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Counterbalance No. 62: David Bowie’s ‘Hunky Dory’

David Bowie
Hunky Dory

Klinger: Well, Mendelsohn, you’ve certainly gone out of your way to express your undying devotion to the Thin Sane Ziggy Duke, and the time has come to discuss Bowie yet again. This time, the album in question is Hunky Dory, the 1971 release that finds him standing at the turning point between hippie-fop-folkie and glam rock superstar. It clearly marks a sea change in Bowie’s career and in the development of ’70s-era rock. But since you’re the superfan in the spangly unitard, I’m going to let you kick things off with what I’m assuming will be a huge outpouring of spewy effusiveness. Go.

Mendelsohn: Uh, yeah. Well. Thanks for putting me on the spot like that. This is almost as awkward as being set up on a blind date with an ex. I know I may have said some things in the past in regards to my love of David Bowie, and I stand by those statements, but I probably should have qualified them by stating, “I love David Bowie, except for his pre-Ziggy output, which is serviceable, and that rough patch from the ’80s to the early ’90s, which is not serviceable. Also, I’m not real hot on the Berlin stuff. I will watch Labyrinth anytime it comes on TV, and Outside and Earthling were fun for a minute. When do we get to those albums? (Answer: never). OK, it’s pretty much just Ziggy or nothing.”

I used to be really high on Hunky Dory, but lately it’s been dropping on my personal list like Greece’s credit rating. It’s all solid Bowie, start to finish, but there are some songs on the record I cannot stand (“Kooks”, “Fill Your Heart”), and then there are some things on this record that I absolutely love (“Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Queen Bitch”, “Andy Warhol”). For me, that leaves this album as one of Bowie’s most uneven, but I have a hard time reconciling that since this release essentially put him onto the path to making Ziggy Stardust, one of my all-time favorite records. Going at Hunky Dory again for this project, I keep hearing an artist searching for an identity. Bowie writes some of the best material thus far into his career, and it’s really good. The tracks are full of classical flourish, pop hooks, folk vibes, and rock riffs, but he hasn’t figured out how to stitch them together seamlessly, resulting in an album that isn’t quite cohesive.

Klinger: Turn in your spangly unitard, Mendelsohn, because you are about the worst Bowie superfan ever. I’ve already expressed my strange ambivalence toward Ziggy Stardust — and I recognize that makes me an anomaly here — but I think I’m going to have to stand by my opinion that Hunky Dory is a more interesting album. You say it’s less cohesive, but I prefer to think of it as a more diversified approach. And I think that the songwriting is a cut above — Bowie is clearly going out of his way to explore chord changes and song structures that are well removed from most other rock forms. “Life on Mars?” for example goes in some really unexpected directions in just under four minutes, always managing to come back around to that freakishly awesome chorus — I think the only time I don’t crank up that song when it hits the chorus is when my wife is talking. Because that’s rude.

I will concede that the crazel-nuts chord changes and theatrical feel of Hunky Dory give it a decidedly non-rock feel, and that can be daunting. I’m not sure I’d be this big of a fan if I had first heard it when I was younger and more concerned about whether something “rocked”. After all, there are songs on here that were covered by lead Herman’s Hermit Peter Noone and (brace yourself) Barbra Streisand. Still, I can’t help thinking that as Bowie turned toward a more straightforward feel on Ziggy Stardust (possibly influenced by fellow traveler Marc Bolan, whose T. Rex was recording Electric Warrior at the same time), something valuable got left behind.

Mendelsohn: Nothing was left behind. Bowie takes everything with him. From Day One he has been lugging around a trunk full of disguises and props that would put Carrot Top to shame. But that’s the kind of artist Bowie is. He may reinvent himself at what seems like a whim but he’s just building on his repertoire — an overarching rock and roll persona beyond the foppery of Hunky Dory or the space alien transvestite of Ziggy Stardust or the coked-out Thin White Duke. We’ve talked about albums as Grand Artistic Statements or Piles, but Bowie didn’t do the Artistic Statement within the album. The Grand Artistic Statement is his career.

I think the reason that Ziggy Stardust feels more straightforward is because Bowie figured out a way to perfect the amalgamation of all of these diverse stylings that we find on Hunky Dory. Everything you hear on Hunky Dory gives rise to Ziggy Stardust. Hunky Dory just doesn’t have a focus; it’s a massive blob of fantastic songwriting without any real definition — Ziggy Stardust is a white-hot laser beam. Into the sparkle-shaped hole of Hunky Dory, Bowie was able to push the classical stylings and odd chord changes from “Life on Mars?”, the pop sugar of “Changes”, the oddity and experimentation of “Andy Warhol”, the lyrical seeking from “Oh! You Pretty Things” — and then there’s “Queen Bitch”, the Velvet Underground homage that heralded the coming of the almighty Ziggy.

Klinger: Yes, “Queen Bitch”, the Patient Zero of glam in general in terms of both its big crunchy chords and its deliciously fey subject matter. But that to me underscores the idea that Hunky Dory is the album where Bowie reveals himself to be a pivotal figure in rock’s evolution. Not only was he taking standard rock elements and combining them with Anthony Newley-style theatricality, but he was also combining a few different strains of ’60s pop into one streamlined package. He took the lesson of latter-day Beatles — the freedom to use unorthodox chord progressions in service to the song — and managed to do so without sounding especially Beatlesque. The Carnaby Street foppery of Ray Davies was amplified, but the record still doesn’t sound much like the Kinks. And so on.

Not only that, but I have to give props to (I never thought I’d say this) Rick Wakeman, whose ornate piano filigrees still manage to sound organic. (It occurs to me that Wakeman’s playing may have helped show Elton John a way past trying to replicate the Band.) Because say what you will about “Kooks” or Bowie’s cover of Biff Rose’s “Fill Your Heart”. they come across a good bit groovier than they could have in lesser hands.

Mendelsohn: In lesser hands, “Kooks” and “Fill Your Heart”. would probably result in me breaking a lot of records. As it is, I just press a button and skip “Kooks”, but if this record is spinning on the turntable, I normally just let it go. However, I never — never — listen to “Fill Your Heart”, because it kicks off Side B and it’s easier just to drop the needle on “Andy Warhol”.

I’m not saying that these songs don’t deserve merit or that they are out of place; I just don’t like them. They always remind me that Bowie was still seeking his artistic identity. But within Hunky Dory, Bowie as a songwriter starts to find his footing, and it’s this record that made the critics and the listening public take notice of an unconventional artist exploring the boundaries of what had been considered traditional rock and roll. It’s also the moderate success of this LP that gave him the confidence (and the record deal) to explore a different branch of the rock and roll tree. So while I may bemoan some of the tracks that I perceive to be weak, they provide Bowie with space to experiment and find that (next) identity. I, for one, am glad he chose “Queen Bitch” and the glam rock path. He could have gone the other way, basing his next move off of “Song for Bob Dylan”. You talk about Elton John moving past replicating the Band, but can you imagine if Bowie had decided to take that tack, pursuing his own version of Dylan and the Band? Would he have become Robby Zimmers and the Caterpillars from Cripple Creek? That would have been weird. Or not.

Klinger: Interesting. I expect to see a draft of that screenplay on my desk by the end of the month. But yeah, “Song for Bob Dylan”: now that’s one that suggests just how canny Bowie was circa 1971. By cleverly playing off “Song to Woody”, from Dylan’s debut album, it’s clear that Bowie was putting the rock community on notice: “Space Oddity” was not the fluke people were starting to suspect it was, and Bowie was going to lobby hard to be as much the voice of the ’70s that Bob had been for the previous decade. It was a pretty audacious move, especially given the vacuum that had been created with the end of the Beatles administration, and for some reason the critics allowed it to pass virtually without comment. I’m surprised some young upstart didn’t release a “Song to Bowie” in about 1982 (But who? Thomas Dolby? Howard Jones? Taco?)

Mendelsohn: Taco? No. It would have had to have been an up-and-coming voice of the ’80s. Let’s talk to our accounting department about finally getting that time machine — then let’s go have a little conversation with Prince.