Classic Music Review: Hunky Dory by David Bowie

Hunky Dory was David Bowie’s breakout album, but hardly anyone noticed at the time.

While welcomed by generally favorable reviews, Hunky Dory didn’t do much on the charts until after Ziggy Stardust. This wasn’t uncommon in the 60’s and 70’s, when the record companies generally took more time to develop their artists and were willing to take some losses up front in the hope of a bigger payoff down the road. The closest analogy to David Bowie’s commercial trajectory is Billy Joel, who didn’t hit the big time until Strangers, his fifth attempt. After Strangers went platinum, Americans went batshit crazy for Billy Joel, digging into his back catalog and discovering “Piano Man,” a tune that appeared on his second album. It eventually became Billy Joel’s signature song.

And that’s the last fucking time you will ever hear me comparing Billy Joel to David Bowie.

Bowie’s attempt at airplay got off to a rough start. His first album was released on June 1, 1967. Hmm. That date sounds awfully familiar . . . oh yes. It was the day Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released.

Oops.

His first few albums were characterized by artistic oscillations that probably made it hard for the listening public to get a fix on him. His first album, David Bowie, falls somewhere between British music hall, Engelbert Humperdinck and Herman’s Hermits—pleasant but surprisingly sexless and rock-free. His second album (also called David Bowie, but better known by the title of the 1972 re-release, Space Oddity) is more folk-tinged—still subdued but you can hear growing confidence in his voice. Bowie didn’t start to rock out until The Man Who Sold the World, and while the album has some interesting cuts, it’s obvious he was still feeling his way and hadn’t quite hit his stride.

And then it all came together on Hunky Dory. Whether it was his free-agent status (he recorded the album without a contract), the new band lineup consisting of the future Spiders from Mars plus Rick Wakeman, or the volumes of Nietzsche he was consuming at the time, David Bowie transformed himself from quirky, uncertain performer into a man brimming with confidence in an expansive artistic vision. I’ll let the rest of the world engage in the debate as to which David Bowie album is his best, but I would say that Hunky Dory is his most exuberant album, filled with delightful surprises, playful humor and enough stylistic diversity to keep things interesting. I would also say that this is the point when David Bowie became a great songwriter, a quality that has been often overlooked in the many retrospectives on his life’s contributions.

The album opens with what started out as a cheesy lounge number and became one of Bowie’s most memorable numbers, “Changes.” Many critics have interpreted the song within the limited context of rock music, taking the line “look out, you rock ‘n’ rollers” as Bowie’s challenge to the old guard that he’s on his way to the top. If such was the case, the song would never have connected so strongly with the general public. Careful listening (a skill many critics curiously lack) reveals a more universal tale of life and change. The repeated line, “Turn and face the strange” is a message for any human being on the planet who finds him or herself stuck in a rut—something all of us experience from time to time, not just rock musicians. Facing the strange, whether it’s listening to bebop for the first time or visiting a country where you know neither the customs nor the language, is an uncomfortable experience indeed, but it is also a growth experience that gives us new ways of looking at life. Only the first verse deals with Bowie’s personal growth, a journey launched by self-reflection (“So I turned myself to face me”). The second verse calls out the older generation for trying to control and limit the potential of their children, another universal experience dating back to the dawn of human civilization:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through

“Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it,” sings Bowie—great advice that is too often ignored. When we get to the line, “Look out, you rock ‘n’ rollers,” Bowie is simply pointing out that even rockers can become brain dead losers resistant to change and to new possibilities in music.

Literary interpretation aside, “Changes” is an endlessly delightful song. The opening still retains a cheesy, easy listening feel, making the lyrical depth and variable phrasing of the verses all the more interesting. The stuttering “ch-ch-ch-ch changes” is a rhythmic masterstroke that breaks the pattern of more traditional transitions from verse to chorus, and producer Ken Scott’s panning on the chorus that places the “ch-ch-ch-ch changes” in center while we hear Bowie sing the lines in stereo makes for a terrifically engaging listening experience. Although it’s almost impossible to assign a signature song to an artistic chameleon like David Bowie, “Changes” is as good a choice as any.

“Changes” is a piano song, and the second number on the album follows that pattern. Many people don’t realize that “Oh, You Pretty Things” is actually a remake of the original, one that became a modest hit for the post-Herman’s Hermits Peter Noone. True to his cute boy brand, Peter changed the line “the Earth is a bitch” to “the Earth is a beast,” ensuring he would forever be linked in the annals of infamy with the Rolling Stones and their artistically gutless decision to sing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” on The Ed Sullivan Show. The common read on the song reflects the influence of Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley, particularly their ideas on the improvability of the human race, but I find that interpretation somewhat limited. As he did in “Changes,” David Bowie tied the theme to the unnecessary conflict between parent and child, a fruitless battle that defies the evolutionary progress embedded in the human gene pool. It makes perfect sense that Bowie would be sensitive to generational dynamics, having become a parent during the development of Hunky Dory. The “pretty things” are the children of the coming generation, especially the teenagers who were experimenting with flamboyant dress and make-up after seeing Marc Bolan all-a-glitter on Top of the Pops in March 1971. The Marlene Dietrich-influenced cover reflects also Bowie’s progression towards hermaphrodite status, which makes for a more provocative interpretation of the line, “Got to make way for the Homo Superior.”

“Oh, You Pretty Things” fades nicely into the piano intro to “Eight Line Poem,” where David is joined by Mick Ronson, who provides a sweet counterpoint to the keyboard. This short piece primarily reinforces the more reflective feel of Side 1, an intermission that seems to have come too soon. “Life on Mars” also begins with another reflective passage on the piano, but here the intent is satiric, as Bowie’s intention was to create a parody of Paul Anka’s “My Way,” especially the version sung by ‘Ol Blue Eyes. While that may have been his intent, the lyrics do not present the faux self-reflection of the original, making the satiric connection inferred at best. What Bowie does describe is life as a script rather than the exploration it should be, and continuing the theme of generational disconnection, he makes the heroine a young girl whose lack of physical perfection enhances her status as an outcast:

It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times before

The build to the chorus is intensely dramatic, thanks to Mick Ronson’s string arrangement, setting the stage for Bowie to express deep frustration with the absurd human obsession with violence that characterizes life on Earth:

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

The second verse shifts to a first-person semi-absurdist narrative where Bowie shares his read on current affairs. I think shifting to first-person actually weakens the poetry—the girl in the first verse gives us someone we can empathize with, while the second verse gives us opinions we can agree or disagree with. The result is we lose the emotional connection to the song. That said, Bowie’s lead vocal compensates nicely for the lyrical deficiencies, as you have to admire his command of dynamics and intensely expressive phrasing.

A generational song of a more personal nature, “Kooks” is a musical welcome to Bowie’s new son Duncan. I know it’s probably difficult for people to reconcile the David Bowie pictured on the covers of Aladdin Sane or Diamond Dogs as a responsible, loving parent, but I can’t imagine a kid not wanting a father who approaches parenting like this:

And if you ever have to go to school
Remember how they messed up
This old fool
Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads
‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s Dads
And if the homework brings you down
Then we’ll throw it on the fire
And take the car downtown

“Kooks” is the only song I’ve ever heard that actually awakens the maternal urge in me. It makes me want to show the whole world that kooky bisexual perverts can make way better parents than self-important, sexless bores obsessed with getting their kids into Hah-vaad! Let’s move on to the next song before I get the urge to go shopping at the Sperm Bank!

“Quicksand” is definitely a mood-shifter, with its weary vocal singing of Crowley and Himmler riding over the shifting dynamics of a solo acoustic guitar. While I love Ken Scott’s arrangement of layered acoustic guitar mingling with another clever string arrangement courtesy of Mick Ronson, I find the lyrics both didactic and self-absorbed. I find philosophical dissertations boring in any context, but especially so in the context of music.

Side 2 opens with a playful interpretation of a song co-written Paul Williams (!) and a character named Biff Rose, who had brief fame as a comedian in the late 60’s, appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, among others. Tiny Tim, another curious only-in-the-60’s kind of guy, recorded “Fill Your Heart” as the B-side to his horrible hit, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Bowie has fun with the song, which is about all you can do with it. It ends with a rapid trip down the piano keyboard, followed by the odd sound of a single saxophone note flashing across the stereo spectrum—the opening to “Andy Warhol.”

The first in series of three tribute songs on Hunky Dory, “Andy Warhol” is by far the strongest. The casual opening featuring David Bowie correcting Ken Scott’s pronunciation of the artist’s name immediately establishes a relaxed intimacy that is reinforced by Bowie’s delightful multichannel laughter. In contrast, the music is Spanish-tinged heat, with Bowie driving the acoustic rhythm and Mick Ronson deftly picking the cascading notes that form the counterpoint. While the music has little in common with flamenco in terms of either time signature or beat emphasis, the music captures the feel of Spanish folk music through the strumming style and the use of clappers. The music bears little apparent connection to the subject matter, which ironically reflects the character at the heart of the story—the music communicates a sense of mystery, and for many people, Andy Warhol was the ultimate enigma. “Why’s this guy painting Campbell’s Soup cans? What does that have to do with art?” You find yourself asking a similar question when you listen to “Andy Warhol,” namely, “What’s the connection between Spanish folk music and Andy Warhol?” The explanation from the Warhol Museum website is the best answer you’re going to get:

The social intent of his work may lie in its very ambiguity and the possibility for multiple interpretations. Do Warhol’s portraits pay homage to Jackie’s stately example of mourning—her public grief as the widowed First Lady? Or do they mirror, in their constancy and repetition, the media’s relentless portrayal of the events surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination? In this work, as in others, the artist seems to both celebrate and critique American culture.

Enigmatic music for an enigmatic artist makes perfect sense. Where Bowie’s lyrics really shine is in his ability to capture the mind of an artist who sees all cultural artifacts, including living, breathing human beings through the prism of artistic possibility:

Like to take a cement fix
Be a standing cinema
Dress my friends up just for show
See them as they really are
Put a peephole in my brain
Two New Pence to have a go
I’d like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show

Warhol held up a mirror to American culture, and the line “Andy Warhol, Silver Screen/Can’t tell them apart at all” is the essence of his work. An exceptionally compelling piece of music, “Andy Warhol” is one of Bowie’s finest moments.

I’m far less enthusiastic about the second tribute song, “Song for Bob Dylan,” which I hear as competitive sniping and little else—and that’s from someone who’s pretty lukewarm about Bob Dylan. I’m far more excited by “Queen Bitch,” a tribute to the Velvet Underground, or, more accurately, to the Lou Reed faction of the Velvet Underground. Finally, some kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll! I remain stunned that Lou Reed never recorded this himself, as David Bowie perfectly captured the Lou Reed style and attitude right down to the offhand phrasing of the bemused observer of life:

I’m up on the eleventh floor and I’m watching the cruisers below
He’s down on the street and he’s trying hard to pull sister Flo
Oh, my heart’s in the basement, my weekend’s at an all-time low
‘Cause she’s hoping to score, so I can’t see her letting him go
Walk out of her heart, walk out of her mind? Oh not her!

She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that

The band’s tightness here foreshadows the style of Ziggy Stardust, where they would really shift into overdrive.

Hunky Dory ends with “The Bewlay Brothers,” described by Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray as “probably Bowie’s densest and most impenetrable song,” a point of view generally in concurrence with Bowie’s comments on the piece. Hmm. I’m not sure I agree. It’s obvious that the bulk of the lyrics have to do with the imaginative adventures of two brothers as they try to survive the dullness of their childhood environment; the use of the “we” form indicates that David Bowie is one of those brothers. In the last verse, something happens to the other brother—something so unspeakable that neither the brother nor the family will receive much in the way of sympathy:

Now my Brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, He could be not
He could be You

David Bowie did have a schizophrenic half-brother, and schizophrenics do tend to trigger more fear than compassion. The distorted vocals on the coda hint that the parents—particularly the father—chose to ignore the problem, virtually abandoning both children by refusing to deal with the unspeakable:

Lay me place and bake me Pie
I’m starving for me Gravy
Leave my shoes, and door unlocked
I might just slip away
Just for the Day, Hey!
Please come Away, Hey!

“The Bewlay Brothers” may remain a mystery for the ages, but I find the song oddly engaging and curiously inviting, like the creaky door to the abandoned house everyone says is haunted.

I have to say that I enjoyed the hell out of doing this review. I had the chance to listen to Hunky Dory several times during the process and I never tired of it for a second. David Bowie would lead us through many twists and turns during his multifaceted career in the arts, but Hunky Dory is the place where he gained his footing as both a songwriter and recording artist. For that reason, it remains one of his most important contributions to modern music.

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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