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Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

"Revolution In The Head"

Ian MacDonald's "Revolution In The Head" is perhaps the definitive work of Beatles music criticism. MacDonald examines every Beatles song, analysing how it works musically and exploring the context in which it was written and recorded. Here he introduces the seventh track from "Sgt. Pepper", 'Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!'.

Revolution in the head book cover
Revolution in the head book cover
©The Random House Group Ltd.
Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!

double-tracked vocal, Hammond organ; McCartney bass, guitar; Harrison harmonica; Starr drums, tambourine, harmonica; George Martin harmonium, Lowery organ, glockenspiel (?), tape-effects; Mal Evans, Neil Aspinall harmonicas

Recorded: 17th February 1967, Abbey Road 2; 20th February 1967, Abbey Road 3; 28th-29th, 31st March 1967, Abbey Road 2.

Producer: George Martin. Engineer: Geoff Emrick.

UK release: 1st June 1967 (LP: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

US release: 2nd June 1967 (LP: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

While The Beatles were filming a promo for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in Sevenoaks, Kent, on 31st January, Lennon wandered into an antiques shop and picked up a Victorian circus poster advertising ‘the last night but three’ of a show put on by some travelling tumblers in Rochdale in 1843. This appealed to his sense of the ridiculous and, when the new album called for another composition from him, he hung the poster on the wall of his home studio and, playing his piano, sang phrases from it until he had a song. Taking it to Abbey Road, he asked George Martin for a ‘fairground’ production wherein one could smell the sawdust – which, while not in the narrowest sense a musical specification, was, by Lennon’s standards, a clear and reasonable request. (He once asked Martin to make one of his songs sound like an orange.) While The Beatles’ producer worked more naturally with the conventionally articulate McCartney, the challenge of catering to Lennon’s intuitive approach generally spurred him to his more original arrangements, of which ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ is an outstanding example. Using harmonium, harmonicas, and a tape of Victorian steam organs and calliopes cut up and edited into a kaleidoscopic wash, he created a brilliantly whimsical impression of period burlesque, ideally complementing Lennon’s dry nasal delivery. Few producers have displayed a tenth of the invention shown here.

Lennon was happy with the effect but not with the song, which he considered facile. Most would beg to differ. Ingeniously matching its serpentine melody, the lyric elaborates on its poster text with real wit, while, with its irresistible image of a solemnly waltzing horse, the track as a whole offers a grotesque sequel to McCartney’s wholesome ‘Yellow Submarine’ which only a professional misanthrope could fail to enjoy. Yet Lennon was by nature – and later on principle – distrustful of objective art (i.e., anything that didn’t directly concern himself). Unable to appreciate the pleasure his imagination brought to others, he fashioned things like this with fluent ease only to reject them for having entailed none of the pain by which he measured creative authenticity. A spontaneous expression of its author’s playful hedonism, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!’ was repudiated by the puritan in him.

© Ian MacDonald, 1994. Published by Pimlico 2005. Used by permission of The Random House Group Limited.