Bungalow Bill

<-Wild Honey PieWhile My Guitar->

“All the children sing”

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill was written by John Lennon in the Spring of 1968 while the Beatles were in Bangladesh. The lyric is based on the real story of another guest there at the same time, the 27 year-old American Richard A Cook III, known as Rik. Mia Farrow, who was also there, described him as “A 6 foot tall all-American college graduate, blonde, crew-cut, often dressing in white. And although the other Beatles treated him kindly, John Lennon was distant and contemptuous towards him.”

While at the Maharishi’s retreat guests stayed together in small chalets, except for Rik who stayed in a private bungalow, hence John’s choice of ‘Bungalow’ as the first name. (Interestingly the term bungalow originated in India, deriving from the Hindi word baṅgala). Meanwhile ‘Bungalow Bill’ is a corruption of the name Buffalo Bill – the 18th Century American scout, bison hunter, and showman. It is also a play on the name ‘Jungle Jim’, the fictional hero of a series of an American newspaper comic strip jungle adventures first published in 1934. The name ‘Bill’ was probably taken from ‘Billy Batson’, the ‘real’ household name of Captain Marvel. The prefix ‘The continuing story of’ is likely to have been a further reference to American comic books of the time, which always ended with the line ‘To be continued…

So in real life Bungalow Bill was Rik, but in the song he also represents the superficiality of comic-book culture and wealthy white gun-loving American heroes – though, as with many of Lennon’s lyrics, it just might be about something else as well.  Like Paul’s ‘Ob-li-di, Ob-la-da’, ‘Bungalow Bill’ initially comes across as a somewhat frivolous, easy-going, folksy ’sing-along’ sort of song, but Lennon’s lyrics carry a more weighty message. John Lennon called this quirky tune, “A sort of teenage social-comment song and a bit of a joke.”

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The track, recorded on the 8th October 1968 features all the Beatles, playing their usual instruments. It begins with a delightful, if rather out-of-place, flamenco guitar solo. Except that it doesn’t, because that’s actually the separate (and recorded later) segue into the song rather than the intro. Furthermore it’s not actually a flamenco guitar that’s being played, it’s a Mellotron. The Mellotron was a very early type of non-electronic music sampler in which pressing a key on the keyboard played tape-loop recordings stored on the instrument. Based on an initial design by Harry Chamberlin in California it was further developed in England in 1963, but was not used in the recording industry until it was pioneered by the Beatles.

The guitar solo was one of a number of seven-second instrument samples included on the Mellotron Mark II, which had two keyboards. The unconfirmed identity of the guitarist is said to have been Eric Cook, an Australian session musician. Studio engineer Chris Thomas also added the Mellotron’s mandolin in the verses and the trombone in the choruses. The Mellotron was also used on the earlier ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

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The song therefore really begins with the chorus – which is always repeated twice – followed by three verses that tell the story, each interspersed with a chorus. The chorus could almost be a separate song, connected after the first verse by three bass drum beats. The verses are in a slower tempo than the chorus.

Hey, Bungalow Bill
What did you kill
Bungalow Bill?

Some writers have compared the notation of the line ‘Hey Bungalow Bill’ with the title line of the early 1930s standard ’Stay as Sweet as You Are’, with the same melody line also repeated in a lower key in each chorus. It’s certainly similar, though whether Lennon would have been familiar with it and consciously decided to use it is more debatable.

He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun
In case of accidents he always took his mom
He’s the all American bullet-headed saxon mother’s son.

The story goes that one day Rik and his mother – who has been described as a “self-important, middle-aged American” – left the Maharishi’s camp with elephants and guides to go tiger-hunting. Lennon’s lyric suggests that Rik is still child-like and needs his mother to be with him. The third line describes Rik as a stereotypical American White Anglo-Saxon, adding the gun-related ‘bullet-headed’ phrase in both its meanings of being of being stubborn and always right, and having a small head (i.e., Bill is not very bright).

All the children sing
Hey Bungalow Bill
What did you kill
Bungalow Bill?

Deep in the jungle where the mighty tiger lies
Bill and his elephants were taken by surprise
So Captain Marvel zapped in right between the eyes

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The story continues that when the hunting party was roughly three hours away from the camp, their elephants were attacked by a tiger. Rik reacted by shooting the tiger and was initially proud of his quick reaction and posed for a photograph with his prize. ‘Captain Marvel’ is an American comic-book hero from the early 1940s who is actually a young boy named Billy Batson who transforms into a grown man with incredible superpowers – just as Rik saw himself as a macho-hero after killing the tiger. The lyrics, included with the album, record the third line as ‘..zapped in right..’, Lennon seems to singing the more likely ‘…zapped him right…’.

All the children sing
Hey, Bungalow Bill
What did you kill
Bungalow Bill?

The children asked him if to kill was not a sin
Not when he looked so fierce, his mother butted in
If looks could kill it would have been us instead of him

On their return from the tiger shoot Rik felt remorse for his action and sought out the Marahishi for spiritual guidance. In the co-incidental presence of John, Rik explained that he felt guilty about what had happened and said that he didn’t think he’d ever kill an animal again. When challenged by John, Nancy Cooke, Rik’s mother has related that she explained to John “…it was either the tiger or us. The tiger was right where we were”. Hence the lyric ‘If looks could kill it would have been us instead of him’.

Meanwhile Rik’s wife Bronwyn has subsequently explained that he “had asked the Maharishi if it was a sin to kill a tiger and the Maharishi’s response was ‘Life destruction is Life destruction.’ Rik has not shot anything since – except for images: he became a freelance photographer for ‘National Geographic’.

It was later established that the part-line ‘Not when he looked so fierce’ was sung by Yoko Ono. She then double-tracks Lennon on the line ‘If looks could kill it would have been us instead of him’, along with a third, unidentified lower voice. This makes ‘Bungalow Bill’ the only Beatles track in which a woman’s voice is featured. Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s wife at the time, is also credited with singing on the chorus. Others who were in the studio during the recording were also invited to sing along with the chorus.

All the children sing
Hey, Bungalow Bill
What did you kill
Bungalow Bill?

The outro repeats the sung double chorus four times. A bassoon-like instrument appears first at the start of the second double repeat, and continues to play, eventually emerging out of the final sung chorus to play a solo double chorus. Meanwhile the fourth double repeat includes whistling as the chorus begins to gently fade, giving way to the hand-clapping that accompanies the solo bassoon. However the very last note of the chorus is missing as it gives way to the next, brief, segue, spoken by John and usually documented as being ‘Hey-ulp’ (which is also sometimes used to mean ‘Help’). However it seems more likely that the phrase is ‘Ey-up’ or ‘Ay-up’, both of which are common Northern England expressions. And then we’re into ‘While My Guitar Gently weeps’.

So there we have it – the end of the tale of Bungalow Bill. Or is it? It is after all it is a ‘continuing story’… And it’s therefore no surprise to learn that various pop pundits have suggested that there might be something a bit deeper going on.

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There are those who claim the lyric is really about the on-going – indeed ‘continuing’ Vietnam war, also known as the “Elephant and Tiger” war, from a quotation by Ho Chi Minh: “It is the fight between tiger and elephant. If the tiger stands his ground, the elephant will crush him with its mass. But, if he conserves his mobility, he will finally vanquish the elephant, who bleeds from a multitude of cuts.”

Thus the Americans are the Elephants going deep in the jungle to hunt the Vietnamese. In 1964, American citizens were chanting “LJ, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” – not dissimilar to ‘All the children sing, Hey Bungalow Bill, What did you kill?’ “The children asked him if to kill was not a sin…” was essentially what the young American anti-war protesters were asking at the time. In 1965, in the Gulf of Tonkin, US naval ships were apparently unexpectedly attacked by the North Vietnamese, hence “Bill and his elephants were taken by surprise…”. Just as Buffallo Bill killed the buffalo to exterminate the Native People of North America, so the US military was now trying to exterminate the Vietnamese.

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Lennon never commented publicly on this possible interpretation of the song, so we shall never know if this is something he actually had in mind, or not. However, soon after in March 1969 – during the height of the Vietnam war – John and Yoko held their famous honeymoon ‘bed-in’ protest at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel to promote world peace.

But back in ’68 when the White album came out and we were still in our wisely mis-spent youth, we had not yet heard of Yoko Ono, the Mellotron, or had any awareness that the Beatles had begun the slow process of breaking up, and never considered that the song might be based on a true story, or that pop songs might contain sophisticated multi-layered lyrics that made social and political comments on the people and actions of other countries. As children, ‘The Continuing Story of Buffalo Bill’ was just a great song for us all to sing together.

Tristram  22/9/18 If you enjoyed this review you can read all our other reviews of tracks on the White Album

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Photo source http://jonrudder.com/jon/the-continuing-story-of-bungalow-bill/

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