Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite

Robert Bunter: In a way, John’s terrifying “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” ranks among the most “peppery” of the Sgt. Pepper’s tracks, in terms of Paul’s concept of a Beatles record masquerading as an old-timey variety show. In subsequent years John would play down the “Pepper” concept as a fraud and a McCartney ego trip (and of course John’s album closer “A Day In The Life” manages to simultaneously deflate and shed light on the harsh reality behind Paul’s whimsical fancies), but at the time he was willing to play along. Characteristically, John’s vision of an old-timey variety show has a lot more fangs than Paul’s. Paul assumes the emcee role and opens the curtain with flourishes of showbiz razzle-dazzle. Then we are introduced to the hapless yet loveable Billy Shears and his ode to friendship. A few tracks later, “Mr. Kite” offers a much darker vision of early 20th century popular entertainment – John’s emcee is a bored-sounding carnival barker, his voice oozing over the grim, minor-key gypsy melody with the same jaded contempt that strippers and freak show performers feel for their drooling audience of rubes, marks and squares. Paul conjures visions of a pleasantly amused crowd reacting to a colorful and friendly band of performers; John invites us into a dank, stinky tent where elaborately-moustached gymnasts in eggshell tights tumble through flaming hoops and drugged horses dance creepily (this was really accomplished with painful, hidden clamps and spiked bridles which directed the poor beast which way to go). But don’t worry! All you have to do is turn the record over and you’ll be ready to enjoy George’s interminable curry sermon, punctuated by a turgid sitar solo in 7/4 time. Thanks for inviting us to your wonderful show, Beatles!

Richard Furnstein: Lennon took most of the lyrics to "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" from a Victorian carnival poster discovered in an antique shop (word is that John read from the fine print on the poster as he sat at the piano, pumping out the tune). However, the horrorshow ambiance of the recording is purely Lennon's drug fantasy. The sound of "Mr. Kite" fits in with the unsettling combination of nostalgia, fantasy, and drug experimentation of The Beatles' psychedelic recordings. The famous cover photo for Sgt. Pepper's is a window into this world, where The Beatles are outfitted as a droll marching band in a sea of black and white oddities (Aleister Crowley, a slightly hidden James Joyce) and technicolor splashes (the sheen of the marching band outfits, the funereal flowers). The heavily pixelated stark newsprint cutouts provides a shock of contrast next to the way-out implications of marmalade skies and a flaming hogshead. Lennon was in full control of this fantasy--guiding a generation of creepy long hairs into the light with his sinister word play and frozen Lysergic images. It didn't matter that the finely-wrought lyrics to "Mr. Kite" are almost verbatim from an antique poster. The language of "Mr. Kite" is a window into a world of danger and improbable illusions. Lennon was certainly sympathetic to the improbable world and fantastical events suggested in the poster's script.

Robert Bunter: Most of the time when Beatle books discuss this track, they focus on the swirling collage of organ and calliope music which George Martin conjured in response to John’s vague request to “do something fairground-y … I want to smell the sawdust.” They looked into renting an actual calliope but nothing would fit through the door. Instead, Martin collected a pile of tapes of organ and circus music, cut them into strips and threw them into the air, then glued them back together in whatever order they fell. This was supplanted with some actual real-time recorded organ and harmonium playing the melody. The final effect is wonderful, of course – exactly the terrifying, trippy carnival evocation that John had in mind. Even more wonderful, in my opinion, are the many circulating video clips of an older George Martin, seated in front of the recording console, re-telling the “we threw the tapes in the air” story for the umpteenth time with evident gleeful relish. The staid, conservatory-trained producer’s eyes sparkle as he remembers what a delightfully madcap afternoon that was. There’s something almost cute about it. Here are the Beatles, their minds sizzling on exotic drugs, changing the world with their bold satin military outfits and various attempts at facial hair (some more successful than others – George’s dirt-stache was rightfully panned during the 2006 “Beatle Facial Hair” panel discussion at Beatlefest, which I was honored to moderate). And then here’s dapper George Martin in a tasteful white sweater, sipping a cup of tea and feeling like a wild-eyed revolutionary for gently tossing a few strips of magnetic tape in the air. He probably was extra vigorous in the bedroom with Ms. Martin after he got home that evening; literally “feeling his oats.”

John invites us into a dank, stinky tent where elaborately-moustached gymnasts in eggshell tights tumble through flaming hoops and drugged horses dance creepily.
Richard Furnstein: "It's time for tea and meet the wife," indeed. Sure, George Martin felt schoolboy glee whenever he was able to lead Beatles recordings into new terrain. His heart would certainly race when they would scheme on ways to bend the strict rules of the Abbey Road headmaster. "George, we want this song to sound to like a calliope that we remember from our childhoods in 1947" or "I want to sound like the Dalai Lama, but underwater and backwards." All George Martin could do was sit back in his barrister executive chair (adjusted for minimum tilt, mind you) and stuff some Sir Pennington's Basingstoke Blend tobacco into a cherry-finished pipe. He'd take some pensive puffs on the pipe and look John and Paul in their spinning top eyes and say, "Gentlemen, this is what we'll do..." See, George Martin was there to find solutions for rich and curiously talented junkies. He was paid the big bucks to translate gobbledygook and gentle hallucinations into precise sound textures. He was unhampered by the auditory illusions and pesky dragon shadows that haunted his co-workers. George Martin was free to create and problem-solve while John and the boys were off debating the cosmic possibilities of the concept of "real fire." The Beatles wanted the impossible in short order, and the recording team was there to find a way to the golden princess. Speed up the tape. Flip over the tape. Cut up the tape. Are we there yet, sir?

Robert Bunter: Yes. That’s just how it was. I’d just like to add that the “LOVE” album mashup of this track with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” works brilliantly. Plus, everything on that disc sounds so much better than the original albums, even the new re-mastered versions. I don’t know what Giles Martin (George’s son, possibly conceived on organ tape-throwing night, who knows?) did, but I like it. There is a lot of clarity, space, punch and transparency in these 21st-centruy re-imaginings, and furthermore some of the merging and juxtapositions are simply exhilarating. When the “She’s So Heavy” riff comes in instead of the horse-waltz, my eyes fill with tears of excitement. I know this is an unpopular opinion in Beatle-land (see transcripts of Beatlefest 2010 “LOVE” panel discussion featuring the director of Cirque de Soleil, former Wings guitarist Denny Laine McCullough and Ringo Starr), but I think that album is an unambiguous triumph and a worthy addition to the canon.

Richard Furnstein: I couldn't agree more. How about the "Helter Skelter" ghost in that track or the punishing organ before the "I Want You" mash? The LOVE album is the most valuable addition to The Beatles catalog since Let It Be oozed out onto the sheets in May 1970 (the In Mono box is certainly close, but those releases already existed for the chosen Beatlemaniacs). It's exciting that mankind has Giles to carry the torch in the coming decades. It's better than having to rely on Geoff Emerick or his children. Giles clearly brought the innovations of Pro Tools to The Beatles, taking his dear old dad's haphazard cut and splice and innovations and translating them into the binary modern world. Mindful of the past, blazing into the future. Can you imagine the overactive/drug fueled imaginations of Lennon/McCartney in the modern age? The endless possibilities of the blank digital canvas would have been crippling to the wide eyed John and Paul. They had enough problems dealing with the unpredictable acid trips and the disembodied head of Pablo Fanque appearing in the rear view mirrors of their Bentley Continentals. What a scene!

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