Who was The Beatles’ ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ really about?
After The Beatles decided to start writing more personal pop songs, using their tracks to evoke autobiographical expressions, they were soon creating songs about the people they met along their astronomical journey to the pinnacle of the music world. While some of these songs were flattering and others so elusive, it was hard to pin down just one person to the track. However, on one song there’s no doubt who the words were directly aimed at.
‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ isn’t exactly the band’s most famous song. Written while the band were studying Transcendental Meditation under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, the song ended up as an integral part of The White Album when it was released in 1968. Written primarily by John Lennon, the song is one of the singer’s most cutting and reflects on a character of such duality that the Liverpudlian just had to jot it all down.
By the time The Beatles were leaving the ashram in Rishikesh, they may have achieved some kind of spiritual parity but they certainly accrued a good number of songs. In fact, it is seen as one of the band’s most fruitful songwriting periods with the freedom of removing themselves from their pop grandeur affording them more mental space to conjure up songs. While allowing for mental agility is certainly a contributing factor to their sudden explosion of new songs, a lot can also be said of the guests the Fab Four were attending the course with.
A mix of wealthy hangers-on and genuine friends, The Beatles were surrounded by interesting characters and it evoked some of their most beloved songs. ‘Dear Prudence‘, for example, was written about Mia Farrow’s sister who was struggling with the existential consequences of finding a tranquil spirit. ‘Sexy Sadie’, meanwhile, was written directly about the Maharishi and his somewhat lecherous ways. ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ has a similarly strange target too.
“That was written about a guy in Maharishi‘s meditation camp,” recalled Lennon when speaking with David Sheff for Playboy. The real reason he was so interesting to Lennon was that he “took a short break to go shoot a few poor tigers, and then came back to commune with God. There used to be a character called Jungle Jim and I combined him with Buffalo Bill. It’s a sort of teenage social-comment song and a bit of a joke. Yoko’s on that one, I believe, singing along.”
That man was an American named Richard Cooke III, AKA Rik, who arrived at the ashram with his mother Nancy and proceeded to disrupt the meditation course with his incessant hunting. Mia Farrow remembers the sequence of events in What Falls Away, “A self-important, middle-aged American woman arrived, moving a mountain of luggage into the brand-new private bungalow next to Maharishi’s along with her son, a bland young man named Bill.” Whether Farrow misheard the name or was trying to protect his anonymity is not known. The actor continues: “People fled this newcomer, and no one was sorry when she left the ashram after a short time to go tiger hunting, unaware that their presence had inspired a new Beatles song – ‘Bungalow Bill’.”
Both Rik and his mother Nancy went on the tiger hunt, returning they confessed where they had been and told Maharishi of his remorse for doing so in a meeting where both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were present. “Rik told me that he felt bad about it and said that he didn’t think he’d ever kill an animal again,” recalled Nancy in A Hard Day’s Write, “Maharishi said, ‘You had the desire Rik and now you don’t have the desire?’ Then John asked, ‘Don’t you call that slightly life destructive?’ I said, ‘Well John, it was either the tiger or us. The tiger was right where we were’. That came up in the lyric as ‘If looks could kill it would have been us instead of him’.”
The track is also notable for featuring the only time a female lead vocal appeared on any Beatles recording as Yoko Ono contributed backing vocals to the track. Kept intentionally sloppy, the song was meant to be laconic and heated at the same time. It’s a feat of studio engineering which once again promotes the idea that George Martin was a genius.
However, without John Lennon’s critical eye and whipsmart tongue, he wouldn’t have had anything to work with. Lennon was always on the lookout for his next song subject and when Richard Cooke decided to go tiger hunting while attempting to find spiritual semblance, it was too good an opportunity to turn down. Below, listen to ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’.