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Hunky Dory: How David Bowie Faced The Strange And Found His Voice
In Depth

Hunky Dory: How David Bowie Faced The Strange And Found His Voice

With ‘Hunky Dory’, David Bowie ‘got a lot out of my system’ and defined the themes he would explore throughout his career.

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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”.

Listen to ‘Hunky Dory’ here.

“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.

“I find freedom in my eccentricity”

Straddling music-hall, classic singer-songwriter pop and a brief detour into the harder sounds he would perfect on Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory is as stylistically diverse as it is thematically sprawling. Threads of high-camp theatrics weave their way through the piano romps of Oh! You Pretty Things and Fill Your Heart (the album’s only cover), while, on the likes of Life On Mars?, aided by Rick Wakeman’s majestic piano and guitarist Mick Ronson’s soaring string arrangements, Bowie proved he could work up sumptuous studio creations as comfortably as he could turn out destabilising constructs such as album closer The Bewlay Brothers, whose abstract sonic collage underscored the song’s fractured lyrics.

Thematically, Hunky Dory also sowed the seeds for much of the gender role play Bowie would blaze a trail for throughout the 70s: the “pretty things” of the album’s second track, “driving your mamas and papas insane” are distant cousins of the “hot tramp” in Bowie’s glam kiss-off, Rebel Rebel. Elsewhere, Queen Bitch revels in its dismissive takedown of a New York drag queen “… in her satin and tat/In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat”, before Bowie declares, “Oh God, I could do better than that.” In a little over two years’ time, donning full make-up and kabuki-inspired stage costumes, Bowie would prove as good as his word.

Counter to the song’s lyrics, Queen Bitch’s muscular arrangement, featuring the future Spiders From Mars, Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums), paid tribute to The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed – himself no stranger to New York’s queer culture, and a man who had fast become an icon for Bowie; as had Andy Warhol, who, then running his Factory empire out of downtown Manhattan, earned his own nod on Hunky Dory. Warhol famously left the room when Bowie took the opportunity to play him his off-kilter folk-rock tribute (for Bowie’s part, meeting Warhol had been a disappointment: the pop art pioneer had “nothing to say at all, absolutely nothing”), but the song arguably offered more insight into Bowie than it did its subject: having cycled through several styles before somewhat amalgamating the best of their disparate pieces for Hunky Dory, Bowie, like Warhol, was beginning to envision himself as a living work of art.

“The album got a lot out of my system”

Recorded in London’s Trident Studios throughout the summer of 1971, just days after Bowie had performed some of its songs at the second Glastonbury Festival, Hunky Dory quickly suggested he was hitting a new level. Demoed largely on piano, as opposed to the guitar Bowie had more often used to sketch out his ideas, the songs may arguably have been a step back in terms of their folkier leanings, but they offered clear evidence of his developing songwriting skills – whether he was addressing Nietzschean philosophies of the Superman (Oh! You Pretty Things, Quicksand), expressing lullaby-like fantasies of domestic life as a new father (Kooks) or deconstructing the inner workings of his artistic process (the artistic manifesto of Changes; Quicksand’s battle with creative anxieties). “When we were sitting there listening to those demos, this lightbulb went on,” Hunky Dory’s co-producer, Ken Scott, later recalled. “I thought, Bloody hell! This is for real!”

“The album got a lot out of my system, a lot of the schizophrenia,” Bowie later revealed. “I cannot breathe in the atmosphere of convention… I find freedom only in the realms of my own eccentricity.” If album closer The Bewlay Brothers remains perhaps Bowie’s most impenetrable, unsettling expression of that eccentricity (it was, he variously claimed, “another vaguely anecdotal piece about my feelings about myself and my brother, or my other doppelganger”; or meaningless words written “for the American market. They like that kind of thing”), then opener Changes was a clear statement of intent: in turning to “face the strange” and become “a different man”, it seemingly marks the moment where Bowie realised he could undergo countless reinventions in his continued search to best express himself. In doing so, he gave a whole new generation – “these children that you spit on” – an anthem that encouraged them to do the same.

If Bowie was yet to write himself into fame, as he would with his most iconic change of all – the Ziggy Stardust character that would, in 1972, cement his place in rock history – Life On Mars? found him projecting his ambition on a widescreen ballad that, with its nod to Frank Sinatra’s My Way, and Andy Warhol’s cinema verité films doubtless in mind, imbued normal lives with silver-screen grandeur. (Visions of old Hollywood bled into the Hunky Dory album cover, with Bowie arriving at the photo shoot with a book containing pictures of Marlene Dietrich for inspiration. Shot in black-and-white, and then coloured like an Andy Warhol screen print, the Hunky Dory artwork remains one of David Bowie’s best album covers.)

“He’s not following trends – he’s setting them”

No less enigmatic than The Bewlay Brothers, something about Life On Mars?’s lyrics clicked with a slowly growing fanbase for whom Bowie was increasingly beginning to seem like a prophet from another world. Routinely – and rightly – hailed as one of Bowie’s best songs, it was overlooked for single release until he went stratospheric with The Rise And Fall Of Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Issued – along with a Ziggy-era video – in June 1973, Life On Mars? went Top 5 in the UK, staking its claim as the hands-down highlight on Bowie’s first masterpiece.

Not that initial album sales reflected that. Released on 17 December 1971, Bowie’s then label, RCA, were reluctant to promote Hunky Dory too heavily. They agreed to release Changes as a single, but, with Bowie already back in the studio, recording more songs written during his creative spurt at the start of the year, word of an impending radical reinvention had the label spooked.

Critics, however, praised the album – and its creator, who, after almost a decade in the music industry, had seemingly found his voice. Calling Hunky Dory “a breath of fresh air compared to the usual mainstream rock”, NME declared, “It’s very possible that this will be the most important album from an emerging artist in 1971, because he’s not following trends – he’s setting them.”

“Hunky Dory gave me a groundswell”

In the US, Billboard heard an album “loaded with the kind of Top 40 and FM appeal that should break him through big on the charts”, but it took a while for that prediction to come true. Without RCA’s support, Hunky Dory initially failed to chart at all. Only after the release of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars did its performance improve – so much so that it soared to No.3 in the UK, beating its successor’s chart peak by two places.

By that point, however, Bowie was on another planet altogether. But he never forgot how Hunky Dory had helped him get there. “Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell,” he later recalled. “I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, ‘Good album, good songs.’ That hadn’t happened to me before.’”

From here on out, it would only keep on happening.

‘Hunky Dory’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Changes

From music-hall entertainer to hippie seer and hard-rock sage, Bowie had tried on a variety of personae while finding his way to Hunky Dory, without, seemingly, having any overarching plan. From Hunky Dory’s opening song, however, it became clear that he was more assuredly committing himself to the continued process of creative reinvention which would fuel his life’s work. From an opening verse in which he admits to having previously hit dead ends in his search for fame and fortune, to realising that he could channel his own unique vision (“So I turned myself to face me”) through any “strange fascination” he lit upon, Changes marked the point where Bowie grasped the potential of trusting his own idiosyncratic impulses. From here on out, everything he did would be uniquely his.

Oh! You Pretty Things

Like much of Hunky Dory – and, indeed, Bowie’s work as a whole – there is no one way to read Oh! You Pretty Things. After laying out his own creative manifesto in Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things’ intimate opening (“Wake up, you sleepy head/Put on some clothes, shake up your bed”) and singalong chorus offers a call to arms for inquisitive youths exploring sexual freedoms and drag culture in the early 70s, and “driving your mamas and papas insane” in the process. And yet Bowie’s readings about the Nietzschean “Superman”, coupled with prophecies of humankind’s destruction – as adapted from sci-fi novels – give the song a philosophical weight belied by its jaunty façade.

Eight Line Poem

A song masquerading as a segue, Eight Line Poem’s opening piano notes emerge out of Oh! You Pretty Things’ fade, before itself fading out to make way for Life On Mars? In between, Bowie delivers the titular eight lines with a vocal performance that makes clear this short piece was no throwaway sketch. “The tactful cactus by your window/Surveys the prairie of you room,” he sings, conjuring a picture of a self-consciously artsy lodging devoid of true substance, while Mick Ronson’s guitar provides an Americana twang that matches Bowie’s countryfied delivery on the line “Will all the cacti find a home”. Performed live just once, on BBC Radio, three months before Hunky Dory’s release, Eight Line Poem may not be the best-remembered of Hunky Dory’s 11 songs, but it’s one of the most curious.

Life On Mars?

Deeply relatable yet resisting definition, Life On Mars? found Bowie reaching out for greatness – and grasping it in spades. Beginning with a kitchen-sink drama and ending with a soaring vocal performance, a gravity-defying Rick Wakeman piano part and a Mick Ronson string arrangement that sends the song into the heavens, this mini-epic couched big questions in surrealist imagery, dissecting human behaviour and the nature of fame, and allowing listeners to fantasise of living a life far from the humdrum reality of Britain in the early 70s. Initially blueprinting Life On Mars? against the chord progression of Frank Sinatra’s My Way, Bowie ended up minting an anthem of his own – one perfect for the postmodernist leanings of the decade he was fast beginning to define.

Kooks

When Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones was born, on 30 May 1971, Bowie became a father for the first time. Inspired both by the arrival of his son and by a Neil Young record he was listening to when he received the phone call informing him of the birth, Bowie wrote the disarmingly gentle Kooks as a way of welcoming Duncan into the world. Promising a bohemian upbringing in keeping with the lifestyle Bowie had cultivated in Haddon Hall, Beckenham – his home and creative epicentre at the time – Kooks is flush with wide-eyed wonder at the thought of entering parenthood, and offers some typically unconventional advice: “And if you ever have to go to school/Remember how they messed up this old fool.” Bowie might not have been “much cop” at fighting the fathers of bullies, but he more than makes up for it with his willingness to burn homework in favour of seeking thrills on the town.

Quicksand

Both Changes and Life In Mars? are rightfully hailed as turning points in Bowie’s artistic development, but Quicksand also demands acknowledgement as one of the landmark songs Bowie penned for Hunky Dory. Caught in an existential trap between action and inaction, Bowie seemingly rejects both religion (“bullshit faith”) and self-belief while finding himself “torn between the light and dark” of a world still reckoning with the aftershock of World War II. Amid despair there is a glimmer of hope: Rick Wakeman’s florid piano and Mick Ronson’s strings give the song some emotional release, while intimations of reincarnation suggest that Bowie may yet escape the pull of his own despondency.

Fill Your Heart

Even for Bowie, who delighted in supporting cult and outsider artists, US singer-songwriter Biff Rose was an unlikely choice of musician to cover, and Fill Your Heart, originally a folky tune on Rose’s 1968 album, The Thorn In Mrs Rose’s Side, a bit of a throwback to the “happiness is happening” vibes of some of Bowie’s hippie-era folk-rock songs, with some vaudeville styling thrown in for good measure. Increasing the tempo of the original and upping the sense of play on Hunky Dory as a whole, Fill Your Heart makes for a light-hearted bridge between the weighty existentialism of Quicksand and the frenetic character sketch of Andy Warhol, and it also boasts a jubilant saxophone solo from Bowie himself.

Andy Warhol

A portrait of art and artist as inseparable entities, Andy Warhol is one of a clutch of what Bowie termed “people songs” written as he was working on Hunky Dory material. Wonderfully unhinged in its celebration of the US pop artist, with helter-skelter guitar lines chasing each other in circles, and Bowie’s voice reaching a near-scream that matches his depiction of Warhol himself, the song also comes complete with Bowie’s lesson on how to pronounce Warhol’s surname, delivered as a correction to producer Ken Scott.

Warhol’s obsessions with fame and pop culture chimed with Bowie’s own, and his role in The Velvet Underground’s early years would only have increased his allure for Bowie. Add the gender-fluid troupe that frequented Warhol’s Factory scene and took his controversial Pork stage show to London around the time Bowie was recording Hunky Dory, and you have much that fascinated Bowie in his formative years and beyond. When he finally played Andy Warhol the song to Andy Warhol the artist, during a trip to the US following the Hunky Dory recording sessions, the famously inscrutable Warhol is said to have been less than enamoured with both the song and the mimes Bowie performed for his camera – including one in which Bowie gutted himself. He was, however, taken by the bright yellow Alice shoes Bowie wore, a gift from Marc Bolan that Warhol felt moved to capture in a series of Polaroid portraits he shot during their meeting.

Song For Bob Dylan

David Jones, singing as David Bowie while on the verge of creating his Ziggy Stardust alter ego… Sure, Bowie knew a thing or two about playing with identity, and in addressing Song For Bob Dylan to the man born Robert Zimmerman (“Oh, hear this, Robert Zimmerman/I wrote a song for you”), he seemed to be trying to rouse the one-time voice-of-the-60s out of what many fans saw as a creative slumber in the early 70s. “Ask your good friend Dylan/If he’d gaze a while down the old street/Tell him we’ve lost his poems/So we’re writing on the walls.” And yet Song For Bob Dylan also suggested the writing was on the wall for the old guard if they couldn’t keep up with the changing times. As Hunky Dory made plain, another revolutionary songwriter was about to speak to a whole new generation in search of a leader.

Queen Bitch

It was thanks to his early manager Kenneth Pitt that Bowie became one of the first people – if not the first person – in the UK to own a copy of The Velvet Underground’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. When Pitt returned to London from the US with an acetate copy of the record, his gift sparked a love affair with the group which would revolutionise Bowie’s songwriting and last his entire life. His tribute to VU songs such as Waiting For The Man and White Light/White Heat, Queen Bitch flexed more rock muscle than anything else on Hunky Dory, even as it was populated by the gender-fluid denizens of the New York City underground that coursed their way through much of Lou Reed’s work, both with The Velvet Underground and as a solo artist (see Walk On The Wild Side, from his Bowie-produced solo album, Transformer). With scenes of cruising and cross-dressing “night-walking games” welded to Mick Ronson’s metallic riffage, Queen Bitch was the strongest indication of where Bowie was headed after Hunky Dory.

The Bewlay Brothers

Recorded in one late-night session, as Bowie once recalled, with little to no preparation, The Bewlay Brothers was no mere afterthought. Though Bowie more or less wrote the song on the spot, he crammed in enough lyrical details and sonic embellishments – gabbling voices, backwards guitar, a piano mic’ed up to a rotating Leslie speaker – to ensue that Hunky Dory came to a compelling close. Featuring some of his most pored-over lyrics, the song has inspired countless interpretations, none of which Bowie ever confirmed – or, indeed, denied. At times explaining that it was written to ensnare US listeners predisposed to decoding songs in order to find their hidden meanings, or that it was a song that helped him work through his feelings about his half-brother, Terry Burns, who struggled with mental illness, Bowie also offered a less cryptic clue as to one of The Bewlay Brothers’ influences: it was named after the Bewlay brand of pipe that he once smoked. “It was a common item in the late 60s, and for this song, I used Bewlay as a cognomen – in place of my own,” he said in 2008, adding, “This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood, so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.”

Buy David Bowie vinyl, box sets and more, at the Dig! store.

Original article: 17 December 2020

Update: 23 November 2022

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