Dave Amitri on Hunky Dory by David Bowie
My second dive into 12 Bowie albums in 2021 as someone who had never heard a Bowie album before now brings me to Hunky Dory
February introduced me to 1971’s Hunky Dory. It’s an album that I’ve seen referenced many times and recommended as one of the great Bowie albums so it was with real relish and anticipation that I dived in. Another brilliantly androgynous cover by the way. I’m looking at you Boy George… A quick look at the track listing and suddenly I had flashes of recognition. 3 tunes leapt out as “hits”. The ones that Radio listening Bowie fans would instantly recognise. I did a little bit of reading but I didn’t want to influence my view too much. A first listen and it is a hugely different album to The Man Who Sold The World with a huge reliance on piano and less of a rock album. It felt quite messy, eclectic with no definitive sound but in amongst the mess I was able to see that this was a seismic shift towards the Bowie sound. Whatever that is. And it has hits, massive, wonderful hits…
Changes is up first. I have some Proustian emotions from this song. Do I really remember the 6 year old me hearing this on a crackly radio in my Dad’s car? I think I do. I had older Radio 1 loving sisters who were more David Essex than David Bowie but something is there deep in my subconscious that I find comforting in this song. Anyway, back in the room how does one avoid cliches when assessing “Changes”? I’m sorry to tell you I don’t. Of course this is a huge change from the previous album. Melodic, soaring and emotive. I suspect Bowie was making a statement. It’s an incredible song. One I imagine Paul Weller, never one to hide his influences, leant heavily on when writing “Changing Man”. There’s a similar feel to my cloth ears anyway. A great start for a hit lover like me.
Oh You Pretty Things next another hit I recognise and really like. It’s definitely a Bowie tune leaning heavily on piano. Piano I instantly recognise as from Elton John’s eponymous album, more on that later. Then there’s some piano that has a “Bohemian Rhapsody” drama to it which leads into a sound similar to a school teacher pounding a piano in the school hall. There’s even some “Hey Jude” piano to throw into the mix. The verses are delivered as if in a musical drama by a leading man. Echoes here of The Man Who Sold the World. The chorus however is exquisite. Bowie finds the perfect tone for the delivery of those perfect lines. This is another fabulous song. Inventive, creative, like a Michelin starred recipe combining all those flavours to make an incredible dish. It is such a pretty thing.
Eight Line Poem is a bit of an imposter considering what comes next. Sandwiched between two colossus it manages to hold it’s own despite starting with some Claptonesque guitar. It all feels slightly off tune with more Elton piano. I can’t pretend to be a Radiohead fan but it sounds like something they might do. Excitingly for me this is possibly the first time I can hear Bowie’s influence on Billy Mackenzie. This is a song I can hear Billy covering. It would fit very nicely on Transmission Impossible. It’s a grower and quite lovely..
Life on Mars is up next and whatever I say next will not do it justice but I will do my best. It feels like the song has been everywhere this month as Perseverance made it’s final descent onto the surface of Mars. The piano intro under Bowies vocal is straight from Elton’s “First Episode at Hienton”. Which I promise is a huge compliment. I adore early Elton John and I think “Elton John” remains his best album. I can’t listen to “Hunky Dory” without thinking it was an influence to someone on Bowie’s team. It was a stroke of genius if I’m right because it adds a lusciousness to Bowies edge that is glorious. It’s an incredible song. One I’ve criminally overlooked over the years. If he betters this then I have lots to look forward to. Finally if Jeff Lynne didn’t base ELO entirely in that gorgeous string outro then I’ll see him in court for his defence.
Kooks next. Follow that! Luckily for me it strikes an immediate chord. My boys music era was the noughties. An indie landfill wasteland to some. To my boys as important as any era as is the way of these things. Because of this I am aware of the band “The Kooks”. They were indeed indie and part of the whole Brit school movement. I suspect they were set a project to build a sound from a song and they went the whole hog and went for name and sound. It is uncanny. They built a career on this song yet it doesn’t appear to be referenced anywhere. Give them a listen it’s astonishing… The song is ok. It feels a bit lazy after what went before but I don’t know how you follow “Life On Mars”
Quicksand is a beautiful lament which moves the album on to it’s second phase. It’s another instantly recognisable Bowie song even though I hadn’t heard it before this project. I love it’s easy flow and swimmy feel. I can hear it’s influence in The Blow Monkeys “Animal Magic” Dr Robert’s vocal delivery and the string arrangements. It’s the sort of song I was hoping to discover
Fill Your Heart is a strange little song. It’s more stage musical that wouldn’t be out of place on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Himself”. I’m also instantly put in mind of The Monkees Davey Jones again in Bowie’s vocal. I don’t know why it’s here. Anyone?
Andy Warhol now. My brief reading telling me that this is the first of a trilogy of tribute songs. It makes perfect sense that Bowie would want to create a tribute to Warhol. I’m sure he saw himself in the unique, slightly eccentric, visionary artist. What doesn’t make sense is using some chanting rhythms that wouldn’t be out of place on an Adam and the Ants over a Spanish guitar, flamenco hand clap. An odd song that to me is more Picasso surrealism than Warhol pop art.
Song For Bob Dylan is tribute number two. Strangely again it starts with 80s Clapton guitar and becomes straight up mimicry of Dylan unless I’m missing something. I’m not sure about the song and less sure how fans of Bowie would feel if their hero was given this treatment by one if his contemporaries. Maybe Dylan loved it. Maybe you do to.
Queen Bitch is a tribute to The Velvet Underground apparently. A band I admit I know nothing about. It’s a great upbeat slice of rock. Post punk new wave guitar and vocal 8 years before it was invented. It has driven me mad. I cannot find nor remember the song from that era that has lifted the riff from “Queen Bitch” maybe The Buzzcocks mixed with Mink Deville’s “Spanish Stroll”. If someone could help… Brandon Flowers has admitted to it being an influence on Mr Brightside which is clear in the lyric and delivery. My clear favourite of the tribute trilogy.
The Bewlay Brothers closes and it just sounds like a Bowie song should sound to me. Hints of “Space Oddity” otherworldly vocals, lyrics left open to interpretation and more than a hint of mystery. I’d imagine Bowie fanboys spending many happy hours picking it apart. Brett Anderson on the other hand made a career out of it. Fair play to him there is much about Suede to love. It’s a great finish to the album for me.
In conclusion Hunky Dory reaches astonishing highs and I’m looking forward to listening to it again away from this over analysis. Unlike The Man Who Sold The World I will return to this often. I stick with the view that it’s quite messy and by that I mean I doesn’t flow and is a mix of styles that don’t necessarily fit together as a whole piece. I assume Bowie was still searching. I hope that overtime I see it how others do.
There is do much written about Bowie and this album that I don’t expect to have found anything especially new. But my view as an outsider looking in might offer a different perspective. This is the album where I think I’ve started to “get” Bowie. I’m excited for what comes next.