The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill

The Beatles (White Album) artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 8 October 1968
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Ken Scott

Released: 22 November 1968 (UK), 25 November 1968 (US)

John Lennon: vocals, acoustic guitar, organ
Paul McCartney: backing vocals, bass
George Harrison: backing vocals, acoustic guitar
Ringo Starr: backing vocals, drums, tambourine
Yoko Ono: vocals, backing vocals
Chris Thomas: Mellotron
Various others, including Maureen Starkey: backing vocals

Available on:
The Beatles (White Album)

In light of John Lennon’s antipathy towards McCartney’s Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, it may seem odd that he was responsible for this overly frivolous singalong that appeared on the White Album.

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The song was written in Rishikesh, India. It was inspired by an American visitor who departed for a tiger-killing spree before returning to the ashram to seek spiritual enlightenment.

That was written about a guy in Maharishi’s meditation camp who 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.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

The American in question was Richard Cooke III, known as Rik, whose mother Nancy was also on the meditation course in Rishikesh.

Then 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. 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.
Mia Farrow
What Falls Away

Both Rik and Nancy went on the tiger shoot. Upon their return Rik told the Maharishi of his feelings of remorse, in a meeting at which Lennon and McCartney were both present.

Rik told me that he felt bad about it and said that he didn’t think he’d ever kill an animal again. 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’.
Nancy Cooke
A Hard Day’s Write, Steve Turner

In the studio

The Beatles taped The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill on 8 October 1968, following the recording of I’m So Tired. It took three takes to get the basic track right, after which a number of overdubs were added.

Like Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds before it, Bungalow Bill consists of two musically-unconnected song ideas, joined together by three beats on a bass drum. The recording was intentionally sloppy, and anyone who happened to be available in Abbey Road was rounded up to contribute backing vocals.

George Martin‘s assistant Chris Thomas also added Mellotron parts, using the instrument’s mandolin sound in the verses and the trombone in the choruses.

The most notable feature of the song, however, is the appearance by Yoko Ono on the line “Not when he looked so fierce”. It was the first – and only – time a female lead vocal appeared on a Beatles recording, and reflected Ono’s increasing studio presence at the time (as well as her shaky grasp of melody).

The Spanish guitar introduction, as noted by Mark Lewisohn in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, was recorded separately and later edited onto the song. It is likely that this took place during The Beatles’ only 24-hour session, spread over 16 and 17 October, during which a number of edit pieces and crossfades for the White Album were finalised.

The guitar flourish was one of a number of seven-second instrument samples included on the Mellotron Mark II. The identity of the guitarist is said to have been Eric Cook, an Australian session musician, although this is unconfirmed.

19 responses on “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill

    1. Joseph Brush

      Of course Rik’s account is a self serving attempt to save face. Interrupting a spiritual quest to do anything else is just sad and ridiculous.

      1. Paul Henry

        Oh, is it? And who are you to decide how other people should conduct their spiritual quests?

        I don’t know Richard Cooke, haven’t ever met him, but for someone who was very publicly humiliated by one of the most famous people in the world and has had to live with it for more than 40 years, he’s certainly taken it with grace and good humor… a lot more than John was displaying when he wrote the song in the first place.

        John’s penchant for cruelty was always one of his less appealing qualities, and it’s on full display here. I’ve always loved this song, but I must admit I’ve come to love it a lot less since I first learned that there was a real person at the heart of it, someone who has been far from the caricature Lennon tried to make him.

    1. kedame

      Of course it is…anything with a funny story in it by Paul is corny, but if it’s by John, it’s his innate wit taking over. I honestly don’t understand the hatred toward Ob-la-di.

        1. mr. Sun king coming together

          It’s not corny because it’s Paul, it’s Corny because it is corny. I hate Ob-la-di, but not because it’s Paul. It’s just not a good song.

  1. Gustavo

    The spanish guitar part is at the end of the precdent track, but it belongs to this one. Emerick recalls Lennon played that part on the mellotron. Anyone on this matter?

    And who are whistling at the end? I think is John and someone else.

    1. Joe Post author

      Regarding the guitar part, read the article again. There’s information about the Mellotron part in there.

      No idea about the whistling. It’s probably whoever was nearest to the microphone at the time.

      1. paulsbass

        Whistling:
        Most probably John and Paul, with one of the two (probably John) starting and then the other one (probably Paul) joining in and outperforming the first one (I love Paul, but he was a show-stealer! ;-).

  2. Bill

    I wonder if Nancy Cooke was the inspiration for McCartney’s Rocky Raccoon character “everyone knew her as Nancy”? Written during the same period…

  3. James Ferrell

    Nice article, Joe–I hadn’t noticed the structural similarity to Lucy. And whether you like Ob-La-Di or not (I like it okay), you are correct that this song is uncharacteristic of Mr. Lennon. When his writing was frivolous the frivolity tended to be cut with a big dose of bizarre (e.g. What’s the New Mary Jane, You Know My Name…)

    Good John song, although I’d peg it as only the third best of the four John songs on side 1 of the White Album, behind the sublime Dear Prudence and the fragmented, acidic Happiness is a Warm Gun.

    This song also includes my second “favorite” Yoko Ono vocal, after her backgrounds on Birthday. In both cases her technical limitations fit in nicely with the spirit of the song.

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