In another turnabout in the Bowie saga that rivals the jump from derivative but talented rock-n-roller in his earliest recordings to the Anthony Newley-gone-weird MOR fodder of his first real album, Hunky Dory (his first album for RCA) arrived just eight months after The Man Who Sold the World (his last album for Mercury), and represented yet another reinvention as the young artist slowly crept closer to the winning combination. For those of us who have been carefully following Bowie, this album also signals the successful completion of the Home Perm Grow-Out phase.
Having just put out a record with a completely new band that surprisingly dipped more than a toe into heavy metal, hard rock, and glam earlier in the year, Hunky Dory seems to be something of a throwback to gentler mainstream rock, with more than a few nods back to his hippie/folkie background. On the surface, the softer arrangements and highlighted piano leads might seem like a retreat from the bold (and occasionally exotic) Man Who Sold the World, but deeper listening shows evidence of lots of lessons learned from the foray into heavy guitar rock.
Bowie, much more the leader on this record than the previous one, was exploring ground not wholly dissimilar to what Elton John was doing at the time (Mick Ronson, in fact, played guitar on the original version of “Madman Across the Water,” later included as part of the October 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection — and while we’re at it, early Bowie bassist Herbie Flowers played bass on that album as well). It turns out, in the oddest of coincidences, that John and Bowie knew each other as teenagers (when they were David Jones and Reg Dwight) and often talked about music in their youth. It’s mysterious that they didn’t ever work together later, but clearly they kept track of each other’s careers.
Both Bowie and John were being ridiculously prolific at the time — between late 1970 and late 1971, Bowie had issued both The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, as well as undertaken his first US tour; John had put out Tumbleweed Connection (a “old west drama“ concept album), the album Friends (a soundtrack for an obscure film), a live album (17-11-70, documenting his first US tour), and Madman Across the Water. If you don’t count getting married and having a kid, as Bowie did, then John clearly wins the productivity contest.
For this album, Bowie kept Ronson but lost (most likely due to the unprofessional attitude Bowie showed during TMWSTW) bass player and producer Tony Visconti; he was replaced with Ken Scott and Trevor Bolder, respectively. As the Arnold Corns sessions in between the last album and this one showed, Bowie was stewing on the glam-rock personae and a band to match that he would eventually present to the world as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In the meantime, however, he had started composing on piano rather than guitar, which substantially changed his then-newest songs back to a more melodic-centred sound; this is what that dominates Hunky Dory in terms of music, even as many of the lyrics kept the dark edge that was more highlighted in the previous album.
To highlight his return to being fully in control of the record, Bowie is credited on the album as a sort of assistant producer (more like back-seat driver for Scott, for whom this was his first time in the producer chair), as well as the “simpler” piano parts; he recruited Rick Wakeman (who had played on the Space Oddity album, but was now a member of the Strawbs) for the heavy piano lifting. Speaking of, the new sounds are startling and notable right from the opening notes: Wakeman has said that Bowie had him lay down his piano parts first “with as many notes as you like,” and then instructed the band to play around Wakeman’s work.
This is certainly obvious in “Changes,” which starts out for all the world like a pop-jazz number for the first 10 seconds before Bowie calls in the beat and (his own) sax. The song is very unconventional in structure (as often seen in jazz), and includes both uneven sections of flowery piano during the verses, and a vocal that follows the melody in the chorus. All that, plus shifting time signatures like jazz, and an outro that would be perfectly at home in a Sade song. Bowie’s influence on Joe Jackson is very clear in this number, and Jackson returned the favour years later with a different but very good cover of Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Sax appeal aside, compared to the Black Sabbath-esque opening of the previous album, you really couldn’t offer buyers of that record anything more different than “Changes.” One wonders how Bowie’s nascent fan base took it at the time; this and “Oh You Pretty Things” are the complete other end of the scale from “The Width of a Circle.” Speaking of “Pretty Things,” Bob Grace of Chrysalis (who had arranged the Arnold Corns sessions and generally acted as another of Bowie’s managers for a time) loved the demo version so much he promptly sold it to a young Peter Nobody (sorry, Noone), who had a hit with it the summer before Hunky Dory was released (even though his version was dire). Doh.
“Oh You Pretty Things” is a wonderful mix of a rather dark lyrics with a cheerful music-hall romp, but more importantly it’s yet another take on the Nietzschean concept of “the Supermen,” only this time told from a completely new perspective: someone who is in the process of spawning a child. The future Duncan Jones, it turns out, is the “Homo Superior” that is going to subsume Bowie’s existence for a decade or two and then, with luck, go on to still greater heights (as all parents expect of their children), at least according to Chris O’Leary of the “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” blog.
The Complete David Bowie author Nicholas Pegg, meanwhile, points to this factor alongside Bowie’s reading list as the prime inspirations: sure there’s Also Spake Zarathrusta, but the lyrics also betray a knowledge of Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, plus a rather jaunty yet domesticated piano. When the rest of the band finally kicks in on the chorus, it’s very much a “Elton John Meets the Kinks” moment to these ears. I would have been much amused if John had ever covered this song, using his youthful tenor voice to sing “gotta make way for the homo superior.”
The first hint of the guitar really being allowed to stand up in the mix comes in the third cut, “Eight Line Poem,” and Ronson doesn’t really get to go to town until “Song for Bob Dylan.” That said, you can hear it earlier — although the album is dominated by piano and strings (generally arranged by Ronson, who had a natural gift for it), the chorus of “Life on Mars” finally brings the guitars in for dramatic and brilliant effect as much as with the orchestral backing. From “Dylan” onwards, the album shows off various ways to mix the heavier sounds found on Man with Ronson’s more classical training, creating more versatile sounds with more colour and fill in supporting Bowie’s acoustic, taking a turn here and there as lead, with Ronson generally acting as a strong supporting player rather than the overwhelming presence his playing was on Man.
“Eight Line Poem” is, as O’Leary described it, a “trio for voice, piano, and guitar.” It’s a lovely piece that starts on the same chord as the end of “Oh You Pretty Things,” a deft touch for what is a fairly meandering but lovely bit of introspection. Soon, we’ll stop getting songs like this, that are so nakedly personal, but for now we can enjoy what amounts to an interlude before the cinematic masterpiece of “Life on Mars.” If composing primarily on piano for the first time recharged and expanded Bowie’s previous songwriting gifts, I think it is fair to say that these new more sophisticated pieces and Rick Wakeman’s playing make for the unquestionably best work Bowie had done as an artist to this point, and for me this album is the one in which he broke out from being an “entertainer” or “singer-songwriter” into being a great artist … and he knew this at the time, according to Angie Bowie.
While most of the credit goes to Bowie of course, Ronson’s absolutely superb arranging, particularly on “Life on Mars,” deserves a lot of credit, and this is “the one” where the band’s ingredients totally gel. The most amazing part of this song isn’t the stunning orchestral arrangements, the cinematic piano, or even Bowie’s remarkable lyric: it’s the fact that this song started off life as Bowie’s English lyric for the song “Comme d’Habitude” by Claude François, which had been in hit in France back in Bowie’s “tin pan alley” early days. His submitted lyric was titled “Even a Fool Learns to Love” and was rejected. Paul Anka eventually wrote a different lyric, and the song became a hit again for Frank Sinatra as “My Way.” Bowie never forgot the song, though, and rewrote it with sufficient differences to become “Life on Mars.” That’s the meaning behind the scrawled “Inspired by Frankie” next to the song title on the album’s back cover.
Continuing my Elton comparisons for a moment longer, to the best of my knowledge John never covered “Life on Mars,” and that’s a great pity; this song seems well-suited to him and reminiscent of what John would later accomplish on his own a short time later. While the two were very different artists, the different angle piano composing gave Bowie (and Lennon, for that matter) was second nature to John, and thus the two in this particular period of their careers wrote personal, beautifully-crafted piano songs that could conceivably have been performed by the other to much the same effect.
On this song, at least, even a dedicated fan would forget that Tony Visconti wasn’t there (sorry, Tony), given how well Ronson and Bolder plug those gaps. There’s also an interesting bit of trivia about the piano used on this album: it’s the same one used for “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, Harry Nilsson, and … Elton John’s early albums (this exact same piano would also later be used for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as well — this studio piano was having a better career than Bowie at this point!). The lyric is also dashed clever: the first part talks mostly about the “mousey” outsider heroine, but then shifts to what’s on the screen that is captivating her, then pivots to the screen looking out at her.
In interviews, Bowie claimed that he basically wrote it in a day. He subsequently created a number of great live versions of the song over the course of his career, but my personal favourite non-album version is the one he did with Arcade Fire in 2005, in what turned out to be his last performance of the song. The piano part in particular is a worthy successor to Wakeman’s original, but Bowie himself is also in surprisingly strong voice, even chuckling while singing it at one point. Even as a partial rip-off of “Comme d’Habitude,” it’s a stone cold masterpiece — and so well-performed that nobody (even Bowie himself) has really been able to top it. Smartly, he doesn’t try (at least on this album).
The next song, “Kooks,” is written about Bowie’s new baby son — but it is a total throwback to his first two albums stylistically, likely composed on guitar and featuring the bands’ best impression of Love You Till Tuesday-era Feathers. If it wasn’t for the tell-tale piano, you’d swear it was a recovered out-take from the Deram era, complete with a spot of trumpet and a tea-time melody that emphasizes sweet paternal (and martial) love versus the observational intellectualism that has dominated the album to this point.
“Kooks” also kicks off a string of more-guitar-dominant numbers, including the last song on the original side one, “Quicksand,” which indeed does seem like an acoustically-arranged version of a song that would have been electrified (and sung more forcefully) if it had been part of The Man Who Sold the World. Still, Bowie remains in the ballad-y “sweet” mode here (completely with multiple layered acoustic guitars) so as not to be too alarming, even as he shifts gears to the dark side and directly references Alastair Crowley , Himler, Garbo, Nietzsche, and the Buddhist concept of the Bardo (an in-between place between death and rebirth). Heck, the song explicitly includes metaphors to drowning powerlessly in quicksand, and the line “knowledge comes with death’s release.” Did Bowie invent emo? I think he might have!
The arrangement of the song is so gorgeous that casual listeners might only be dimly aware of how relentlessly fatalistic it is, how much Nazi imagery is in it, or its beseeching the listener “don’t believe in yourself” — and if you think the song is a bit dark, you should hear the demo; It’s an even more stark collection of Bowie’s often-disturbing black thoughts (as with “Please Mr Gravedigger”) rather than the orchestrated, softer production for the album. There is a surprisingly touching duet version (with Robert Smith of The Cure) recorded as part of Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration, and another live version sung with Gail Ann Dorsey (with video clips showing off his clear affection for her across the years they toured together).
Side Two kicks off the first cover song on a Bowie album (well, not counting the rewrite of “Comme d’Habitude”), a number called “Fill Your Heart” written by, of all people, Paul “Rainbow Connection” Williams and comic Biff Rose. The song is so straight-up old-fashioned — and lame — that its inclusion after “Quicksand” seems amusingly perverse, especially as the arrangement and singing are sweet-shop-treacle saccharine. Despite it’s placement in the lead-off spot for the flipside, it was in fact a last-minute substitution, replacing “Bombers” and to borrow a great line from O’Leary, the chipper little cover “goes far beyond the realm of squares, really: it seems best suited to appeal to delusional old people, toddlers and good-tempered dogs.”
Bowie’s final sax squonk on the number segues into some digital noodling and studio backchat tomfoolery before a hearty laugh and the launch of the acoustic guitar that kicks off “Andy Warhol,” along with some oddly-recorded percussion (seems like Bowie and band are busking just outside the men’s room where a couple of Morris dancers are practicing, or something). As others have said, the second side of the LP is mostly a series of tributes; the Williams cover, then original songs about Warhol and Bob Dylan, followed by a pastiche of Lou Reed/Velvet Underground (“Queen Bitch”), before finishing up with a song some have claimed is a “diss” song aimed at John Lennon (and Paul McCartney). I don’t subscribe to this theory, but it does allow the otherwise-out-of-place song to “fit in” with the loose “tribute” theme of the second half of the album.
The lyric for “Warhol” is sublime and cutting; the man himself reportedly disliked it a great deal, but that’s only because the observation Bowie had hit the nail on the head. Bowie himself was a fan of the artist, and had hung out with many of Warhol’s gang when they were doing the Pork show in London (Angela was apparently a big fan). Oddly, Bowie and Warhol never really developed a friendship, though they cordially met several times and Bowie did a “screen test” for Warhol. Bowie later portrayed Andy (again with uncanny accuracy, killer vocal impression, and one of Andy’s actual wigs) in the film Basquiat. Funnily enough, Bowie apparently wrote the song intended for his friend Dana Gillespie to sing (which she did, though it wasn’t released until three years later on a hit album).
“Song for Bob Dylan” may be one of the oddest tracks on this album chock-full of odd moments: Bowie starts off by trying to imitate Dylan (not badly, we should add, and there’s a spot of Elvis imitation thrown in later). The way the song unfolds also seeks to mimic a Dylan song, but ends up becoming one of several songs written about Dylan’s strange absence from the scene in late 60s and early 70s (others include “To Bobby” from Joan Baez, and “Hey Bobby” by Country Joe and Fish), calling for Dylan to return; Bowie’s plea asks for “a couple of songs from your old scrapbook.” What makes it so odd is the lack of overt Dylan influence on anything Bowie had done up to this point (or after, for that matter), and the lingering feeling that Bowie is actually taking the piss out of Dylan, or more specifically the hero-worship he engendered and aggravated with his long absence. David noted in a later interview that, in part, Dylan’s exit from the scene he helped create caused a leadership void among the hippie culture that helped inspire this “tribute.”
So then — finally! — there’s the glam and yet another vocal impression to go with it in “Queen Bitch.” As with “Song for Bob Dylan” and the vocal impression correcting the pronunciation of Warhol’s last name that starts off that song, Bowie doesn’t try to stay consistent with it for long, but for a fleeting moment you’re not sure if Lou didn’t drop into the studio. “Queen Bitch” is certainly one of the best VU songs they never wrote or recorded (a bit like how Weird Al Yankovic’s “Dare to be Stupid” surpassed mere parody and became of the greatest non-Devo Devo songs ever, as Mark Mothersbaugh later admitted). Indeed, years later when Reed actually sang the number with Bowie on stage (again part of the 50th birthday concert), there were moments where he looked (alternately) amused by the homage and — occasionally — a bit concerned that maybe he should be suing Bowie, not singing it with him. David in that performance was clearly having the time of his life; his joy is utterly radiant in the performance (and he politely dropped the Reed imitation that time), in contrast to Reed’s laconic performance (he only sang with Bowie on the second half of the number).
The last regular album track is “The Bewlay Brothers,” another one of Bowie’s occasional “deliberately inpenetrable” songs where the lyrics are all right there, clearly written and sung, but still don’t add up to anything that listeners can quite get a handle on, other than the occasional chorus. We know that “Bewlay” was a type of pipe Bowie once (briefly) smoked (sold by a chain of stores called “The Bewlay Brothers”), and that he (and likely his half-brother Terry) attended an arts centre as kids in a village called Beauliere the locals pronounced as “Boo-lee.”
We also know that most critics think the song is another tribute/identification with his mentally-ill half-brother (something Bowie occasionally said himself as well), and that a number of the lyrics seem to conform to schitzophrenic “clang” — a stringing together of words related in obtuse ways, such as rhyming or starting with the same first letter. If “Quicksand” could be read as a worrying decent into madness, “Bewlay” seems to be where the elevator stops and the passengers get off; the first circle of hell (albeit the catchiest circle). There also appear to be some homosexual references throughout, including instances of American gay code and “polare,” but again that doesn’t seem to be what the song is “about,” and could just be Bowie noticing the similarity between some of Terry’s disturbed utterances and other types of “code” people speak.
Bowie claims it was entirely composed and recorded after the producer and band went home one night, and although other instruments were added later, it does give the impression of a late-night drug session where the stream-of-consciousness lyrics and stylized performance (including the use of Bowie’s vari-speed manipulated background vocals of crying madmen in the coda) were born. Personally, I think it is a combination of drug influence and all of the above, including Bowie’s own ability to spook himself with dark thoughts (again). It isn’t “about” any one thing, but a mosaic of several topics that were, at the time, on the top of his mind: from religion to sex, from Terry to his own worries about his own mental health (all topics he would come back to again and again). As mentioned, some think the song is about the Beatles, and specifically about Lennon’s increasingly obtuse lyrics and drug-influenced songwriting (Bowie and Lennon went on to become firm friends later, so this interpretation, if true, would be a bit awkward — like Warhol’s reaction to “Andy Warhol”).
Listeners have tried interpreting it for decades, and this blog is not going to be the one to crack the mystery, except to say this: the only really clear thing about this number is that Bowie intended to be mysterious and inscrutable, and after the song’s release he very deliberately refused to nail its meaning down, fueling more speculation. Hopefully, he can tell us all about it in the next Bardo.
The best version of the album remains the 1990 EMI reissue, which restores the overly-cloying and oddly-exaggerated “Bombers” (apparently meant to be something of a … let’s say tribute … to Neil Young), the song was originally planned to open side two of the album, but dropped in favor of “Fill Your Heart.” In hindsight, it was best that it be left off, as it didn’t really fit the album: the music-hall style performance reminds one of something from the Love You Till Tuesday period, but with more mood-altering substances).
There’s also a very different version of last album’s “The Supermen” recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions that I personally like much better; it’s the style Bowie used for the song in most live performances. The demo version of “Quicksand” is also included, along with a very similar (almost indistinguishable but for added stereo effects and reverb) alternate mix of “The Bewlay Brothers.” Like the album that came before it, Hunky Dory is quite the mixed bag; there are some utterly amazing bits in there, and a few missteps, downers, and oddball moments — Bowie never lets us forget he’s got a weird streak, and I’m not talking about the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt that Harry Potter later adopted as a birthmark.
The one thing most of the songs have in common with each other is that they are uniquely Bowie, but that they really take flight in the hands of gifted arrangers and producers: Bowie, great as he is, has fully come to understand that he relies heavily on a good team to realise his vision. This and The Man Who Sold the World really set a stage for the shifting personas and the multiple ch-ch-ch-ch-changes that were to unfold in the years ahead. The darker moments on this record also hint at the roots of Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” identity, just as all the tributes and impersonations are evidence of his interest in characters. Between the Arnold Corns sessions, Man and Hunky, what is clearest to see is that Bowie is putting his new team and his upgraded talent through the paces, and his vision for rock-n-roll performance art and a career built on acting as well as singing is starting to coming together.