They might have been the most influential band of all time, but The Beatles were nothing if not jokers. Famed for poking fun at a plethora of subjects, from themselves to the government of Harold Wilson, the quartet’s natural propensity for fun was a vital part of the Fab Four resonating with their audience so profoundly.
There are many comedic moments of note in The Beatles’ discography, with the acerbic wit of ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ one of their most accomplished. The song was written by frontman John Lennon while visiting Rishikesh, India, in 1968, a time when the band were staying at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The material was inspired by a pair of wealthy American visitors who killed a tiger when seeking spiritual enlightenment at the ashram.
The song tears into the actions of wealthy American socialite Nancy Cooke de Herrera and her son, Richard A. Cooke (Rik), who shot a tiger during a hunt. Per the elder Cooke’s account, when staying at the ashram, she and Rik had friendly relations with all of The Beatles except for Lennon. Whilst she thought of him as “a genius”, he was reportedly contemptuous of the wealthy duo.
In her 1993 memoir Beyond Gurus, Nancy Cooke claimed that Lennon was inspired to write the composition when she and her son set out on elephants in a tiger hunting party. At one point, she claimed that elephants were attacked by a tiger, which Rik shot dead. The clean-cut college student was allegedly overjoyed at his actions and posed for a photograph with the dead beast.
However, Rik had a mixed reaction to the killing and has not hunted since. Whilst Nancy claimed that everyone understood Rik’s actions in terms of self-defence, Lennon did not and was scornful, asking Rik: “But wouldn’t you call that slightly life-destructive?”
Nancy Cooke wrote: “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’.”
Interestingly, actor Mia Farrow was also present at the ashram. In her own memoir, What Falls Away, she discussed the song and how the Cooke family inspired the famous Beatles song: “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,” she said. “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’.”
Despite the accounts, John Lennon maintained that the track wasn’t as severe as those around him at the ashram thought. As quoted in David Sheff’s book All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview With John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the former Beatles leader claimed that ‘Bungalow Bill’ was just “a bit of a joke”.
He explained: “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.”
Listen to ‘The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill’ below.