On December 17th, 2021, David Bowie’s sublime Hunky Dory album turns fifty years old. To say it has aged well is a huge understatement. From the first note to the last it still sounds fresh, vital, and superb! Even the album’s cover remains striking, mysterious, and in the parlance of the early 1970s, gender-bending, with David Bowie presented in the stylized image of a silver screen film goddess a la Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, or Greta Garbo. A favourite album for many among the artist’s legions of fans – including this writer – Hunky Dory is a triumph of the art of songwriting. And that’s before one even begins to add into the equation the mastery of the musical performances that bring the songs to life!
1971 was an amazing year for David Bowie. Among the highlights: his third album, The Man Who Sold the World was released; he performed at Glastonbury; the ex Herman’s Hermits frontman Peter Noone scored a #12 hit on the UK Singles chart with his version of Bowie’s Oh You Pretty Things (with the songwriter himself on piano) . . . and finally, fittingly, his fourth album, Hunky Dory, capped it all off.
For all that, the following year, 1972, is often regarded as the most memorable year of all in Bowie’s monumental career due to the star-making breakthrough success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album, the allied launch of the Ziggy Stardust character that melded rock and theatre like never before, and the subsequent star-confirming tour bedlam. Indeed many fans may share my own personal experience of first discovering David Bowie in that glitter-saturated glam rock year of 1972. But then, as happens when you discover a great new artist, you begin the pleasurable experience of exploring their back catalogue. And with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars coming out in June of 1972 it required only a very short back-track to December 1971 to discover the delights of the preceding Hunky Dory.
Upon first release, Hunky Dory was not the commercial success that David Bowie and RCA Records were hoping for. Despite this, reviews were positive and encouraging, with several casting a prophetic eye to the future in recognition of a talent that could not possibly be kept at bay for much longer. Of particular note are the following two appraisals from iconic rock mags Rolling Stone and New Musical Express:
“And there you have it. With his affection for using intriguing and unusual themes in musical settings that most rock “artists” would dismiss with a quick fart as old-fashioned and uncool, he's definitely an original, is David Bowie, and as such will one day make an album that will induce us homo superior elitist rock critics to race about like a chicken with its head lopped off... Until that time, Hunky Dory will suffice hunky-dorily.” (John Mendelsohn in Rolling Stone, 6 January 1972)
“David Bowie is a million different people and each one is a bit more lovely than the one before. But for Christ's sake don't think he's a gimmick or a hype! Instead, enjoy him as he is; a surreal cartoon character brought to life for us all to enjoy. . . It's very possible that this will be the most important album from an emerging artist because he's not following trends – he's setting them.” (Danny Holloway, in New Musical Express, 29 January 1972)
Although performing disappointingly sales-wise upon release, in the wake of the success of the Ziggy Stardust album, Bowie’s newly-won fans took to Hunky Dory in their thousands upon thousands and eventually, deservedly, pushed it all the way up to #3 on the UK album chart.
Hunky Dory begins with the beautifully melodic Changes. While quite rightly an eternal Bowie fan favourite, Changes is far more than just that. The subject matter makes it a very strong contender for the artist’s signature song. Continual change was at the very heart of Bowie’s approach to both his art and his life. The message that personality, image, and more – even gender – could be fluid and not fixed (it could ch ch change) was an enormously potent one that was not lost on his young fans who, by dint even simply of their transitional age alone, were being faced with changes of their own coming thick and fast. Simply, Changes empowers the listener. And the more musically trained among his fans enjoy to this day the compositional in-joke that comes at the end of the chorus where, while singing about the inevitable changes brought about by time, Bowie winks at us while changing the time signature from 4/4 to 2/4 to 3/4 in consecutive bars. Genius. And funny.
David Bowie | Changes (50th Anniversary Mix) [Lyric Video]
The next track, Oh You Pretty Things, is as powerful an expression of youth alienation as you’ll ever hear. The colourful glam-rock generation of the early-mid 1970s were indeed the prettiest of things, driving their mamas and their papas insane. At its lovely melodic heart, this too is a song of youth empowerment. Embrace those feelings of difference! Forget the old way(s). Look out! Here we come! Homo Superior! In David Bowie’s hands, the inspiration he took from the lofty German philosopher, critic, composer and poet, Friedrich Nietzsche, is absorbed and (re)expressed in plain speak; packaged perfectly for the pop culture audience of the day. Even the sixties counter-culture was by now irrelevant; last decade’s news. In Bowie’s own postmodernist words from an interview given at this time, “We are the future – now!”
Track three, Eight Line Poem epitomises Bowie’s preparedness to take risks while asking/expecting his audience to go with him. The three distinct sections that make up the short (2 ¾ minutes) stripped back and atmospheric song (actually, it’s more a word painting than a song) contain lyrics that conjure up imagery in the listener’s mind rather than make discernable unified sense. But it doesn’t matter. Bowie’s usage and arrangement of words in this way appealed greatly to the famous Beat Poet William Burroughs who, while openly admiring the track in a joint interview with Bowie published in Rolling Stone in 1973, commented that he suspected the influence of T. S. Eliott. Bowie laughingly denied any such thing.
If Changes is a signature song in terms of laying bare the artist’s approach to art and life, then track four should deservedly also be regarded as another signature song; one that shows off Bowie’s immense songwriting talent to maximum effect. Simply, Life On Mars is a tour de force. A beautiful piano performance by Rick Wakeman takes the instrumental lead, while the shape of the melody, the ever-moving harmonic underpinning, and the carefully harnessed dynamic shifts of the lush orchestration all combine in one of the most complex “pop” songs ever committed to vinyl. Compositionally there is too much going on here to even begin to describe. But the trick of any great artist is to make it sound natural and easy. And this is David Bowie’s gift. Life On Mars is so easy on the ear it belies what’s beneath it. I’ve used the word genius already in this piece. But genius it is. And I haven’t even begun to mention the pathos and vulnerability in the vocal delivery that so magnificently echoes the quest for meaning within the lyrics. Truly, Life On Mars is one of the great pop songs of the 20th Century.
David Bowie | ‘Life On Mars?’
Kooks is next up, and sure enough, it’s Bowie back aboard the empowerment train. But this time, wonderfully, the recipient of his attention is a lot closer to home; none other than his own infant son Zowie, born in May 1971 to David and his wife Angie. A childlike nursery rhyme-ish vibe carries the song, while the lyrics promise Zowie that if he sticks with his freakish, outlandish parents (David and Angie polarised society back in the day) they will love and support him, and protect him from bullies and anyone else who picks on him for being “different”. This message is as valid today as it was all these fifty years ago. Hell - maybe even more so, sadly. But honestly, can you think of a more beautiful gift to give your child than this song?
Quicksand closes side one of Hunky Dory, and it couldn’t be more of a contrast to Kooks. The jaunty pace and delivery of Zowie’s song gives way to a slower picture of a man tortured by deeply existential questions that threaten to drown him in his own thoughts. Humankind’s search for knowledge and meaning saturates the song, but oddly it doesn’t come across as a downer. Instead, it draws together and articulates our own similar ponderings as fellow human beings; a clear case of art fulfilling its primary function of asking questions and helping us make sense of our existence and the world we live in. Powerful stuff.
Flip the record over and it’s on to side two. Surprisingly, first up is a cover version; a bouncy and mood-lightening song called Fill Your Heart, written by Biff Rose and Paul Williams. The eccentric Tiny Tim back in 1968 had also seen merit in the otherwise little-known song, granting it the B side of his surprise 1968 novelty hit ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’. David Bowie shows off his saxophone skills in this Hunky Dory reworking; a timely reminder that his musical skillset went far beyond singing and songwriting – he was a fine multi-instrumentalist as well.
Andy Warhol then sees Bowie paying tribute to one of his heroes. The whimsical studio banter that precedes the song was rather cutely left in the mix and is actually a great moment on the album, providing a wonderful glimpse into the camaraderie within the studio as Hunky Dory was recorded. When Bowie went on to meet Warhol in New York, playing the song for him in person, the artist’s response was exceedingly cool. In fact, Warhol got up and left without even mentioning it, though not before complimenting the musician on his yellow shoes. But Andy Warhol is a great song! Based around an infectious, playful guitar run that goes up in pitch and then down again, Warhol’s penchant for exploring what is real versus facsimile versions of reality is turned back upon him playfully and skilfully by his acolyte. Delivered with a wink it was perhaps a little too knowing in Warhol’s eyes.
Song For Bob Dylan continues Bowie’s tipping of the hat to those who inspired him. It’s poignant today to hear the respect and even wonderment contained in the lyrics of this song for the nasal-voiced superstar of the 60s generation, written by a man still unaware that he would go on to achieve similar status of his own.
David Bowie | 'Queen Bitch'
The penultimate track on Hunky Dory, Queen Bitch, is another fav for this writer. It’s a tribute once again, and this time the recipient of Bowie’s gratitude and affection is future friend and collaborator, Lou Reed, and his iconic, hugely influential 1960s band the Velvet Underground. Bowie even acknowledges this in brackets next to the song’s title on the rear cover: “V. U. White Light returned with thanks”. In stylistic homage, Queen Bitch resembles the Velvet’s sound while also pre-empting the raw electric excitment of Bowie’s own soon-to-come Ziggy Stardust material. It is far more ‘rock’ than the largely piano and strings based offerings that feature so beautifully elsewhere on Hunky Dory.
The Bewlay Brothers completes Hunky Dory, offering a complex and dense lyric that, hidden beneath the surface, explores David Bowie’s complicated relationship with his older half brother, Terry, who tragically suffered from mental illness for much of his life. The music too is complex; an ever-changing moody landscape that fits the subject matter perfectly. Just as Queen Bitch pre-empted the sound of Ziggy Stardust, The Bewlay Brothers seems to reach back in both sound and theme towards The Man Who Sold The World album, which also contained material relating to Terry – most especially the track All The Madmen.
So there it is! David Bowie’s fourth album, Hunky Dory, is a virtual songwriter's showcase. The broad mix of musical styles demonstrated in the 11 songs is brave indeed for an up and coming artist, but it works sublimely well. Sheer quality is the glue that holds everything together; of the songwriting, for sure, but also in complete synergy are other vital elements such as the excellent production of work of Ken Scott and the fine musicianship of Bowie’s band: Mick Ronson (guitar), Trevor Bolder (bass), Woody Woodmansy (drums), and star guest Rick Wakeman (keys).
At a remarkable fifty years old, Hunky Dory truly remains a David Bowie masterpiece. (Re)discover it for your pleasure!
Dr Ian Chapman is a Senior Lecturer in Music in the School of Performing Arts, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. A life-long popular music fan he has written eleven books to date, including 'Experiencing David Bowie: A Listener’s Companion' (2015), and 'David Bowie FAQ’ (2020). 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
Two very special releases, marking the 50th anniversary of David Bowie’s classic fourth studio album, Hunky Dory, have been announced.
A streaming single, Changes (2021) Alternative Mix is available now and has been mixed from the original multi-tracks by Hunky Dory producer Ken Scott. Of this new mix, Scott says "The new version of ‘Changes’ is a fresh look at David’s classic. When listening to the original multi-track I discovered a few things that I had eliminated from the original mix and also a completely different sax solo at the end. It was those things that led me to try a new mix, trying for a slightly harder, more contemporary edge to it.” Listen on streaming, here.
On 7th January, 2022, one day before Bowie’s 75th birthday and 50 years to the day since the U.K. release of Changes as a single, Hunky Dory will be issued as a limited edition 50th anniversary picture disc, featuring the 2015 vinyl remaster and a poster featuring the annotated back cover image of the album. Pre-order, here.
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