‘Hunky Dory’ – A phrase meaning that is everything is alright with the world.
And perhaps the best title David Bowie could have given his fourth album. It failed to chart but received praise and acclaim upon release, featuring future Spiders from Mars; Mick Ronson (on guitar, vocals and Mellotron), Trevor Bolder (bass, trumpet) and Mick Woodmansey (drums) – as well as Rick Wakeman on most of the record’s piano. Perhaps most famous for the three defining hits, ‘Changes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ and ‘Life On Mars?’, Hunky Dory has no shortage of American tributes and atypical piano-led arrangements. Nevertheless, it’s one of Bowie’s best – and a testament to his ever-shifting sound; from the harder rock of The Man Who Sold the World to an almost art pop form.
Hunky Dory opens with ‘Changes’; perhaps the quintessential song of Bowie’s career and a reflection of his life as a whole. It’s pure art pop from start to finish, with an almost bubblegum-esque chorus that washes over the ears with its simplistic lyrics and building drumbeat. Owing to his chameleonic dynamic, ‘Changes’ remains an oddly cynical – or at least brutally realistic – self-portrait of Bowie that might be lost on the casual listener. Nevertheless, it’s infectious, and makes for the perfect opener to Hunky Dory. It features Bowie at his best, both in songwriting and vocals; with soft-spoken verses (complete with Bowie on sublime sax) propelling an out-of-control chorus that becomes a real powerhouse.
‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, meanwhile opens with piano almost identical to The Beatles’ ‘Martha My Dear’ (from their ’68, self-titled ‘White Album’), doubling down on the glam rock of 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World in one of rock and roll’s finest examples of a song that really should have been a single. The chorus, punctuated by Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey’s drumming, pushes on through cryptic lines of philosophy and even occultism. It remains a highlight of the album and Bowie’s career as a whole. Oh, and we’re only two songs in. Nice.
If we’re to make out that Hunky Dory is some glam-tinged art pop masterpiece, then Eight Line Poem is perhaps the record’s best example. Featuring Bowie on oddly southern vocals and piano, it features, well, exactly eight lines, telling the story of a cat that knocks over a cactus. For those into rock, it’s certainly a comedown after the album’s opening two bars. But nevertheless, an overlooked piece that’s incredibly easy to let roll on by.
Life on Mars?, unsurprisingly to any Bowie fan,might just be one of the best songs put to record. The way it builds, with sideman Mick Ronson creating a crescendo of subtle guitar and Mellotron (and Rick Wakeman on piano) is just outstanding, and brings goosebumps to me after all this time. There’s a real sense of urgency and despair in this piece, coming through in Bowie’s particularly matter-of-fact vocals. The song’s a vengeful swipe at Paul Anka and his reworking of one of Bowie’s songs into the Sinatra-famed ‘My Way’, and boy, does it give that titan a run for its money. It reached number 3 and stayed there for thirteen weeks in the UK. That’s justice to me.
‘Kooks’,to me, is one of the album’s (many) highlights. It has that simple melody that trundles along much like an old-fashioned cart, somehow quaint and cozy but vicious when it needs to be. Dedicated to Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones – born just a few days before the song’s conception – there’s little wrong with the song, and remains a refreshing, tongue-in-cheek take on life. Another deep cut, ‘Quicksand’, namechecks Churchill and Himmler, before bringing forth yet more themes of occultism and philosophy. ‘Quicksand’is one of Bowie’s more fascinating songs, with overlaying acoustic guitars at co-producer Ken Scott’s behest, proving a wonderfully enchanting track. The title derives from English writer Colin Wilson’s book, The Occult, which likens the concept of thought to quicksand, some have theorized. Thus, Bowie is losing himself in thoughts of who he is, and what his subconscious really is. But regardless, it’s pure art pop – and it sounds great.
Side two of Hunky Dory opens with the only track not penned by Bowie himself – a cover of Biff Rose and Paul Williams’ jazz-pop number – ‘Fill Your Heart’. It provides a certain escape from the complexity of the album’s previous track and, whilst not one of Hunky Dory’s most memorable pieces, provides an insightful look at Bowie in his most playful.
‘Andy Warhol’ – Another ode and, this time, for the legendary pop art icon, Andy Warhol – with lyrics emphasizing Warhol’s belief that life and art blend together always. Supposedly when the man himself heard Bowie’s tribute, he hated it and left the room. Nevertheless, the duet riff of acoustic guitars on this piece are both haunting and punchy, reminiscent of some kind of artistic battle. It’s another underrated gem of Bowie’s early career and of this album, especially.
‘Song for Bob Dylan’ perfectly captures the tone of Dylan’s own music, yet still infused with that Bowie twist. Likening Dylan’s voice to ‘sand and glue’ is a brilliant observation, and the track perhaps deals with Bowie’s own issues around identity – from his birth name to Bowie, and all the alter egos that would ultimately follow. It’s a great rock tune but, sadly, little more. In the album’s final tribute, however, (this time to the legendary Velvet Underground) ‘Queen Bitch’remains its magnum opus, for me. Driven by guitar over piano, the riff is unshakeable and hits home with that casual ferocity Bowie masters so well. It always sounds fresh, nearly fifty years later, mimicking the glam rock of nigh Ziggy Stardust and Marc Bolan; with catchy chords and infectious lyrics. Glam at its best.
Seemingly a personal piece reflecting on Bowie and his relationship with half-brother Terry Burns (suffering from schizophrenia), the album’s closer is nothing short of cryptic, even for fans of the ever-changing glittered chameleon. Like many songs on the album, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ builds from soft acoustic beginnings to something outright haunting – solidified in the ethereal wails of Bowie from the ether. It’s an interesting closer, and perhaps brings Hunky Dory full circle to the transmogrifying nature of its opener.
All in all, Hunky Dory does have a couple of tracks that you could put under the ‘filler’ category – but they’re still more than worth a listen, if only to get an insight into the complex thought processes of such an iconic, and such an identically troubled, artist. Yet, tossing all that aside, Bowie’s fourth album just has some rocking tunes, with big hits and deeper gems galore. The fact that this album was released just months before …Ziggy Stardust perhaps makes it all the more poignant, and perhaps worth a second look.