Thursday, August 13, 2009

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!

Lord, how this day has gotten away from me. Late again today, but I'm back hanging with Mr. Kite. Oh, kids, this one is so awesome. I have this icky feeling that maybe "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" hasn't aged well, or something-- I seem to detect detect a bit of backlash among the people, or perhaps a sense that one is tricked by the production into thinking this is a better song than it is. Eh, could just be my incorrect impression. And I say that even though the Pepper-esque sound-collage business may clearly place it into a psychedelic '60s milieu, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" rules forever and ever. Seriously. Don't hate.

Now, of course, there is a lot of studio weirdness happening with this song. John famously told George Martin that he wanted a carnival feel to the song, that he wanted to "smell the sawdust" strewn on the ground. And Martin delivered with a heaping helping of organ music (Martin is playing the harmonium, with John on the Hammond organ), plus a glockenspiel (I just like to say and type the word "glockenspiel") and copious tape loops of calliope music. When the engineers' numerous tries at editing the tape loops together proved unsatisfactory, Geoff Emerick cut the loops into little pieces, threw them up in the air, and reattached them all out of order. And that's how we get the famous middle eight waltz, as well as those trippy moments in the extended coda. My other favorite carnival-esque part is that part with those regular cymbals in the coda-- the sound always reminds me of a wind-up monkey playing cymbals, or something. I just dig that.

The tape loop and organ stuff is a big part of what makes this song oodles of fun, of course. But, you know, it's a pretty weird little song anyway. For one thing, it can't decide what key it wants to be in-- it vacillates between c minor and d minor in a way that's weird and kind of spooky. You can hear the sneaky little shift up to d about halfway through each verse-- in the first verse it's right after "what a scene." And then you're just seamlessly brought back into c by the instruments as they go into verse two. For me, this is a shift I can only hear if I'm really listening for it, so gracefully is it handled, but there's no doubt it adds something to the lack of stability that you sort of hear intuitively in this song.

Then there's the melody itself, which sounds like a cross between what a snake charmer would play on a flute and what a demented marching band would march off a football field with. And here's something you don't hear people talk about much with this song-- how 'bout that Paul on bass during the verses? It's a great line, just chock full of musical winks. Is it possible for a bass line to actually be funny? Because I think this is a kind of humorous bass line, and nicely set against the more demonic, nasal vocal by John. And because there's nothing else going on in the verses besides minimal organ and a bit of light, cymbal-heavy drumming, this stuff stands out hugely.

John, of course, wrote "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" around a Victorian circus poster he bought at, I think, an antique shop or flea market or something. The photo above shows it off. Apparently, he needed a song to add to the Sgt. Pepper mix, and just fixated on the poster out of sheer writer's block. And the poster totally delivered. You can see why such lyrics would appeal to John, whose sense of the ridiculous is fairly well-known. I think he does a fine job of capturing the equal parts lunacy and hilarity and terror that underlie the circus experience (at least for me). And you can't even imagine "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" on any album other than Sgt. Pepper, which is so full of the fantastic and strange that it seems to almost become the heart of the album somehow. Love it.

"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", released in the U.K. side A track 7 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.


  1. Is it OK if I just admire the song intellectually but not actually listen to it?

    Sgt. Pepper (album) announced recently as Rock Band downloadable content ...

  2. Oh, come on, Troy, you really don't like it? It's so damned lovable!

    But these are the moments that make me realize what a Johnist I am. I like songs like this more than I maybe should.

    Good news on Sgt. Pepper! And because I'm greedy, I'll keep my fingers crossed for Revolver too...

  3. Well, I like the bass a lot; it's like it's winking at you. I like the way John sings "second to none." And I think I like the song better when I hear it after "She's Leaving Home," which is such a compelling, depressing song (and one I adore) that it's kind of nice to have something light and airy afterward like "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." But if I was picking favorites on Sgt. Pepper, this one would be at the bottom of the list, just above "Within You, Without You." Sorry!

  4. I think I just don't like the way John sang it. Probably he meant to sing it like that, but it's so dreary. It sounds like make-work. Not crazy about how he sang Good Morning either. With the backstory of Paul taking over at this point, and John seeming unengaged, I can't get past that.

  5. I always loved this song. I don't think it fits anywhere, it doesn't really go with the Sgt Pepper thing, it just sort of shows up and you're like,,whaaaat? But it's a nice song. Musically it is interesting. One thing I have grown tired of though is George Martin's retelling over and over of how he and the engineers cut up the tapes of the organ music and threw them in the air and respliced them to get the hurley gurly(sp) sound. When this part comes on in Beatles documentaries I always take a bathroom break. Bill