Following the sentimental (some say maudlin) orchestral pop of "She's Leaving Home", The Beatles once again gave way to stylistic counterpoint, choosing to serve up psychedelic lyricism and, of all things - a "show tonight", in the form of a generously sampled vaudeville poster proclaiming it "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite."
Musically, the song's carnival atmosphere are only exceeded by the sheer amount of tape overdubs being applied to this song. After the intricate production work on the opening title track, the songs had generally been rather straightforward in their recording and playback (normal studio overdubs for vocals and guitars), but this was the first one to really go wild with the new tape technology that The Beatles and George Martin had largely invented and pioneered. Despite the song's seemingly simple approach to songwriting (with its pokey 4/4 calliope bounce and esoteric swirl of a waltz), it has an amazing depth to it, mostly at the ends of each verse line (compare the note that ends "trampoline" and "scene") where the V chord turns into a II chord in the mind to give the finish of the verse a simple cadence. The waltz itself is in a different key (merely modulated up a key with the taping process), and played by George Martin (at half-speed, which Martin admits "makes you sound bloody brilliant") the Wurlitzer sounds simply enchanting, arpeggiating up and down with a glissando that never lets up until it reaches the bouncy downbeat bunch of the calliope (bum-BA-bum-BA-bum-ba-BUM) and returns to the words.
Now we've gone and mentioned the calliope several times, but there aren't any actual calliopes on the track. Since a steam organ wasn't available, George Martin went out and found some original recordings of one, ordered Geoff Emerick to chop them up, throw them in the air several times, and then resplice the random pieces. Then they played the tape backwards and added some whistles over the top to give it the collage effect it has today. Meanwhile, John, the passive participant in this day affair, was like a "kid in the candy store," says Martin. This kind of tactic is, of course, horribly outdated, but at the time it was cutting edge in the wildest way, and the song still works, surreal and moody amongst its imagistic lyrics.
The story of the lyrics' birth has been covered adequately and more thoroughly elsewhere, so I will offer a brief summation. While browsing through an antique shop, John came across a poster advertising a fair coming through town many years ago. Enchanted by its eccentric words and pastiche drawings, he purchased it, and within the year had put the poster above his piano and written a song to accompany his lyrics, based directly on the poster. Later, when John tried to downplay his importance to the world, he used this song's simplicity and lyrical nonsense to make a point:
People want to know what the inner meaning of 'Mr. Kite' was. There wasn't any. I just did it. I shoved a lot of words together then shoved some noise on. I just did it. I didn't dig that song when I wrote it. I didn't believe in it when I was doing it. But nobody will believe it. They don't want to. They want it to be important. (The Beatles Anthology)
Okay, but it's important to note that Lennon's druggy inspirations at this time - Lewis Carroll, vaudeville, and soon enough, Eastern mysticism - all shaped the Beatles' lyrical and musical output for the rest of their days, and it's these first baby steps towards musical self-confidence that would result in the greatness of "Across The Universe" and "Imagine", among others.
The bulk of the song was recorded at EMI Studio Two on February 17, 1967. John provided the lead vocals and played the Hammond organ (more on this later), while Paul played bass and Ringo played drums. One month later, Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, George, and Ringo provided overdubs of a harmonica that gives the song an even more circus feel than was probably necessary. Three days later the opening calliope was added by George Martin, and it took another month before the tape-cutting idea and Wurlitzer organ (also Martin) were added to the mix.
This is perhaps the only song without any direct, oblique, or otherwise regarding the Paul is dead phenomenon. Its direct source from that 1843 poster made lyrical winks and nods out of the question, and the joyous and rather commercial theme doesn't lend itself to some sort of sharp sequencing.
This song's unique nature and scatterbrained production makes it a tough cover, and the only version worth hearing is George Martin's own revision of it on his In My Life compilation, with Scottish comedian Billy Connolly vocalizing the poster once more to dramatic effect.
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite
For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanques Fair - what a scene
Over men and horses hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!
In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world!
The celebrated Mr. K.
Performs his feat on Saturday at Bishopsgate
The Hendersons will dance and sing
As Mr. Kite flies through the ring don't be late
Messrs. K. and H. assure the public
Their production will be second to none
And of course Henry The Horse dances the waltz!
The band begins at ten to six
When Mr. K. performs his tricks without a sound
And Mr. H. will demonstrate
Ten summersets he'll undertake on solid ground
Having been some days in preparation
A splendid time is guaranteed for all
And tonight Mr. Kite is topping the bill
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
She's Leaving Home | Within You, Without You