John Lennon was the primary author of the song, although in a 2013 interview with Rolling Stones, Paul claimed it was co-written: "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..." (Source: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/q-a-paul-mccartney-looks-back-on-his-latest-magical-mystery-tour-20130725) This is probably true, although it's safe to say 'Mr. Kite' is more of a John song than a Paul song - rather similar to 'In My Life' (which I'll blog about tomorrow).
Regardless, Lennon expressed contradictory opinions regarding 'Mr. Kite'. In 1967 (the year it was released on Sgt. Pepper) he admitted to Hunter Davies, "I wasn't proud of that. There was no real work. I was just going though the motions because we needed a new song for Sgt Pepper at that moment" (Davies 275). But in an interview with David Sheff of Playboy in 1980, he reversed himself, concluding, "It's so cosmically beautiful ... The song is pure, like a painting, a pure watercolor" (Turner 128). How could the same man - the guy who wrote the song in the first place - offer such opposite perspectives on the same music? It's because in the earlier quote, Lennon was critiquing the song, while in the later quote he was critiquing the recording of the song. For while the song itself is somewhat bland, how it was recorded and developed in the studio - how mediocre music evolved into an exceptional recording - is the real story behind 'Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!'.
In the Beatles' early years, John was the unofficial leader of the band. He founded the Quarrymen (the band that eventually became the Beatles) in the first place, and consistently took charge. His leadership peaked on A Hard Day's Night, on which he was the primary author of 10 of the album's 13 tracks. By the time of Sgt. Pepper, however, Lennon had ceded that unofficial leadership to Paul. On Pepper, Paul was the primary author of 8.5 of the album's 13 tracks ('A Day in the Life' being truly co-written, accounting for the half), and Paul would be the impetus behind Magical Mystery Tour (late 1967) and Get Back/Let it Be (1969-70).
Thus, by 1967, John was relinquishing his authority to Paul and slowing in his songwriting. In an effort to keep up with Paul's prolific pace, John turned to "found lyrics" (words that come from a preexisting source) rather than writing anything original.
But Lennon's use of found lyrics was not new on Pepper. He admitted the first such example of on a Beatles recording borrowed from the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The movie features the song 'I'm Wishing', which opens with the title character singing the words, "Want to know a secret? Promise not to tell?", heard in the clip below from 0:16-0:20.
Similarly, a 1966 conversation between Peter Fonda, George Harrison, and John Lennon during a bad LSD trip would eventually form the basis for the lyrics to another Lennon song. With George anxious from the experience, Peter “told him there was nothing to be afraid of and that all he needed to do was relax. I said that I knew what it was like to be dead because when I was 10 years old I'd accidentally shot myself in the stomach and my heart stopped beating three times while I was on the operating table because I'd lost so much blood. John was passing at the time and heard me saying 'I know what it's like to be dead.' He looked at me and said, 'You're making me feel like I've never been born.'”
Shortly thereafter, John would compose 'She Said She Said', the lyrics of which were based on that exchange:
"She said, 'I know what it's like to be dead.
I know what it is to be sad.'
And she's making me feel like I've never been born."
Shortly before his death in 1980, John admitted that the lyrics of 'Mr. Kite' were "a stright lift. I had all the words staring me in the face one day when I was looking for a song" (Davies 275). And indeed, browsing the poster, many of the lyrics are at least inspired by the poster's circus imagery, if not used verbatim - something I illustrate in my BEATLES MINUTE on the subject:
But it's not the songwriting of 'Mr. Kite' that makes it an extraordinary piece of music. It is rather the recording of the song.
The recording incorporates a waltz, which is a dance in quick triple meter (one-two-three, one-two-three; oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah). Perhaps the most famous waltz ever composed is Johann Strauss II's 'The Beautiful Blue Danube' (the famous part starts around 1:30 and again at 9:15):
The music of 'Mr. Kite' is in quadruple meter (four beats to the bar) until the lyrics, "And of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz", when the music suddenly shifts from quadruple meter to triple - a waltz. This metric modification musically symbolizes the horses' dancing.
But Henry is one talented horse. Mr. Ed can talk, but Henry can sing! Simultaneous with the shift to the waltz meter, Martin plays a rapid descending chromatic scale on the organ, musically imitating a horse's whinny. They could have used a literal sound effect at this moment, and in fact such a sound effect is used twice on the album's third-to-last track 'Good Morning Good Morning', but that's not what is wanted in this case. Rather, the organ emulating a horse is a musical recreation of a whinny. Interestingly, the same track on the Love album does use a sound effect. And, much like 'A Hard Day's Night', Martin achieved this passage using varispeed - he recorded the passage at a slower tempo and lower pitch, then sped up that recording to raise both tempo and pitch to their correct levels.
'Mr. Kite' also features a sophisticated three-part tonal scheme, in which C minor, D minor and E minor all jostle for supremacy. Most pop songs are in a single tonality throughout (for example: 'I Saw Her Standing There' is entirely in E major), but 'Mr. Kite' has three
Track Timing Tonality Cumulative Seconds in this Tonality
0:00-0:06 D minor 6
0:06-0:21 C minor 15
0:21-0:36 D minor 6+15=21
0:36-0:51 C minor 15+15=30
0:51-1:15 D minor 21+24=45
1:15-1:28 E minor 13
1:28-1:44 C minor 30+16=46
1:44-2:12 D minor 45+28=73
2:12-2:34 E minor 13+22=35
Thus, the 154 total seconds of the song are relatively equally divided among the three tonalities: D minor (73/154=47%), C minor (46/154=30%), E minor (35/154=23%). And thus, as Walter Everett observes in his book The Beatles as Musicians, "Neither C, D, nor E can claim traditional authority as a single tonal center, especially with the same melodic/harmonic material appear in each key. Rather, the three centers can be heard as the rings of a circus, with action taking place in all arenas and no particular object of attention the 'correct' one" (Everett p. 110-11). In other words, 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!' is tonally a three ring circus.
But the crowning jewel of 'Mr. Kite' - the cherry on top - is the coda (ending). Lennon, notoriously technically inept, implored Martin, "I’d love to be able to get across all the effects of a really colourful circus. The acrobats in their tights, the smell of the animals, the merry-go-rounds. I want to smell the sawdust" (Martin p. 89). So Martin got the idea to use recordings of old steam organs and calliopes that so acutely capture the ambiance of a circus. "I went back to all the recordings of marches and what-not I’d collected ... Then I got hold of [engineer] Geoff [Emerick]. ... ‘Geoff,’ I said, ‘we’re going to try something here; I want you to cut that tape there up into sections that are roughly fifteen inches long, ... pick them all up and fling them into the air!’ He looked at me. Naturally, he thought I’d gone mad. It was a wonderful moment - it snowed pieces of tape all over the control room. ‘Now, pick ‘em up and put them together again, and don’t look at what you’re doing". ... In this peculiar way we made up a patchwork quilt of different parts of steam organ recordings, all in roughly one-second segments: lots of different pieces whirling around. When I listened to them, they formed a chaotic mass of sound: it was impossible to identify the tunes they had come from; but it was unmistakably a steam organ. Perfect! There was the fairground atmosphere we had been looking for. John was thrilled to bits" (Martin p. 91-92).
But of course, this collage is not the only one on Pepper - this collage on 'Mr. Kite' can be thought of as the sonic equivalent the album's famous cover.
Davies, Hunter. The Beatles. W W Norton & Company, New York, NY, 1996.
Emerick, Geoff and Howard Massey. Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles. Gotham Books, published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, NY, 2006.
Everett, Walter. The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through Anthology. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1999.
Martin, George. With a Little Help from My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper. Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY, 1994.
Turner, Steve. A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song. itbooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2005.
Tuesday, 12 April 2016, 2:30-3:30 p.m.
Salem Community College, 460 Hollywood Avenue, Carneys Point, NJ
The Beatles: Band of the Sixties
Explore the music of The Beatles in this 60-minute multimedia presentation (part history and part musical analysis) spanning the full 1960s: beginning with the band's seminal visits to Hamburg, continuing through Beatlemania, and concluding with Abbey Road. The program will be supplemented with audio clips of music and excerpts from interviews with the band members.
Tuesday, 12 April 2016, 7:00-8:30 p.m.
Woodbury Public Library, 33 Delaware St, Woodbury, NJ
The Beatles' Alter Ego, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Since its release in 1967, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band has often been regarded as the greatest rock album ever made, and one of the first rock concept albums. This 90-minute multimedia presentation will observe and discuss the landmark album track by track, citing musical and historical precedents, and illustrating the development of the songs through excerpts from interviews with the band members and clips of discarded takes.