She's so swishy in her satin and tat....
Released on 17 December 1971
Recorded at Trident Studios, London
Running time 41:44
Personally, I got into "Hunky Dory" in the early summer of 1973, after having bought "Ziggy Stardust" and "Aladdin Sane" previously. At fourteen, I was now retrospectively starting to explore Bowie's music. After the "heavy" vibe of 1970's comparatively unsuccessful "The Man Who Sold The World", David Bowie returned to his often-favoured acoustic poppy approach used in his early sixties recordings for 1971's breakthrough "Hunky Dory" album. This time, however, he married folky acoustic sounds with a streetwise rock edge, provided mainly by Mick Ronson's searing lead guitar.
Bowie described himself on the rear cover as "the actor" (produced by Ken Scott, "assisted by the actor"), and this gives a hint as to the theatrical, bohemian approach this deceptively light album would take. It is full of poetry, kitsch, mannerisms, indistinct sexuality and a few tributes to Bowie's musical/cultural influences in The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol.
Bowie said of the album in an interview with "Uncut"'s Chris Roberts in 1999 -
“….Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, 'Good album, good songs.' That hadn't happened to me before. It was like, 'Ah, I'm getting it, I'm finding my feet. I'm starting to communicate what I want to do. Now - what is it I want to do?' There was always a double whammy there….”
What happened subsequently was really quite a change from this album, particularly in the stylistic creation of "Ziggy Stardust"
2. Oh! You Pretty Things
3. Eight Line Poem
4. Life On Mars?
7. Fill Your Heart
8. Andy Warhol
9. Song For Bob Dylan
10. Queen Bitch
11. The Bewlay Brothers
Starting with the now-iconic "Changes", guest pianist Rick Wakeman leads things off, augmented by Bowie's tongue-in-cheek lyrics and an absolute killer hook of a chorus. The piano and pop feel is continued into "Oh! You Pretty Things" (covered, strangely, as a single by Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits fame). I remember at the time, when I first heard the track thinking "oh that's that Peter Noone song"!. The oddly addictive "Eight Line Poem" leads into one of the album's cornerstones, the magnificent, truly iconic, fully orchestrated "Life On Mars", quoted by many these days in everyday conversations. "See the mice in their million hordes, from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads". Bizarre lyrical imagery doesn't get much better. On this remaster, the contrast between the bass (which is strong) and the piano and orchestra is just right. Not too bassy not too trebly. Just what it needs. There is so much in there, mastering it correctly is one hell of a task. This is the best so far. Even now, that one piano note at the outset sends shivers up the spine.
I have never been a fan of the jaunty, whimsical "Kooks". Others love it but I have always found it rather twee, preferring to hurry up and get to "Quicksand", a brooding, poetic masterpiece chock full of the said weird images. Quiet, acoustic guitar and subtle organ and Bowie's plaintive lyrics about "dream reality" and "Garbo's eyes". Check out the acoustic guitar chops - so clear, so sharp. The remastered "Kooks" does sound great though too. Lovely rich bass underpinning it. Great strings and crystal clear horns and acoustic guitar.
I feel somewhat similarly about the cover of "Fill Your Heart" as I do about "Kooks", and "Andy Warhol" has never been my can of beans either, despite us all quoting "it's "hol" as in "hols"" in the school corridors ad nauseum. That acoustic intro to "Warhol" though. Wow. Sharp as a knife.
The last three tracks really do it, however. I have always loved the folk rock-y "Song For Bob Dylan" and the Velvet Underground "tribute" "Queen Bitch" is by far my favourite as acoustic and electric guitars marry to total perfection. Three minutes of Bowie Heaven.
Then there is the tour de force that is "The Bewlay Brothers". The majesty of "Quicksand" is bettered here, unbelievably. Marvellous nonsensical stream of consciousness lyrics. A sadness behind it all and a heartbreaking melody. One of Bowie's most moving compositions. Images of his half-brother abound. If I start quoting the lyrics I will be here all day. There are so many worthy candidates. Unbelievable.
Regarding the various remasters around - the EMI/RYKO has the bonus tracks, "Lightning Frightening" and "Bombers" but it has a lo-fi, muffled sound, in my opinion
The 1999 remaster is clear, sharp and loud, as "Hunky Dory" should be, probably the equal of the 2015, maybe even a little fuller. This has always been my favourite of the 1999 remasters.The 2015 is probably the most nuanced, rounded remaster. The slightly harsh edges of the 1999 master have given way to a slighter quieter, subtler remaster. "Hunky" will always be a somewhat trebly album, due to the piano, acoustic guitar, horns and strings but this manages to bring the bass further up in the mix a little and highlights the bassier part of the orchestration, cello etc. I find when listening to it that my enjoyment of my lesser-favoured tracks like "Kooks" and "Fill Your Heart" is heightened. Bits are emphasised that I hadn't really realised were there to make a more fulfilling experience.
So, overall, it is probably the 2015 remaster for me.
Photograph by Brian Ward