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Music / Hunky Dory

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"Turn and face the strange!"

Hunky Dory is the fourth studio album by David Bowie, released in 1971 through RCA Records. After the heavy metal of The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie returned to his then-typical style of songwriting from his first two albums, with lighter, easy-listening fare. However, instead of focusing on the art hall pop of his debut album or the progressive folk of its successor, he instead turned this album in the direction of art pop mixed with Velvet Underground-inspired art rock, presaging the Glam Rock sound that would first truly make itself known a year later.

To help aid in this approach, Bowie enlisted the help of Ken Scott as producer, having broken ties with Tony Visconti due to the latter's frustration with manager Tony Defries and a perceived lack of enthusiasm from Bowie himself during the making of The Man Who Sold the World. Scott had previously engineered Space Oddity and most of The Beatles' albums from A Hard Day's Night to The White Album (barring Revolver), and would continue working with Bowie for three more albums before Bowie reunited with Visconti during the sessions for Diamond Dogs.

While he looked to the future in the song "Changes," he paid tribute to his influences with "Andy Warhol", "Song for Bob Dylan", and the Velvet Underground-esque "Queen Bitch." He also wrote songs for his son Zowie, like "Kooks", delved into the occult with "Quicksand", and foreshadowed his next album's hit single "Starman" and continued his fascination with otherworldly apocalypse in "Oh! You Pretty Things".

As the album's recording sessions began, Bowie's contract with Philips Records and Mercury Records expired. Having previously butted heads with Bowie over the cover art to The Man Who Sold the World, Mercury were willing to negotiate a more favorable contract for the artist. However, Bowie's manager, Tony Defries, instead forced Mercury to let the contract expire, feeling slighted by the label's handling of Bowie's finances and threatening to make Bowie turn in a bad album unless they relented. Thus, once recording wrapped up, Defries spent some time going around America, showing the album to a number of labels there in search of someone who'd offer a better marketing environment for Bowie. Eventually, he stumbled upon the New York City-based RCA Records, who Defries appealed to by claiming that they "had nothing since The '50s" (alluding to Elvis Presley's heyday and his overshadowing by The Beatles in The '60s), promising that Bowie would let them "own The '70s." While the head of RCA had never heard of Bowie, he was impressed when Defries performed some tracks from Hunky Dory for him, resulting in the label bringing Bowie on-board with a three-album contract; by this point, recording sessions for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars were already underway. Bowie would end up working with RCA for the next 11 years.

The album received little promotion from RCA, due to its unusual cover image and a warning that Bowie would be changing his image for his next album. Because of this, Hunky Dory initially sold poorly and failed to break the UK Albums Chart. It was only after the commercial breakthrough of Ziggy Stardust the following year that Hunky Dory itself became a commercial success, peaking at number three on the UK Albums Chart (two places higher than Ziggy Stardust) and eventually being certified platinum by the BPI in 1982. In the United States, this album would not enter the charts until after Bowie's death in 2016, where it peaked at both No. 4 on Billboard's Top Catalog Albums charts and No. 57 on the mainline 200.

Like Bowie's first two albums, Hunky Dory was supported by two singles: "Changes" and "Life on Mars?", both of which have now become strong candidates for Bowie's Signature Song.


Side One

  1. "Changes" (3:37)
  2. "Oh! You Pretty Things"note  (3:12)
  3. "Eight Line Poem" (2:55)
  4. "Life on Mars?" (3:53)
  5. "Kooks" (2:53)
  6. "Quicksand" (5:08)

Side Two

  1. "Fill Your Heart"note  (3:07)
  2. "Andy Warhol" (3:56)
  3. "Song for Bob Dylan" (4:12)
  4. "Queen Bitch" (3:18)
  5. "The Bewlay Brothers" (5:22)

Bonus Tracks (1990 Re-issue):

  1. "Bombers" (2:38)
  2. "The Supermen" (2:41)
  3. "Quicksand (Demo)" (4:43)
  4. "The Bewlay Brothers (Alternate Mix)" (5:19)

Take a look at the law man, beating up the wrong trope:

  • Accentuate the Negative: "Quicksand:"
    Don't believe in yourself
    Don't deceive with belief
    Knowledge comes with death's release
  • Alliterative Title: "The Bewlay Brothers."
  • Alternate Album Cover:
    • The original US release uses a Textless Album Cover, featuring the glamour shot of Bowie and the surrounding black border but without any of the logotypes.
    • The New Zealand LP release repeats the back cover on both sides of the outer sleeve (with the "DAVID BOWIE HUNKY DORY" logotype added), with the only differentiation being the presence of copyright information on the back.
    • The original RCA Records CD changes the text on the cover from white to black and adjusts the rear tracklist to reflect the single-track sequencing of both "Oh! You Pretty Things"/"Eight Line Poem" and "Fill Your Heart"/"Andy Warhol". The original RCA Victor logo on the black border is also removed, presumably to avoid any redundancy with the "RCA CD" logo that was featured on all of the label's CD releases at the time.
    • The 1990 and 1999 remasters remove the black border around the cover art, with the former additionally removing the artist name and album title.
    • The 2015 remaster's cover art is mostly identical to that of the 1971 UK LP, but replaces the RCA Victor logo with the Parlophone Records one (as was also the case for the label's concurrent releases of The Man Who Sold the World — albeit with the Mercury Records logo on that one — and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars).
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: "Quicksand:"
    Can't take my eyes from the great salvation
    Of bullshit faith
    • The song also can be read as taking the stance that it's impossible to know whether an afterlife exists or what it's like if it does, as seen in the quote above under Accentuate the Negative. This arguably qualifies it as a Religion Rant Song, although Bowie is also using the lyrics to explore concepts in Buddhism and Thelema, so it's arguably more of a rant about some religions than about a rant about all religions. Another interpretation argues that the song isn't actually talking about literal death at all, nor is it talking about all kinds of belief; it is simply talking about ego death — i.e., the death of an idealised perception of oneself, which is deceptive and can actually lead to suffering and an unhealthy mental state. In this interpretation, by saying "don't believe in yourself", Bowie isn't saying you should belittle yourself; he's simply saying you shouldn't deceive yourself into believing you're anything other than what you are. Thus, knowledge comes from accepting yourself as you are, and ego death brings release and knowledge; the song consequently argues for a love of the world we share, of each other, and of life at this very moment. It's also possible that the song is an expression of simply being overwhelmed by a confusing world, with so many ideas battling it out within his mind.
  • Black-and-White Morality: "Quicksand" argues against this interpretation of reality; it criticises Winston Churchill, who at the time was uncritically regarded as a war hero in much of Britain. The reality was more ambiguous, as Churchill also supported imperialism and a number of reactionary social beliefs to which Bowie stood in opposition. Bowie also acknowledges in the song that he is "drawn between the light and dark" — in short, where most people see themselves uncritically as the heroes of their own stories, Bowie acknowledges his own dark side.
  • Call-Back: "Life on Mars?" again uses space imagery, like Bowie did earlier with Space Oddity.
  • Call-Forward: "Oh! You Pretty Things" talks about the coming of a "Homo Superior," which is similar to the "Starman" from Bowie's next album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which would continue the space and Mars imagery in general; the sessions for Ziggy were already underway by the time Hunky Dory released.
  • Cover Version: Biff Rose's "Fill Your Heart". For a given definition of "cover," given that Bowie wrote it, "Oh! You Pretty Things" was first given to and recorded by Herman's Hermits frontman Peter Noone in the spring of 1971 (as "Oh You Pretty Thing", then "Oh You Pretty Things" to fix a Tyop on the Cover) before Bowie provided his own rendition on this album.
  • Crapsack World: "Oh! You Pretty Things:"
    All the nightmares came today
    And it looks as though they're here to stay
  • Digital Destruction: The initial US CD release by RCA Records featured tape damage on "Changes", while the same track and "Oh! You Pretty Things" are noticeably compressed on the concurrent European CD. The US CD additionally suffers from a volume and equalization imbalance, with the tracks from Side Two being louder and brighter than the tracks from Side One.
  • Dramatic Timpani: In "Life on Mars?" at the end.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: Invoked on the cover art, a homage to Marlene Dietrich and a continuation of the British cover art to The Man Who Sold the World. Given the conflicts Bowie had with Mercury Records executives over the latter artwork, the recalling of Dietrich on Hunky Dory's cover may be a subtle Take That! at Mercury, via Bowie expressing his greater freedom on RCA.
  • Face on the Cover: Bowie in close-up.
  • Fading into the Next Song: "Oh! You Pretty Things" fades into "Eight Line Poem". Likewise, "Fill Your Heart" fades into "Andy Warhol" via an oscillating series of synthesized beeps.
  • The Generation Gap: One verse in "Changes" notes how older generations scorn younger ones and force them to conform to their own values, while said youth view them as ignorant and unempathetic. Bowie sides with the youth in the song, encouraging them to eke out their own paths in life.
  • Homage: "Song for Bob Dylan," an homage to Bob Dylan, and "Andy Warhol" to Andy Warhol.
  • I Just Want to Be Free: "Fill Your Heart:"
    Love cleans the mind and makes it free.
  • Incoming Ham: Bowie on "Changes":
  • In the Style of: "Life on Mars?" is a pastiche of Frank Sinatra, as indicated by a note on the back cover which reads "Inspired by Frankie." Bowie wrote the song after Sinatra's people shopped around for an English version of Claude François' "Comme d'Habitude" and picked Paul Anka's version, "My Way", over Bowie's. As Bowie later noted, his plan to get Sinatra to cover "Life on Mars?" backfired rather spectacularly when it was instead covered by Barbra Streisand.
  • Last Note Nightmare: "The Bewlay Brothers" changes its atmosphere after four minutes, switching from an acoustic ballad to a dark cabaret jaunt.
  • Lighter and Softer: Played With. The music is more melodic and poppy than the Hard Rock / Heavy Metal of Bowie's previous album: The Man Who Sold the World. The lyrics are no less disturbing, though.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Oh! You Pretty Things" is a catchy, mellow song about humanity's obsolescence and replacement by a superior species:
    Look out my window and what do I see?
    A hand in the sky reaching down to me
    All the nightmares came today
    And it looks as though they're here to stay...
    The earth is a bitch
    We've finished our news
    Homo sapiens have outgrown their use.
  • The Man Is Sticking It to the Man: "Life on Mars?" features the lines "now the workers have struck for fame/'cause Lennon's on sale again." This plays off of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" (which came out six months prior to the album's recording sessions) and his last name's similarity to that of Vladimir Lenin to suggest that communism, a staunchly anti-commercial ideology, has itself become a commercial product to be bought and sold.
  • Mind Screw: "Life on Mars?" and "Quicksand" have surreal lyrics.
  • Mood Whiplash: The very pessimistic "Quicksand" comes between the very lighthearted "Kooks" and "Fill Your Heart", though the latter is separated by the side break.
  • Non-Appearing Title:
    • The album title doesn't appear in any of the songs; discounting his self-titled albums (the latter of which was retitled Space Oddity anyways), it's also his first album without a Title Track.
    • "Queen Bitch."
  • One-Woman Song: "Queen Bitch", about a drag queen who also happens to be the narrator's ex-lover.
  • One-Word Title: "Changes," "Kooks," and "Quicksand."
  • Parental Love Song: "Kooks" is a ode to parental love, specifically Bowie's love for his newborn son Duncan:
    We bought a lot of things
    to keep you warm and dry
    And a funny old crib on which the paint won't dry
    I bought you a pair of shoes
    A trumpet you can blow
    And a book of rules
    On what to say to people
    when they pick on you
  • Pep-Talk Song: "Changes" revolves around finding confidence in nonconformity and reinvention, regardless of what others might think.
  • Porky Pig Pronunciation: The chorus of "Changes" features Bowie pretending to stutter during each Title Drop:
  • Punk Rock: The term wouldn't be in general use for a few years, but "Queen Bitch" sounds like it. Especially the guitar, inspired by Lou Reed's guitar playing in Velvet Underground.
  • Questioning Title?: "Life on Mars?"
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: According to Bowie, "The Bewlay Brothers" was written as an allegory for his complicated relationship with his half-brother Terry Burns, who had schizophrenia.
    [It's] another vaguely anecdotal piece about my feelings about myself and my brother, or my other doppelgänger. I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me, and I think "[The] Bewlay Brothers" was really about that.
  • Re-Cut: 8-track releases change the running order to "Changes", "Life on Mars?", "Kooks", "The Bewlay Brothers", "Quicksand", "Fill Your Heart", "Andy Warhol", "Queen Bitch", "Song for Bob Dylan", "Oh! You Pretty Things", and "Eight Line Poem" to fit a four-program format.
  • Saw "Star Wars" Twenty-Seven Times: "Life on Mars?:"
    But the film is a saddening bore
    For she's lived it ten times or more
  • Shout-Out:
  • Siamese Twin Songs: While the back cover lists "Oh! You Pretty Things" & "Eight Line Poem" and "Fill Your Heart" & "Andy Warhol" as separate tracks, the inner sleeve lists each pair as two movements of a single, conjoined song. The original CD release by RCA Records even sequences the pairs as single tracks, with the tracklist on the back cover being edited to reflect this.
  • Special Guest: Future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman performs on piano; Wakeman would join Yes right after recording sessions for Hunky Dory wrapped up, and his first album with the band would be released a month before Bowie's.
  • Stock Sound Effects: A telephone is heard near the end of "Life on Mars?"
  • Studio Chatter:
    • "Life on Mars?" ends with the sound of the studio phone being answered in the background.
    • "Andy Warhol" opens with Bowie correcting producer Ken Scott over the pronunciation of "Warhol" amid a row of beeps and buzzes from an ARP synthesizer played by Scott. Likewise, the song closes with the folks in the studio applauding.
  • Textless Album Cover: The original US LP release and the 1990 Rykodisc remaster both omit all text from the front cover.
  • ‹bermensch:
    • "Quicksand:"
      "I'm not a prophet or a stone age man
      Just a mortal with the potential of a superman
      I'm living on
      I'm tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien"
    • "Oh! You Pretty Things:"
      "You gotta make way for the Homo Superior"
  • Word Salad Lyrics: "Life on Mars?" and "The Bewlay Brothers"; the former implies that its surrealist imagery is part of a film that the protagonist is watching, while the latter ties the lyricism in with its focus on Bowie's relationship with his half-brother, Terry Burns, who had schizophrenia.