Look Back In Angora: ‘Hunky Dory’ at 50

❉  From Sinatra to The Tomorrow People… On a classic album released on this day in 1971.

‘Hunky Dory’ is as homely as Carole King’s Tapestry, Neil Young’s Harvest or McCartney’s RAM, but by way of Quatermass and Crowley.

Hunky Dory, eh? Well, let’s start by stating the obvious, shall we? It’s a bit bloody good. And everyone seems to love it. How could anyone possessed with a pair of fully functioning ears not? It’s a carefully constructed confection, front-loaded with toe-tapping, gorgeous melodies and loving arrangements that feel immediately familiar and ‘classic’, which would be enough to reward any music loving listener even without probing into the turbulent undercurrents of the lyrical content.

These are all undeniable truths, so there’s little else to be said on that front, and nothing new to add about how the album as a whole is effectively a prologue for Bowie’s imperial phase, lyrically setting the agenda for a decade of artistically and commercially successful reinventions, while musically proving that the boy had song writing chops, thanks in part to allowing his first great sideman, the self-deprecating and hugely talented Yorkshireman Mick Ronson, to furnish the album’s piano-led compositions with soaring string arrangements which swept the listener away. As Bowie biographer Paul Trynka writes, ‘Bowie had delegated the arrangements to the guitarist, geeing him up: “Go on! If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, but have a go!”’

Despite not registering on the charts upon its initial release in December 1971 (to the extent that an original, pre-Ziggy pressing could fetch you £300 or more), Hunky Dory is home to three songs which took upon a life of their own within two years of its release – the Beatlesque Oh! You Pretty Things, a huge hit for the newly solo Herman Peter Noone earlier that year, the grandiose and wistful Life On Mars? which was to reach Number three in Summer 1973, and the album’s curtain-raiser, Changes, destined to become the keynote of many tours to come and the inevitable soundtrack to numerous documentary profiles on the “chameleon of rock”, outlasting the hideous ignominy of being Tony Blackburn’s Single of the Week in January 1972.

Hunky Dory is an album that is simultaneously comforting and disturbing, familiar and exotic. You’re immediately seduced by Bowie’s pop nous and keen way with hooks and melodies, and Mick Ronson’s sumptuous string arrangements, and the glissandos of Rick Wakeman’s piano – but that surface doesn’t prepare you for the spiritual battles of Quicksand, the mythical, homoerotic, cthonic enigma that is The Bewlay Brothers (“Star Trek in a leather jacket“, as Bowie unhelpfully summarised it), or the juxtaposition of homely domesticity and juvenile master race predictions of Oh! You Pretty Things and Kooks…

At this point, it’s worth making a footnote that should interest all fans of cult British TV – Oh! You Pretty Things, with its foretelling of “homo superior”directly inspired Roger Price’s glam rock children’s TV sci-fi drama The Tomorrow People when Roger Price, met Bowie on the set of Granada TV’s Six-oh-One Special (where Bowie performed his then-current single “Holy Holy” wearing his Mr Fish dress) on 18 January 1971:

“We spent a lot of time in the canteen… and then we started talking about the Tomorrow People concept and he was one of the few people who immediately grasped what it was about, and was able to make some real contributions to my thought process. I was in the stage of ‘what do I do with this’ and he was a huge help.” – Roger Price

The album’s most famous songs, Changes and Life On Mars?, offer as many questions as answers, and were both composed in the spring of May 1971. Changes, a theatrical autobiography of the boy David’s career travails is a camp and knowing discourse-cum-prophesy on The Actor’s journey, all “dead end streets” and transformations, is future-proofed as the signature tune it would come to be. The cabaret-flavoured flourishes of this anthem didn’t go unnoticed by drummer Woody Woodmansey, who later observed: “We pulled it out of the lounge and rocked it enough so it was rocky and fit the rest of the stuff we were doing.”

It also doubled as a statement of intent. Paul Trynka wrote, “Rarely in musical history has one man transformed his destiny so instantly, so thoroughly, and so effortlessly”, with Spider Trevor Bolder noting: “He cited where he was going to be. And then he did it.”

Showstopper Life On Mars? is an recursive meditation on fame, fantasy and escapism, best summarised by Charles Shaar Murray as “a complex sequence of parallel worlds… Escher would have been proud of it.”

Life On Mars? also sees Bowie settling a few scores from his times in those dead-end streets of flop singles and busted music publishing deals, by gazumping the chord sequences from Comme D’Habitude , the chanson ballad that saw a then-unknown Bowie’s own Anglicised lyric treatment bested by Paul Anka, garnering the Sinatra smash hit My Way.

Bowie later crowed to Record Mirror:

“I’ve never heard such rubbish in all my life as to hear than man Sinatra talk about how great it is to be an old soak. The general thing is him saying that I’m getting out now, and I’ll tell you how I made it … and he’s told us how he made it. I just parodied it and actually, it’s what he said – about how nice it is. I use the same chords that Sinatra used in My Way.”

Borrowings aside, the creation of Life On Mars? was far from the creative anxieties that marked The Man Who Sold The World‘s troubled creation, as Bowie would later recall in the sleeve-notes of his hand-picked 2008 compilation iSelect:

“This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. Middle class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts, but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise longue; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge, overflowing, freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.”

This is half the story. By the same token, Bowie would also admit to  MOJO’s Paul du Noyer in 2003 – ”I forced myself to be a good songwriter… I made a job of work at being good.”

“He laboured at it,” says Mark Pritchett, guitarist with Bowie side-project Arnold Corns. “The writing sessions were legendary. They could be hours at a time.”

“He was getting really slick”, recalled his then-publisher Bob Grace, “All of a sudden, all these great songs started appearing.”

Lyrically there’s some heavy meat in Hunky Dory – its optimistic album title is certainly sarcastic – and yet its stylings are couched into a musical form that, by Bowie’s own admission, is freely derived in inspiration from the clumping, jolly piano chords of Paul McCartney’s Martha My Dear or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and is replete with saccharine strings worthy of West Coast musical AOR dreamscapers Burt Bacharach, Richard Perry or Paul Williams.

Scratch the surface of this fresh burst of creative rebirth, though, and even its outwardly more joyous tracks, such as on Bowie’s rendition of Biff Rose’s hippie anthem Fill Your Heart, hit a disquieting note when you clock that the vocal’s manic style is not far off that of the psychotic Vietnam vet gone native in Running Gun Blues, which speak to another level of freedom – that of total, unhinged insanity.

Song For Bob Dylan speaks of loss of the songwriter’s muse – quite literally, in its invocation of Athena being born from the forehead of Zeus (“the same old painted lady from the brow of the superbrain”), while Eight Line Poem (more of a palate cleanser between tracks than a fully formed song) pre-empts the arid stagnation and agoraphobia of Low.

To return to my earlier theme, part of Hunky Dory’s enchanting spell that it is simultaneously intimate and otherworldy, comforting and terrifying, and domestic and uncanny. In the nicest possible way, it’s a turd wrapped up in a chocolate box. In the same ‘home and hearth’ 1971 spirit as Carole King’s Tapestry, Neil Young’s Harvest or McCartney’s Ram, but by way of Quatermass and Crowley.

On the surface, it’s pretty and melodic and homely, but it’s haunted by phantoms that bedevilled Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold The World… Fears of the unknown, the uncanny, secret knowledge, the scary and exciting implications of entering another phase of spiritual evolution, feeling like “a mortal with potential of a superman…” – from the perspective of a blossoming talent of burning ambition, who would confidently tell Melody Maker a month after Hunky Dory‘s release, “I’m going to be huge, and it’s quite frightening in a way.”

In this context, Side Two of Hunky Dory‘s trilogy of hero worship songs – Andy Warhol (as in holes), Song For Bob Dylan and Queen Bitch – is nothing less than a mission statement; Bowie has absorbed all the lessons he can learn from his titular heroes, and is gonna show us, “Oh God, I can do better than that.”

Sure enough, by the time Hunky Dory was in the shops on a cold British December much like today’s, Ziggy Stardust was virtually in the can. It really would be the freakiest show.

❉ James Gent is a writer, graphic designer, social media manager, and editor of We Are Cult. He has contributed to a number of magazines, websites and books including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die. Acknowledgements to Jon Arnold for proof-reading and editing this article, and making suggestions. An earlier, uncorrected version of this article was originally published on this website, 17 Dec 2018.

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  1. It’s fascinating to read retrospective reviews of the albums, bands, fashions and artistry of a time which is burned onto my memory like a firebrand. I turned 13 years old in 1971 and it was a seminal year for me personally. What I soaked up helped from me. Marc Bolan was my hero and Electric Warrior was my Bible. What rarely gets written about is the context of music at that time to the people who grooved to it, soaked it up and shelled out their sponduliks for the product. The teen market was heavily polarised then. It was a case of Bolan Bowie Slade Roxy Sweet Glam, Soul, Skinhead, Stewart, Freak & Alice, Valley, Folk & Kraut Rock yadda yadda yadda. . . . You had to be careful about mixing loyalties; Wars were fought over less. With hindsight (yeah, I know. . . .) we actually soaked up most of everything – from Slider to Moonstomp. Boots from Petticoat Lane and Sta-Prest tight black shiny bollock clasping trousers from select shops in town.
    And Hunky Dory? Truthfully it didn’t register much on our radar at the time. One of the reasons for this I believe is that there was heavy polarisation between singles and album bands. Records were relatively expensive eith 45s at around 75p and a full price single LP at around GBP2.10. This was LOT of dough then. You had to be sure of what you were buying if you were going yo lash out on a 12“. Radio play aired singles readily in accordance with playlist policies manipulated by the media and the record companies. It wasn’t really clear what Bowie was at the time of Hunky Dory. Was he a singles or album artist? Album artists usually conferred a level of seriousness a way above a purely singles flogger. It’s always amused me that Peter No one’s version if OYPT did so well in the chart where David had yet to break big. No one was someone your granny would have loved _ yet here he was singing about people of dubious gender. Where the budgerie did that come from? When Life On Mars came out we sang along, we bought, and we pondered; what was this exactly? You couldn’t dance to it, you couldn’t smooch to it and the artist looked like a poof (although actually that didn’t bother me or the girls I knocked around with in the slightest). So the singles which pointed towards the album didn’t give any clear direction to us cats on the street and in the playgrounds of the secondary moderns. Older dudes and chicks would have been equally confused by it all. The arrival of Ziggy in 72 blasted this confusion away with a nuclear blast of Glam that brought the whole phenomenon into crystal diamond focus. Hunky Dory meanwhile stayed as a largely indeterminate transitional oddity. It has aged far better over the years than anyone at the time could possibly have imagined. I’m not being judgmental here, just telling it like it was. HD wasn’t for me then in the way it is now because it was an LP. Many won’t understand the nuance of that at all now. Why should they when many won’t even know what a vinyl record was or is. Ultimately who cares? HD is clearly a masterpiece – and I’m saying that as a Bolan fan. Please don’t tell anyone; I don’t want to get beaten up after the next school disco.

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