David Bowie – Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Hunky Dory” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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David Bowie – Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Hunky Dory”

The Album First Came Out on December 17, 1971

Dec 17, 2021
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The late Starman’s major achievement in exemplary art pop, as only he could produce it, David Bowie’s piano-centered orchestral fourth studio album was, in many ways, his first true “Bowie” release. Eschewing many of the hard rock and bluesy tactics employed on The Man Who Sold the World, 1971’s Hunky Dory offered the public a glimpse of David Bowie, not as he had been over the past few years, but as what he was soon to become. The 24-year-old Londoner was at an intellectual crossroads, with one foot still deeply anchored in the established psychedelic folk scene, and the other ensnared by the nascent decade’s burgeoning glam movement. Indeed, something inside the man was shifting, his evolution fueled largely by a visit to the U.S.—a peculiar land for which he would retain a certain affinity throughout the entirety of his illustrious 50-year career—in January 1971. The inventive vision implanted into his subconscious would soon blossom into his radical transition from mere mortal to glitter-strewn, gender-bending Martian prophet of doom—an iconic persona that quickly garnered him international superstardom and a permanent place among popular culture’s most influential luminaries. The album in question, though very much so of earth, represented a crucial step in Bowie’s passage to the interstellar ethers.

Recorded at Trident Studios in London and released on December 17, 1971, Hunky Dory was greeted with enthusiasm by critics, The New York Times declaring Bowie, “The most intellectually brilliant man yet to choose the long-playing album as his medium of expression.” Indeed, Bowie was most certainly one of his generation’s most intelligent and perceptive lyricists, drawing from a number of cultural and philosophical sources in crafting his often ambitious narratives. Signaling this great leap forward, opening cut “Changes”—which became one of his signature tunes—serves as something of a miniature manifesto, seeing Bowie articulate an artistic credo, as, like that of his American contemporary Bob Dylan, his persona splinters into various equally elusive character sketches, an ephemeral state of “warm impermanence” in which he would from then on exist. Here, Bowie declares himself an unabashed “faker” with “strange fascinations,” imploring his listeners to “turn and face the strange” upon which he has learned to capitalize. The subsequent “Oh! You Pretty Things” reframes Nietzsche’s oft-misinterpreted Übermensch concept as a sensual, gender-ambiguous Thelemite science fiction daydream of mass extinction, righteous adolescence, and extraterrestrial alliances, serving as something of a prelude to Bowie’s timeless magnum opus The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, released a matter of months later. Album centerpiece “Life on Mars?” continues such fascinations, unfolding into a vast, theatrical glam rock anthem of pining and awe. This track also doubles as a particularly pointed parody of Frank Sinatra’s 1969 hit “My Way”—with which Bowie shared a bitter history—offering cheekily romantic depictions of movieland fantasties (“Sailors fighting in the dancehall/Oh man, look at those cavemen go”) and biting cultural observations (“It’s on America’s tortured brow/That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow).” Here, Bowie’s grim worldview festers beneath sweeping strings and pounding piano notes, setting the stage for his philosophy to come. The upbeat Neil Young homage “Kooks,” a letter to Bowie’s infant son Duncan, switches gears if only for a moment, before giving way to the stunningly beautiful ballad “Quicksand.” A melancholic spiritual sibling to “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie once described the track as being a result of his confusion with “the chain reaction of moving around throughout the bliss and then the calamity of America,” its lyrics returning even more blatantly to earlier occult and Nietzschean themes. In an act of faux humility, Bowie, now downtrodden, declares, “I’m not a prophet or a stone-age man/Just a mortal with the potential of a superman.” The track in question is an underrated Bowie gem, with the great Mick Ronson’s presence on guitar helping emphasize his utter anguish as he confesses, “Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation/Of bullshit faith.”

Side Two opens with a rendition of Paul Williams and Biff Rose’s “Fill Your Heart,” which suits Bowie well in all of its thick, sometimes gaudy charm, while the moody “Andy Warhol” finds Bowie paying tribute to the titular American icon, having debuted the track several months prior for Warhol himself while attending his London art exhibition. “Song for Bob Dylan” and “Queen Bitch” also convey Bowie’s admiration for other influential Americans, the aforementioned Dylan and glam pioneer Lou Reed, whose own 1972-released masterpiece Transformer Bowie would help produce. Both are especially strong tracks, the former accurately comparing the sound of Dylan’s voice to that of “sand and glue” and the latter serving as a sonic precursor to the scrappy proto-punk sting of future effort Diamond Dogs. Closing ballad “The Bewlay Brothers,” despite remaining a relatively obscure inclusion in his extensive discography, is by far one of Bowie’s greatest songs. The album’s longest track finds him, as he later revealed, lamenting the plight of his half-brother Terry, who struggled with schizophrenia before eventually committing suicide in 1985, as well as his own identity and his brother’s relation to it. The tangled, often Dylanesque lyrics muddle any definitive sentiment, and Bowie later dismissed his brother as a trivial influence in his life, but something here aches too deeply to stand devoid of meaning. “The Bewlay Brothers” possesses a certain intimacy that gives one chills upon each listen, its sleepy surrealism manifesting pristinely in possibly autobiographical lines, such as, “Now my brother lays upon the rocks/He could be dead, he could be not/He could be you/He’s Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian, and Caricature.”

While somewhat pale in comparison to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Station to Station, and Low, Hunky Dory is still a quintessential Bowie release, and a key piece of rock history. Here, we see him transforming from whimsical English folkie to multifaceted rock and roll idol, whose shapeshifting impulses bore increasingly apocalyptic fixations, as fathomable on Hunky Dory and blaringly apparent on Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, with tracks such as “Quicksand” feeling a bit like conceptual dress rehearsals for “Rock and Roll Suicide” and “Drive-In Saturday.”

At last, Bowie’s cataclysmic sentimentality has begun to feel less like rock and roll theatrics and more like a manifestation of reality. The likelihood of oblivion now visible, the necessity of otherworldly contact has become imperative to our salvation, but that’s a conversation for another anniversary.


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