A reproduction of the Pablo Fanque Circus Royal poster from 1843 upon which the song is based.
The inspiration to write the song was a 19th-century circus poster for Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal, Rochdale, that Lennon purchased in an antique shop on 31 January 1967, while filming the promotional video for "Strawberry Fields Forever" in Sevenoaks, Kent. Lennon explained: "Everything from the song is from that poster, except the horse wasn't called Henry." (The poster identifies the horse as "Zanthus.")
In a 2013 Rolling Stone interview, McCartney states: "I read, occasionally, people say, "Oh, John wrote that one." I say, "Wait a minute, what was that afternoon I spent with him, then, looking at this poster?" He happened to have a poster in his living room at home. I was out at his house, and we just got this idea, because the poster said "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" – and then we put in, you know, "there will be a show tonight," and then it was like, "of course,"...The song just wrote itself. So, yeah, I was happy to kind of reclaim it as partially mine."
Pablo Fanque, the Victorian circus owner, who employed William Kite from 1843 to 1845.
The full text of the original Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal poster is:
PABLO FANQUE'S CIRCUS ROYAL,
Grandest Night of the Season!
AND POSITIVELY THE
LAST NIGHT BUT THREE!
BEING FOR THE
BENEFIT OF MR. KITE,
(LATE OF WELLS'S CIRCUS) AND
MR. J. HENDERSON,
THE CELEBRATED SOMERSET THROWER!
WIRE DANCER, VAULTER, RIDER, &c.
On TUESDAY Evening, February 14, 1843.
Mssrs. KITE and HENDERSON, in announcing the following Entertainments, assure the Public that this Night's Production will be one of the most splendid ever produced in this town, having been some days in preparation.
Mr. KITE will, for this night only, introduce the
Well known to be one of the
best Broke Horses
IN THE WORLD!!!
Mr. HENDERSON will undertake the arduous Task of
THROWING TWENTY-ONE SOMERSETS,
ON THE SOLID GROUND.
Mr. KITE will appear, for the first time this season,
On the Tight Rope,
When Two Gentlemen Amateurs of this Town will
perform with him.
Mr. HENDERSON will, for the first time in Rochdale,
introduce his extraordinary
Over Men & Horses, through Hoops, over Garters,
and lastly through a
Hogshead of REAL FIRE!
In this branch of the profession Mr. H challenges
For particulars see Bills of the day.
JONES & CROSSKILL, PRINTERS AND BOOKSELLERS, YORKSHIRE STREET, ROCHDALE.
"Mr. J. Henderson" was John Henderson, a wire-walker, equestrian, trampoline artist, and clown. While the poster made no mention of "Hendersons" plural, as Lennon sings, John Henderson did perform with his wife Agnes, the daughter of circus owner Henry Hengler. The Hendersons performed throughout Europe and Russia during the 1840s and 1850s. A Hogshead is a large wooden cask.
One of the most musically complex songs on Sgt. Pepper, it was recorded by the Beatles on 17 February 1967 with overdubs on 20 February (organ sound effects), 28 March (harmonica, organ, guitar), 29 March (more organ sound effects), and 31 March. Lennon wanted the track to have a "carnival atmosphere", and told producer George Martin that he wanted "to smell the sawdust on the floor." In the middle eight bars, multiple recordings of fairground organs and calliope music were spliced together to attempt to produce this request; after a great deal of unsuccessful experimentation, Martin instructed recording engineerGeoff Emerick to chop the tape into pieces with scissors, throw them up in the air, and re-assemble them at random.
On 17 February Lennon sings the words "For the benefit of Mr. Kite!" in a joke accent, just before Emerick announces, "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite! This is take 1." Lennon immediately responds, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" reinforcing his title preference, a phrase lifted intact from the original Pablo Fanque poster. The exchange is recorded in The Beatles Recording Sessions (slightly misquoted) and audible on track 8 of disc 2 of Anthology 2. The original recording can also be heard during the loading screen for the song if it is downloaded in the video game The Beatles: Rock Band.
Although Lennon once said of the song that he "wasn't proud of that" and "I was just going through the motions," in 1980 he described it as "pure, like a painting, a pure watercolour."
It was one of three songs from the Sgt. Pepper album that was banned from playing on the BBC, supposedly because the phrase "Henry the Horse" combined two words that were individually known as slang for heroin. Lennon denied that the song had anything to do with heroin.