Released: 1 June 1967 (UK), 2 June 1967 (US)
John Lennon: vocals, Lowrey organ
Paul McCartney: acoustic guitar, bass guitar
George Harrison: harmonica
Ringo Starr: drums, harmonica, shaker bells
George Martin: piano, harmonium, Hammond organ, tape loops
Mal Evans: bass harmonica
Neil Aspinall: harmonica
Geoff Emerick: tape loops
On 31 January 1967, while The Beatles were in Sevenoaks, Kent, making a promotional film for Strawberry Fields Forever, John Lennon wandered in to an antique shop close to their hotel. There he bought a framed Victorian circus poster from 1843.
The poster announced Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal, coming to Town Meadows in Rochdale. It grandly announced that the circus would be for the benefit of Mr Kite, and would feature “Mr J Henderson the celebrated somerset thrower” and Zanthus the horse.
Mr Kite was William Kite, a performer and the son of circus owner James Kite. In 1810 he had founded Kite’s Pavilion Circus and later moved to Wells’ Circus. It is thought that he worked in Pablo Fanques’ fair between 1843 and 1845. Fanque, pictured below, was Britain’s first black circus owner. He was born William Darby in Norwich in 1796.
Lennon hung the poster in his music room at his home in Weybridge, and began to use it as inspiration for a song. Some of the facts he changed – the circus was coming to Bishopsgate rather than Rochdale; the horse became Henry; the circus became a fair; Mr Kite was ‘late of Wells’s Circus’ rather that of Pablo Fanque (pictured below); and Mr Henderson, rather than Mr Kite, promised to challenge the world.
Minor changes aside, the words of the poster found their way almost unchanged into Lennon’s Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!, which closed the first half of the Sgt Pepper album. Lennon sat at his piano and sang phrases from the poster until he had the song, possibly with help from McCartney.
Lennon was later dismissive of the song, as revealed in a range of interview snippets collated in the Anthology book.
I wrote that as a pure poetic job, to write a song sitting there. I had to write because it was time to write. And I had to write it quick because otherwise I wouldn’t have been on the album. So I had to knock off a few songs. I knocked off A Day In The Life, or my section of it, and whatever we were talking about, Mr Kite, or something like that. I was very paranoid in those days, I could hardly move.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
He also denied there were hidden drug references in the song.
The whole song is from a Victorian poster, which I bought in a junk shop. It is so cosmically beautiful. It’s a poster for a fair that must have happened in the 1800s. Everything in the song is from that poster, except the horse wasn’t called Henry. Now, there were all kinds of stories about Henry the Horse being heroin. I had never seen heroin in that period. No, it’s all just from that poster. The song is pure, like a painting, a pure watercolour.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Paul McCartney added Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! to the setlist of his Out There tour in 2013. In a July 2013 interview with Rolling Stone he said he had co-written the song with Lennon.
Mr Kite! is such a crazy, oddball song that I thought it would freshen up the set. Plus the fact that I’d never done it. None of us in the Beatles ever did that song [in concert]. And I have great memories of writing it with John. I read, occasionally, people say, ‘Oh, John wrote that one.’ I say, ‘Wait a minute, what was that afternoon I spent with him, then, looking at this poster?’ 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.’ You know, whatever. ‘The Hendersons, Pablo Fanques, somersets…’ We said, ‘What was ‘somersets’? It must have been an old-fashioned way of saying somersaults.’ The song just wrote itself. So, yeah, I was happy to kind of reclaim it as partially mine.
In the studio
George Martin was given the task of coming up with a fairground production for the song.
In terms of asking me for particular interpretations, John was the least articulate. He would deal in moods, he would deal in colours, almost, and he would never be specific about what instruments or what line I had. I would do that myself… John was more likely to say, as in the case of Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!, ‘It’s a fairground sequence. I want to be in that circus atmosphere; I want to smell the sawdust when I hear that song. So it was up to me to provide that.
The first seven takes of the song were recorded on 17 February 1967, the day the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever single was released in the UK. In Abbey Road’s studio two they taped the rhythm track only – bass, drums and harmonium – with Lennon’s first vocal being overdubbed onto take seven.
On 20 February George Martin began trying to conjure up the required circus sounds.
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 n the distance – just a tremendous chaotic sound. So I got hold of old calliope tapes, playing Stars And Stripes Forever and other Sousa marches, chopped the tapes up into small sections and had Geoff Emerick throw them up in the air, re-assembling them at random.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
Nineteen pieces of tape were used in the overdub, which appears towards the end of the song. Although they hoped for a random effect, it took a while to get right.
I threw the bits up in the air but, amazingly, they came back together in almost the same order. We all expected it to sound different but it was virtually the same as before! So we switched bits around and turned some upside down.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
The song was then left until 28 March, when George Harrison, Ringo, Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall overdubbed harmonica parts, John played an organ and Paul a guitar solo.
The following day the fairground sound snippets were finally added, and George Martin played an organ part. And on the final day’s recording – 31 March – another organ and a glockenspiel part, both probably performed by Martin, were overdubbed.
The poster text
Grandest Night of the Season!
And positively the
LAST NIGHT BUT THREE!
Being for the
BENEFIT OF MR KITE,
(late of Wells’s Circus) and
Mr J. HENDERSON,
the celebrated somerset thrower!
Wire dancer, vaulter, rider, etc.
On TUESDAY Evening, February 14, 1843.
Messrs. Kite & Henderson, in announcing the following Entertainment, assure the Public that this Night’s Production will be one of the most Splendid ever produced in this Town, having been some days in preparation.
Mr Kite will, for this Night only, introduce the celebrated HORSE, ZANTHUS! Well known to be one of the best Broke Horses IN THE WORLD!!!
Mr Henderson will undertake the arduous Task of THROWING TWENTY ONE SOMERSETS on the solid ground. Mr Kite will appear, for the first time this season, On the Tight Rope, When Two Gentlemen Amateurs of this Town will perform with him. Mr Henderson will, for the first time in Rochdale,
introduce his extraordinary TRAMPOLINE LEAPS and SOMERSETS! Over Men & Horses, through Hoops, over Garters, and lastly, through a Hogshead of REAL FIRE! In this branch of the profession Mr H. challenges THE WORLD!