By 1971, I was already aware of David Bowie as a recording artist, and he had enjoyed success with the song ‘Space Oddity’, first released in 1969. I had concluded that this was a man of great talent and potential, but records already released seemed to lack any consistency or focus, and it was hard to decide what direction he was going in, or if he was about to become part of a recognised musical genre. I need not have concerned myself, as the answer was soon revealed.
Bowie signed to RCA, and in 1971, released the album ‘Hunky Dory’. Eleven tracks, mostly short, and all written by him, except one. For me, this was one of the most significant record releases ever, firmly establishing David Bowie on the world music scene, and on a personal level, making him an artist that I would admire throughout my life. He also settled the debate on whether or not he was part of a genre. He wasn’t. He had started his own, invented a unique style, one that he would change and adapt throughout his career. Over the last few decades, much is written about recording artists reinventing themselves. Good examples of this would include Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, and more recently, Lady Gaga. To many writers, and most music lovers, this is seen as a modern trend, perhaps started by Madonna, during the late 1980’s. Of course, this is incorrect, as it was Bowie that started all this, with his changing musical personalities and appearance, reflecting different periods of his music and acting career.
When ‘Hunky Dory’ was released, Bowie was already deliberately androgynous in appeal, seen by some as part of the ‘Glam Rock’ scene; wearing make up, and dressing in unusual clothes. He would later exaggerate this look, as well as alluding to bisexuality, and sexual ambiguity. As a result, he may have damaged his appeal to some markets in the USA, but he managed to create a demand for his music and stage appearances across the whole spectrum of music fans. His good looks made him popular with men and women alike, and his musical talent allowed him access to the serious record buyers, who demanded quality songs, with high production values, using established professional musicians.
At the time, I was sharing a house with some friends, in the South London suburbs. I arrived home with the vinyl album, and started playing it immediately. From the first track, ‘Changes’, I knew that I owned something wonderful, a record release of significance. The first side continued to provide amazing tracks, from ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ (Previously covered by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, that same year) to the operatic ‘Life On Mars’. I was already overwhelmed, and there was another side to go! One of my housemates, himself an accomplished Blues vocalist and piano player, declared that he thought the album was ‘shit’. His girlfriend on the other hand, was as captivated as I was, and we carried on, turning over to side two.
This started with the seemingly incongruous song, ‘Fill Your Heart’, a happy tune, written by Paul Williams. Then the next track began, not with music, but with Bowie chatting in the studio, then laughing out loud, just as the guitar intro starts; the banter is left in, for the listener to hear what was going on. This was highly unusual, and introduced a certain familiarity and association with the singer, that was of course assumed, but felt no less real for that. The track was called ‘Andy Warhol’, the name of the famous American artist, and film-maker, and it is an undeniable tribute to the man, as Bowie was a fan of his work. The acoustic guitar playing (credited to Mick Ronson) is powerful, and the vocals are pitch-perfect, and have a plaintive air to them. The lyrics are clever, and the whole construction of the song, which runs for less than four minutes, is a complete joy.
It was never released as a single from this album. Two tracks were though, ‘Changes’, and ‘Life On Mars’, both considerable hits. Side two continued with more great tracks, like ‘Queen Bitch’, and ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, confirming our belief that ‘Hunky Dory’ was going to become a career-defining release for David Bowie. But it was the simple acoustic delight of ‘Andy Warhol’, that we played over and over. Forty-three years later, it is still one of my all-time favourites.
Here is the track, as released on this album. As a bonus, for those of you who would like to explore further, the whole album is also available, from the second link. How can you resist?