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David Bowie hunky dory

‘Oh, You Pretty Thing’: David Bowie’s Glam Masterpiece ‘Hunky Dory’ Turns 50

David Bowie’s Hunky Dory is self-conscious about artifice and image. It maintains a resounding undercurrent of human longing for connection and recognition.

Hunky Dory
David Bowie
RCA
17 December 1971

In his book Never A Dull Moment: 1971 The Year That Rock Exploded, British music journalist David Hepworth lays out a case for considering 1971 as the most consequential year (from beginning to end) in music. He marks the symbolic end of the 1960s with Paul McCartney’s instruction to his lawyers to start the legal proceedings that would lead to the formal dissolution of the Beatles on New Year’s Eve 1970. A year of fecund creativity, rather than a vacuum, followed the loss of the cultural behemoth from Liverpool.

The classic rock era arguably launched in 1971, seeing the release of a multitude of iconic LPs. Specifically, these foundational and ground-breaking albums ranged from the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers to Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain; and from Joni Mitchell’s Blue to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On; and from Carole King’s Tapestry to Led Zeppelin IV. As the year ended—on 17 December—a 24-year-old British singer-songwriter David Bowie released Hunky Dory, a record whose musical versatility and genius rivals any of the Beatles’ late ’60s catalog. 

Fifty years later, Hunky Dory remains a spectacle of sound and vision. It is self-consciously about artifice and image, and it maintains a resounding undercurrent of human longing for connection and recognition. Bowie made his first trip to the United States in 1971 and the impact of the landscape figures throughout the album’s presentation (both musically and visually). Even the monochrome cover photo was colorized post-shoot to evoke the glamour shots of Hollywood golden age starlets. The androgynous figure Bowie cuts on it marked another step in the gender-bending iconoclasm that became synonymous with his work.

It may have been tempting to overlook the importance of Hunky Dory at the time. After all, Bowie had recently signed with RCA thanks to his new manager, Tony Defries, who was shopping Hunky Dory around to studios. Defries allegedly told RCA that they hadn’t been relevant since Elvis and had the opportunity to regain prominence in the rock world by signing Bowie. According to Hepworth’s book, in the initial ad for the LP’s release, RCA used a quote from Rock Magazine describing Bowie as “the singularly most gifted artist creating music today. He has the genius to be to the 70s what Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, and Dylan were to the 60s”. 

Keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman, who played on Hunky Dory before joining the pioneering progressive rock band Yes on Fragile (another classic 1971 album), sat in on the sessions. Later, he called Bowie’s fourth studio album “the finest collection of songs I have ever heard in one sitting in my life”. Despite this and the massive amount of critical acclaim it received, Hunky Dory did not sell very well initially. In fact, it only gained sufficient listeners retroactively (after 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars definitively announced Bowie’s reign throughout the decade). 

The mystery of the silver screen infuses the entirety of Hunky Dory. The various songs function as an actor’s reel, with Bowie moving in and out of characters and scenarios. The album is not a conceptual or singular statement. Instead, it taps into the human need to bring narrative harmony to a body of work and find the authentic message(s) hidden within the clues. Hunky Dory offers no such resolution, but perhaps in the same sense, it gestures at truth as a more creative and imaginative enterprise. 

Less than a month after the release of Hunky Dory—in January 1972—Don McLean’s ode to the loss of innocence, “American Pie“, hit number 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. The nearly nine-minute dirge laments the loss of American innocence, symbolized in the death of rock ‘n’ roll (which McLean dates by alluding to Buddy Holly’s fatal plane crash on 3 February 1959). Dripping with nostalgia-fueled critique, McLean’s hit is a case for lost—and potentially reclaimed—authenticity. 

Rock ‘n’ roll’s mythological legacy in the wake of the ’60s produced its own counterargument that’s replete with claims for genuineness. All you need is love. Three chords and the truth. Chasing the ultimate high. Enlightenment lies within you and without you. This rejoinder offers itself as a rebellious gesture against mainstream culture with its claims to authenticity manifesting in what counts as authentic religion or sexuality or racial and class stratifications. “You say you wanna revolution?” It may be that switching one set of norms for another is merely reforming around the edges. 

On the other hand, Bowie shares no eschatological longing for a rock ‘n’ roll messiah. As continental philosopher and Bowie devotee Simon Critchley puts it in his short book Bowie, “Bowie’s genius allows us to break the superficial link that seems to connect authenticity to truth”. As a philosopher, Critchley deviates from convention by choosing not to place philosophy’s motivating factor in the experience of wonder (as does Plato’s peripatetic teacher, Socrates).

Instead, he insists that philosophy begins in disappointment, with twin loci in religion and politics. Our dissatisfaction with religion emerges in realizing that traditional religious belief is no longer an option in the modern world. Likewise, the presence of continuing injustice yields dissatisfaction in politics. Philosophy emerges as creative and imaginative action in the face of disappointment. It is plain to see why this philosopher was attracted to Bowie. Or, better, it may be simple to see how this Bowie fan developed his philosophy in later years.

The era proceeding Hunky Dory crashed into the shock and grief of multiple assassinations (including Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennery, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Fred Hampton), the profound backlash to movements for civil rights, and war atrocities like My Lai. A tribute to rock ‘n’ roll’s “glory days” may appear satisfying, yet it’s absorbed like empty calories. Critchley draws the line more boldly: “In my humble opinion, authenticity is the curse of music from which we need to cure ourselves. Bowie can help”. 

For Critchley, art provides a series of repetitions and reenactments that “strip away the illusion of reality and confront us with the reality of illusion”. This claim is not a general nihilism but a freedom to create and perform in dynamic, utopic ways free from the quest for the holy grail of the one authentic path. Hunky Dory itself offers a plethora of musical reenactments of British pop, orchestral works, art-rock, folk, and ballads that announce the emergence of glam rock unshackled from the burden of definitively “getting it”. 

Bowie’s breakthrough is metaphorically enacted in part of 1973’s Rocky Horror Picture Show musical. There, the jean-clad, ducktail coiffed Eddie—who declares his love of rock ‘n’ roll and, like McLean, namechecks Buddy Holly—is killed after having part of his brain harvested to create the Adonis-like Rocky. He’s a creation of pure sexual gratification for the “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania”, Dr. Frank N. Furter. Rock ‘n’ roll is not revived or purified; it’s cannibalized (literally in Rocky Horror) in a liberative bacchanal. Glam emerges, and illusion is reality. “Ooh, look out, you rock-n-rollers!” 

Let’s pull the album from its sleeve, set the disc on the platter, drop the needle, and see where the journey takes us.

Changes

John Hughes’ 1985 film, The Breakfast Club, foregrounds “Changes” in a story of teenage angst by highlighting the following lyric: “And these children that you spit on as they try to change their world / Are immune to your consolations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through”. It’s a potent cinematic placement, yet it may miss the illusive and elusive import of the song. His chorus’ themes and stuttering cadence playfully mimic more self-serious songs from the ’60s, such as the Who’s “My Generation” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin”. (Of course, both of those tracks are calls for the passing of the torch from one world to the next in the hopes of progress.) 

Bowie’s song is more oblique. He is evoking the “stream of warm impermanence” with a hint to the inevitable change and decay that haunts our grand plans. However, it is in this convergence of impermanence within a dystopic present that the young generation of the ’70s become immune to the consolations of the utopic hopes of the ’60s (“They’re quite aware of what they’re going through”). Bowie gives license to imaginative creativity in a surface repetition (“Ch-ch-changes”) that refuses to be pinned down. A breathtaking way to start, “Changes” is a proclamation of the auteur undeterred by the desire of the critic to name and pinpoint, to fix in space and time the definitive interpretation. Bowie is “much too fast to take that test”. 

Musically, “Changes” is an arresting art-pop opener carried by Rick Wakeman’s opening piano riff. It marks time in erratic jolts and varying beats enacted through Mick Woodmansey’s drum work and Trevor Bolder’s bass licks. Bowie joins in with saxophone flourishes, guaranteeing that “Changes” grabs your attention and promises that you are in for something remarkable from here on out.


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