Three albums and an array of singles into his career, David Bowie was still trying to find himself. He’d scored a No.5 hit with Space Oddity in 1969 but, by 1971, without having released anything else with as culturally significant, some onlookers were beginning to think of him as a one-hit wonder. He’d tried mod-pop, folk-rock and even proto-heavy metal, but while he wasn’t lacking for ambition or talent, he’d yet to gain a true foothold in the music industry. And then, in a burst of creativity that captured both the chaos in his head and the ambitions he continued to harbour, Bowie penned not only the songs that would form Hunky Dory, the album on which he truly began to find his voice, but also many of the songs that would shape its earth-shattering follow-up, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. In doing so, he would go from determined hopeful to what The New York Times called “the most intellectually brilliant man yet to choose the long-playing album as his medium of expression”.
“I changed my way of writing”
Bowie’s first serious exposure to the US would play no small part in his prolific outpouring of new songs. Returning to the UK after a short promotional tour in support of The Man Who Sold The World, which had been given a Stateside release in November 1970, he discovered a “newfound enthusiasm for this new continent that had been opened up to me” and embraced “a real outside situation” that “changed my way of writing and the way I look at things”.
January 1971 had already seen him pen the first Hunky Dory song, Oh! You Pretty Things, which he initially gave to Peter Noone, former frontman of 60s pop hitmakers Herman’s Hermits. Released as Noone’s first solo single, the song peaked at No.12, suggesting that Bowie was onto something that could return him to commercial prominence. Other material, written for a short-lived side project called Arnold Corns – a kind of dress rehearsal for his Ziggy Stardust-era group, The Spiders From Mars – also found him making tentative steps towards becoming a svengali-like figure. But, as Hunky Dory would ultimately show, Bowie was beginning to crystallise a unique vision best expressed by him alone.