As David Bowie releases a storming new album and celebrates his 69th birthday we look back at an lp many regard as one of his finest.
With the benefit of hindsight 1971 can be seen as a make-or-break year for the young Bowie. Still only 24, he was already something of a music business veteran having released his first tentative singles in 1964-65 and his first, now largely forgotten, long-player in 1967. In those years Bowie was an artist struggling to find a voice of his own despite his undeniable talent. Comparisons with the singer and entertainer Anthony Newley are sometimes slightly over-egged but are not far from the mark, and his oft-derided 1967 single ‘The Laughing Gnome’ sees Bowie eschewing any vague notion of rock and roll for something more akin to a family entertainer, a direction his early management were eager for him to go.
With the release of ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 that all changed. Not only was it his first major (Tom) hit it marked for many the beginning of his career proper. His second album, containing ‘Space Oddity’, was a folky affair which listened to now seems like the incomplete vison it was. His third album The Man Who Sold The World saw him embrace rock music wholeheartedly and is the first to feature guitarist Mick Ronson who would become his faithful sidekick for the next few years. It is though the sound of a man passing through, a record which has many strengths but still feels like one of growth – a very good warm-up but not yet the finished article. It was with his next full-length release that he would finally find the maturity he had been grasping for.
Hunky Dory is the first David Bowie songbook, a fully realised work with a sense of unity and cohesion. Opening track ‘Changes’ can be seen as a statement of intent for his future career as well as being an acknowledgement of the growth he had already gone through (“a million dead-end streets, and every time I thought I’d got it made it seemed the taste was not so sweet”) whilst ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ both thematically and musically feels like as strong a representation of the glam-period Bowie as anything else from that time, it’s chorus serving as a luminescent clarion call to the misfit youths who would soon embrace him as their own.
Elsewhere tracks such as ‘Andy Warhol’ and ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ pay homage to his influences, as does the Velvet Underground inspired rocker ‘Queen Bitch’ albeit in a less direct way. ‘Kooks’ is an affecting and slightly twee ode to his newborn son Duncan (who at the time was given the moniker Zowie) whilst the ballad ‘Quicksand’ with it’s clever chord changes and namechecking of Aleister Crowley, Winston Churchill, and Heinrich Himmler was one of his most accomplished songs at that point.
If the album has a focal point though it is undoubtedly ‘Life On Mars’, a bold, enigmatic, sweeping song which could have come from no other songwriter in the world and is still now ranked among his finest. Featuring Rick Wakeman on piano and a searing string arrangement from Ronson this is Bowie the songwriter flowering, surging upwards towards the sun with supreme confidence. It’s a song which one must imagine he knew was a bit special when he composed it and one which lends Hunky Dory an air of authority and assurance.
On it’s release the album sold well but not spectacularly so, and world megastardom would be achieved on his next when he assumed his Ziggy Stardust alter-ego after which Hunky Dory would finally get the recognition it deserved. Bowie afficionados rightly hail this as one of his finest works, and some 44 years after it’s release it sounds as good as it ever has. Most artists would consider a record like this to be a lofty achievement which they would forever struggle to better. That Bowie didn’t and would go on to to outsrip himself and pretty much everyone else in the years to come and is still around now pushing himself ever-forward says it all.