by Anna Wilson / Clash
16th December 2011
Between the chiseled Nietzschean prog rock of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and the brash, sexually ambiguous glam of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ nestles ‘Hunky Dory’, Bowie’s fourth studio album. An artful anachronism in his prolific ’70s canon, ostensibly it’s one of his most ‘straightforward’ albums. Its sheer stateliness and scope rendering it anything but of course. With hindsight it appears a thinly veiled statement of intent, introducing us to almost all the themes that were to recur throughout his career. Even the sleeve, which has him posed as a modern day Dietrich, ushered in the affectation of the moniker ‘actor’ for the first time.
Recorded at Trident Studio’s under producer Ken Scott, it was his first release on RCA and marked the beginning of his relationship with musicians who would become the Spiders From Mars, with the addition of a virtuoso Rick Wakeman on piano.
It opens with the still enduring ‘Changes’, a song which perfectly encapsulates the chameleon-like tendencies that were to go on and dominate his career, visually, sexually and intellectually. He’s one step ahead of the crowd and for the first time he vocalises it. That we slam straight into ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ without missing a beat illustrates the point with some vigor. Not only is he suggesting a youthful rebellion, he’s suggesting it’s done with the help of extra terrestrial life forms.
There’s barely time to catch breath before ‘Life On Mars?’, a bravura melodrama of teenage inertia and disappointment, showcasing Bowie’s immense vocal and a sublime string arrangement from Mick Ronson, over Wakeman’s cascading piano. The famous side story, were it required, being that Paul Anka bought the original rights and re-wrote it as ‘My Way’.
Scott brings some of his multi-tracked Abbey Road magic into play on ‘Quicksand’, a striking, mournful ballad that references both mysticism and fascism; other recurring themes. A spoken introduction to ‘Andy Warhol’ has Bowie correcting the pronunciation of his favourite artists name, only to burst into a boisterous gypsy guitar refrain mid laughter. Warhol reputedly thought its view of him disparaging; contrary to Bowie’s intention. A scuzzy, sleazy tribute to The Velvet Underground, ‘Queen Bitch’, all glossy garage and rock ‘n’ roll riffs is our first larger-than-life whiff of the embryonic Ziggy. Its spunky irreverence appears to reference transvestite culture in New York but equally the gender bending image that Bowie himself had already begun cultivating.
The strange, muted closer, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ is one of Bowie’s most poignant and purposefully vague songs lyrically. It’s dense and unfathomable yet hugely affecting. Bowie’s explanations have varied over the years as to its meaning but has admitted there are “layers of ghosts” in there. There’s been speculation that it’s about his schizophrenic half-brother Terry, a homosexual relationship perhaps, or Bowie’s own splintered personality; possibly an amalgam of all. And of course there are other songs, ‘Eight Line Poem’, ‘Kooks’, ‘Fill Your Heart’, ‘Song For Bob Dylan’; good songs admittedly, just dwarfed by their neighbourly greats.
Bursting with bawdy vaudevillian cabaret, spare, sombre balladry and prototypes of glams incendiary androgyny, it serves as both an insight into his influences and the path he was about to tread. It’s his first wholly great album and some would say never bettered. A star(man) is born.