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
Changes - starting with this now-iconic number, guest pianist Rick Wakeman leads things off, augmented by Bowie's slightly tongue-in-cheek lyrics and an absolute killer hook of a chorus. All the dense, heavy intensity of the previous album was thrown off as Bowie developed an appealing light, airy pop sensibility. Lyrically, it deals with some quite philosophical themes about "turning to face the strange" amidst "impermanence" and berating of the previous generation in "where's your shame you've left us up to our necks in it..". So what's new - the same accusation is made by every generation. Of course, the song's title has proved to be an apt one to apply to Bowie himself when talking of his constantly re-invented image over the years.
Surprisingly, it was a complete flop as a single yet subsequently is a song that everyone knows and is an obvious choice in any "best of Bowie" lists.
The piano and pop feel is continued on 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"!. Noone took it to number 12 in the charts. It is a lively, singalong song that hides a dark set of quasi-philosophical lyrics. This was not really obvious on Noone's poppy version of it and only slightly more on Bowie's version. The generation gap thing from "Changes" is also expressed on this song too - "you're driving your mommas and poppas insane..."
"You gotta make way for the homo superior..." was a giggle-worthy line for me and many of my early secondary school friends.
Eight Line Poem was an oddly addictive short track that has Bowie almost narrating the poem's (surprising) nine lines over a sparse guitar and piano backing. My favourite line was always "Clara puts her head between her paws..". The lines are all rather perplexing, however, their meaning unclear. It actually doesn't really matter as their different images link together well anyway.
Life On Mars?
The 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. Quite what it is about has been the subject of analysis ever since its release - who was "the girl with the mousy hair"? Or the "sailors fighting in the dancehall"?
As well as the lyrics the song has some beautiful, dramatic piano on it and a real sense of melodrama. I love the way the song rises and falls between its cacophonous chorus and the gentle build up of its superbly expressive verses.
Regarding the sound, on the latest 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.
Kooks - I have never been a fan of this jaunty, whimsical ditty . Others love it but I have always found it rather twee, preferring to hurry up and get to the next track. It is rescued slightly by its jolly brass backing and its appealing line about throwing the homework on the fire if it brings you down. I remember thinking at the time - "if only I had parents who took that attitude". Bowie wrote it for his newly-born son, Duncan (called Zowie at the time).
I have to say, also, that the remastered Kooks does sound great too with a lovely rich bass underpinning it. Great strings and crystal clear trumpet and acoustic guitar. Bassist Trevor Bolder displays considerable proficiency on the trumpet too.
Quicksand was 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. It is this album's Cygnet Committee with its multiple images and surrealism. Bowie references Winston Churchill, Heinrich Himmler, Aleister Crowley and Greta Garbo. It is another un-analysable song, notable for simply its myriad of wordscapes. It is a little-mentioned Bowie classic, highlighting a really developing poetic songwriting talent.
It is the sort of song that is put into "best of" lists by the Bowie cognoscenti, as opposed to the "greatest hits" crowd. A song for the truly discerning Bowiephile. It is an odd thing about Hunky Dory, though, that a beguiling, mysterious song like this and an image-packed classic like Life On Mars? bookend a lighthearted piece of fluff like Kooks. For many, that is the album's appeal, but for me it is its weakness.
I feel somewhat similarly about the cover of Biff Rose's (who was he?) Fill Your Heart as I do about Kooks. It is a piece of breezy whimsy that has always irritated me slightly, despite its obvious singalong melody. Bowie contributes a nice saxophone and it is pleasant enough, but has too much post-hippy airiness about it for me. Apparently Rose didn't like Bowie's arrangement of his song at all.
Andy Warhol has never really 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 though - wow. Sharp as a knife. Warhol himself didn't like the song, however, and found it embarrassing. He and Bowie didn't really get on in the way they are presumed to have done, it is said.
Song For Bob Dylan - the quality ups again, for me from here on - the last three tracks on the album really do it, however. I have always loved the folk rock-y tribute to Robert Zimmerman. It has some excellent guitar on it, wry lyrics and a comparatively raspy delivery from Bowie. It is a Bowie track that receives little or no mention when his output is discussed. Granted it is pretty different to most of the material on this album and wouldn't fit on any of the other albums either. It sort of stands on its own, but, personally, I like it.
Queen Bitch was by far the album's rockiest track, indeed its only rocky track, this Velvet Underground "tribute" is by far my favourite on the album as acoustic and electric guitars marry to total perfection, something that would be continued on both Starman and Ziggy Stardust.
This is three minutes of proto-Ziggy Bowie Heaven. The semi-spoken Lou Reed-esque vocal is a clear attempt to imitate the American, you have to say, and the lyrics are all very Greenwich Village/New York sub-culture - "I'm up on the eleventh floor and I'm watching the cruisers below..." However, much of it was also very camp British as well - "she's so swishy in her satin and tat..." and the line "bipperty-bopperty hat" was so very Marc Bolan. Indeed, the song merges Bolan's pop/rock vitality with Lou Reed's streetwise edginess, providing a signpost to the rockier, glammy material of the Ziggy/Aladdin Sane era. Mick Ronson's guitar is outstanding on here as well, he was really coming into his own as Bowie's vital sidekick. His riffs on the song are very Sweet Jane. There is also a good performance of it from The Old Grey Whistle Test with Bowie and Ronson very much in "Ziggy" mode (see below). The jump suit he is wearing is very similar to that worn on the cover of "Ziggy", if indeed it is not the very suit, although Bowie's hair is still mousy, not yet orange. Mick Ronson has already got his gold lamé jump suit though.
The Bewlay Brothers - then there is the tour de force that is this mighty creation. The majesty of Quicksand is bettered here, unbelievably. It has a 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, as Bowie says in the song. Oh ok, I can't resist quoting "chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature...".
The final, odd chanted vocal part at the end - "please come away, hey..." is a totally incongruous addition to the song, but is disturbingly haunting, meaning that this most bright and breezy of Bowie's albums ended on a sonorous, sombre, disconcerting note.
Bowie says he had no lasting memory of recording the song and was unable to enlighten as to what it was about. It was, surely, deliberately obscure, or simply just the product of some powerful drugs. What is certain is that it is up there as one of Bowie's finest compositions. Incidentally, Bewlay Bros were a chain of tobacconists in London at the time.
There are also a couple of tracks recorded for this album that didn't make the cut:-
Lightning Frightening is a quirky outtake from 1971 which features Herbie Flowers on bass and Bowie on saxophone. It is an odd slice of hippy-ish blues with some strange lyrics saying "I'll give you back my farmland, I'll give you back my house..." in some sort of bucolic protest. It features some appealing bluesy harmonica and lively saxophone that make it quite a catchy number. I can't imagine it fitting either Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust however.
The song fades in at the beginning, giving it a real "demo" feel, despite subsequent good sound quality. A guitarist called Mark Pritchard contributes a convincing solo near the end. The song is said to seriously resemble Crazy Horse's Dirty, Dirty, which was released in the same year and listening to them both one after the other, you can definitely hear the similarities, more in the music than the vocal. Bowie was going through a Neil Young phase in 1971 so it is probably no coincidence.
Bombers was a song from the Hunky Dory sessions that is full of lyrics about nuclear bombs, sirens and wastelands and the like. It has a liveliness and a post-apocalyptic lyric that suited Ziggy Stardust, musically, but its vocal is hauntingly plaintive, in that typically sixties Bowie style. There was plenty of that vaudeville, music-hall hamminess that Bowie had ditched by the time Ziggy was recorded.
The track was apparently going to open "side two" of Hunky Dory instead of Fill Your Heart. In many ways, I would have preferred it, but there is something of the sixties whimsicality to it that irritates me a little, so maybe not.
Another interesting song from the Hunky Dory sessions is:-
Shadow Man - this plaintive ballad was originally recorded in the Hunky Dory sessions but the original recording was never released. It was re-recorded in 2000 for the abortive Toy sessions, given a torch song-style piano and deep strings backing. The song, lyrically, is very much in the Bowie of 1968 vein and it is hard to see it fitting in on Hunky Dory.
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