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David Bowie – ‘Hunky Dory’

50 years on from its release, revisit Rolling Stone’s review of the fourth David Bowie album, ‘Hunky Dory’.

David Bowie, the swinging/mod Garbo, male femme fatale, confidante to and darling of the avant garde on both sides of the Atlantic, and shameless outrage, is back, and with a bang, although bearing little resemblance to the dangerous loony of The Man Who Sold The World from earlier this year.

For the most part, Dave is back, after an affair with heavy! highenergy killer techniques, back into his 1966-ish, Tony Newley/poprock thang, and happily so: Hunky is his most easily accessible, and thus most readily enjoyable work since his Man Of Words/Man of Music album of 1969.

Much of The Man Who Sold’s appeal is derived from the incredible ferocity of Bowie’s accompanist’s instrumental backing and from Tony Visconti’s masterful production, which propelled it into a tie with the Move’s Shazam for the title of the best-recorded and-mixed heavy! album of all eternity. Relative to Bowie’s own talents it was erratic in the extreme, tedious music and hopelessly obscure (and sometimes downright embarrassing) words alternating frequently within the space of a verse with exciting melodic phrases and poignant, incisive lyrics.

Hunky Dory not only represents Bowie’s most engaging album musically, but also finds him once more writing literally enough to let the listener examine his ideas comfortably, without having to withstand a barrage of seemingly impregnable verbiage before getting at an idea — only in “The Bewlay Brothers” does he succumb to the temptation to grant his poetic faculties completely free rein, and there with expectedly frustrating results.

Here the backing, including strings, doesn’t oppress him as it sometimes did in The Man, but rather creates a casual pop atmosphere in which Dave’s voice, which loves to entertain company, is free to perform all manner of little tricks for us. To top all of this off, Ken Scott’s production is quite splendid — delicious little flourishes of the sort that the casual listener will not detect but that one who gives the record a few serious spins will find thrilling abound, like, say, Mick Ronson’s guitar suddenly beginning to echo distantly at the onset of a solo.

While compiling material for this album Dave’s thoughts apparently turned frequently to the imminence of the birth of his first son, Zowie, which preoccupation is reflected in the album’s two obvious candidates for release as a single, “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Kooks.” The former, which was a hit in England for Herman Hermit, intimates that homo superior — the superman race — is about to emerge, implicitly in the form of the wee Bowie. “Kooks,” which is even catchier, finds Dave urging the infant to stick around with his folks, shameless aberrants though they may be, with such lines as, “Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads/’Cause I’m not much cop at punching other, people’s Dads,” revealing remarkable self-candor on Papa’s part.

“Eight Line Poem,” which is tacked onto the end of “Pretty Things” for reasons obvious only to Dave, is musically blah but boasts the following haiku-ish couplet or whatever at its conclusion: “But the key to the city/Is in the sun that pins the branches to the sky.”

“Changes” has an irresistible stuttered chorus sung by dozens of overdubbed Daves alternating with faintly Newley-ishly-delivered verses that may be construed as a young man’s attempt to reckon how he’ll react when it’s his time to be on the maligned side of the generation schism.

“Quicksand,” a melodically lovely affair that boasts superb singing from Dave and a beautiful guitar motif from Mick Ronson, also speaks of confusion. Through two verses it’s typical erratic Bowie — a flaccid, strained image in the same breath with an extremely effective one (as in “I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes/I’m living proof of Churchill’s lies”), until in the third it abruptly becomes clear and controlled as it betrays the paradoxes the Bowie intellect finds most troubling:

I’m not a prophet or a stone age man
Just a mortal with potential of a superman
I’m living on
I’m tethered to the logic of homo sapien
Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith…

A delightfully and appropriately good-natured rendition of Biff Rose’s sprightly “Fill Your Heart” opens side two, ending with a truly deft swoop into falsetto by the Bowie vocal chords and a taste of the provocative Bowie saxophone, heretofore left un-unveiled on the Bowie records.

Then Dave falters momentarily with two tunes that suggest to Lewis Segal and other astute Bowie-watchers that the lad’s tongue may be less firmly against his cheek than originally suspected when he suggests that he is in the vanguard of, and therefore a qualified commentator on, hip and avant — garde goings — on — both “Andy Warhol,” whose only notable feature is its extraordinary all-acoustic-guitar accompaniment, and “Song For Bob Dylan” impress even these unastute ears as self-indulgent and trivial.

“Queen Bitch,” though, with a vocal right out of Lou Reed and an arrangement right out of the Velvet Underground and a theme right out of the novel of the same name, is fascinating and scandalous, describing a “swishy … Queen” successfully hustling the singer’s boyfriend. And after all this reviewer did to portray Dave as a clean-cut normal in these pages!

“The Bewlay Brothers” sounds like something that got left off The Man Who Sold because it wasn’t loud enough. Musically it’s quiet and barren and sinister, lyrically virtually impenetrable — a stream-of-consciousness stream of strange and (seemingly) unrelated imagery — and it closes with several repetitions of a chilling chorus sung in a broad Cockney accent, which, if it’s any help, David usually invokes when he’s attempting to communicate something about the impossibility of ever completely transcending the mundane circumstances of one’s birth.

And there you have it. With his affection for using intriguing and unusual themes in musical settings that most rock “artists” would dismiss with a quick fart as old-fashioned and uncool, he’s definitely an original, is David Bowie, and as such will one day make an album that will induce us homo superior elitist rock critics to race about like a chicken with its head lopped off when he learns that he’s a couple of pretentious tendencies he’d do handsomely to curtail through the composition of an album’s-worth of material. Until that time, Hunky Dory will suffice hunky-dorily.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in January 1972.

From Rolling Stone US