A Three-Ring Circus
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is one of several Beatles songs in which the recording is better than the song. In my 11/29 post I demonstrated how similar "Mr. Kite" is melodically to "It's Only Love", and regarding the latter, "It was one of the few Beatles' songs that John really hated. 'I was always ashamed of that because of the abominable lyrics,' he admitted in 1969" (Turner 82). (Though he disliked the lyrics, apparently he liked the melody well enough because he reused it in "Mr. Kite".) Regarding the former, however, Lennon's opinions changed with time. 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). This seems to be quite accurate, indeed, given not only the melodic similarities to "It's Only Love", but also the inspiration in the first place: During filming of the video to "Strawberry Fields Forever", John visited an antique store and purchased a poster advertising a circus. (A copy of the poster may be found at the end of this blog.) 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). (Lennon pulled a very similar stunt in "A Day in the Life", using newspaper articles as inspiration for his lyrics.) But in an interview with David Sheff of Playboy in 1980, Lennon reversed his opinions, saying, "It's so cosmically beautiful ... The song is pure, like a painting, a pure watercolor" (Turner 128). How could the same man, who wrote the song in the first place, offer so completely 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. For while the song itself is rather bland, how it was recorded and developed in the studio - how a mediocre song turned in to an exceptional one - is the real story behind "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite".
Text painting refers to how the music and text relate. The line "And of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz" features text painting in two ways: First, a waltz is in 3/4 time (one-two-three, one-two-three, oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah) and although the rest of the song is in 4/4, the music transforms into a waltz exactly when Lennon sings the word "waltz". Second, the organ, which comes to the fore at that precise moment, musically simulates the sound of a horse's whinny through rapidly descending chromatic scales.
Furthermore, this neighing showcases the technical studio sophistication so characteristic of the Beatles' experimental years. George Martin played the part one octave lower and half as fast as heard on the album. He then ran the tape back at twice the original speed, producing a result that sounded exactly one octave higher and two times quicker than originally recorded. This allowed him to easily play what would have otherwise been extraordinarily difficult to perform.
Structurally speaking, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is unusual in that it has no chorus. This is strange because it is often the chorus that is the most catchy and easily recognizable part of a song, and is often where the title lyrics are sung ("She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah . . .", "Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends . . .", "It won't be long, yeah . . .", "Hey, you've got to hide your love away . . .", "Come together right now over me . . .", "Here comes the sun, doo doo doo doo . . .", "Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer came down upon her head . . .", et cetera) But "Mr. Kite" does not have a chorus, and the title lyrics are thus found in the opening verse.
"Mr. Kite" also features a brilliant three-part tonal scheme, in which C minor, D minor and E minor all jostle for supremacy. This is illustrated by the chart below:
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 divided among the three tonalities relatively equally: D minor (73/154=47%), C minor (46/154=30%), E minor (35/154=23%). And thus, "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). This type of macro-scale tonal planning would culminate in songs on the Beatles' last albums - those found on "The White Album", "Let it Be", and especially "Abbey Road".
But the crowning jewel of "Mr. Kite" - the cherry on top - is the coda (ending). Lennon, notoriously technically inept, said "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). Martin got the idea to use recordings of old steam organs and calliopes that so acutely musically 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 Geoff, who by this stage was more than my engineer on our extraordinary album, he was my co-conspirator. ‘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.’ Geoff reached for his scissors and began snipping. In no time at all we had a small pyramid of worm-like tape fragments piled on the floor at our feet. ‘Now,’ I said, ‘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,’ I told Geoff. ... 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 with it (Martin p. 91-92). But of course, this collage is not the only one on Sgt. Pepper - this collage may be seen as the sonic equivalent the album's famous cover.
To hear just the concluding sound collage, click here.
To hear the final product full song, click here.
Davies, Hunter. The Beatles. W W Norton & Company, New York, NY, 1996.
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.
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This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.