Happy 45th Anniversary to David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, originally released December 17, 1971.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost eleven months since David Bowie’s death. Over the past several months I’ve been going through his catalog and I’m amazed at how he managed to have vastly different phases of his career and yet seamlessly weave them all together.
Hunky Dory is the fourth album in Bowie’s discography and his first for RCA Records. When he began recording the album in the summer of 1971, he was without a recording contract and was only several years removed from “dustbin shopping” for clothes on Carnaby Street with Marc Bolan of T-Rex fame. With the exception of the heavier sounding The Man Who Sold the World, his previous album, Bowie was more or less a folky singer-songwriter whose clever lyrics set him apart from his contemporaries and promised a bright future ahead.
Hunky Dory represents the coming of age of a yet-to-be iconic superstar who used the album to tinker with the sounds and themes that he wanted and later explored on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars (1972). An alternative title for the album could have been The Evolution of David Jones (his real name). The album also is the first in which he used the so-called Spiders From Mars (Mick Ronson on guitars, Trevor Bolder on bass guitar, and Mick Woodmansey on drums with a special appearance by Rick Wakeman on keyboards).
The opening track “Changes” is representative of the mood Hunky Dory evokes. It brings Bowie back to his breezy, Anthony Newley style of song craftsmanship that he was known for at the beginning of his career. The song is a subtle acknowledgement that he would not be occupying this particular artistic space for very long, as he sings, “Strange fascination, fascinating me / Changes are taking the pace I'm going through.”
Impending fatherhood was another influence on this album with “Oh! You Pretty Things” as one example. In this song, Bowie muses about the superman race emerging in the form of his son Duncan, then called Zowie. Oddly enough, the song was covered by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and became a hit in England. The other song inspired by his son is "Kooks,” a nod to the works of Neil Young who Bowie happened to be listening to when he heard the news of his son's birth.
Sandwiched in between these odes to his son are "Eight Line Poem" and the timeless "Life On Mars?,” which Pitchfork named the best song of the 1970s in their recent list. While you would get many good arguments against Pitchfork's declaration, there's no denying that it remains one of the best songs in Bowie's catalog. BBC Radio 2's Sold on Song describes it as "a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting.”
The genesis of “Life On Mars?” can be traced back to 1968. Bowie had written the English lyrics for a French song called “Comme, D’Habitude” and called his version “Even a Fool Learns to Love.” Unfortunately, the song was never released, and shortly afterwards, Paul Anka heard the original version, bought the rights and rewrote it as “My Way.” Anka passed the song along to Frank Sinatra and it became synonymous with Ol’ Blue Eyes. Originally, out of anger at his misfortune, Bowie recorded “Life On Mars?” as a Sinatra parody. He eventually made his peace with it and in the liner notes, he wrote that the song was “inspired by Frankie.”
The final track on side one is “Quicksand,” a ballad that touches on some of Bowie’s non-musical influences like Buddhism, Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley and the occult. Co-producer Ken Scott had just finished engineering George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and wanted to create a very similar sound using multiple tracks of acoustic guitars.
Side two opens up with a cover of the Biff Rose/Paul Williams composition “Fill Your Heart,” which sort of acts as a buffer for the next three songs that pay homage to Bowie’s three major influences, “Andy Warhol,” “Song for Bob Dylan” and “Queen Bitch.” The latter was written as a tribute to The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed in particular. If you listen closely, you can hear hints of “Sweet Jane.” The song’s arrangement is very similar to the style Bowie would display on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust the following year. Among all of the songs on the LP, this is the one that was the tip off as to what direction Bowie’s musical career was headed.
The final song is a ballad called “The Bewlay Brothers.” It was one of the last to be written and recorded for the album. Bowie told producer Ken Scott that he wrote the song with the American market in mind because “the Americans always like to read into things, even though the lyrics make absolutely no sense.”
Although it received high praise from the critics, Hunky Dory did not really take off until the middle of 1972, after the commercial breakthrough of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. Even Bowie himself credits the album as one of the most important of his career. He told Chris Roberts of Uncut Magazine in 1999, "Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. 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. It was like, 'Ah, I'm getting it, I'm finding my feet. I'm starting to communicate what I want to do. Now: what is it I want to do?' There was always a double whammy there."
1971 was a remarkably great year for music and Hunky Dory was a huge reason why. For David Bowie, it concluded phase one of a brilliant career that can only be rivaled by very few.