Friday, July 3, 2009

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

Today we've got the day off for the holiday and are bumming around in pajama pants and scrounging for food in the hopes of putting off grocery shopping one more day, so when Mr. Megan put in a request for this pleasant yet silly White Album singalong, I figured it was as appropriate as anything. "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" is an excellent song to not take very seriously.

John wrote this about a couple Americans, a middle-aged wealthy woman and her college-aged son, who visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh while the Beatles were staying there in 1968. The accounts I've read about these people aren't particularly flattering, and neither is the song. Apparently they left the retreat for several days to go out on elephants and hunt for tigers, and then came back and kept communing with God or whatever they were doing, which John seems to have found distasteful. As someone else who does not exactly condone the hunting of tigers (though I don't know if they were endangered at the time), I find it sort of distasteful too. Anyway, John's withering sarcasm is made even more awesome knowing it's directed at specific obnoxious people, to my mind.

Even though John intentionally treated "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" as a loud, messy singalong in the studio-- almost like a folk ballad, whose form the song does essentially follow-- he actually wrote a harmonically interesting song. For one thing, the chorus is in two keys, which is fairly weird. It begins in C major and then very abruptly drops down into A major, which from the standpoint of traditional music theory is kind of bonkers. (As is abundantly clear elsewhere on the blog, I'm not a guitarist, so maybe there's something I don't know about guitar fingering or something that makes this shift a bit more natural than it would otherwise be.) And then the verse goes into A minor, which, combined with the very dramatic move into a slower tempo, changes the feel completely. Vacillating between a major chorus and minor verse (or vice versa) is something the Beatles quite like to do, and you hear it a lot, but to do this weird double-major/minor thing is pretty neat, I think.

The song stays basically acoustic, in keeping with the folksy thing John seemed to want to keep up. Most of the funky instrumental touches you hear, including the Spanish guitar solo bit at the beginning and the bassoon line that comes in on the coda and rides out the applause, were made by Chris Thomas on the Mellotron. And essentially everyone in the studio they could round up to do so came in to sing. Yoko, of course, gets the honor of carrying the only female lead vocal line in the Beatles catalog (this is the part where John Lennon armchair psychoanalysts point out that she's playing the part of "Mommy," and then get all excited that this song is on the same album as "Julia"), but Yoko isn't the only Beatley significant other singing. Maureen Starkey, Mrs. Ringo (and my personal hero, for reasons you can read about if you follow the link), is singing along too.

Anyway, I like singalongs, and I like it when John gets sarcastic, especially in this more jokey funny kind way, so I have a soft spot for "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," even if it's not exactly one of the great Lennon masterpieces. Yay! Come on, listen again and sing-- you know you want to.

"The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," released in the U.K. side A track 6 of The Beatles, a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. I do like this song, thanks to not listening to it as much as some others. You note how unusual it is to go from C major to A major; the verse then goes from A minor to C major. So there's that.

  2. Wait, does it actually modulate back? Hmm. I've never caught that. I'll have to go back and listen again...

  3. Not a song that jumps to mind if i were asked to name some great Beatles songs, but it is catchy and it is hard to resist singing along. To me, though, the best part is it leads into While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Hey, just being honest ...

  4. I enjoy the song enough, but sort of wonder how folks can (with a straight face) knock Paul for some of his goofy numbers but let this one stand as if it were a piece of art.

  5. Well, Steve, that's exactly why John's such a hypocrite. He certainly wasn't above being very silly. :)