Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hunky Dory by David Bowie (1971)

The first of David Bowie’s ‘classic’ albums, Hunky Dory provides an early highpoint in his career. It followed two interesting, if unremarkable albums, and came just before his career-defining and widely popular Ziggy Stardust phase. The songwriting is remarkably mature, the arrangements are varied and the album is as complete a package as a Bowie album would ever be.

The album’s songs can be divided roughly into two categories; reflective, (semi-) autobiographical musings and tribute songs. Some of Bowie’s most well-known songs can be found on the album, such as “Changes” and “Life on Mars”. The latter, particularly, is a perfect pop song, delivered in Bowie’s then trademark almost effeminate croon. The almost Dylanesque surreal imagery (“It’s on Amerika’s tortured brow/that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”) and the Mick Ronson-orchestrated arrangement make this song an early highlight in Bowie’s career. “Oh You Pretty Things” seems to pre-empt the Ziggy Stardust-inspired glam rock scene of the early 1970s, with the titular gender-bending youngsters “driving their mommies and poppies insane”. One of the most straightforward songs ever written by Bowie, “Kooks” is a tribute to his newborn son (Duncan “Zowie” Bowie), welcoming him into the kooky world of his parents. It also includes a particularly amusing advice, coming from the dainty, androgynous Bowie: “Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads/cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.” “Quicksand” contains the kind of tired wisdom usually uttered by performers twice his age, with plenty of allusions to the occult literature Bowie was fascinated with at the time.

Illustration 1: Bowie and Dylan, early 1980s.

The second side of the album contains the lighter fare, in the form of hat-tipping towards Bowie’s own heroes and influences. “Andy Warhol” unambiguously sets the tone, with an hilarious bit of studio banter left on for good measure. “It’s War-hole, actually”, Bowie dryly corrects his engineer’s pronunciation, thereby inspiring generations of drunken students to perfect their Bowie impressions. From Warhol to another 1960’s icon: “Song For Dylan” addresses Robert Zimmerman, informing him of a “strange young man named Dylan” in a loose impersonation of Dylan’s typical nasal rasp. The last of this trio concerns Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Superficially, one might think “Queen Bitch”’s stomp is a throwback to the hard rock style Bowie first tried on 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World, but in fact it lifts the veil slightly of his next incarnation as a glam rock superstar. The track would not sound out of place on Ziggy Stardust, and neither would “Bombers”, a track from these sessions that did not make the final album. In the following year, Bowie would fulfil his tribute to Lou Reed by producing one of the latter’s most successful albums to date: 1972’s Transformer. New York’s finest would shine in his new glam rock persona, although he would try to distance himself from Bowie in the years following their collaboration. “The Bewlay Brothers” closes the album in a wave of existential pondering.

Illustration 2: Warhol and Reed, Mid 1970s

Hunky Dory marks an artistic peak, some time before Bowie would break through to mainstream audiences with his glitter suits, red mullets and space alien bisexuality. In a way, it is a mature album that would normally be found much later in a recording artist’s career. Bowie would go from strength to strength throughout the seventies, taking on different personas and adopting various styles of music. Only in 1980 would he make another well-rounded, reflective album with Scary Monsters.