Howdy pop pickers
And so another episode of random Bowie for you, look you see. This is the 7th edition, with me somehow managing to keep my random target of doing one of these a month.
This time around, then, one of the classics that I have kind of been avoiding. It’s been interesting and a good deal easier to write about the less well celebrated records, or the ones that simply don’t get recalled. So no, then – no escaping. In this edition it is Hunky Dory I am giving a spin to; an album featuring at least two of Bowie’s greatest ever songs.
Fantastic fast facts? Surely. Hunky Dory is, by the commonly agreed upon method. Bowie’s 4th solo album. It was released just in time for Christmas 1971, and was recorded in part at a time when, strictly speaking, Bowie didn’t have a record deal. RCA picked him up, however, and would release this as well as all other albums up to the critics favourite landmark that is Scary Monsters….And Super Creeps. It was also the album to first feature proper the line-up that would be Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Not that you could see that brash glam sound coming from this mostly acoustic, rather pop-hippy-folk focused record, bar the one song (we will get to that).
I think I shall revert to doing a track by track sort of thing for this record, to be sure. In terms of those “is it any good” questions, the answer is an unequivocal yes. A strong case is presented to say that Hunky Dory is the single most essential David Bowie anyone could or should own. Everything that he was cherished for, all that he would explore and stand for, is right here in this album. So, you know, if you don’t have the record you are very welcome to stop reading and go get it.
As a few of you have, it seems, before I wrote this. In the week that The Beatles got to number one in the charts with the 50th Anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper, Hunky Dory for some reason re-entered the album chart in the 20s. Not bad.
So anyway, song by song? Song by song
Changes – One of the “at least two” greatest songs mentioned above. Quite a remarkable song which lyrically reflects his musical and artistic career to that point yet also tells tales of the future, since changes are what he did indeed go through.
Bowie’s stated intention for the song was for it to be as whimsical if not disposable as the changes suggested by the song. It’s one that endured, however, perhaps because with each passing year it seemed all the more relevant to him.
There’s little I can say about the song that hasn’t been said, or rather isn’t better being heard by you playing the song. Just a nice touch to show how it endured for audiences over the years, however, is a reminder that the lyrics for the film were quoted right there at the start of the celebrated 80s film The Breakfast Club
Oh! You Pretty Things – That wonderful moment on a record where the second song is as good, if not better, than the first, so you know you are in for a great musical experience and not just one song padded out with filler.
Much of the album before Hunky Dory (The Man Who Sold The World, yes I will do it one day in a random edition, maybe) carried a sense of Led Zeppelin influence. This was both in sound and lyric. Whilst the sound has softened here the lyrics seem to continue the Page-Plant exploration of the likes of Crowley, Nietzsche, etc. It’s a fun song that plays on the idea of a coming “superior race”, only doing so with a delightfully ambivalent sexual identity with phrases such as “homo superior”.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that Oh! You Pretty Things was or is a great “lost single” by Bowie. All things are easy in retrospect, but it carries the sound of a song that would not be out of place on any best of or greatest hits compilation.
Eight Line Poem – This is perhaps the one weak part of the record. Which when you consider it is pretty good, it is no bad thing. Eight Line Poem segues from Pretty Things, and has always sounded like a song which was more fun for the musicians to play than it was for an audience to listen to.
Life On Mars? – Yeah, the other one of the two songs that could be considered his all time greatest. I seem to recall that this one “won” some sort of poll for “best Bowie song of all time”, probably helped by the superb BBC series of the same name.
What, you want me to waste your time trying to explain the greatness of this song? Bowie’s superb vocal is respectfully matched by Rick Wakeman’s celebrated piano. If for some reason it helps or is of interest I wrote the lyrics to this song out on the inside of a lever arch file I used in college. Then, when I got a new file for University, I wrote the lyrics out in that one too. And yeah, whatever, this was all at a time when Bowie’s stock was somewhat lower down than it is now, being the early 90s.
Kooks – One of the most delightful songs on the album. A whimsical, fun and loving tune, as happy as happy can be. Ostensibly written as a lullaby for his (and Angie’s) then newborn song, it works just perfectly without any such knowledge of the tune. This is reflected in several cover versions of the song being out there, with one of the better takes being by no less than Robbie Williams, fancy that. There’s also some “new” (ish) band out there with this name, I assume they lifted it from the song.
Quicksand – The brightness of Kooks gives way to one of two darker points on the record at heart this is essentially a hippy album, and every now and then a hippy must get all dark and heavy, man.
To say this is the song of a troubled narrator is both obvious and an understatement. It’s a desolate, desperate song, wrestling with just what meaning life has and in a not particularly tacit way pondering if the only way to understand existence is in ceasing it.
Fill Your Heart – And back to brightness. This cover rivals Kooks for the most happiest, loveliest and prettiest tune on the record. Coming off the back of Quicksand, a quite remarkable, zestful, positive poppy tune. Just all wonderful stuff, really. The kind of song that was intended to be disposable pop yet has lived on for many years. One really cannot help but yearn for a time when more music was a good deal more like this.
Andy Warhol – “hole, as in holes”. Hear the song and you will understand. A simply amazing song which, for some reason I am unaware of, is blessed with a splendid quasi Spanish (ish) sort of guitar backing.
It is very hard not to hear Andy Warhol as something of a p!ss take, or it being a dig at the celebrated artist. Apparently, though, it is not or was not intended as such. Bowie went and played the song for Andy, which when you consider the lyrics must have been tricky to do with a straight face. No recorded evidence reveals what Andy thought of it (perhaps Andy was tired, Andy took a little snooze), but Bowie’s insistence that he wasn’t having a go at him is slightly confirmed by the fact that he of course played the artist in the film Basquiat.
Song For Bob Dylan – Right, OK. If Andy Warhol was not a dig or a poke at the titular subject matter, not so sure here. Occasional comments by Bowie here and there have suggested that yes, this was a go at Dylan for if not “selling out” then not quite being all that his fans had made him to be.
With the above in mind, when Bowie did speak of the song he did seem to suggest his focus was more on it being of what he wanted to do with music rather than that which Dylan, to his mind, was not. To be honest this is getting messy; perhaps its best to simply listen to it and take from it what you will.
Not that any feelings then about Bob Dylan prevented Bowie from doing a (somewhat interesting) cover of Like A Rolling Stone in the 90s. You can find it on Heaven & Hull, which was Mick Ronson's posthumous album. which i wonder if was in the back of the mind of Bowie as and when he started considering Blackstar.
Queen Bitch – The one decidedly not acoustic song on the album. Also, the one which I would argue is the third of Bowie’s greatest ever songs which graces this album.
Usually Queen Bitch is cited as a “homage” or other such nod of the hat to the Velvet Underground, a band of which Bowie was a most avid fan. If that’s how it started great, but what it did was anticipate the whole sound of the next record, Ziggy Stardust, and arguably gave a whole sense of direction and sound to that entire “glam rock” genre.
The only other thing I can really add is that it’s simply a great rock song, let the subtle overtly hidden homoerotic undertones of the lyrics wash over you and shout along. Which is exactly how I listen to it.
The Bewlay Brothers – Just as what was once called a side one finished with the dark sounds of Quicksand, we go darker still at the close of what would once have been side two.
It’s just been the 46 years that the meaning of the lyrics to this song have been scrutinised and debated, then. Many just assume it’s all a reference to Bowie’s half-brother. Bowie didn’t refute this, but did always hint that there were “more layers” to the song than just that.. Away from that, there’s a whole spectrum of interpretations, ranging from the song being “just deliberate nonsense intended to intrigue” right through to the claim that it’s a subliminal like effort at promoting a (or ‘the’) “gay agenda”, whatever that might be, precisely.
Adding to the confusion of just who might be referenced to by the name Bewlay Brothers is the fact that Bowie, towards the business end of the 70s, named a music publishing partnership as this. Also, things like Iggy Pop's Lust For Life album got credited as being produced by "Bewlay Bros". Perhaps it means something, maybe Bewlay is an acronym, possibly Bowie just liked the aesthetics of the name.
For those of us with the early 90s CD issue the album comes with a generous four extra tracks. The first two are ones theoretically not available anywhere else at the time. Bombers is a wonderful fun tune, whilst The Supermen once again finds David pursuing a Led Zeppelin like lyrical storytelling.
The last two songs are demo versions of Quicksand and The Bewlay Brothers. If we assume for the moment that Bowie had complete, utter and total control over what went on these reissues, including these two specifically is intriguing. It could be nothing, or it could have been David saying to us, his audience, “here, pay attention, I feel these two songs are particularly interesting or important.”.
And that would be that for the track by track. Sorry, hope you weren’t holding out for some musical insights or factual stuff, just my reactions to them for you I fear.
On release Hunky Dory sold well and certainly gave Bowie a whole lot of attention but it didn’t quite make him a huge star. In interviews he always seemed to speak of the post-Hunky Dory, pre-Ziggy Stardust time fondly. People who discovered the album came up to him and complemented him on the music and lyrics. That surely must be one of the biggest rewards for any artist or musician. After Ziggy, you would think, approaches would be all rather more fame and fan adulation rather than artistic appreciation Which, in fairness, also has rewards.
Well, that’s that, as in some 2000 words on an album that you maybe already have, or at the least has already had considerably more written about. No, it’s not my favourite David Bowie album, but yes it is bloody close to being it. In conclusion, then, I can only echo what I said close to the start – if there were to be just one David Bowie album that every music lover should own, then it is hard to argue with Hunky Dory being that album.
Thanks as ever for reading. On to the next album then, and no at this stage I have absolutely no idea which one to do after this. I will think of something.
be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!