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David Bowie: Many Happy Returns To 'Hunky Dory'

Thursday, 15 December 2016 Written by Graeme Marsh

This year will be remembered in future as one of great loss. Legend is a term loosely applied these days but the late Merle Haggard, Prince and Leonard Cohen all comfortably fell into the category. It was David Bowie, though, whose passing was perhaps widest felt.

In the space of just three days, with the year barely underway, Bowie would make one final huge imprint on the world. His 25th studio album, ‘Blackstar’, dropped on January 8 – his 69th birthday. Two days later the unthinkable happened. The seemingly invincible starman was gone, taken before his time after a secret battle with cancer.

As the year now draws to an end, the jazz-inflected ‘Blackstar’ is safely nestled on ‘Best of’ lists the world over. But this week also marks 45 years since Bowie’s fourth album and first for RCA, ‘Hunky Dory’, was released. In a career that glittered to the last, it stands as perhaps his finest achievement.

Recorded at Trident Studios, London, ‘Hunky Dory’ saw Bowie continue the shape shifting that had delivered a mix of material to date, most recently the heavy rock of 1970’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Commercially, Bowie had only made tentative impressions on the charts in both the UK and the US to date, but ‘Hunky Dory’ would change that.

Key to the album’s success was Bowie’s switch to writing catchy, poppy songs and an intriguing physical transformation that saw the first signs of what would soon develop into the fictional character Ziggy Stardust appear. It would also give Bowie a stepping stone to a fruitful relationship with Lou Reed, frontman of the Velvet Underground, in the form of the Velvets-influenced Queen Bitch and Andy Warhol, a song he’d later perform at the iconic artist’s Factory in New York.

‘Hunky Dory’ found Ken Scott shifting from engineer to producer -  a role he’d also fulfil on ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘Pin Ups’. Manning the keys, in his pre-Yes days, was session musician Rick Wakeman. The band was rounded out by Bowie’s guitar wizard Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder on bass and drummer Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey, with greater focus falling on piano arrangements channelled through Wakeman’s expressive, virtuoso playing.

In an interview with Jonathan Ross in 2003, Wakeman recalled that Bowie had written the album on his acoustic guitar, but the truth was different. Prior to Wakeman’s introduction, ‘Hunky Dory’ was already shaping up as a piano-drived record. “Lovely fella, Rick, however his memory is about as loopy as mine in some places,” was Bowie’s response. “Several songs on ‘Hunky Dory’ were written on piano, eg Life On Mars? and Changes for starters, not guitar. I played my plodding version and Rick wrote the chords down then played them with his inimitable touch.”

Speaking to Ken Sharp for his exhaustive book Kooks, Queen Bitches and Andy Warhol: The Making Of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory Woodmansey added: “On a lot of those songs, David hadn’t written the lyrics, we just put the backing tracks down and he’d come in at the end and write all the lyrics. He was starting to write more on piano. I’d hear him in Haddon Hall plonking out simple chords. Then he got a bit more skilled.”

How the songs were written, of course, is small fry when compared to their meanings. Debated at great length by numerous scribes, their proffered inspirations occasionally vary tremendously. Depending on who you ask, the iconic opening track, Changes, could depict Bowie’s continuous regeneration or the impending prospect of fatherhood. According to others, it references Bowie defying his critics.

Oh! You Pretty Things had already been a hit for Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, with discussion of its thematic drive revolving separately around the birth of Bowie’s son (again), the creation of an alien/human future race and transgender issues. Then you have mortality, hopelessness and confusion at the future on Quicksand, escapism via film, the media or man’s futile existence on Life On Mars?, and prostitution, drag queens or simply a tribute to the Velvet Underground on Queen Bitch. Song For Bob Dylan sees Bowie perhaps appealing to Dylan for a return to his confrontational, politically attuned yarns, while one of his greatest influences is addressed on the aforementioned Andy Warhol.

However it was created and whatever its meaning, ‘Hunky Dory’ was undoubtedly Bowie’s most accessible album, at least until the dance-pop of 1983’s ‘Let’s Dance’. For the next generation of Bowie admirers – and there will be countless of them for years to come – it provides a perfect introduction to a man many consider to be the greatest rock artist of them all. His legacy will live on, but David Bowie’s passing has left a colossal void that cannot be filled. Thank you and good night Major Tom, over and out.

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