Fifty Years Ago Today… We Learned About a 19th Century Circus

Fifty years ago today, on June 1, 1967, the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in the United States. (The UK release was a few days earlier on May 26.)

You will no doubt hear a lot about this anniversary in the coming days, if you haven’t done so already. As a kid, I vividly remember the twentieth anniversary being a big deal, partly because because the opening lyric to the album’s title song is “It was twenty years ago today / Sgt. Pepper taught his band to play,” and because Capitol-EMI had released a digitally remastered CD of the album. CD was state-of-the-art in 1987. In that same spirit, Capitol EMI Universal Music Group released a newly remixed and remastered super-deluxe edition of Sgt. Pepper’s that includes a bunch of extras, such as some studio takes, a video documentary and a mono mix of the album. (There’s also a mere anniversary edition that won’t set you back $120.)

A reproduction of the 20th anniversary CD of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in 1987.

I first listened to Sgt. Pepper’s in the aftermath of the twentieth anniversary in 1987. One of the songs that always stuck out to me was “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” The song might not be the best one on the album, but with its circus-like atmosphere, achieved through a variety of archaic musical instruments and through innovative multitrack recording and mixing, it was a song that transported me to altogether different time and place. Curiously, the song also features the Andalusian Cadence, although I did not know that at the time.

The fiftieth anniversary remixed-and-remastered recordings are available on streaming services, such as Amazon, Spotify, and Apple Music, and after listening to the remixes, which do in fact sound richer than what was previously available on CD and digital formats, I revisited “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” What on earth is John Lennon signing about in this song?

In case you need a refresher, here’s the lyrics that open the song:

For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair—what a scene
Over men and horses, hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!
In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world!

Writing in Smithsonian Magazine in 2011, Mike Dash wrote explains many of the references in this song, especially “Pablo Fanque’s Fair”. He explains how the song lyrics were based on an antique poster than John Lennon bought in Kent. The poster was “to benefit” a circus performance in 1843 run by Pablo Fanque, who was not only a very successful circus performer but was, in the golden age of the circus in Victorian England, a black man who owned his own circus(!).

A reproduction of the 1843 poster that inspired John Lennon to write “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in 1967.

Looking at the poster, you can see how Lennon assimilated the various elements of the poster into his song. There’s of course Pablo Fanque’s Cirus Royal, the Hendersons, Henry the Horse dancing the waltz, the “somersets” (somersaults) and trampoline, and, of course, Mr. Kite himself.

But beyond the connection to the song, the article provides a deep and engaging historical account of Pablo Fanque and his circus. It’s worth a read to learn about the circus and the “entertainment industry” in Victorian England.

Last month, the longest running and last remaining American circus of the Victorian era closed. But the atmosphere of the circus, in general, and the story of a black circus entrepreneur, specifically, might not be entirely forgotten. Perhaps, because of the anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s, some curious listeners will hear “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” we will remember this odd Victorian-era entertainment and wonder what it was like to see Pablo Fanque’s Fair.

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