Turn and Face the Strange: Hunky Dory at 50

Time will never change our love for David Bowie’s fourth album

Brian Ward photo used for the back cover of Hunky Dory (Image: Rhino/Parlophone)

David Bowie wasn’t “David Bowie” in 1971. That is, he wasn’t the huge star that he would ultimately become, not yet anyway.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Bowie had launched his solo career in 1967, with a self-titled album, and followed it up with Space Oddity in 1969, based on the popularity of the title song. 1970 saw The Man Who Sold the World, whose title track would memorably be covered by Nirvana a couple of decades later. But however successful those records might have been, they hadn’t catapulted Bowie into the stratosphere just yet. 

Hunky Dory, which came out on December 17, 1971, was not going to set the world on fire, either; with scant promotion from RCA, it barely registered until after The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust dropped the following year. But it’s one of the best albums of Bowie’s career, and the start of him really finding his voice, in the opinion of many music critics.

 

 

For the first time he was working with the backing band who would help fuel him to interstellar heights as the “Spiders from Mars,” and his songwriting skills were in high gear, inspired by a trip to New York in early 1971. Hunky Dory is, perhaps, the first real classic Bowie record. 

And it opens with arguably one of his most classic songs, “Changes,” a call to arms for the younger generation and a stern rebuke to those who stood in its way. Bowie, who struggled early on to connect to any audience, sounds in fine form here, and that carries on through the remaining songs. “Oh! You Pretty Things” follows, which was a hit single earlier in the year…for former Herman’s Hermit Peter Noone (thank you for that tidbit, Wikipedia). As done here by Bowie, it’s a teasing romp, very Weimar Germany in its sensibility (you could almost hear it being sung by Sally Bowles, honestly). 

Bowie acknowledged his debt to American icons with songs like “Andy Warhol,” “Song for Bob Dylan,” and “Queen Bitch,” an ode to the Velvet Underground and their mercurial leader Lou Reed (whose second solo album, Transformer, would be co-produced by Bowie the following year). “Life on Mars?” paints a cinematic view of a young girl shut away from her home over some unspecified offense, thrust out into a confusing world where nothing is what it appears. “The Bewlay Brothers” is a weird, haunting song that may or may not be about Bowie’s half brother, who struggled with schizophrenia. And if “Pretty Things” seemed a little Weimar German in its sound, “Fill Your Heart” is most assuredly something that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Kurt Weill opera. 

David Bowie Hunky Dory, Parlophone 1971

But for me, the best song on the album is “Kooks,” a lovely ode to first-time fatherhood that shows the future Thin White Duke was an emotional guy. It suggests that his son has brought out the kooky side in his dad, and the adventures detailed in the lyrics sound more like a petty-crime gang than a father-son relationship, but therein lies the charm. Bowie wasn’t going to be a conventional father by any means (nor was he meant to be a conventional pop star, either), and I can imagine growing up with him must’ve been interesting for his son Duncan Jones. “Kooks” is just fun from start to finish. 

As I said earlier, Ziggy Stardust was just around the corner for Bowie and the world at large, so RCA didn’t do much with this one. The album’s chart performance would be crap, but in later years Hunky Dory would be reappraised and even ranked as close to being Bowie’s best record. Frankly, I find it to be one of the most enjoyable, entertaining albums track-by-track, and I think anyone who calls themselves a Bowie fan and doesn’t have Hunky Dory should remedy that as soon as possible.

The children that were spit on as they tried to change their world are all grown up now, but there will be future generations ready to be just a couple of kooks and pretty things, if they get half the chance. 

 

VIDEO: David Bowie “Changes”

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Trevor Seigler

Trevor Seigler is a substitute teacher (the chill one) in South Carolina. He is more machine than man now, but you can still look him up @T_L_Seigler on Twitter.

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