David Bowie’s 1971: Hunky Dory, Arnold Corns and the Conception of Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie’s 1971: Hunky Dory, Arnold Corns and the Conception of Ziggy Stardust
With rightful justification 1971 is celebrated by David Bowie fans as the year that gave rise to the quite brilliant Hunky Dory album; a collection of song-writing masterpieces including “Changes”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, and the heaven-sent “Life on Mars” – each of which would go on to become Bowie staples. And among the many other notable tracks on what is a favourite album for many fans, has there ever been a better song written for empowering one’s child than the endearing “Kooks”, written for David and Angie’s baby son Zowie (aka Duncan) who was born in May of that year?
But while the December release of Hunky Dory receives the primary kudos in the Bowie timeline as being the standout event of 1971 – with all due respect to the UK release of The Man Who Sold the World in April (nb: a November 1970 release in the US) – the year is noteworthy for other reasons too. In particular, for a series of stepping stones – some well documented and some not – that would crucially bolster the artist’s confidence, sharpen his skills and cement his approach to rock stardom into the development of what is widely considered to be his finest, career-defining artistic statement: Ziggy Stardust (both album and performance persona). While Ziggy ‘arrived’ in 1972, he was largely conceived in 1971.
Image fluidity and the laying bare of star construction are recognised as being among David Bowie’s most ground-breaking innovations and are also primary reasons that his fans have always been so passionate, engaged, and yes – grateful. Bowie provided many – including this writer – with a blueprint for self-improvement; for not simply accepting what life hands you but instead making conscious, assertive, changes for the better. So your life is crap? Ok then. Reinvent yourself! David Bowie, after all, was living proof of it. The unknown David Jones (born in humble Brixton and then growing up in equally humble Bromley) underwent serial re-inventions to become David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane/Halloween Jack/The Plastic Soul Man/The Thin White Duke, etc; each persona a carefully constructed vehicle for whatever he wished to say and achieve at any given time. It was a brilliant tactic that both time, and Bowie’s own enduring popularity, has proven to be masterful, influential, and ground-breaking.
But I’m getting ahead of myself because in early 1971 Bowie didn’t yet have the blueprint to launch the assault that would come just a calendar year later. Sure, he’d had fleeting top ten success with 1969’s "Space Oddity" single, but this was largely written off as a novelty song; a one-off, linked, as it was, inextricably to the successful Apollo 11 moon landing that held the world in thrall. This widely-held notion that the song was something of a fluke was supported by the fact that all of his other single releases with a succession of early-career bands had been unmitigated commercial failures. In addition, his first solo album (1967) had been a total flop, with the second (1969) faring little better. The third album, The Man Who Sold the World, won some critical acclaim but this was hardly reflected in sales. Simply, David Bowie had not yet arrived. (nb: Later, in 1974, Scottish singer Lulu would take the title track all the way to #3 on the UK Singles Chart. Saxophone, backing vocal, and co-production duties were performed by Bowie himself – the latter with his guitarist Mick Ronson. In addition, in 1995 Nirvana released their much-loved version).
“Oh! You Pretty Things”
Indeed, it looked for a time as if Bowie’s best shot at success lay as a songwriter and sideman instead of a spotlit performer in his own right. Herman’s Hermits frontman and established bonafide rockstar, Peter Noone, gratefully recorded "Oh! You Pretty Things" and his rather saccharine version (compared to Bowie’s) reached a highly creditable #12 on the UK singles chart in May, 1971. Bowie’s line: “The earth is a bitch”, was changed to the less offensive “The earth is a beast” – reportedly at Bowie’s own suggestion – so as to avoid the chance of a radio boycott back in those more sensitive times. A very willing Bowie played keyboards on the recording and then replicated the supporting role in Noone’s subsequent Top of the Pops appearance. Bowie fans will rejoice to know, however, that legend has it that his stint at the keyboard on this now long-lost television performance featured him playing while resplendent in a dress; a sure-fire ‘Watch that man’/cultural-icon-to-come moment if ever there was one.
Also at this time, albeit with much less success, Bowie invited Mickey (Sparky) King, a friend he’d met at his favourite haunt, Kensington’s Sombrero Club, to record "Rupert the Riley", a tongue-in-cheek tribute he wrote about his car. Ultimately unreleased, as Bowie himself put it in 1998, “Mickey was a club boy who I encouraged to sing. I would try and get anyone who would open their mouths to do my songs.” Shortly afterwards, another friend, Dana Gillespie, would find herself being offered a brace of newly-written songs, including the stand-out ‘Andy Warhol’. As Bowie biographer David Buckley put it many years later, “Bowie gave away songs will-nilly to anyone with a voice. Or even half a voice.” In Beat Instrumental magazine, July, 1971, writer Steve Turner interviewed Bowie for an artist profile piece and concluded:
“David says that he goes through periods of feeling like a songwriter and periods of feeling like a performer. At present, he confesses to the songwriter in him taking over. People who have benefited, so far, from this activity have been Peter (Herman) Noone, with his single “Oh You Pretty Things”, Sparky King with “Rupert The Riley”; and both sides of Arnold Corn’s single. David is also recording an album himself on the Chrysalis label. By the time it is released, he may find David Bowie the performer asking to be taken out.”
Thankfully, the album in question, Hunky Dory, featured no hint of any such performative retreat on Bowie’s part. Indeed, just the opposite is true as it ultimately showcased the enormous range of his vocal ability across a myriad of song styles. But the real gold in this snippet from the past lies in the reference to Arnold Corns – perhaps the most crucial of all his experimental side-projects in this formative year.
Arnold Corns – a short-lived band reputedly named after Bowie’s favourite Pink Floyd song, “Arnold Layne” – consisted of a group of schoolboys from Dulwich College who rather anonymously provided instrumental backings on some of Bowie’s demos at the beginning of 1971. Initially titled with the equally un-endearing name, Runk, in a star-making experiment straight out of the Andy Warhol book of star construction, Bowie brought in another friend, Freddi Burretti (real name Frederick Burrett), another Sombrero Club identity, to front them. In order to fit the role appropriately, Burretti sported yet another assumed and exotic stage name deemed fit for the task: Rudi Valentino. Thus Arnold Corns, a small footnote in the David Bowie story, was born. They were to be a vehicle for Bowie’s by now-prodigious song-writing outputs. But, more than that, he wanted to present them to the world as “real” superstars. (Sound familiar, Ziggy fans?) In his enthusiasm he even outrageously described them as the new Rolling Stones, with Burretti, Bowie gushed, being Mick Jagger’s natural heir. The openly gay and extremely flamboyant and photogenic nineteen-year-old front-man was actually a fashion designer, and in that other role, he would come to be extremely important to the Bowie story amid the roller-coaster ride soon to come. But as the lead singer of Arnold Corns, it quickly came abundantly clear that despite the hype he could not come close to the talents of the band’s creator and mentor, David Bowie. When a single was released on B&C Records in May under the name. The Arnold Corns, it featured Bowie’s vocals in the lead role. Of considerable further note, however, was the choice of the single’s two songs. Selected for this under-cover release were none other than “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang on to Yourself”; two prime tracks that, with reworked lyrics, would feature on the following year’s Ziggy Stardust album. Another Ziggy track, “Lady Stardust” was also recorded by Arnold Corns at this time but was not released. Weak though these Arnold Corns versions seem when compared to the re-recordings on the yet-to-come hit album, the release of such iconic Ziggy tracks under the curation of a pre-emptive invented band tells us much about where David Bowie’s thinking, and allied song-writing direction, was heading. Simply, he was beginning to put early traces of flesh on the bones of his fictitious, future alter-ego. Bowie biographers also highlight the fact that at this time the Ziggy Stardust title track had also been written. The artist, though, was evidently keeping that one under wraps for now. Meanwhile, the Arnold Corns debut single, despite its now-iconic songs, quickly died without trace. The time, and more importantly the vehicle/means of delivery, was clearly not yet right.
Two more songs would be recorded under the Arnold Corns umbrella in June, featuring contributions from soon to be house-hold name Bowie musicians Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, and Woody Woodmansey (Spiders from Mars in waiting), who were by then working on the Hunky Dory album. In a departure, this time Burretti/Valentino actually did feature on lead vocals. The resultant two songs, however, “Looking for a Friend” and “Man in the Middle”, were quickly shelved and only dusted off and released as curios much later after David Bowie had become well and truly famous.
It is worth noting that there was an additional reason for Bowie’s songs to be recorded by others at this time. His ruthlessly efficient manager, Tony Defries, had hatched a plan to sever ties with Bowie’s then-record label, Mercury, so that he might shop his increasingly marketable and productive charge around to other labels in the justifiable hope of more lucrative deals. Therefore, the employment of pseudonyms also solved the highly likely contractual issues that could have arisen had they been released as David Bowie products.
Even if they were seemingly and uncharacteristically well out of the spotlight – highly regarded Bowie biographer Nicholas Pegg describes them as “excursions into anonymity” – nevertheless Bowie’s various undertakings during the first half of 1971 tell us much about these still-early days of his journey to stardom. The fictional, constructed, Rudi Valentino and Arnold Corns, it might readily be said, served as a clear prototype for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Meanwhile Bowie’s experiences of other artists performing his songs – especially the chart success of Peter Noone with “Oh! You Pretty Things” – surely gave him considerable confidence while also raising questions in his head about just who exactly was the best performative vehicle for his burgeoning and increasingly recognised song-writing talents. He ultimately chose himself for the task – imagine if Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust had been released with guest vocalists! – and in so doing he changed the history of popular music.
Nb) All but three Ziggy Stardust tracks were recorded in the final months of 1971 – prior to the December release of the Hunky Dory album – with the recording of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide”, “Suffragette City”, and “Starman” following in the first weeks of 1972. Born in that now-famous year Ziggy Stardust surely was. But, it was in 1971 that he was undoubtedly conceived.
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Dr. Ian Chapman is a Senior Lecturer in Music and Convener of the Performing Arts degree programme at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. A life-long popular music fan he has written eight books to date, including two on David Bowie, Experiencing David Bowie: A Listener’s Companion (2015), and the forthcoming David Bowie FAQ (publication early 2019). Having also written both his Masters and PhD theses on the artist, he has given papers and talks at many events and conferences around the world. A popular free-lance motivational speaker, Ian’s specialty is the transformative power of the performing arts, drawing upon techniques (as espoused by artists such as David Bowie) that can be used in everyday life to develop self-empowerment and self-confidence. https://www.ianchapman.co.nz.
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