David Bowie’s glam masterpiece Hunky Dory turns 50
In his book Never a dull moment: 1971, the year the rock exploded, British music journalist David Hepworth pleads for 1971 to be the most defining year (from start to finish) in music. It marks the symbolic end of the 1960s with Paul McCartney’s instruction to his lawyers to initiate legal proceedings that would lead to the formal dissolution of The Beatles on New Years Eve 1970. A year of fruitful creativity, rather than a void , followed the loss of the cultural juggernaut of Liverpool.
The era of classic rock arguably started in 1971, with the release of a host of iconic LPs. Specifically, these founding and groundbreaking albums ranged from the Rolling Stones Sticky fingers at Funkadelic Maggot brain; and Joni Mitchell Blue at Marvin Gaye What is going on; and Carole King’s Tapestry at Led Zeppelin IV. At the end of the year on December 17, 24-year-old British singer-songwriter David Bowie released Hunky-dory, a record whose musical versatility and genius rival any catalog of the Beatles of the late 1960s.
Fifty years later Hunky-dory remains a spectacle of sounds and visions. To plagiarize the Berlin Trilogy Moo (1977) it is consciously artifice and image, and it maintains a resounding undercurrent of human desire for connection and recognition. Bowie made his first trip to the United States in 1971 and impacted landscape figures throughout the album’s presentation (both musically and visually). Even the monochrome cover photo was colourised after the shoot to evoke the glamorous shots of starlets from Hollywood’s golden age. The androgynous figure Bowie cuts there marked another step in the genre iconoclasm that has become synonymous with his work.
It may have been tempting to overlook the importance of Hunky-dory at the time. After all, Bowie had recently signed with RCA thanks to his new manager, Tony Defries, who was shopping. Hunky-dory around the studios. Defries reportedly told RCA that they were no longer relevant since Elvis and that they had the opportunity to regain prominence in the rock world by signing Bowie. According to Hepworth’s book, in the initial publicity for the LP’s release, RCA used a quote from Rock Magazine describing Bowie as “the singularly most talented artist at creating music today.” He has the genius to be in the 1970s what Lennon, McCartney, Jagger and Dylan were in the 1960s â.
Keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman, who performed on Hunky-dory before joining the pioneering progressive rock group Yes on Brittle (another classic album from 1971), attended the sessions. He later called Bowie’s fourth studio album “the finest collection of songs I’ve ever heard in one sitting in my life.” Despite this and the enormous amount of critical acclaim he received, Hunky-dory did not sell very well initially. In fact, it only gained enough listeners retroactively (after the years 1972 The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the spiders of Mars definitely heralded Bowie’s reign throughout the decade).
The mystery of the big screen permeates the entirety of Hunky-dory. The different songs work like an actor reel, with Bowie coming in and out of characters and storylines. The album is not a conceptual or singular statement. Instead, it taps into the human need to bring narrative harmony to a body of work and find the authentic message (s) hidden in the clues. Hunky-dory does not offer such a resolution, but perhaps in the same sense it points to the truth as a more creative and imaginative endeavor.
Less than a month after the release of Hunky-dory– in January 1972 – Don McLean’s ode to the loss of innocence, “american pie“hit number 1 on the Billboard Contemporary adult painting. The nearly nine-minute funeral song mourns the loss of American innocence, symbolized by the death of rock and roll (which McLean dates when alluding to Buddy Holly’s fatal plane crash on February 3, 1959). Dripping with nostalgic reviews, McLean’s hit is a case of lost and potentially recovered authenticity.
The mythological legacy of rock and roll in the wake of the 60s produced its own counter-argument teeming with claims of authenticity. All you need is love. Three chords and the truth. Hunt for the ultimate summit. Enlightenment is within you and outside of you. This line is presented as a rebellious gesture against the dominant culture with its claims to authenticity manifested in what counts as authentic religion or sexuality or racial and class stratifications. “You say you want the revolution? It may be that the move from one set of standards to another is just a reform on the edges.
On the other hand, David Bowie does not share any eschatological envy of a rock and roll messiah. As the Continental philosopher and Bowie enthusiast Simon Critchley puts it in his little book Bowie, “Bowie’s genius allows us to break the superficial link that seems to link authenticity to truth.” As a philosopher, Critchley deviates from convention by choosing not to place the motivator of philosophy in the experience of wonder (as does Plato’s traveling professor, Socrates).
Instead, he insists that philosophy begins in deception, with twin loci in religion and politics. Our dissatisfaction with religion emerges as we realize that traditional religious belief is no longer an option in the modern world. Likewise, the presence of continuing injustice generates discontent in politics. Philosophy emerges as creative and imaginative action in the face of disappointment. We understand why this philosopher was attracted to Bowie. Or, better, it can be straightforward to see how this Bowie fan has developed his philosophy over the past few years.
The proceeding era Hunky-dory crashed in shock and grief from multiple assassinations (including MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Fred Hampton), backlash against civil rights movements and war atrocities like My Lai. A tribute to the “glory days” of rock and roll may sound satisfying, but it gets absorbed like empty calories. Critchley draws the line more daringly: âIn my humble opinion, authenticity is the curse of music that we have to heal from. Bowie can help.
For Critchley, art offers a series of repetitions and reconstructions that “remove the illusion of reality and confront us with the reality of illusion.” This claim is not a general nihilism, but a freedom to create and play in a dynamic and utopian way, free from the quest for the Holy Grail of the only authentic path. Hunky-dory itself offers a plethora of musical reenactments of British pop, orchestral works, art-rock, folk and ballads that herald the emergence of glam rock freed from the burden of definitely ‘getting it’.
Bowie’s breakthrough is metaphorically staged in part of the 1973s Rocky Horror Picture Show musical. There Eddie, clad in jeans and wearing a duck tail, who declares his love for rock and roll and, like McLean, is named after Buddy Holly, is killed after harvesting part of his brain to create the Rocky Ã la Adonis. It is a creation of pure sexual gratification for the “sweet transvestite of Transylvania transsexual”, Dr. Frank N. Furter. Rock and roll is not revived or purified; it’s cannibalized (literally in Rocky horror) in a liberating bacchanal. Glam emerges and the illusion is reality. âOoh, watch out, rock-n-rollers! ”
Let’s take the album out of its sleeve, put the record on the platter, drop the needle and see where the journey takes us.
1985 film by John Hughes, The breakfast club, brings ‘Changes’ to the fore in a story of teenage angst by highlighting the following words: “And these children you spit on as they try to change their world / Are immune to your consolations / They are all over the place. made aware of what they are going through â. It’s a powerful cinematic placement, but it can miss the illusory and elusive import of the song. Its chorus themes and stuttering cadence playfully mimic more serious songs from the ’60s, such as “My Generation” by Who and “The Times They Are A-Changin” by Bob Dylan. (Of course both those the leads are calls for the passing of the torch from one world to another in the hope of progress.)
Bowie’s song is more oblique. It evokes the âflow of warm impermanenceâ with an allusion to the inevitable change and decomposition that haunts our great projects. However, it is in this convergence of impermanence within a dystopian present that the young generation of the 1970s becomes immune to the consolations of the utopian hopes of the 1960s (âThey are well aware of what they are going through. “). Bowie gives free rein to imaginative creativity in a surface repetition (âCh-ch-changesâ) that refuses to be frozen. A breathtaking introduction, “Changes” is a proclamation by the author without being discouraged by the will of the critic to name and define, to fix in space and in time the final interpretation. Bowie is “way too fast to pass this test.”
Musically, “Changes” is a striking art-pop opener carried by Rick Wakeman’s opening piano riff. It marks the time in erratic jerks and varied rhythms played by the drum work of Mick Woodmansey and the bass licks of Trevor Bolder. Bowie joins in on the saxophone flourishes, ensuring that “Changes” grabs your attention and promises that you’re about to experience something remarkable from now on.