“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” / The Beatles
I didn’t know what to make of this song in 1967; it weirded me out a whole lot more than the psychedelic images of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” or even the apocalyptic sorrow of “A Day In the Life.” I’m not sure I know what to make of it even now . . . but lately it’s become my favorite song on this album.
I have read that John Lennon transcribed this song almost word for word from an old circus poster, with just a few tweaks to make things rhyme. That info makes this song at least a bit more comprehensible to me. The bios I’ve read also say that John was in hell during the making of Sgt. Pepper – trapped in a constraining marriage, obsessed with LSD, estranged even from his soul-brother Paul – he simply didn’t have the creative juices necessary to contribute substantially. (Whereas Paul was ready to pick up all the slack, and make this practically a McCartney solo album.) But when Lennon does deliver, he delivers in spades.
Veering in and out of minor keys, with those sinister sound effects, Lennon weaves a nightmare experience. The strange phrases filched from the poster only add to the creepy carnival atmosphere – the hogshead of real fire, Henry the Horse dancing the waltz, Mr. Henderson demonstrating ten somersaults on solid ground, it’s all surreal and discombobulated. Whatever the lyrics tell you, the music is telling you that this is dangerous territory – something akin to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, about an evil traveling show blowing into a small town. Mr. Kite could very well be Satan (Mr. K will challenge the world! Mr. K performs his tricks without a sound! And tonight Mr K is topping the bill!). No wonder it freaked me out when I was 13.
But the less sense it made, the more evocative it seemed. That Pablo Fanques Fair where the Hendersons used to perform sounds so exotic. And the great feat that Mr. K will attempt at Bishopsgate – I don’t know the venue, but I dimly feel I should. I’m disoriented, scrambling, faking it just to keep up.
Behind the curtain of sound effects, the instrumentation is mostly just relentless lockstep drums and a stealthy creeping bass line – except when that whirligig organ sets in between verses. Did George Harrison even have to show up for this one? I don’t suppose it matters; the Beatles were well beyond the point where they ever expected to perform this stuff live.
I assume that this tacky showbiz outfit has some parallel to the Beatles themselves, thrust into the spotlight and expected to perform like capering monkeys. Maybe John Lennon wasn't specifically thinking of the insane circus that surrounded the Beatles – but something in this freakish daredevil act obviously spoke to him. Musically it connects to the Sgt. Pepper conceit a lot better than other songs on the album, but thematically, its surreal setting relates to nothing else except “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” It’s just John Lennon tapping into his subconscious – and turning up some very scary images there.