The Gospel of Reinvention According to David Robert Jones
Throughout his nearly 45-year career in the music industry, there has been no artist, with the exception of Bob Dylan, that has manage to change constantly from one style/persona to another better than David Bowie. Throughout his career, he’s dabbled in all sorts of genres ranging from folk, Philly soul, glam rock, electronic music, pop, alternative rock, and many others. In those years, he would influence many in the world of popular music as there is still debate on what is his greatest achievement in music? It’s obvious that it is somewhere from the 1970s that saw him dabble with elements of hard rock and proto-punk with The Man Who Sold the World to the electro-rock of 1980’s Scary Monsters. Yet, it is 1971’s Hunky Dory that would be the real starting point to one of the most defining careers in the history of popular music.
While glam-rock albums such as The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane may have brought David Bowie to stardom. It was Hunky Dory that would really give people a taste of things to come throughout the entirety of his career. Not in terms of what he can do musically but how he would delve into various subjects of alienation, nostalgia, and other lyrical themes and put different personalities into the songs he would make in his career. While the album was also a transitional record of sorts from the hard-rocking sounds of The Man Who Sold the World and the more folk-inspired 1969 album Space Oddity that would pave the way for the thrilling glam of Ziggy Stardust. Hunky Dory was an album that showed Bowie’s range as a songwriter and performer.
While Bowie’s musical career had started out in the early 60s through various bands when he was just known as Davie Jones where in 1964, he and the R&B band the King Bees released their first single Liza Jane that didn’t go anywhere. Changing his name from Jones to Bowie, to avoid confusion with the already-famous Davy Jones of the Monkees, Bowie would finally go solo where he released his first album in 1967 to good reviews but never went anywhere as he struggled with his career for two years until he achieved a breakthrough with the song Space Oddity about an astronaut disconnecting himself from Earth.
The song would be a hit while the Space Oddity album showed Bowie transitioning from the music hall pop of his self-titled debut for a more folk-driven sound for its follow-up. Still, Bowie struggled to find an identity that would make him standout against what was happening in popular music at the time. With friends like Marc Bolan was just starting to emerge with his group T. Rex while schoolmate Peter Frampton had formed the blues-rock band Humble Pie with another Bowie friend in former Small Faces vocalist/guitarist Steve Marriott. Bowie however, would meet one of the key figures that would shape his musical outlook in a guitarist named Mick Ronson.
Having already played with Michael Chapman and Elton John, Ronson was an accomplished yet talented musician who also could do string arrangements and play piano. Bowie and Ronson decided to form a band with Space Oddity producer Tony Visconti on bass and Bowie’s friend John Cambridge on drums that was called the Hype. With the band wearing costumes and playing a harder, rocking music that featured covers by one of Bowie’s favorite bands in proto-punk/art-rock legends the Velvet Underground. The concept of the Hype would give Bowie future ideas for Ziggy Stardust while the sound he created with Ronson and Visconti led to the creation of The Man Who Sold the World.
While the album also featured a new drummer named Mick Woodmansey where he and Ronson would be the part of Bowie’s new band at the time. The album itself showed a major development of Bowie as an artist through the lyrical themes he discussed as well as what Ronson would bring to the sound. Visconti’s role on bass would later be filled by Trevor Bolder as the lineup of Ronson, Bolder, and Woodmansey would become Bowie’s greatest backing band in the Spiders of Mars. By late 1970/early 1971 during the tour to promote The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie would meet artist Andy Warhol as well as former Velvet Underground vocalist/guitarist Lou Reed and Iggy Pop of the legendary proto-punk band the Stooges.
These meetings as well as Bowie’s personal life in his marriage to an American woman named Angela Barnett and the birth of their son Duncan Zowie Heywood Jones would impact a lot of what Bowie would write for Hunky Dory. Notably the song Kooks, a bouncy folk-pop song where Bowie sings about the arrival of his son as well as the possibilities of what Duncan’s parents would do. It’s a very strange yet unique song that features lyrics that are playful but also comforting as Bowie sings these words:
And if you ever have to go 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
These lyrics are an example of Bowie’s genius as man of words as well as providing some hope to his newborn son who would become the man that helmed the 2009 acclaimed sci-fi film Moon. Kooks is one of the few songs in the album where it features an air of optimism to an album that is mostly bleak and dramatic. Another song that has an upbeat feel to it but more in the confines of an orchestral pop tune is a cover of Biff Rose’s Fill Your Heart that was written by Rose and Paul Williams. While Bowie’s version is quite faithful in terms of its string presentation, a saxophone accompaniment, and a melodic piano riff, the major difference in Bowie’s song that it doesn’t have a percussive accompaniment along with more emphasis on the saxophone and piano flourishes. It’s a song that is very upbeat as it fits into the album’s varied emotions which complements a lot of what Bowie was going through at that time.
Particularly with what has happening in 1971 when the music scene was changing following the break-up of the Beatles the year before and a lot of new things were happening. There was a new era of artists who were known primarily as songwriters finally stepping out to perform the songs they had written as it became the period of the singer-songwriters. Artists like Cat Stevens, Elton John (with lyricist Bernie Taupin), Carly Simon, and James Taylor were emerging with songs that spoke more about themselves and their own personal stories rather than play into the aesthetics of folk music that was more about social and political ideas. While a lot of the songs in Hunky Dory that shared traits with that genre, Bowie added an element of fantasy, darkness, and an abstract sense of the world into the songs he sings.
One of the key cuts of the album that fits in with the singer-songwriter mold in terms of an acoustic ballad is Quicksand. Led by a soft, washy acoustic guitar riff with a soft keyboard accompaniment and crisp yet evocative production by Bowie and Ken Scott. It’s a ballad that does feature reflective lyrics but the tone is very dark and direct in what Bowie sings as he’s later accompanied by Mick Ronson’s swift string arrangements and steady yet pummeling rhythm from drummer Mick Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder. With Bowie also playing piano flourishes in parts of the song, the song’s highlight is what Bowie is singing in a calm approach to the vocals for its oblique lyrics filled with Bowie name-checking the likes of Aleister Crowley, Heinrich Himmler, Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo, and Brigitte Bardot in reference to the Golden Dawn society. The song is an attack of sorts on faith in these lyrics that is inspired by the works of Nietzsche:
I’m not a prophet or a stone age man
Just a mortal with potential of a superman
I’m living on
I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith
The song is later followed by these lyrics that was heard prior to that verse as Bowie sings:
Don’t believe in yourself
Don’t deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death’s release
These words indicate a far grim outlook into the world where the year before, John Lennon sings “I don’t believe in Beatles… I just believe in me” in the song God from his post-Beatles solo debut Plastic Ono Band. Quicksand is definitely one of Bowie’s great album cuts which shows the growth he has a songwriter at that time while showing that he has a much broader view of things that goes beyond the parameters of the more personal, reflective world of what the singer-songwriters are singing. Another key example of that broadness in his songwriting is in another acoustic ballad in its closing track The Bewlay Brothers. Armed with just a slow acoustic accompaniment and later, a eerie Mellotron accompaniment by Mick Ronson that is backed by a simple yet exotic production.
It’s a song that is among one of Bowie’s most personal tracks despite being filled with a lot of ambiguous and obtuse lyrics that can really confuse listeners on what Bowie is saying. Yet, the most popular interpretation is that the song is partially about Bowie’s older half-brother Terry who suffered from schizophrenia and would eventually commit suicide in 1985 at age 47. Bowie would revisit the subject of his brother in the song Jump They Say from his 1993 album Black Tie White Noise as it’s one of the very few songs where Bowie revealed himself on a personal level as he often chooses to remain ambiguous about his personal life and his life as an artist in his music.
With the array of light-hearted material and dark-themed cuts comes other material that show a sense of complexity such as the upbeat Oh! You Pretty Things that featured future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman playing piano along with Changes and Life on Mars?. Yet, Oh! You Pretty Things is a song that is also inspired by Nietzsche in terms of what Bowie is saying to the youth growing up in the early 70s that seemed very tired by the idealism of the 1960s. Led by Wakeman’s melodic piano riff and a bouncy rhythm, the song has a very catchy chorus that mixes humor and fear about the arrival of beings from another planet which would pre-date what Bowie would explore with his next album in The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars.
Eight Line Poem is probably the most overlooked track on the album as it’s a song with only eight lines and a simple presentation of Bowie’s vocals, a soft piano, sparse production, and a country-laden guitar from Mick Ronson. The simple presentation alone is what makes this song an album cut that should be exposed more as Bowie doesn’t sing the song for more than a minute as the lyrics seem to follow up everything else that Oh! You Pretty Things was saying with an air of melancholia.
If there’s one song that pretty much defines Bowie throughout his career, it’s Changes. The ever-changing artist who would do one thing and move into another throughout his career is something that not many could do and make it successful. Changes is a song about many things. Finding the individual in a person. Speaking to those who feel all alone as they want to find a world that they can be a part of. Reinventing one self to stand out from the others. There’s a lot in what Bowie is saying as he’s accompanied by Wakeman’s bouncy piano, Ronson’s flourishing string arrangements, and a bopping rhythm from bassist Trevor Boulder and drummer Mick Woodmansey. Still, it’s the lyrics that drive the song that is indicated in this verse:
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultation
They’re quite aware what they’re going through
These lyrics mean something to someone like legendary 80s filmmaker John Hughes who use these words to open his heralded 1985 film The Breakfast Club. A film about five different high school kids who are forced to serve detention on a Saturday as they vent about their own issues as well as the fear of not wanting to be like their parents. What Bowie is saying in these words that these kids will be much smarter than what their parents might seem to be as they’re hoping not to make the same mistakes their parents have done. It’s a very bold statement from someone who was in his early 20s yet has managed to make it more relevant in the years to come.
If Changes is Bowie’s signature song that would define what he would do in his career. Then it’s the ballad Life on Mars? that really speaks for those seeking escapism from a world where they feel ostracized. While the inspiration for the song came from Bowie’s experience as a lyrical translator where a French song he tried to translate had its rights bought by Paul Anka who turned into the famous song My Way.
While Bowie meant for Life on Mars? to be a parody of My Way, it became much more than that in the lyrics Bowie sang as it’s accompanied by this somber, melodic piano riff from Rick Wakeman that becomes very dramatic. Soared by Mick Ronson’s wondrous string arrangements and slow, thundering rhythms for the song’s chorus. It is later followed by this amazing yet heavenly guitar solo from Ronson that is unlike anything heard in pop music. What balances the song in terms of its musicality is the lyrics as Bowie sings about a young girl whose reality is horrible as she escapes to the world of film as she feels sad about not being part of that world. At that time, it represents what Bowie could do vocally when singing a ballad like this as it’s one of his most defining songs of his career.
The three remaining songs on the album are tribute cuts to the people who have influenced Bowie not just musically but also artistically. The first is Andy Warhol after the famed pop art icon who redefined the world of modern art in the 1960s. Bowie met Warhol in his first trip to America in 1970/1971 where he also would meet Lou Reed for the first time. Bowie’s tribute song to Warhol came in the form of a folk song dominated by brimming acoustic guitars with Ronson’s flamenco riffs and a strange keyboard intro concocted by Ken Scott’s production. The lyrics are very abstract in Bowie’s description of Warhol as it is filled with imagery about the world of Warhol. Though Warhol reportedly didn’t like the song very much, he did maintain a rapport with Bowie. More than 20 years later, Bowie would play Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat in the 1996 bio-pic about the troubled 80s street-artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The song that would follow Andy Warhol is a mid-tempo, country-blues cut called Song For Bob Dylan. This smooth track with a steady rhythm, flourishing blues-style piano, and Ronson’s wailing guitar is the second of three songs where Bowie pays tribute to an icon. This time, it’s on Bob Dylan as the song Bowie sings is a tribute to Dylan that is filled with humor and weird imagery in its lyrics. Particularly in the way Bowie describes Dylan’s voice:
Hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
The song features a lot of references to Dylan as it’s obvious that Bob Dylan is an influence on Bowie. Though Dylan reportedly wasn’t really fond of the song, it is still a very quirky tribute from a student in the art of reinvention.
The last tribute track Bowie made is probably the first song that really exemplify what Bowie could do with his backing band at the time in the Spiders of Mars. Queen Bitch is a rock song to the fullest as it is a song that serves as a tribute to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Armed with Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar washes with Mick Ronson’s driving electric guitar riffs and the bouncy yet thundering rhythm section of Mick Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder. It’s definitely a song that has a raunchy delivery with free-flowing lyrics that are very playful as if Bowie is being Lou Reed. It’s the song that if the Velvets had stayed around a little longer, they would’ve made this song but this is definitely the best tribute anyone could’ve given to that band.
Released on December 17, 1971, Hunky Dory would gain superb reviews in its initial release as Bowie would perform of two of the songs from that album for a taping of The Old Grey Whistle Test along with a new song from the upcoming The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars that would come in June of 1972. While Bowie would perform a lot of the songs on that album throughout his career though it remains rumored that he’s retired from the music scene following health issues in 2003.
In the 40 years since its release, Hunky Dory remains one of Bowie’s defining albums of his career as it showcased everything he was able to do and what he could do for the rest of his career. In fact, it’s the most diverse thing he’s done. There is never a weak song in that album as song by song in sequence. It’s a record that refuses to be dull or heavy-handed. It has something for everyone. That is probably why it’s an album often go back to because of what David Bowie was able to do. He made an album that encompass everything he was about and bring voice to those who feel lost. Though it might be one of his many masterworks, Hunky Dory is still probably the greatest thing David Bowie has ever created in his much-revered career.
© thevoid99 2012