Bowie in his Garbo pose, photo by Brian Ward.
David Bowie has remained an artist who has been part of the public consciousness for over forty years, as a singer, songwriter, and actor. Most people know of Bowie. Even if they haven’t heard his iconic material from 1969-1980, at least they know of the many faces of Bowie, an intellectual pop culture chameleon, that like Miles Davis, helped to redefine rock, pop, and fashion many times over. My first exposure to Bowie was typical in the early eighties. I was in Rohnert Park Jr. High when Let’s Dance (1983) was released. Unlike the other megahit event albums of that year, namely Thriller and Synchronicity, one could sense there was something subversive about the material, even with its pop sheen, and two of the music videos, “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl,” hinted at an unease with Americanism, the album was presenting palpable variations of themes Bowie had explored on previous albums.
I forget the sequence of events, but the next releases I remember hearing were the ChangesOne, ChangesTwo compilations at some point in the eighties. Bowie was another musician whose best work was not released on CD throughout the eighties, and this wasn’t rectified until the 1990 re-masters by Ryko, and his best work rediscovered thanks to the Sound and Vision box set. I was working at a Musicland store, when a co-worker first played the then re-issued Hunky Dory, in 1991. I found the record fascinating, and it compelled my obsession with the best era of his catalogue. I picked up the cassettes issued by Ryko before graduating to CDs. I was still in college at the time, and simply didn’t have a budget to invest in the CDs, but Hunky Dory stood out as both accessible yet different, and helped to shape my creative thinking about writing accessible music framed within subversive lyrics. Bowie’s personal history is both fascinating and important in understanding, or gaining a glimpse into what drives his world view.
Bowie in another Gretta Garbo pose from 1971
Bowie was born in 1947, Brixton to Peggy Burns and Haywood Jones. Both parents had been married previously before they met, and Peggy had a son, Terry, born 1937. David’s older half-brother would have a profound impact on him. Terry, in 1956 had joined the British Royal navy, and upon his release two years later, changed. David’s ex-wife Angie has commented: “Something had happened to Terry while he was serving in the royal Air Force in Aden during one of Britian’s last colonial wars, and whatever it was, it had disturbed him profoundly.” Terry was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Around this same period, Terry introduced David to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Bowie in turn took Terry to a Cream concert in 1966, which triggered an episode, where Terry fell to his knees and began pawing the road, seeing cracks in the tarmac and flames rising up from the underworld. Bowie would later observe in 1993:
“One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. You start to approach the very thing you’re scared of…There were too many suicides [in my family] for my liking…As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and my work, I would always be throwing it off.”
Eventually Terry would kill himself at the start of 1985 after too many years of torment. Bowie would spend the better part of the sixties chasing success but not finding it. He studied art and graphic design under the tutelage of Peter Frampton’s father and got his left eye injured in a fight with friend, George Underwood; the paralysis would add to his distinct look. After getting bitten by the Rock N Roll bug, joined his first band, The Kon-Rads, and got a single released in 1964 with the King Bees, “Liza Jane.” Bowie joined other bands that went nowhere. The Mannish Boys released a single with producer Shel Talmy, then he joined The Lower Third, and released “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.” David changed his name from Jones to Bowie, as a nod to Mick Jagger’s name, as well as necessity, due to the other Jones who belonged to The Monkees, and released his first album in 1967, with theatrical material that was a cross between Jacques Brel and Anthony Newley. Bowie found his first manager during this period, Ken Pitt, whom he lived with. During this period, it’s been suggested they had a homosexual affair. It’s difficult to discount the possibility when Pitt has written of David walking around their home nude. But Pitt exposed Bowie to a number of key influences such as Oscar Wilde, illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, and the first Velvet Underground album.
Bowie’s ’67 album caught the attention of another important figure, Lindsay Kemp, whose work as an abstract mime artist as well as a dance instructor exposed Bowie to Japanese Kabuki, Jean Genet, and the Theatre of the Absurd. Bowie became Kemp’s lover and commented:
“His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen, ever. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus…Lindsay gave me lessons in exchange for writing music for them. He introduced me to a lot of extraordinary things–Artaud, Theatre of the Absurd, all that kind of thing. A lot of my attitude toward the stage, and staging, really came from Lindsay. He was my mentor.”
The George Underwood drawing from the 1969 album.
I feel it’s important to do a brief overview of the two albums prior to the release of Hunky Dory. The 1969 album, known as Man of Words, Man of Music or better known as its reissue in 1972 as Space Oddity, had shifted away from Bowie’s 1967 debut, and doused its arrangements in a dramatic folk rock or pop form. Primarily produced by Tony Visconti, the title track, “Space Oddity” which Visconti strongly opposed recording as he felt it was an opportunistic gimmick to capitalize on the impending Apollo moon landing, had been inspired after watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, the other inspiration having Bowie feeling emotionally adrift in a relationship at the time. Gus Dudgeon’s production, Paul Buckmaster’s orchestral arrangement, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s string mellotron managed to deliver an exceptional recording. But the album itself managed to deliver a strong selection of tracks under Visconti’s production. It contained dynamic and up-tempo numbers like “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” and “Janine,” the “Space Oddity” ‘B’ side, “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” which featured a dynamic Wagner-flavored orchestral arrangement by Visconti, the plaintive “Letter To Hermione,” two tracks that wouldn’t have been that out of place from the ’67 album, “An Occasional Dream” and “God Knows I’m Good”, and two tracks that seemed like an epitaph to the 60s, “Cygnet Committee” and “Memory Of A Free Festival.”
With “Cygnet Committee,” the song seemed to critique institutionalized false prophets or gurus, but also the superficial hypocrisy of the ‘hippie’ movement. With “Memory” it seemed to be resigned and nostalgic for the idealism of the “peace” movement, realizing that the ideals did, and could only last for a fleeting moment. Bowie had participated in the 60s, but he was always too much of an outsider to fully be a part of it. Bowie had naively commented in a November 1969 interview for NME:
“My songs are all from the heart, and they are wholly personal to me, and I would like people to accept them as such. I dearly want to be recognized as a writer, but I would ask them not to get too deeply into my songs. As likely as not, there’s nothing there but the words and music you hear at one listening.”
Bowie seemed to demonstrate with his comment his contradictory nature, but it would become difficult to ignore some the weighty themes that Bowie would continue to write about. Bowie tried to follow up “Space Oddity” with several potential singles. A 1970 re-working of “Memory Of A Free Festival” which featured the first appearance of Mick Ronson on guitar, and some synthesizers. “London Bye, Ta Ta” was another single attempt, as well as “The Prettiest Star” which featured Bowie’s creative rival, and friend, Marc Bolan, on lead guitar. Bowie’s next attempt was to briefly form a new band–The Hype, with Bowie, Ronson, Tony Visconti on Bass, and John Cambridge on drums:
“I thought it would be really interesting if each of us adopted a persona of some kind. Bolan was there, and he was open-mouthed that we had the balls to camp it up so much. I think it was the first glam rock performance. It was all jeans and long hair at the time, and we got booed all the way through the show. People hated it. They absolutely loathed what we were doing. It was great!”
While The Hype was short-lived, it did lay the groundwork for the next record, The Man Who Sold The World–a dark, proto-metal, hard rock record that dealt with madness, identity, war, and false piety. It allowed his new protégé Ronson to shine with his guitar work, hyper leads, harmonies, riff rock, and a touch of slide. It also allowed Visconti to do his best John Entwhisle bass leads. But the hard rock sound wasn’t monochromatic; acoustic guitars abound, along with some piano, organ, flute recorders, stylophone, and synthesizers. Many of the songs seemed to be about Terry. Songs like “Width of a Circle,” “All The Madmen,” “After All” and “The Man Who Sold The World” dealt with schizophrenia, depression, and duel personalities, with whimsical diversions like the Bolan nod, “Black Country Rock,” or the dark satire of “Running Gun Blues” with it’s biting critique of Militarism, the apocalyptic warning of “Saviour Machine,” or the H.P. Lovecraft / Friedrich Nietzsche fantasy of “The Superman”. Bowie has commented: “I breathed in the excitement of knowing that we had a unit that would really start fires.” The album cover featured the first attempt to play with androgynous imagery, Bowie dressed in an Asian-styled, satin dress with long hair.
At the start of 1971, Bowie commented to John Mendelsohn:
“I refuse to be thought of as mediocre. If I am mediocre, I’ll get out of the business. There’s enough fog around. That’s why the idea of performance-as-spectacle is so important to me…I’d like to bring mime into a traditional western setting, the focus the attention of the audience with a very stylized, a very Japanese style of movement…Should anyone think that these things are merely distractions or gimmicks intended to obscure the music’s shortcomings, he mustn’t come to my concerts. he must come on my terms or not at all. My performances have got to be theatrical experiences for me as well as for the audience. I don’t want to climb out of my fantasies in order to go up onstage – I want to take them on stage with me…What the music says may be serious, but as a medium it should not be questioned, analyzed, or taken so seriously. I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium. The music is the mask the message wears – music is the Pierrot and I, the performer, am the message.”
So with such a statement of purpose Bowie would begin work on an album that would give him a much needed hit with “Changes” and lay the groundwork for his Ziggy Stardust persona. Aside from Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder was brought on board on bass, and Mick Woodmansey on drums. Most significantly Rick Wakeman, prior to joining Yes, was brought on board to play piano on the majority of the tracks. The other significant and beneficial development was the addition of Ken Scott as producer. Scott had cut his teeth training at Abbey Road in the late 60s with the Beatles as an assistant engineer, and he seemed to be simpatico with Bowie and Ronson. Bowie was later to observe: “I had really started to feel at home as a songwriter on Hunky Dory. I really felt that I knew how to write songs at that point. There were a couple of things that attempted to sort of transplant the brain of a cabaret song onto a piece of rock writing. One was ‘Life On Mars?’ and the other was ‘Changes.’”
“Changes” opens the album with Wakeman’s prominent piano, a light jazz lounge flavor, with Ronson playing a supportive and subdued tremolo guitar, and a touch of Bowie’s saxophone at the end. Bowie had commented: “‘Changes’ started out as a parody of a nightclub song, a kind of throwaway. But it turned into this monster that nobody would stop asking for at concerts: ‘Dye-vid, Dye-vid – do ‘Changes!’ I had no idea it would become such a popular thing.”
But there was something else going on. Bowie was instinctively talking to an audience he knew existed, bud hadn’t been reached yet – “And these children that you spit on – as they try to change their worlds – Are immune to your consolations – They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” If Hunky Dory acted as a kind of manifesto, this was no more true than “Oh! You Pretty Things,” which seemed addressed to the parents, while opening with the mundane, then touches on schizophrenia, before referencing Nietzsche with the “Homo-Superior” line, as well as an apocalyptic overtone, but did this apocalyptic conclusion mean the end, or the end of our conventions of that time? The album would drop further clues as it progressed. The country flavored “Eight Line Poem” seems to act as a visual still life, with a bit of uncharacteristic guitar work from Ronson. If “Oh! You Pretty Things” seemed layered, then the great “Life On Mars?” would even be more so, and open to a few interpretations Again it opens in the mundane, a teenage girl seeking distractions and finds those distractions ringing hollow. The second verse addresses the malaise that had already affected America, with its consumerism, racism, and its ability to treat its icons and heroes as a commodity. Between Wakeman’s stunning piano work, Mick’s power chord riffing, and Bowie’s incredible vocal delivery, the track is the album’s tour de force.
Bowie once commented: “Overall, there was a distinct feeling that ‘nothing was true’ anymore and that the future was not as clear-cut as it had seemed…Therefore, everything was up for grabs. If we needed any truths we could construct them ourselves.”
“Kooks” is much lighter faire, a tribute to his newborn son, Duncan, then known as Zowie, and speaking of the idyllic life he was enjoying with his wife, Angie, at that moment, it’s well known that Angie would have a major influence on Bowie’s entire career tract. The next track, “Quicksand” has always remained a favorite of mine; there has been a strong attraction / repulsion, as well as a fascination. It was the original acoustic demo by Bowie that sold me on the greatness of the song. The studio arrangement is deceptive, leaving the listener to assume it’s a light number, but it’s probably one of the most profoundly disturbing tracks on close inspection, laid out with layers of acoustic guitars, Wakeman’s piano, and orchestration.
It opens with references to Crowley’s Golden Dawn sect, and references ‘Himmler’s sacred realm of dream reality’ within a silent film. Bowie held an interest at the time with the Thelemic movement, and the basic philosophy of Aleister Crowley has been largely misunderstood, and re-appropriated to suit other agendas. Crowley lived in Germany in the 1930s, but denounced Hitler after the Nazi’s abolished the German O.T.O. and considered Hitler a ‘black magician.’ The Nazis had used various Occult symbols including the O.T.O., as well as various mythologies and blended it into its own kind of Gobbledygook to suit their agendas. Perhaps Bowie had recognized with unease how such symbolism could be inverted, by his line ‘frightened by the total goal, I’m drawing to the ragged hole,’ as the next line could be a lament–perhaps not being able to rise about his most dark and base instincts?
The next verse becomes even more disturbing: “I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes - I’m living proof of Churchill’s Lies - I’m destiny. - I’m drawn between the light and dark- where others see their targets – divine symmetry.” Is he role playing the Nazi perspective? Is he examining his own leanings towards fascism, a philosophy that offered easy answers in a complicated industrialized world? Or was he facing up to the truth that his own moral code would not be as clear cut. But these concerns could simply be a mental exercise to the thrust of the chorus. “Don’t believe in yourself – Don’t deceive with belief – knowledge comes with death’s release.” One of the bases of meditation is to let go of the conscious self, to submerge the ego in relation to the greater whole. This idea is carried over in Buddhism and several other esoteric religions. Which brings us back to the major thrust of Crowley’s Book of the Law, which led to self-actualization, and finding one’s true nature–“Do what thou will shall be the whole of the law, Love is the law, love under will,” a phrase that has been adopted by many contemporary Wiccans. Bowie’s third verse becomes more reassuring: “Just a mortal with potential of a superman–I’m living on.” Parroting the Nietzsche sentiment, and addressing that with this kind of esoteric interest, one still has to apply this to daily life. Treating others in the way one would rather be treated. Understanding this history might help to explain the ‘why’ as to Bowie’s next selection, and the one cover track on the album, “Fill Your Heart’.
The next track, with it’s elaborate orchestration, and strong piano work from Wakeman, “Fill Your Heart,” is a Biff Rose / Paul Williams composition, that at first glance seems to be a parody of hippie idealism, and a puzzling selection. Biff Rose was an American comedian who helped give Paul Williams his first break who would go on to be of note as a writer. The track’s sequence following “Quicksand” might have been intentional. Some have noted that Crowley’s intended meaning behind “love,” isn’t a love as most think of it, but ‘love’ as in self-awareness. That an individual is free to do whatever they must in order to further their Will (goals in life), as long as it doesn’t effect anyone else’s Will. The song’s references to things happening in the past are only in your mind is another Thelemic concept that all physical reality is a construct of our minds to process our reality. That if these filtering systems could be eliminated we’d see all reality and that time is an illusion, all of which brings back to the idea of letting go of the ego; “Forget your mind and you’ll be Free.” Of course the idealism of the song, common among many young people, that if we get rid of fear and hate, life would be idyllic, is a sentiment that is easier said than done, and something I suspect Bowie fully understood, which adds to the ironic read. The credit “Mick and I agree that the ‘Fill Your Heart’ arrangement owes a hell of a lot to Arthur G. Wright and his Proto-type” needs to be clarified; Wright was the arranger of the original Rose track.
A random synth pattern segues into the next track, after some studio chatter and a false start, the acoustic “Andy Warhol” illustrates Bowie at his most informal and whimsical. Some unusual percussion drives along some brisk guitar work from Mick Ronson. The song acts as the first of a series of tributes by Bowie. It has been reported that Bowie and Warhol met in 1971, and the song itself seems to be about blurring the line between the art and the artist, something that would preoccupy Bowie throughout his career. Of course Warhol was a master of counter-culture branding, and Bowie has been known to be a great admirer. Some have speculated that the song is also Bowie’s crush on Warhol. The next song, the effusive “Song For Bob Dylan” is fairly self explanatory to a degree. Bowie manages in his vocal to mimic the spirit of Dylan’s voice and Ronson’s opening lead sounds like it’s played through a Lesley speaker. The song is one of the few tracks to feature Ronson’s harmony lead work. The song in part seems to be a plea for Dylan to come out of his hiatus. Some have interpreted the “Here She Comes” chorus as a reference to Edie Sedgwick, an associate of Warhol’s during his factory years who had a connection to Dylan as well.
After Bowie’s loose count off, his acoustic drives the opening moments of “Queen Bitch,” Mick Ronson’s heavy guitar beefs up the albums one true rocker. A tribute to the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, Bowie manages to again mimic the spirit of Reed’s vocal sound, and the narrative of rough city life touches on Bowie’s bisexual sensibility, its catty jealousy over a transvestite, and a character who has been used. “The Bewlay Brothers” would be something else altogether. While it is generally considered a song about his brother, Terry, it is the most layered song on the album. An acoustic number, with a layer of 6 and 12 string guitars, some tremolo piano, and Mick’s backwards guitar harkening back to the psychedelic folk of his ’69 album. The first verse opens conversationally; “And so the story goes – they wore the clothes – They said the things to make it seem improbable – The whale of a lie like they hope it was.” Bowie could be talking about himself, or the both of them. The next verse features this observational point: “I was stone and he was wax – So he could scream, and still relax – unbelievable – and we frighten the small children away – And our talk was old – and dust would flow – thru our veins and Lo! – it was midnight back of the kitchen door,” painting an image of a domestic moment.
Part of the next verse featured these lines: “Now my brother lays upon the rocks – He could be dead, he could be not – He could be you, He’s Camelian, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature – “Shooting-up Pie-in-the-sky” – The Bewlay Brothers.” Again, while Bowie is making observations about his brother, he could self reflectively speaking about himself. Some have observed that the lyrics describe of the nature of a Schizophrenic state, hearing voices that aren’t real. Certainly the closing lines in their vocal executions, with the speed-up vocals approximate that idea, furthering that this track wouldn’t have been out of place on The Man Who Sold The World. The title, “The Bewlay Brothers,” could be a word play on the man who first coined the term Schizophrenia, Eugene Bleuler. Some have observed that the song could be a reference to Bowie’s relationship with Iggy Pop, or Marc Bolan. Some have observed that the line ‘Camelian’ could be Chameleon, someone known as fickle, and Corinthian is someone who over indulges in a luxury, which reinforces the idea that Bowie is speaking about some of his own traits. Which again brings back in focus his comments from 1993. Bowie might have recognized his own proclivity to become like Terry under the right circumstances, Nevertheless, it is a sobering conclusion to the album.
But the story doesn’t completely end there. During the 1971 sessions, there was another track recorded that rarely saw the light of day. Probably an intended ‘B’ side, “Bombers,” was a campy, dark satire about a nuclear holocaust with some prominent heavy rock guitar by Mick, as well as some piano. The character of the song will remind some of the tone of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,”--gallows humor over a grim subject.
Even the title of the album, the term “Hunky Dory,” seems to be meant as darkly ironic, and considering the shifting climate of the culture, there were many outsiders who recognized that things were less ideal as they appeared at the start of the 1970s. I high-lighted this album trifecta, Man Of Words, Man of Music, The Man Who Sold The World, and Hunky Dory, as they all seemed to lay the ground-work for Bowie’s true commercial breakthrough, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which has been described by some fans as heavy bubblegum pop for the apocalypse. His prior albums had been released by Deram, and Mercury Records, but once Bowie signed with RCA in the States for Hunky Dory, he would remain on that label. It should be noted, around this period that Bowie signed with Tony Defries. Bowie’s later albums would find more fanciful metaphors to deal with the same concerns, but many of the themes would creep up again and again–perhaps they always will while he lives. But Hunky Dory laid the ground work in a way that was accessible yet profound. I doubt that in today’s climate, such an album could exist now, but it remains unique in the Bowie catalog.
Producers: Ken Scott, David Bowie
Arrangers and Composers: David Bowie, *Biff Rose / Paul Williams
Engineer: Ken Scott
Cover: Brian Ward and George Underwood
Oh! You Pretty Things
Eight Line Poem
Life On Mars?
Fill Your Heart*
Song For Bob Dylan
The Bewlay Brothers
You can download this album on iTunes, or order it from Barnes and Nobel
The Bulk of the information comes from articles by Mikal Gilmore and Kurt Loder with additional source material by Gordon Coxhil and John Mendelsohn. Special thanks to XScribe for editorial assistance.
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