dancing elephants and acrobats performing somersaults. Ringo Starr’s thumping drums provide some stability, but suggest that the scene will not remain orderly for long.

Acting as ringmaster, John Lennon provides narration, albeit in a dry, almost sarcastic manner. When he utters lines such as “what a scene” and “don’t be late,” he affects a flatter tone than an enthusiastic emcee would typically use. In the second verse, he announces Henry the Horse dancing the waltz; at that point, swirling organs dominate, sonically creating the vision of the animal stepping and twirling. Although an organ contributes the melody, the other sounds suggest a world spinning out of control. Suddenly a piano crashes in, as if trying to restore order to this crazy scene.

Lennon returns, introducing Mr. K and Mr. H. and delivering the legendary line “a splendid time is guaranteed for all.” “Tonight Mr. Kite is topping the bill!” he concludes, the tape loops entering the show. Martin and Emerick impressively create a sonic picture, a near-perfect representation of the chaotic activity and otherworldly qualities present at a fairground. Like a tornado, the sounds spin at reckless speed until the sudden conclusion. As musicologist Alan Pollack states, the abrupt ending provides a jolt of reality, a sudden exit from the cacophony typical of circuses. “The final chord is sustained for a full two measures, during which the overdubbed noises seem to integrate with the underlying music for just this final instant. It’s as if sound boils over and evaporates before your eyes,” Pollack writes.

The listener has exited the Beatles’ dreamworld (or nightmare, depending on how one interprets the song) and has been dropped back into real life. Side two, however, promises more fantastical elements.

In one of his last interviews, Lennon declared “Mr. Kite” “pure, like a painting. A pure watercolor.” Over 30 years later, McCartney described it as “a crazy, oddball song,” while Emerick more diplomatically called it a “sonic pastiche.” Indeed, the Beatles’ “Being the Benefit of Mr. Kite” defies easy categorization. Is it a dream or a nightmare? Chaotic or subtly organized? Sarcastic or earnest? Lennon takes the listener on a rollercoaster, playing ringmaster yet somehow remaining ironically detached. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is a puzzle, thus perfectly complimenting the elaborate world of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at
Kit O'Toole
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