Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Hunky Dory (1971)

Ask any of your friends what their favourite David Bowie album is and chances are about half of them will plump for Hunky Dory (obviously all your friends will have a favourite Bowie album - how could they be your friends otherwise?). Even now, forty years and a couple of dozen albums later, there's still something about Hunky Dory which stands out, something truly special which makes the listener - both old and new - stop in sheer pleasure.

And that's actually just a wee bit surprising. Because if 'Width of a Circle' on the previous album was a Frankenstein of a track, this is the same mish-mash of styles and attitudes at entire album length. There genuinely is something for everyone on here, just as long as the everyone in question isn't looking for production line blandness. In the words of the always entertaining music critic Robert Christgau: on Hunky Dory Bowie "has a nice feeling for weirdos, himself included".

The title allegedly refers to Japanese brothels and the front cover is another of Bowie in drag - based on photos of Marlene Dietrich, though as a kid I always assumed it was meant to be Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. So it's fair to say that from the off we're not in Kansas here, nor was this album intended to sell to the same people who snapped up the latest Sweet record.

Tony Visconti had left to concentrate on Marc Bolan's career and for the first time ever Bowie was backed by the musicians who would make up the Spiders from Mars, as 'Woody' Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder joined Mick Ronson in just about the only backing band I can name individually. Bung in Ken Scott on co-production duties with Bowie (as 'the Actor' on the sleeve notes) and everything has changed.

Which laborious segue brings us to the music itself.

Hunky Dory has the best start of any Bowie album to date. 'Changes', describes the current situation for Bowie in one brilliant verse, wondering with bemusement what he's been waiting for, and why he ended up down 'a million dead end streets'. It's fantastic stuff, preceded by a short if genuinely funky intro and carried along on a sweet piano line, before sliding into a chorus in which he recognises the need to change himself and that change can be fascinating in itself.

As album openers go it was immediately bettered by 'Five Years' on Ziggy Stardust, but that aside there's little competition to it even in a catalogue as strong as Bowie's. As a statement of intent it's never been bettered anywhere.

From here on the album roller-coasters along both lyrically and musically. It's very easy to concentrate on the 'deep' songs with obvious 'meaning' and diverse and subtle layers but doing that means you miss so much about what makes this record truly great. Yes, 'Oh! You Pretty Things', manages the amazing trick of being a pretty pop song about Jesus and the Nietzschian Supermen, for instance, but it's the segue directly into 'Eight Line Poem', an actual pretty pop song about nothing much at all, which raises it to genius.

I've heard 'Andy Warhol', 'Queen Bitch' and 'Song for Bob Dylan' described as the weakest tracks on the album and even as the songs which 'ruin' it. And on first listen they do seem to be nothing more than throw away tributes and debts repaid ('Queen Bitch' is even subtitled 'Some VU White Light Returned with thanks') on the track-list but the first two are better rock tunes than any filler could ever be even if I'm forced to agree with David Buckley that 'Song for Bob Dylan' doesn't quite work. Incidentally, look out for Dana Gillespie's vocal on 'Andy Warhol', alongside Bowie and co as Arnold Corns (recorded live for Peel in 1971), to hear just how much of a viciously crunching track this actually was.

f there is any filler on the album it's in the folk rock pastiching 'Kooks' and the Biff Rose cover 'Fill Your Heart', but since they're both brilliant, who cares that they're not about anything. David Buckley seems to miss the point a little with these two tracks, calling 'Kooks 'twee' and 'fey' with 'cod precautionary lyrics', instead of seeing it as a valid throwback and fond farewell to the sort of songs the changed Bowie would now be leaving behind.

Which leaves the three songs which take a great album and raise it into the musical stratosphere. I suspect more has been written about 'Life on Mars' than any other Bowie track and it's topped at least one critics list of greatest songs of all time. It's got a stunning melody, a brilliantly obtuse lyric which constantly seems on the verge of meaning something and one of Bowie's very best vocal performances. Sufficient to say that it deserves every plaudit thrown its way over the years - if Bowie had only ever recorded this one track he'd still be remembered as a genius even now.

And it's not the best track on the album. Not even close.

For old school fans each side of the album ends with a long moment of utter brilliance. Even now I can still remember getting to 'Quicksand' at the end of side one, sitting on my bed in my black walled and ceilinged bedroom (sadly - due to carpet costing a lot to replace - I still had my sister's pink carpet thus ruining the effect somewhat). Fourteen years old or whatever and there's Bowie starting a song with

I'm closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley's uniform
Of imagery

then name-checking Himmler, Churchill, Bardot and Garbo. What the hell is this?! And that chorus:

Don't believe in yourself
Don't deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death's release

Bloody hell, that was strong stuff for me, far more bleak and scary than anything The Smiths or Nirvana ever conjured up, more like Joy Division than the then current Bowie album, Let's Dance. I'd have loved this song for the lyrics alone, but the melody rolled smoothly round your head like a snake and the whole stayed there for ages after the stylus lifted itself off the vinyl and returned to its resting place.

And that's not the best track on the album. Not even close.

'The Bewlay Brothers'. God alone knows what it's actually about because even Bowie isn't sure.

In 2008, after the release of Bowie at the Beeb which contained the first ever live version of the track, he said that "I wouldn't know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It's a palimpsest" and that seems a fairly reasonable summary. Like a manuscript from which all text has been scraped to allow re-use but where the old text still survives in parts to change the meaning of the new, the lyrics to 'The Bewlay Brothers' appear at times to be gibberish.

And yet...

Like some TS Eliot poems, there's a definite feeling even when just reading the lyric on the page that - if you just had the key or a set of footnotes - you could turn these beautiful sounds into something more than that, decipher the meaning behind the seeming jumble, turn the abstract poetry into a dramatic story.

Because this is as dramatic as popular music gets. Bowie's voice thunders and soars as it builds to one crescendo then another. It's lyrically very threatening actually, with junkies and stalkers, devils and monsters populating every line. A brother lies dead on the rocks (prompting some critics to suggest this is a song about schizophrenia and Bowier's half-brother Terry) and - tying in with Bowie's admission that he's a 'faker' in 'Changes' - someone else now thinks 'we were fakers' and Bowie admits 'we were gone'.

And then there's the perversity of Bowie's deranged changed pitch voiceover at the end

Lay me place and bake me pie
I'm starving for my gravy
Leave my shoes and door unlocked
I might just slip away

Paul Magrs was the first person to suggest to me that this is meant to be the Laughing Gnome and it's an idea that Charles Shaar Murray and Roy Carr agreed with in their book on Bowie. It's an appealing idea and if that was the intention then it just adds another layer of creepy to the entire affair and ends the song in as dark and terrifying a place as Bowie ever went before or after. It's an astonishing, gob-smacking achievement and one of the genuinely shattering moments in popular music. I'd say that I loved it, but I love a lot of songs - 'The Bewlay Brothers' is in a league all of its own.

I'm not sure if Hunky Dory is my favourite Bowie album, but it's up there and even after hearing it a thousand times I'm still delighted to hear it again.

That's unusual enough in itself to make it something worth you (both of you!) listening at least once.

The Great Missing Track

'Bombers', I suppose. Which is a nice enough song, but it'd just be another biut of filler, and a bit more trite and shallow and naive than anything else on the album. Worth getting on whichever cd release of Hunky Dory it popped up on, but really - everything brilliant that could have appeared on this album did appear on this album..

Spotify: David Bowie – Hunky Dory

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