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How the circus inspired one of John Lennon's strangest songs for The Beatles

One of the rock world’s finest lyricists, famed for his poetic poignancy and pop urgency, John Lennon was still capable of churning out a truly strange effort. A true Beatles fan would argue that every song has its merit; there are certainly some songs that even the band’s principal songwriters would call “album filler”. The real value in some of these songs is the brief insight into the creative process. For ‘Being The Benefit of Mr Kite’ certainly fits that bill.

Ending side one of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the track is not only a good candidate for the aforementioned accolade but also sees the distillation of Lennon’s responsive and reflective poetry brought to life. The album saw the band in a slightly odd time. The band were following on from their acid rock revolution on Revolver and were persevering with Paul McCartney’s large conceptual piece, keeping the odd piece of LSD lint in their pockets as they went.

The album is littered with such moments. With their previous releases, the Fab Four had found a niche and were seemingly riding high on an experimental rock and roll sound that so far hadn’t steered them wrong. As Lennon and McCartney assumed their roles as pop maestros, they allowed their particular talents to flourish. McCartney became the group’s de facto creative director, charging with the concept of removing themselves completely from being ‘The Beatles’, writing songs that cherished a conversational style and music hall heart. Lennon, meanwhile, let his imagination run wild as he desperately tried to keep up with McCartney.

It meant songs could strike him anywhere and anytime. ‘Being The Benefit of Mr Kite’ was one such song, taken its direct inspiration from a Victorian poster advertising a circus. A classic piece of memorabilia, the poster shared Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal, coming to Rochdale. Announcing the circus would be for the benefit of Mr Kite and would feature Mr J Henderson, the “celebrated somerset thrower”, as well as Zanthus, the horse. Mr Kite was, in fact, William Kite and was the son of a circus owner named James Kite. He worked for Pablo Fanques, the first Black circus owner, for two years. As soon as he found the poster in January of 1967, he bought it.

Hanging the poster in his music room at his Weybridge house, Lennon found the heavy copy a perfect jumping-off point for some of his more expansive lyrics. Of course, he changed many of the facts but it was enough to send Lennon down a blinding path of swirling lights and pulsing poetry. “I wrote that as a pure poetic job,” recalled Lennon when speaking to Jann Wenner 1970, “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.”

Many have pointed to the song as some of Lennon’s most heavily drug-influenced but the song’s creator denied these accusations. “The whole song is from a Victorian poster, which I bought in a junk shop,” he recalled. “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.”

McCartney also enjoyed the strange spin on the songs lyrics and suggested, after adding it to his solo tour plans in 2013, that he was a co-writer on the track. “‘Mr Kite!’ is such a crazy, oddball song that I thought it would freshen up the set,” he told Rolling Stone. “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,” concluded the singer. There’s no doubt that the duo often wrote in tandem, but it was thought that, largely by this point, the duo were a strict songwriting partnership in name only, usually constructing the large bulk of each song separately.

The band’s producer also seemed convinced that it was Lennon who had the intention of the song in his heart. Reflecting on the group’s ability to convey their sonic requirements, he said,:”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.”

It’s a track that will always showcase a particular moment of creative freedom and unbridled musical joy for the band. Lennon is in his element, providing twisting and turning lyrical structures that highlight a pop star like no other. There may be an argument for the song ranking lowly among Lennon’s hits, but there’s no doubt it captures the flash and spark of his searing imagination.

If there’s one place where Lennon’s poetry makes the clearest of sense, it may well be a Victorian circus.

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