Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Bowie Week - Hunky Dory (1971)

A year had passed since the recording of "The Man Who Sold The World," and yet when Bowie began recording studio album number four in April 1971 I doubt any of those who had bought its predecessor would have guessed how "Hunky Dory" would sound. There's a strong influence of Scott Walker on the lyrics throughout and for me this is the only Bowie album that you could apply the old DJ description of "all killer no filler" to.

From the opening piano bars of "Changes" through to the closing, speeded up, manic voices on "The Bewlay Brothers," there wasn't one track among the eleven that had you crossing the room to lift the arm on the record player and move things on. This was the album that changed Bowie forever, the wannabe pop singer of the 1960's have been filtered through the wannabe blues musician of the previous album and had produced a fully fledged rock star who had recorded an album that took on almost every musical genre a white boy could. Bowie himself would, with Young Americans, record his take on white men singing soul, but we didn't know that back in 1971.

The second track, "Oh! You Pretty Things," had, rather bizarrely, been a hit for Peter Noone, with Bowie on piano, a full seven months before the songwriters version saw the light of day. Is the track is Bowie's paen to the 'hip young things' of the time or is it about the impending doom of man as a speices? It opens with Rick Wakeman's piano before Bowie speaks rather than sings the first verse,

"Wake up you sleepy head put on some clothes, get out of bed
Put another log on the fire for me
I've made some breakfast and coffee."

     Bowie on piano on Whistle Test

The wonderful, "Eight Line Poem," is up next. I went to school with somebody who tried to pass this of as his own for the mock O Level in English. Following Ronson's guitar introduction Bowie doesn't so much sing as perform a sort of walking quickly version of speaking the poem over Wakeman's piano, before Ronson closes proceedings sounding ever so slightly like Keith Richard.

"Tactful cactus by your window
Surveys the prairie of your room
Mobile spins to its collision
Clara puts her head between her paws

They've opened shops down west side
Will all the cacti find a home
But the key to the city
Is in the sun that pins the branches to the sky"

Track Four in Side One is probably the most well known song on the album for non-Bowie fans, "Life on Mars?"  The track features Rick Wakeman on piano and a timeless string arrangement by Mick Ronson. Although the album was released in December 1971, "Life on Mars?" wasn't released as a single until June 1973 (with "The Man Who Sold The World" as its b-side). We used to have great fun with this track at school discos, simply because on the fade out if you turn the volume up to 11 you can hear the telephone in the studio ringing - cue distracting the teacher spinning the school disco platters, increasing the volume and waiting for the next track!

Side One close with two of Bowie's best loved 'early period' songs, "Kooks" and "Quicksand". The two tracks seem to demonstrate perfectly the quote by Stephen Erlewine on the AllMusic site who said that the album "is a kaleidoscopic array of pop styles, tied together only by Bowie's sense of vision: a sweeping, cinematic mélange of high and low art, ambiguous sexuality, kitsch, and class". "Kooks" is Bowie at his most knockabout and sing-a-long, it contains one of my favourite Bowie verses:

"And if you ever have to go to school
Remember how they messed up
This old fool
Don't pick fights with the bullies
Or the cads
'Cause I'm not much cop at punching other people's Dads
And if the homework brings you down
Then we'll throw it on the fire
And take the car downtown"

That's the sort of attitude!

"Quicksand" is one of those songs that went way over the head of the eleven year old who played this album to death. I had no concept of occultism, Nietsche or Aleister Crowley (at this point in my life I hadn't yet become aware of the 'black arts'), to me now it sounds a rich, string and piano filled five minutes of introspection and is the perfect track to close side one of the vinyl album. The line, "Knowledge comes with deaths release," sung over Rick Wakeman's piano and Ken Scott's string arrangement is simply beautiful.

Side Two opens with "Fill Your Heart," which wasn't actually written by Bowie but by Paul 'Biff' Rose and Paul Williams - the song was actually written for that rock legend Tiny Tim as the b-side for "Tiptoe through the tulips". Paul Williams also wrote, "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "We've Only Just Begun," for The Carpenters, so he had a pedigree when it came to  writing decent songs for other people.

"Andy Warhol," begins with Bowie explaining to producer Ken Scott how to say the artists name, given the manner of Bowie's explanation it makes you wonder exactly how Scott had pronounced the surname! Warhol famously thought the lyrics were a piss take about his appearance, Bowie wrote the song for Dana Gillespie who recorded it a couple of years later.  In keeping with the albums subliminal motif of a coat of many colours this track features Mick Ronson playing flamenco style guitar throughout.

"Song For Bob Dylan" is exactly what it says on the label, a song about the man who had a voice "like sand and glue." Incidentally it can't be only me who thinks the opening of the song is uncannily like "I Shot The Sheriff" even though Bob Marley was still two years away from writing that song. There are also a couple of instances where you can also hear traces of "Satellite of Love" the track Bowie and Ronson produced for Lou Reed in 1973.

"Queen Bitch," is proof that lyrics can grab hold of you during your formative years and never let you go, the chorus, " She's so swishy in her satin and tat/In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat/Oh God, I could do better than that" has stayed in my subconscious and frequently pops out when I see a woman dressed in a certain style. The choppy style of Mick Ronson's playing on this track would serve as a template for all of glam rock, especially on the two Bowie albums that would follow this: "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars" and "Aladdin Sane."

The album ends with one of Bowie's most iconic tracks, "The Bewlay Brothers". It is a tour de force on an album bursting with outstanding tracks and features an ending which I still find slightly sinister and disturbing, not least because the playing of Bowie, Ronson and Wakeman that leads up to it seems so normal!

"Hunky Dory" made it to Number 6 on the album charts during the winter of 1972, it charted due to the success of "The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars" which itself had reached number 5, in "Ziggys" wake both "Space Oddity" and "The Man Who Sold The World" acquired a new audience and made the top thirty.  The latest rock and pop phenomenon was starting to gather pace making albums that could stand alone without having to be full of singles, simply good songs.


Span Ows said...

This is really good stuff Paul. Honestly.

Paul said...

Thanks - I've always assumed you were honest, have you been lying all these years!

Span Ows said...

LOL, yes it does look lie that.

The truth is...

You'll never believe this but...

...it's the truth, that.

All phrases to make you think it is anything but!!!Honest


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