In 1971, the same year that I bought the Carole King album, ‘Tapestry’, I bought an album by David Bowie. It was called ‘Hunky Dory’, and the two records could not have been more different. This was the fourth album that Bowie had released, and he had already made some impact around the world, with songs like ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. I was 19 years old, and after reading about the buzz around this new album in the music press of the day, I decided I had to have a copy.
One of my better decisions in life.
Track one, side one was ‘Changes’. A song so different, and so overwhelmingly good, I was lifting the arm of the record player back to the edge, to hear it over and over again, before I had even got to track two.
The second track was Bowie’s own version of the song ‘Oh You Pretty Things’. This had been a hit single for the group Herman’s Hermits earlier that year, with Bowie playing piano on that recording. But it might just as well have been a different song, as this version by the composer was light years better.
Make no mistake, this is not a record you put on to party to. I doubt any track is suitable for dancing, and it is definitely not background music for a social occasion either. It demands both careful listening, and serious appreciation. The song lyrics are simply amazing in the main, and come with lots of meanings and interpretations, giving something for everyone. Bowie is known for clever construction of some of his songs, alongside some simple tunes that at first appear to be little more than forgettable pop songs. Listen longer, listen more carefully, and you will actually find touches of genius here. By the time I had listened to track four, I thought I was going to never recover from the symphony that was ‘Life On Mars’.
This was modern music at an entirely different level.
Side two continued to enthrall. After Bowie’s version of the happy Paul Williams song ‘Fill Your Heart’ started the side off on a cheery note, I was immediately blown away by the inventiveness of track eight, ‘Andy Warhol’ Leaving on some talking as an intro, the great acoustic guitar that follows leads us into a witty and clever appreciation of the man that was the artist of the title. I played this one at least five times straight off, carefully placing the needle on the groove each time.
With all the hype that followed later, it is easy to forget just how talented David Bowie was. The man could not only sing, but sing well. You can understand every word he says, and he sings those words with the skill of a great actor, reading his lines.
Track ten saw Bowie as a rocker, with the punchy song ‘Queen Bitch’. Great build up to crescendo vocals, and snappy lyrics. I didn’t think this album could get any better, but then I heard track eleven. Few songs have affected me in my life as much as ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ did that day. Does it mean anything? Is there some significance to the title, the lyrics, or the unusual construction? I didn’t know, and still don’t. I didn’t care, and still don’t. It was the last track on side two, and as soon as it was over, I flipped the disc and played side one again. And that continued for most of the week that followed.
The year after ‘Hunky Dory’, Bowie released ‘Ziggy Stardust’. A new persona, and a different style. One of many more that were to come during a long career. It was only after 1972 that ‘Hunky Dory’ began to get full attention, and became a belated worldwide hit. Although I own almost every album that Bowie released, I have never liked one better than ‘Hunky Dory’.
Here’s the original track listing.
All tracks written by David Bowie, except where noted.
No. Title Length
1. “Changes” 3:37
2. “Oh! You Pretty Things” 3:12
3. “Eight Line Poem” 2:55
4. “Life on Mars?” 3:53
5. “Kooks” 2:53
6. “Quicksand” 5:08
No. Title Length
7. “Fill Your Heart” (Biff Rose, Paul Williams) 3:07
8. “Andy Warhol” 3:56
9. “Song for Bob Dylan” 4:12
10. “Queen Bitch” 3:18
11. “The Bewlay Brothers” 5:22