Saturday, 28 June 2008

Top 100 Albums - #34: Hunky Dory (1971)

David Bowie's highest entry on the chart is Hunky Dory, the album which preceded his commercial breakthrough.
After recording a number of forgotten singles under the pseudonym Davy Jones, Bowie signed to Deram Records and released a self-titled album in the autumn of 1967. The album synthesised contemporary psychedelia with his love for music hall, and sold poorly, as did his cult-novelty single, 'The Laughing Gnome'. Bowie spent 1968 writing songs for established artists of the day, only resurfacing (so to speak) with the release of 'Space Oddity'. Recorded and released to coincide with the Moon landing, it became a UK Top 5 hit and made Bowie an overnight success. The resulting album, Space Oddity (1969), took on a much more psychedelic twist, to the extent that commentators saw it (and the single) as an allegory for taking drugs, and Tony Visconti dropped out of producing it. The more rock-heavy The Man Who Sold The World (1970), which followed shortly afterwards, showed the first hints of androgyny emerging in Bowie's image.

We begin with a well-known classic. 'Changes' manages to be whimsical, eccentrically English and a pop song all at the same time. The minute you first hear that eight-note riff on the piano (at 0:12), a series of happy tingles run up your spine. With the intro over, Bowie is free to play around with his words, throwing away amazing lines like So I turned myself to face me in the first verse. But despite this rushed style - and the lyrics tripping over the ends of lines, à la Paul Simon - this is amazingly catchy. The chorus with its Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes takes off The Who's 'My Generation' as Bowie sets out the manifesto for his chameleonic personality, the true magnitude of which was only just becoming clear.

We then go from strength to strength as we move on to 'Oh! You Pretty Things'. The piano remains, and once again we are given a treat with the riff. The lyrics are bizarre, but for all their surrealism and obscure references, they all seem to make sense. Like 'Drive-In Saturday' from Aladdin Sane (1973, #56), they pick up on the theme of a bleak future, where on this occassion the youth have allied with aliens to take over the world. But like 'Drive-In Saturday', you have no real need to understand all these undertones or plot points in order to either enjoy the song or find something meaningful in it. And while the piano dominates the mix, the drums of Woody Woodmansey are perfectly timed and unobtrusive, allowing Bowie to roam freely in his own little world, to the utter delight of everyone listening.

Sadly, however, the run of good luck soon ends. We interpolate straight into 'Eight Line Poem', intended as a sequel of sorts to 'Oh! You Pretty Things'. But this is completely different in feel. With its countryish guitar and more washed-out piano, it has a more American feel. That serves to completely spoil the mood of the album, which so far had immersed itself in late-1960s folk and psychedelia. And even when you lay the lyrics out in front of you, you still have no idea what they mean.

If you can weather this let-down, you will come to one of Bowie's most famous creations. 'Life On Mars?' features Rick Wakeman on keyboards and came indirectly from Bowie's work as a commissioned songwriter. In late 1968 he wrote 'Even A Fool Learns To Love', placing his lyrics over a French song 'Comme d'Habitude'. A year later, in 1969, the same French song had been re-written as 'My Way' for Frank Sinatra; 'Life On Mars?' is Bowie's parody of the Sinatra hit. But although it is underscored by a feeling of bitterness for missing out on that level of success, the overall mood of the piece is one of surreal grandiosity. It was later described by BBC Radio 2 as "a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dalì painting"¹, and that's not far off. Either way, it's a brilliant song.

'Kooks' is a lot easier on the palate, if Northern accents are your sort of thing. Or French horns, for that matter. Bowie wrote this song for his then-newborn son Duncan Jones (also known as Zowie Bowie). The piano is straight out of music hall and Bowie seems completely relaxed, almost jubilant. The lyrics speak of his growing acceptance of his zany nature; an indicative example is the opening lines of the second verse: And if you ever have to go to school/ Remember how they messed up this old fool. This is very repetitive, but in a hooky, catchy way rather than an irritating one.

While 'Kooks' was droll, laid-back and comforting, 'Quicksand' is full of brooding and wailing. It's Bowie at his most impenetrable yet, with references to Greta Garbo and Friedrich Nietzsche which often don't make sense. But while this is heady and bleak, on the plus side it features some very well-executed string arrangements, the work of guitarist Mick Ronson. These seemingly indistinguishable background features come into their own in the second half of the track and it all appears a little clearer.

Of all the songs on the album, 'Fill Your Heart' is most typical of the mood Bowie tried to create. Which is ironic, considering he didn't write it, and tragic, considering it's rubbish. Crossing flaired-trouser folk with jaunty music-hall piano, this is a cover of a b-side by US novelty act Tiny Tim. But as with 'Life On Mars?', this song has gone through many motions before Bowie got his hands on it, and the result is nearly a complete mess. Bowie shrieks the closing lines of each verse in an effort to sound new and interesting, but in truth this song, like so much rubbish from the 1960s, is cheap, rigid and completely forgetable.

It is good to know, then, that Bowie has chosen his influences more wisely with 'Andy Warhol' and 'Song For Bob Dylan'. The former fades in from the end of 'Fill Your Heart'. For the first 50 seconds or so, we are treated to reverberating saxophones, studio chatter and distant laughter. From then on in, the guitars becomes flamenco and Bowie goes all tongue in cheek about one of his greatest idols. Warhol reportedly disliked the song because it made fun of his physical appearance², but when you actually listen, it comes across a whole lot more endearing, and has a great chorus. 'Song For Bob Dylan' is slightly more serious and respectful about the man with a voice like sand and glue. The guitars are more sneering and snarling than on the previous tracks, and the drums are back with a vengeance, cleverly pandering to Dylan's late-1960s work with The Band and his classic album Nashville Skyline (1969).

The penultimate track is a real belter. 'Queen Bitch' begins with one of the best double-tracked guitar riffs in rock music; it begins on Bowie's acoustic, and then a few seconds later Ronson's Fender barges in on top of it and kicks up the whole piece. Everything about this tribute to The Velvet Underground feels miles, miles better than anything before it; even 'Oh! You Pretty Things' struggles to match it. Trevor Boulder's melodic bass line ripples through the mix beneath the guitars, titillating you throughout, while Woodmansey returns to his best, dynamic yet restrained. At 3:19 this isn't the shortest song on the album, but it has the punchy nature of a motown jive. It's the best track on the album by far, and a cut above anything he created as Ziggy Stardust.

How disappointing it is, then, that we finish on a real bum note. By Bowie's own admission, 'The Bewlay Brothers' was only written to confuse Americans.³ Its garbled, twisted lyrics are specifically designed to have no meaning whatsoever. As a result, once the obvious irony has worn off - which it will very quickly - there is no point to this track. Commentators have read into this being about Bowie's schizophrenic half-brother, or pedalling a homosexual agenda, but you will come away from this feeling that they have wasted their time.

The best Bowie albums are always unpredictable; they change intention and direction when you least expect it, so that you end up with a collection of very different songs, often at the cost of overall consistency. On these grounds, Hunky Dory fits the bill as a great Bowie album. Not all the songs on here are brilliant - some in fact are quite below-par - but each is so charmingly different from the next that there is something for everyone. But unlike a lot of Bowie's albums, here the eclecticism and variety actually serves as a cement to hold it all together. Whereas subsequent albums took a certain style and pulled it in many different directions - as on Young Americans (1975, #73) - on Hunky Dory there are many strange and wonderful genres at work, all blending together to produce something wonderful. This is Bowie's best album without a shadow of doubt, capturing him on the brink of superstardom. It is a fitting testament to his abilities and it remains his most endearing work.

3.91 out of 5

¹ BBC Radio 2, 'Sold On Song - Top 100 - Life On Mars', Accessed on July 18 2008.
² Jon Howell, 'David Bowie FAQ: Hunky Dory (1971)', Accessed on July 19 2008.
³ David Buckley. Strange Fascination - David Bowie: The Definitive Story (London: Virgin Books, 1999) pp.114-115 - cited in 'The Bewlay Brothers', Accessed on July 19 2008.

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