David Bowie’s first ready-made classic finds the supreme shape-shifter eagerly anticipating the raunchy camp swagger of the impending Ziggy Stardust phenomenon. Released on this day in 1971.
The transitional Hunky Dory was recorded at Soho’s Trident Studios in London with a newly assembled backing band consisting of Mick Ronson (guitar), Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums), as the yet unnamed Spiders From Mars, and embellished by future Yes keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman. To celebrate the occasion, The Press is ranking the songs from one of Bowie’s greatest and most enduring albums.
The grand concept of the orange-haired leper messiah who played guitar left-handed on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), would be the logical follow-up to the grinding proto-metal melodrama of The Man Who Sold the World (1971), instead Bowie delivered the eclectic, piano-based balladry of this, his first album for RCA, and the first to attract significant critical plaudits; although it didn’t chart until September 1972 when re-released post-Ziggymania; all said and done it’s perhaps Bowie’s definitive album.
Written and rehearsed at Bowie’s Beckenham pad, the crumbling Victorian residence Haddon Hall, produced by Ken Scott (Ziggy, Aladdin, Pin Ups) and assisted by “the actor”, it’s here on this diverse collection where Bowie’s explosive charisma and lithe vocals unite, leaping wildly from songs for old friends, love, and a love of mysticism and rock ‘n roll: from convincing Nietzschean fixations, the chameleon pop anthem, doffing a bippity-boppity hat on an ode to the VU (White Light returned with thanks), name-checking his New York heroes Warhol and Dylan, a song for his newborn son Zowie based on Neil Young’s Till the Morning Comes, to the epic, if opaque, ghostly ballad The Bewley Brothers, a sumptuous masterpiece (inspired by Frankie) and five tracks adorned with Mick Ronson’s elegant string arrangements.
Wake up you sleepy head
Put on some clothes, shake up your bed
Put another log on the fire for me
I’ve made some breakfast and coffee
I look out my window what do I see
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me
11. Eight Line Poem
Resolving nicely from Oh! You Pretty Things, Bowie credits himself on “the less complicated piano parts (inability)” on this slight, impressionistic country-blues interlude featuring some tasteful guitar soloing from Mick Ronson. A beautiful live version appears on the Bowie at the Beeb four-LP collection released in 2006. “Tactful cactus / By the window“.
10. Fill Your Heart
A jaunty Biff Rose cover not far removed from the original, featuring Rick Wakeman’s flighty and flippant piano prowess. Bowie tips his hat to the prolific American R&B session guitarist and arranger Art Wright on the rear album-sleeve notes, “Mick and I agree that the ‘Fill Your Heart’ arrangement owes one hell of a lot to Arthur G. Wright and his prototype“.
Cheery music hall pastiche number written to herald the birth of his son Zowie (for small z), Kooks is a touching and at times amusing little song about parenthood, “Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads / ‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.” Features a lovely Trevor Bolder trumpet cameo, and of course Wakeman’s piano.
“Now hear this Robert Zimmerman / I wrote a song for you / ‘Bout a strange young man called Dylan / With a voice like sand and glue“, directly referencing Dylan’s own ‘Song for Woody’ from his 1961 debut, “Hey, hey Woody Guthrie / I wrote you a song /
Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along“. One of the many cheeky tributes on the album, Ronson’s the star here and his perfect guitar tone.
7. Andy Warhol
An ironic tribute to New York’s finest artist when most of Britain had never heard of him, Bowie played it for Andy and unsurprisingly he wasn’t impressed, “He’ll think about paint, and he’ll think about glue / What a jolly boring thing to do.” This is a driving strum-along with David and Mick at their best on thunderous acoustics; it sits on side two, the ‘American tribute’ side of Hunky Dory.
Bowie, aware insanity ran in his family, worried that he too was going mad. Have a look at Stardust – it’s not that bad, at least I enjoyed it. He revisits this theme raised on ‘All the Madmen’ from his previous album, and there is method to the quite literal madness in the scary-spikey imagery he’s throwing around on this powerful album closer.
“I’m closer to the golden dawn / Immersed in Crowley’s uniform of imagery”. What an introduction to this open account of a man struggling to make sense of his own life and art, searching for a meaningful philosophy, adrift in the esoteric end of pop culture in 1971. “I’m sinking in the Quicksand of my thoughts / And I ain’t got the power anymore“. Whatever it’s about, it has an exquisite melody, and a stunning multi-tracked Ronson acoustic guitar.
More than a Velvet Underground pastiche, it’s a great little rocker, unrepresentative of the album, but points the way ahead to the glam trailblazer Ziggy Stardust. The guitars are slashing like chainsaws over Lou Reed-inspired wordplay. The Spiders really rock and this track squawks like a bitch monkey bird.
The magical glam stomp of Oh! You Pretty Things is a supremely self-confident lesson in songcraft and flamboyant arrangement, not to mention some of the cleanest singing and piano playing in Bowie’s career. Originally written, and a hit, for Peter Noone in July 1971 before it was re-recorded for Hunky Dory. Highlights include the Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture medley with Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud and All the Young Dudes, and also Bowie at the piano on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972.
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, track one, side one, is one of Bowie’s most enduring and signature tunes, and something of a macro-manifesto of his pending superstardom: “Look out you rock ‘n rollers“. Bowie kept one step in front of the competition at all times, and on Changes he is effortlessly displaying his ability as a master tunesmith and sophisticated arranger, streets ahead of his rivals. Recorded a mere six months after The Man Who Sold the Word wrapped, the track features some cool Bowie sax and piano, and one of the greatest, catchiest, double-tracked vocal choruses of all time. “Time may change me / But I can’t trace time.“
Sitting among Bowie finest work, the story goes he wrote this out of revenge or frustration for being passed over for writing My Way, but it’s much better than My Way. A specific tale of a sensitive young, mousy, girl finding escape in the cinema, it was reportedly written on the steps of Free Festival bandstand in Beckenham. Eventually released as a single in June 1973 at the height of Ziggy-mania, it was accompanied by an eye-popping video, and reached number 3 in the UK. Bowie later performed this on the Carson Show in 1980, another breathtaking performance well worth watching.
Bowie’s “selfie” in 1971, obviously proud of his second ever hit.
Jamming with Mick Ronson (on bass) and Mick Woodmansy.