“Oh! You Pretty Things”
The first song Bowie wrote for Hunky Dory, “Oh! You Pretty Things!” was previously a minor hit for Peter Noone (the lead singer of Herman’s Hermits). Noone delivered it as a pleasant pop song whose presentation glosses over the lyric’s darker shadows. He begins with the chorus and changes the line “The earth is a bitch” to “The earth is a beast” (alterations that Bowie would eventually reverse on Hunky Dory).
Bowie plays piano on it, too (just as he did on Peter Noone’s rendition). While his keyboard skills lack the flourish and sophistication of Wakeman, musically, the simple work introduces the mundane domestic setting of the lyrics. In particular, the notion of waking to morning breakfast is juxtaposed violently by apocalyptic events and announcements (“A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me / All the nightmares came today”).
Immediately following “Changes”, this second selection might appear as its thematic continuation (alongside the theme of generational change) but with a twist. The precise wording of “mamas and papas” to contrast the youth from the parents can also be heard as a signifying nod to the idyllic ’60s, this time personified in the Laurel Canyon harmonies of the famous quartet. In Bowie’s hands, though, this trope of generational shift is not simply evolutionary. Instead, it’s disturbing and revolutionary, and it presages utopic possibilities that emerge in a dystopic landscape. Simon Critchley sees in Bowie’s genius a recognition that music affects a discord with the mundane world.
“Oh! You Pretty Things” is, in its title, an exclamation of wonder that is of one piece with the vaguely Nietzschean themes of the Übermensch (superhuman) rather than a mocking dismissal of what’s emerging (“Oh, you pretty things!”). Bowie also alludes to the 1871 novel The Coming Race by British author Edward Bulwer-Lytton within the lyrics. The book tells of the emergence of a subterranean master race that upend human gender norms. Bowie’s performance—musically, lyrically, even bodily—were powerful signals received and embraced by youth on the margins of mundane society’s restrictive views of gender and sexuality. Thus, the track is a wondrous declaration of creative possibility.
“Eight Line Poem”
“Eight Line Poem” sounds as if it’s a continuation of “Oh! You Pretty Things!” The sparse lyrics are bizarre and puzzling, but rather than distract, it is almost as if their opaque images more urgently showcase the power of Bowie’s voice. The emotional heft on the horizon of this album—indeed of his oeuvre—is prefigured here, almost as if he is showing us music’s power to move us at both prelingual and sublingual levels.
“Life on Mars?”
The spiritual heart of the album, “Life on Mars?” is a cinematic mini-masterpiece in both scope and theme. Driven by Mick Ronson’s gorgeous string arrangement and Rick Wakeman’s piano flourishes, the song is the musical equivalent of Hollywood’s Golden Age blockbusters. It is full of soaring emotional swings, the pathos of the mundane, and the mimicking of the timpani rolls similar to those found in the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Wagner’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” scores Kubrick’s wordless opening comprised of the prelinguistic predecessors of homo sapiens. A sweeping, cinematic portrayal of how technological advances — and our faith in them — often gave birth to dystopic landscapes (“Look at those cavemen go / It’s the freakiest show”).
The piece appears to weave a narrative, with Bowie acting as narrator. But, we might ask, who are these characters? Who is David Bowie? Critchley points out that these are the questions of “narrative identity”, the lie that “lies behind the idea of the memoir”. The creative deceit is that we are the authors of our own stories: Artists divining and defining their authentic essence. Recall that this is what McLean’s “American Pie” mourns. Rock ‘n’ roll had lost its narrative identity. In contrast, “Life on Mars?” offers a non-judgmental meditation on the interplay between image and reality and the fluid, permeable boundary that alleges separation between them.
At first, it seems to be a parable about a young girl’s temporary escape from mundane suffering within the celluloid images of adventures and lives more interesting. Yet, it soon becomes an observation of whether or not the narrative characters on or off the screen are aware of the forces scripting the scenes. (After all, our lives are observed by others as if they’ve just wandered into a darkened theater to screen our “story”?) The tune plays with philosophical determinism (scripting) and the hope of possible futures (rewrites). “Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know / He’s in the best-selling show”?
The heart of “Life on Mars?” is the plaintive plea for human connection. Metaphorically, Bowie once again taps into the suggestiveness of the space race (see also, “Space Oddity”) to give insight into the loneliness of the human condition and our need to belong and bond. Mars is a cipher of transcendence, seemingly out of reach of our abilities yet nonetheless haunting us with ephemeral possibility. It’s the utopic itch that we can’t wholly exorcise from our dystopic present. Fifty years later, the song’s question was co-opted by the fever dreams of escape and colonization harbored by eccentric billionaires auditioning for the part of rock ‘n’ roll cultural messiah. Are there alternative approaches to the quietism of washing our hands of the present dystopia? Perhaps here too, as Critchley claims, Bowie can help.
Providing a temporary respite from grander philosophical questions, “Kooks” offers a lighthearted melody reflecting on domestic life with a twist. Allegedly inspired by Bowie’s learning of the birth of his son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, while he was listening to a Neil Young record, “Kooks” is an easy-listening pop song with a vaudeville feel. Written as an address to the newborn, it is less a series of promises that are hard to keep (protect you from harm) than an invitation to the joys of life outside the stereotypes. There’s even an invitation to avoid fights in school, not for some virtuous reason, but because Bowie’s “not much cop at punching other people’s dads”. While not at the level of the best tracks on the album, “Kooks” exudes a joie de vivre that co-exists with the mundane. As philosopher Critchley notes in an essay written after Bowie’s death (“Bowie’s Future Revolutions”), “Within Bowie’s negativity, beneath his apparent naysaying and gloom, one can hear a clear Yes, an absolute and unconditional affirmation of life in all of its chaotic complexity, but also its moments of transport and delight.”
On the original vinyl LP release, the dark and brooding ballad “Quicksand” was the closing song to Side A. Ripe with metaphysical musings, references to occultism, Nietzsche, and the contrast between Buddhism and messianic religion, it’s a profound meditation on artifice and the illusion of overriding meaning. It’s a striking statement from the 24-year-old Bowie that contains future echoes of his final album, Blackstar. As he proclaims, “Knowledge comes with death’s release”.
The song exposes the often destructive play of pageantry and artifice in which meaning acts as propaganda. At the same time, it’s a warning against the pursuit of “pure” meaning that’s more authoritarian in practice than it is celebrative of the transgressive. “Don’t believe in yourself / Don’t deceive with belief”, Bowie resonates with deep emotion and weary humility, which helps him evade the mantle of rock ‘n’ roll prophet. (Naturally, he continued this theme via the coming figure of Ziggy Stardust.)
“Fill Your Heart”, “Andy Warhol”, “Song For Bob Dylan”, and “Queen Bitch“
Hunky Dory’s B-side starts with, and is dominated by, a quartet of compositions that I’ve designated loosely under the blanket of “The American Experience”. After all, 1971 was also the year that Bowie traveled to America for the first time. Thus, the second side dabbles in the interaction of Bowie with the American landscape.
“Fill Your Heart” is the only cover on the album. Written by comedian/entertainer Biff Rose and prolific pop songwriter Paul Williams, it’s a complete tonal shift after the crestfallen and desperate “Quicksand”. Essentially, it’s a carnivalesque dance hall tune carried along by Wakeman’s joyous piano work and accentuated with clown horns. It allows Bowie to step into the Anthony Newley-ish British pop persona once again. Interestingly, the theme of “So forget your head, and you’ll be free” is not unconnected thematically from “Quicksand’s” aforementioned warning, “Don’t believe in yourself / Don’t deceive with belief.”
The following three songs find Bowie engaging/paying homage/mimicking three American pop culture icons. First, “Andy Warhol” is a driving acoustic rocker that perhaps most freely and creatively embraces the play of the themes of artifice and inauthenticity as a form of truth-telling introduced above. The track begins with a back and forth conversation between the producer in the studio control booth and Bowie over the pronunciation of “Warhol” before laughter gives way to the song. There is a sly reminder that what follows is a work of artifice, something produced for consumption with this inclusion.
The auteur is also a laborer and a mimic. The heart of this song is a play on a specific Warhol quote from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Reflecting on being shot in 1968 by Valerie Solanas, he states: “Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television”. Bowie’s riff on the thought here: “Andy Warhol, Silver Screen / Can’t tell them apart at all”. Critchley argues that Bowie gestures to the ironic self-awareness of both artist and audience in this turn of phrase, which is awareness of “their inauthenticity repeated at increasingly conscious levels”. We’re all watching television. “It’s the freakiest show . . . / Wonder if he’ll ever know / He’s in the best selling show?”
“Song for Bob Dylan“—and “Queen Bitch”, for that matter—displays Bowie’s gift for ironic mimicry. He embodies the style and voice of both Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, respectively, without sliding into parody. There are onion peel layers of mimetic reflection on a “Song for Bob Dylan”, for instance. The title is a riff on Dylan’s own “Song to Woody” and is addressed to Robert Zimmerman in knowing recognition of art and persona as David Jones/David Bowie entreats Zimmerman to pass a message along to Dylan. Some see a call for Dylan to pick up the abandoned mantle of folk hero prophet again in the song. Still, given the embrace of inauthenticity and artifice in the album, one could equally argue that Bowie is reveling in and promoting the play of persona and person (a freedom Dylan himself would soon continue in his Rolling Thunder Revue phase).
“Queen Bitch” is the hardest, most straight-ahead glam rocker on the record; it’s also a preview of the impending arrival of the “Starman” in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Flawlessly embodying the Velvet Underground’s sound and Lou Reed’s cadence and snarl, “Queen Bitch” is a literary recounting of Bowie’s envious admiration of cross-dressing cruisers working the floor of a New York City nightclub. As such, it continues the celebration of artifice and performance. The phrasing “satin and tat” is borrowed from Lindsay Kemp, who taught Bowie mime and movement and used the term to indicate theatricality. In the piece, Bowie’s declaration that he “can do better than that” is a prophecy of things to come.
“The Bewlay Brothers”
The album ends with “The Bewlay Brothers”, a brooding and lyrically inscrutable acoustic piece that Bowie is said to have added because American audiences like to read meaning into things. In other interviews, he’s indicated that it is also about his relationship with his older half-brother, Terry, whose struggle with schizophrenia eventually led to his suicide. Which reading is correct? By now, we are conditioned to recognize the question itself doesn’t yield an answer. Instead, it is in embracing the paradox and play that we move forward. Bowie is letting us know all along that it is serious work not to take things so seriously.
To experience Hunky Dory at 50 is to reflect on the time capsule and that which eludes time. “Time may change me, but I can’t trace time”. It would pave the way to bigger albums in terms of sales and, arguably, impact. But as a snapshot of artistry, Hunky Dory is stunning in its genius and performative play. Who is David Bowie? Hunky Dory, like the works that follow it, frustrates an “authentic” answer to that question. You can’t get there from here. However, its unashamed embrace of what we might derisively term “inauthentic” and “artifice” brilliantly offers an embrace of life that exposes the pervasiveness of the artificial. In the process, Bowie subversively upends the idea of norms as immutable essences. In such a move, he performatively embodied images that helped all of us and especially those pushed to the margins by authoritarian “norms” of gender and sexuality, to create and fully express personas.
Hunky Dory remains one of pop art’s brilliant artifacts for all these reasons and more. Life may be a saddening bore, but take heart because it’s about to written again.
Critchley, Simon. Bowie. New York, NY: OR Books, 2014.
Critchley, Simon, et al. “David Bowie’s Future Revolution.” Public Seminar, 21 April 2020. https://publicseminar.org/essays/david-bowies-future-revolution/
Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1977.