Records as opening point. As gateway; the route straight through. Beneath mould-coloured skies and the bricolage of teenhood, back when no-one cared for vinyl and Camus was read in his native tongue – each word understood, the sentiment less so. The devils were busy downgrading to compact disc, their LPs dumped like never-loved puppies; these were stupid people, a lack of foresight and glued-up ears, and because of this entire collections were broken up then re-homed at thrift store prices. A mint 1971 pressing of Hunky Dory, purchased for 50p from a grizzled Vietnam vet who scraped a living clearing houses, selling off the proceeds from whatever temporary premises he could procure. I no longer own this copy; a few years later I split up with that era’s love interest, who somehow came out of the relationship with custody of the Bowie vinyl, thus beginning a series of break-up-inspired record divorces that continued into my thirties, as if some rather fine music was default compensation for suffering my attentions. Also: this loss doesn’t matter; records experienced at formative ages stick with you to such an extent that the actual physicality is mere transience. I was fourteen or fifteen; how could I have foreseen the trails of song and broken hearts leading long into the distance?
I’ve read somewhere that Hunky Dory is easy listening, subjugated (transfixed; possibly rescued) by its lyrical content. Which is another way of proclaiming its conventional musicality, and thus the contrast with all those chameleons, comedians, Corinthians and caricatures hanging about the vocal track. This is not a theory I can buy into (my teenage self would prohibit it). I still recall those early listens; an event of Precambrian proportions, I suspect. Before, Bowie had prowled within parameters defined by the Top Of The Pops aesthetic. Pop Bowie, ’80’s Bowie, dancing in the bloody streets Bowie. The ’70’s canon would have been brushed up against – a highlights package badly and heavily edited; ‘Starman’, ‘Life On Mars?’, ‘Space Oddity’ – but any nuance didn’t hit as representative. Hunky Dory changed all this. The gateway, the route straight through sound and vision – by which easy listening is simply a dispersion.
Those preliminary listens, then: an exercise in enchantment. The method through which the material is backlit. The framed theatricality, the fading looped sax squelch as ‘Fill Your Heart’ segues into ‘Andy Warhol’ (the former originally recorded by (of all people) Tiny Tim; the b-side to ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ – come the revolution, every album will have to feature at least one Tiny Tim cover). ‘Fill Your Heart’ is whimsy, yet neither alien nor gratuitous; Hunky Dory’s themes may be complex, the hot/cold maturity flaunted, but that doesn’t mean fun (and/or warmth) is deliberately excluded. What this record represents (or possibly: represented – I may be no longer in my teens) is a proposition; an invitation to view the equilibrium implicit in Bowie’s back catalogue in ways yet thought of.
Take ‘Quicksand’ for instance. “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with potential of a superman” (which pretty much trumps any “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues” in the gravity stakes). There’s a great deal here to get (adolescent) teeth into; the lyric-carried philosophy is cod, of course, the Aleister Crowley references pure Jimmy Page, but the execution is deft and fleet of foot, gravitas courtesy of Mick Ronson’s string arrangement as much as Bowie’s hocus pocus.
So: album as a series of poignant statements, perhaps. One in which the slanted self-exposure rides amidst sly lullaby (‘Kooks’) and charging glam ballad (‘Oh! You Pretty Things’). Opener ‘Changes’ can be read as a soliloquy of sorts; a mark of intent, the display of actorly confidence, Bowie’s sax rampant, the interplay between Ronson’s guitar and Rick Wakeman’s ivory tickling resplendent. ‘Life On Mars?’ is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ but good; ‘Eight Line Poem’ fosters a languid, lazy Sunday quality (“The tactful cactus by your window surveys the prairie of your room”).
Also, side two. A fan boy triptych; Warhol, Dylan, Lou Reed. It’s easy to have a thing for Michael Ronson (he did produce Vauxhall And I, after all), and his guitar lines across these three tracks signpost the attraction (was Bernard Butler a fan? I’m guessing that Bernard Butler is a fan). ‘Andy Warhol’ (which I think is in E minor) and the duelling acoustic cross-check, one playing chords, the other splayed out against the riff. ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ has Ronson’s lead all sensual over the vocal. And ‘Queen Bitch’ – such the slutty hook, aping the acoustic riff like some tarty pastiche, Eddie Cochran on a construction site in too much Max Factor. This is artist (and foil) at their most waspish, their most New York City, and as a track it really is rather marvellous, buffeting up against the grand finale that is nonsense poem ‘The Bewley Brothers’; inscrutable and yet strangely fragile; another aspect of that self-revelation should you know where to look.
Teen me = a big fan of this album. Adult me functions in very different patterns (I think), and yet dropping needle here isn’t an act of stagnant nostalgia, of meeting my younger apparition behind the bike sheds to share a crafty cigarette. There’s a vitality to this record; a lean sort of swagger, a zip and a zing. But is Hunky Dory the acme of David Bowie fandom? I don’t know; after spinning ‘Win’ on his wireless show the other night, Marc Riley (who very much knows his stuff) nailed it when confirming Young Americans as his favourite – his favourite that particular week. You can draw a trail right through his ’69 eponymous album all the way to 1980’s Scary Monsters, and whilst the musical focus is the child spending an entire afternoon in the fancy dress shop – troubadour to harlequin, Philly Soul to Cold War blitz kid – the integrity is solid, and all-encompassing whether Tony Visconti is at the mixing desk or not (Ken Scott produced Hunky Dory; hence the subtle, pleasing art rock whiff to proceedings – it’s hard not to hear this playing in the background as Roxy Music recorded their debut, for instance). The difficulty arrives in the contrast, of picking out one item above another (cue awkward tapas analogy). Heroes is the more intoxicating album. Aladdin Sane is more coherent, and perhaps more thrilling; Diamond Dogs, and I’m hiding behind the sofa. Hunky Dory? Well; it represents something. A left turn perhaps when considering what came before, but also one of those staging posts along the way when the listener received a jolt, and a new way of appreciating recorded sound. The album arrived in adolescence, near-on twenty years after release (which is not the point), yet potent enough to mark the place where Bowie’s importance first struck, the 80’s material identified as aberration, and buying habits very promptly changed for the better.
David Bowie / Queen Bitch
Tiny Tim / Fill Your Heart