As an artist and performer, David Bowie has gone through more reinventions than Buddha’s had reincarnations. Like Miles Davis, the man just couldn’t stand in the one place or on the same street corner for too long. He had to keep moving, always looking for new directions and styles to assimilate and then exploit to maximum commercial effect. And just like on his previous album The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie continues in what would from now become a tradition of gender-bending album covers, where he’s adopted the image of Greta Garbo, whom I’m sure was something of a gay icon even back then. And on the reverse side, we have David looking like some sort of junkie version of a young Catherine Hepburn, just to confuse the Christian lobby even more. But where the lyrics to The Man Who Sold… often alternate between the dreary and downright obscure, here they are just plain easier to follow (as far as Bowie is concerned), and therefore more accessible to your average listener. Hunky Dory is also one of my favourite albums by Bowie, if for the fact that it is one of his most musical, not to mention humorous outings, and a document which I’ve always felt served as a sort of template, or launching pad if you like to much of what he would produce over the intervening years.
First stop, the big hit. Opener “Changes” is in my opinion one of the closest breaches into Bowie’s mind on record, as rare as that is. The song is pure glam-theatrics, where David warns “Look out you rock and rollers… Pretty soon now you’re gonna to get older”. A portend indeed. The stutter of “Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes” in the chorus reminds me of The Who’s “My Generation”, where Roger Daltrey also stammers his lines, such as “Why don’t you all f-f-f-f-fade away”. Still, “Changes” is an outstanding pop composition, as tasteful as it was inventive, and remains a hard one to beat.
“Oh You Pretty Things” is another classic, very vaudeville, in a way, however the lyrics make absolutely no sense at all, in that sort of T.S. Eliot Wasteland kind of way, which you know of course means that they must be positively brimming with obtuse philosophical observations and abstract significances just ripe for academic interpretation.
“Eight Line poem” finds David performing a poetic country piss-take, yet no country song I’ve ever heard had lines like “But the key to the city/Is in the sun that pins the branches to the sky”.
“Life On Mars” is simply cinematic in its effect. A piece so perfect and commanding that after repeated listens will fuse with your DNA to ensure that the next generation will already know it before they’ve even had a chance to hear it.
“Kooks” is a bit of English whimsy, which David no doubt dedicated to his recently born son, Zowie. It’s quite charming really, in a post Beatles kind of way. But it comes with a warning, in the form of “And if you ever have to go to school/Remember how they messed up this old fool”. In other words, there’s no place in this world for weirdos kid, so I guess you’re stuck with me an’ your mother.
“Quicksand” starts off similar to something on his 1969 album Space Oddity, but then quickly shifts into something “rich and strange”. Bowie’s falsettos are stunning, and unique for rock at that time. But let’s not forget his accompanists, all of whom add a profound depth to what our troubadour is striving to achieve.
Things get theatrical with “Fill Your Heart”, and reminds me of a Broadway audition. “Andy Warhol” is an acoustically charged number, dedicated to its namesake (naturally). Followed by another tedious track in the form of “Song for Bob Dylan”, where Bowie makes an attempt to ape the ‘Great Man’ himself, who like Bowie, also wore many masks, so I guess they both had that much in common at least.
“Queen Bitch” is all crunchy riffs and steady rock rhythms. Definitely a sign of things to come. So is final track “The Bewlay Brothers”. All contemplative quiet sections followed by ascending build-ups and heightened strings with an extremely bizarre and disturbing ending.
As to whether David Bowie is a genius or not, I’ll leave that argument to those who still want to have his children. And though I’m certainly not one of them, what I do subscribe to is the image of Bowie the master manipulator, the musical connoisseur, not unlike some marketing executive with an instinct sharp enough to know what was just around the corner, then using said intuition to remain just that one step ahead. Who is the real David Bowie we’ll never know. Because he is a real thespian, presenting not the true likeness of the man within, but the person without, as all actors do, thus creating stories and characters within those stories, a sort of mythology if you will; which is one of the first purposes’s of art itself.