David Bowie's Hunky Dory turns forty

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No matter how hard he tried, David Bowie just couldn't fit into the '60s. From having to abandon his birth-name (Davy Jones) to the pop-darling Monkees singer, to staring in Ice Cream commercials in order to finance his tanking music career, fame continually eluded young Bowie. "I must have had over 700 singles out before Space Oddity," he told NME critic Chris Roberts, "and half of them were daft as a brush."

He found momentary success with "Space Oddity," destiny winking at him when the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the moon five days after the single dropped. But the attention would be short lived. By the turn of the decade, the disillusioned, acid-soaked record buyers were hiding out in the organic, denim and beard records of James Taylor and CSNY. No room for irony, humor or post-modern self-awareness.

Like most generational trends, Bowie was laughed at when appearing in drag on the cover of his third LP, The Man Who Sold The World. The album was a favorite among critics, but was unimpressive to the public. It was too much of a rock album for 1970, a rush of wild, flirtatious energy when the public demanded sentimentality and Quaaludes. "It took me an awful long time to figure out what I wanted to do," Bowie explained in 1999. "I was never just in love with one kind of music and one kind only. At that time, that wasn't 'right' -- you were either a folk singer or a rock singer or a blues guitarist. Of course, nowadays that kind of singular craft seems almost quaint. I always wanted to keep my options open, try everything, be really greedy."

Bowie's confidence in his songwriting talent was unfazed by the lack of commercial success; restless to show off what he could do, he simply moved on to the next project. His contract with Mercury expiring without renewal, Bowie began work on his fourth album without a label behind it.

After a meteoric bout of songwriting (including many future Ziggy Stardust classics) recording began on April '71 at Trident Studios. Keeping drummer Woody Woodmansy and incendiary guitarist Mick Ronson from his The Man Who Sold The World sessions, Bowie parted ways with producer/bass player Tony DeFries and replaced him with Trevor Boulder. This was the group that would later become The Spiders From Mars, backing Bowie on future glam-rock enterprises Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the renowned tours that would follow.

Ken Scott would share a production credit with Bowie, though when the album dropped the sleeve credits would read "produced by Ken Scott and The Actor." This was how the painfully shy Bowie began referring to himself, preferring to slip into a constructed character rather than place his own personality into the public. This freed him up to write songs with an ever-changing position of cynicism and optimism, philanthropy and anarchy.

The album opens with "Changes," a bouncy, earnest song that Bowie claims "began as a parody of a nightclub song. A kind of throwaway." The light-hearted whimsy of the song provides a nice base for lyrics with a decidedly heavier message. Early Dylan-esque lines like "these children that you spit on as they try to change their world, are immune to your consultations, they're quite aware of what they're going through," would, fourteen years later, provide filmmaker John Hughes with an apt quote to open his movie about teenagers attending Saturday morning detention.

This theme is continued on "Oh You Pretty Things." Combining the philosophical influence of Friedrich Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley, Bowie prophesizes that "homo sapiens have outgrown their use," and that we "better make way for the homo superior," a new transsexual species that drives their "mamas and papas insane." It was an evolutionary fantasy as over-the-top metaphor of the long-haired rock and rollers that had been tormenting their mamas and papas for nearly a decade.

Like "Changes," "Life On Mars" also began as a musical lampoon. Wanting to pay homage to/mock Frank Sinatra's recently released "My Way," Bowie wrote a series of surreal, cut-up method lyrics transposed over a soaring, operatic arrangement that BBC Radio 2 called "a mixture between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting." Probably the weirdest tune on the album, the song has been celebrated as not only one of Bowie's best, but also one of the best songs of all time.

Tribute to Bowie's kaleidoscope of heroes is paid on songs like "Andy Warhol" and the country flavored "Song for Bob Dylan" (which mirrored Dylan's own "Song For Woody," written for Woody Guthrie on his first record). On "Queen Bitch" the future Spiders From Mars shine as an amphetamine and glitter rock band, utilizing Bowie's heady love of The Velvet Underground. "Kooks" was penned as a message for his newly born son, Zowie Bowie, and could read as a Morrissey song for a generation of bullied emo-fans "we believe in you...and if the homework brings you down, then we'll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown."

When the time came to name this album of both high and low art, of sexuality and insecurity, of philosophy and TV humor, Bowie chose a pop-culture aphorism that's both kitschy and delightful, clichéd and wonderfully quaint: Hunky Dory.

As usual, critics praised Bowie's fourth album as "the most inventive piece of song-writing to have appeared on record in considerable time" (Melody Maker). Supported by the single "Changes," the album sold reasonably well, but would only become a smash-hit after Bowie chopped and colored his hair into an orange mullet, smeared on some kabuki makeup and became Ziggy Stardust. Following the release of his fifth album, the previous Hunky Dory climbed back up the UK charts to #3, supported by the single "Life On Mars" which also reached #3.

Though without Hunky Dory there could be no Ziggy -- and possibly no glam-rock revolution. In 1999 Bowie put it best when describing the album as giving him "a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience - I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, 'Good album, good songs.' That hadn't happened to me before. It was like, 'Ah, I'm getting it, I'm finding my feet. I'm starting to communicate what I want to do. Now: what is it I want to do?"

It took Bowie proving himself as a songwriter on Hunky Dory before he could prove himself a cultural icon ( or "leper messiah") on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars. Here he became the hero of a new generation, rescuing the little brothers and sisters of the hippies and showing them a Sci-Fi world of ambiguous sexuality and characters that are "well hung with snow-white tan."

See also:

- U2's Actung Baby turns twenty

- Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill turns 25

- New Order's Movement turns thirty

- My Bloody Valentine's Loveless turns twenty

- Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory? turns a bratty sweet sixteen

- Red Hot Chili Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magik turns twenty

- A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory turns twenty

- T. Rex's Electric Warrior turns forty

- Nirvana's Nevermind turns twenty

- Ween's The Pod turns twenty

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