Years ago, possibly when I first came into possession of my very own tape of “Hunky Dory,” my friend Chris Schaeffer said as if it were an objective fact that it is Bowie’s best album. I don’t quite agree with that assessment, but it is awfully good. It is possibly Bowie’s most eclectic album— Bowie usually shifts styles between albums whereas here he changes from song to song. Although he could not have possibly anticipated the era of playlists and shuffling iPods, the album works translates well into the contemporary way of listening to music, though I also get the sense that Bowie put some thought into the sequence of songs.
The album begins with two of Bowie’s signature songs. “Changes” is as good a contender as any as the representative example of his entire body of work. This is in part because it is a really good song and in part because the title and refrain seem to speak to Bowie’s characteristic way of reinventing his style and persona. As with some of the other songs on this album, notably “Life in Mars, “Changes” is not especially rocking (despite its obvious nod to The Who) and has an era-spanning appeal. I can imagine it emerging out of an earlier or later period. If all that weren’t enough, the song’s stature was cemented by the “Changes” series of compilation albums.
“Changes” is followed by, “Oh! You Pretty Things,” and then, two songs later by, “Life on Mars.” These are another two of Bowie’s most beloved and recognizable songs. To this point, and really seldom after, did Bowie manage to assemble such a sequence, broken up only by, “Eight Line Poem,” a pleasant throwback to his earlier style, but a minor song in the shadow of these three monumental works.
“Oh! You Pretty Things,” again is elevated not just by its quality (which again is very good), but also for its implied description of Bowie’s nascent style. The album cover features a very pretty Bowie looking (deliberately), like Marlene Dietrich. This point in Bowie’s career was actually just prior to his glam rock period (at least as defined by the Ziggy Stardust persona). Bowie had previously appeared in a dress on some versions of the cover of “The Man Who Sold the World,” but that album really didn’t include any songs that employed gay imagery like this song (and more so, “Queen Bitch,” later in the album). Thematically, this song was also a kind of preview of Bowie’s celebration of hedonism, which was always a celebration tinged with a foreboding sense of inevitable downfall. That looming dread is not detectable in this song on its own, but I think of it as part of a sequence Bowie stretched out over the years and eventually included the Tin Machine song, “Pretty Thing,” and later, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” Even before that, songs like “Rock and Roll Suicide,” and “Diamond Dogs,” suggest that the carefree dashing of societal norms embraced by “Oh! You Pretty Things” is a light moment on the road to breakdown. Bowie would address this theme in different ways again and again (“Ashes to Ashes,” for instance, is explicitly about the dark turn of addiction taken by the course of the life of the protagonist of “Space Oddity,” Major Tom). If there is a philosophical idea here, it is that that time corrupts all, so it doesn’t matter what we do on the way to our inevitable demise.
“Life on Mars” has more career-spanning imagery. The song, which isn’t about Mars at all, is his first to mention that particular planet, but even by 1971 it is not at all his first to evoke space-imagery (“Space Oddity,” “Memories of a Free Festival”). It is about escaping the difficulties of life through artifice, in this case movies. Bowie would later shine a spotlight on his own self-awareness that he was playing a part in his stage personas, so he himself would avoid difficult reality by ignoring it in favor of fantasy. Of Bowie’s greatest hits, “Life on Mars” is probably the song that least sounds like a rock song, which is perhaps why Barbra Streisand covered it (though it was not an especially good cover). In part on the suggestion of Connie Hoyt, this is the song I chose to end my year-long daily song tribute.
Bowie previews his later glam-rock style with “Queen Bitch,” which is the second to last song on the album. It is one of my very favorite songs, and contains a line which for me has been motivational— “I could do better than that.” That sentiment might have been a hint at Bowie’s own thinking— “hey, I’m pretty pleased with this album, but I can do better”— his next album was “Ziggy Stardust.”
The actual closing song on the album is, “The Bewlay Brothers,” which is another great song, but so ambiguous as to not have the kind of mass appeal as the others ones I’ve already mentioned. I saw Bowie perform this song once in concert, which at the time he admitted was rare. He seemed surprised by the roaring enthusiasm from the audience. So this one is really for the fans, like its our secret great Bowie song. Just don’t ask us what its about.
The rest of “Hunky Dory” is good but not great, There are two homages— “Andy Warhol” and “Song for Bob Dylan.” As a side note, its interesting to think that by 1971 Bob Dylan was already worthy of an homage, and nearly 50 years later he’s still making music and touring while Bowie, Warhol and many of his contemporaries have left us.
“Quicksand,” Bowie’s most depressing song, is a near-great, but its expression of hopelessness is almost juvenile— what’s so depressing? But still, its a good song.
“Kooks” and “Fill Your Heart”— I have long felt that these two are lout of place. Especially juxtaposed against “Quicksand,” these two songs are almost comically happy. They seem out of place. Bowie did not write, “Fill Your Heart” — its a Paul Williams song. Bowie usually included covers on his album but Paul Williams, though a hit-maker at the time, seems to be an source for material. That said, the song actually does touch on some of Bowie’s more regular themes— “don’t play the game of time; things that happened in the past only happened in your mind.” For Bowie, while space is comfortable, time is the enemy. And there is no value to adhering to President. So this song isn’t entirely irrelevant.
So, going back to Chris Schaeffer’s assessment — this really is a great album. One thing that mars my particular edition, which is the 1990 Rykodisc version, is the inclusion of four bonus tracks, starting with the inferior song, “Bombers.” Bowie decided not to include this song on the original album— he made that decision for a reason— it isn’t of the same quality as the others. “Bombers” is followed by alternate versions of “The Supermen,” from “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Quicksand,” and “The Bewlay Brothers” (which sounds very similar to the other version on the same disc). These additions actually detract from the album as a whole and would have been better included in some sort of collection of rare and alternate versions of songs.