Fifty years ago, on January 31, 1967, the Beatles found themselves in the midst of a two-day film shoot for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” promotional video with director Peter Goldmann in Sevenoaks, Kent. During a production break, John Lennon was browsing the wares of a local antique store, when an old Victorian circus poster caught his eye. What he discovered—quite literally—was the “found object” that inspired him to create the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” out of thin air.
A hallmark of twentieth-century art forms, the concept of the found object finds its origins in Marcel Duchamp’s deployment of “ready-made” objects in the early years of the new century. The idea of the found object comes from the French objet trouvé, which connotes the notion of making art out of everyday objects that generally lack traditional artistic functions.
For Lennon, the Victorian circus poster, with its striking fonts and dramatic tales of derring-do, was irresistible. The poster advertised a circus near Rochdale, Lancashire, in February 1843, and Lennon later described his musical interpretation of this found object—the found “poetry” of the circus poster—as “pure, like a painting, a pure watercolor.” With its dazzling lettering and illustrations, the poster references “Mr. J. Henderson,” a circus clown, wire-walker, and trampoline artist who performed in the circus throughout Europe during the 1840s and 1850s with his wife Agnes, herself the daughter of circus owner Henry Hengler.
As it happened, the Victorian circus poster was only the most recent found object that had wormed its way into Lennon’s artistic imagination. Within the previous months, he had borrowed two newspaper headlines that would establish the lyrical foundation for “A Day in the Life,” the eventual climax for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band long-player. The first headline emerged via a December 19, 1966, issue of the Daily Sketch that published a photo of Guinness heir Tara Browne’s grisly car crash (“He blew his mind out in a car”). Less than a month later, Lennon happened upon a January 17, 1967, article in the Daily Mail on “The Holes in Our Roads.” And with that, “A Day in the Life” was once and truly born.
For Lennon, the Victorian circus poster that he discovered in Kent would serve as the catalyst for the creation of a mixed-media production in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” As he began the process of crafting the song, the Beatle transcribed the lyrics nearly verbatim from the poster. As he later recalled, “Mr. Kite” was “a straight lift. I had all the words staring me in the face one day when I was looking for a song. It was from this old poster I’d bought at an antique shop. We’d been down to Surrey or somewhere filming a piece. There was a break, and I went into this shop and bought an old poster advertising a variety show which starred Mr. Kite. It said the Hendersons would also be there, late of Pablo Fanques Fair. There would be hoops and horses and someone going through a hogs head of real fire. Then there was Henry the Horse. The band would start at ten to six. All at Bishopsgate. Look, there’s the bill— with Mr. Kite topping it. I hardly made up a word, just connecting the lists together. Word for word, really.”
But the lyrics, of course, were merely the prelude to the Beatles’ creative process in the studio. Produced by George Martin, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” began taking form at Abbey Road Studios on February 17, 1967, with additional overdubbing sessions on February 20, as well as March 28, 29, and 31. With Lennon playing the Hammond organ and Martin working the countermelody on a carnivalesque Wurlitzer, the track’s instrumentation finds Paul McCartney concocting a lively, imaginative bass part on his Rickenbacker and George Harrison and Ringo Starr—along with Beatles associates Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall—on a quartet of harmonicas.
In order to create the song’s memorable, ultimately chaotic circus atmosphere, Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick diced up small sections of old calliope tapes of John Philip Sousa marches, tossed them in the air, and then randomly reassembled them for use during the song’s pair of middle-eight musical interludes.
The resulting composition makes for one of the Beatles’ most powerful works of musical imagery. For listeners, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” offers an unusual musical adventure in which the song’s more conventional, circus atmosphere of the first passage is counterpoised by the madcap, at times insidious music of the second in which the circus train has figuratively fallen off of its tracks. It’s a masterpiece of aural effect that casts the rest of the song into spellbinding question.
By merging the Beatles’ psychedelic music with the Edwardian circus motif inherent in the poster that Lennon discovered in the antique shop, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” takes on a multiplicity of meanings that ultimately serve to disrupt both musical and temporal contexts in the same instant—and thus becoming a transhistorical work of art in the process. And to think that it all began with an old circus poster in Sevenoaks, Kent.
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. His latest book, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966), is forthcoming in 2017. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.