In 1970, David Bowie was edging closer to his impending take-off from which he would never touch down. With three previous flops and no record deal, Bowie was approaching the album that would fulfil his artistic vision. Released 17 December, 1971, Hunky Dory was the album that secured his legend.
The previous record – The Man Who Sold The World – had already begun spinning the webs of myth. Despite this, Bowie had been in the business seven years already and was somewhat disillusioned. Bowie had recently fired his manager of five years, Ken Pitt. His replacement, the cigar chomping Tony Defries, had made some big claims, however nothing of interstellar importance had yet materialised.
In fact, his biggest move thus far was to squeeze out Tony Visconti for his financial weight. Thus Bowie was left without a producer, a friend. Floating through limbo he resorted to playing small pubs around South London for a few pounds a night.
In a particularly blue moment, Bowie admitted to journalist Steve Peacock that he felt, “washed-up – a disillusioned old rocker”.
The magic ingredient that changed it all, America.
David Bowie’s fourth album secured his fate as a legendary songwriter. 50 years on we reflect on the making of a classic, Hunky Dory.
Travelling by bus from Washington, D.C, to California, Bowie fell in love with America. On his own Kerouac quest, Bowie penned tributes to some of the country’s most iconic innovators: Andy Warhol, Song for Bob Dylan, and the Lou Reed-inspired Queen Bitch. Also in a similar vein to folkies like Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens and who were dominating the US charts at the times, Bowie began composing gorgeous acoustic tunes with surrealist lyrics like ‘It’s on America’s tortured brow/
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow’.
“The whole Hunky Dory album reflected my newfound enthusiasm for this new continent that had been opened up to me,” Bowie reflects in 1999. “That was the first time a real outside situation affected me so 100 percent that it changed my way of writing and the way I look at things.”
The other major influence in sharpening Bowie’s artistic vision was his impending domestic reality – David was about to become a father.
“I think that changed how he was writing songs. He really started to think about how he was going to have a kid. That was interesting to him,” said Bowie’s ex-wife Angie Bowie.
“He got along very well with his father, so from that relationship he had an optimistic prognosis on what it was going to be like. It wasn’t a scary thing for him. ‘Changes’ and ‘Eight Line Poem’ were about that. And, of course, ‘Kooks’.”
The Stardust Band
In the summer of 1971, Bowie hit London’s Trident Studios with 10 demos ready to go. Hunky Dory bassist Trevor Bolder said, “He realised that the folk period was dying out and he needed to move on.”
Bowie also assembled guitarist Mick Ronson and future YES keyboardist Rick Wakeman, thus forming the band that would record Ziggy Stardust; masterfully developing Bowie’s folksy ballads into elegant, grandiose rockers.
“We went into the studio, and I had total freedom to do whatever I liked,” Wakeman recalls. “I still rate it as the finest collection of songs on one album.”
Almost as special as Wakeman’s input was the iconic 100-year old Bechstein piano he played. Producer Ken Scott said, “It was the same piano used on Hey Jude, the early Elton John albums, Nilsson, Genesis and Supertramp, among many others. That was one of Trident’s claims to fame – the piano sound. It was an amazing instrument.” It also recorded the first three Queen albums.
The albums secret weapon however was guitarist and creative foil Mick Ronson. Scott concedes, “I would put him up there with the best I’ve ever worked with. I think Ronno was better than any of The Beatles as a guitarist. his playing was much more from a feel point or melodic point of view.”
Ronson’s electric power blasts on Queen Bitch, searing, yet spare licks on Eight Line Poem, and driving acoustic gallop on Andy Warhol are all electrifying moments on the album.
Hunky Dory was cut in just two weeks. The group was averaging one song per day, crashing in Bowie’s London apartment by curling up in sleeping bags on the balcony. “Dave would drive us and all the gear into central London in the morning,” said Bolder. “Afterward, we’d all go down to the pub and drink. Nobody really knew who David was at that point.”
While Hunky Dory didn’t initially propel Bowie to stardom it gave him a “fabulous groundswell.” It also feels like the first record where Bowie became Bowie, leading to an amazing run of records from Ziggy Stardust (1972), to Aladdin Sane (1973), to Diamond Dogs (1974), and Heroes (1977).
Looking back on his formative breakthrough, David sums it up best:
“First, with the sense of ‘Wow, you can do anything!’ you can borrow the luggage of the past, you can amalgamate it with things that you’ve conceived could be in the future and you can set it in the now.
“Then, the record 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?’”
While we’ve got you, check out Why It Mattered:
- Pink Floyd’s ‘Ummagumma’
- Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’
- King Crimson’s ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’
- David Bowie’s ‘David Bowie’
- The Grateful Dead’s ‘Live/Dead’
- The Allman Brothers Band’s self titled debut
- Led Zeppelin’s ‘Led Zeppelin II’
- Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’
- The Rolling Stones’ ‘Let It Bleed’
- The Clash’s ‘London Calling’