David Bowie: Hunky Dory, Indeed
Originally published in
Louder than War
From ages thirteen to eighteen, I exchanged my every spare dollar for petroleum products: gas for the car, to get us to Tower Records and, of course, long-playing records. In the summer of 1987, I was eighteen years old and, with the August issue of Rolling Stone’s top 100 albums of the last twenty years, I had my buyer’s guide for the next five years.
The list is a period piece and—like the world did then, as it does now—it has a host of problems: it’s Americanist. It’s rockist to the core. Black artists, female artists, and black female artists get short shrift. In the US, though, outside of MtV, Night Flight, commercial radio, and three rock periodicals a month (two Rolling Stones and one Spin), it’s all we had. With Sgt. Pepper’s at number one and Never Mind the Bollocks at number two, the list offered a telling vision of rock, its contradictions, and the role of artifice.
Following the untimely passing of David Bowie, I thought anew about that list, and two other albums from the top ten: John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (#4, 1970) and Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (#6, 1972). I suggest that Bowie not only knew Plastic Ono Band, I believe it terrified him.
Plastic Ono Band is Lennon’s first album following the dissolution of The Beatles. It reflected his effort to shake loose every flourish of artifice, and Ringo Starr and Klaus Voorman (on bass) were diligent aides in this exorcism of McCartney-ism. The grooves rattle with musical and lyrical simplicity, and Lennon’s revisiting of childhood traumas via primal therapy with Arthur Janov resonate in the vocals of nearly every track. In “God,” Lennon unabashedly disavows the illusions of pop, and prompted tears around the world from recovering Beatlemaniacs.
I don’t believe in Elvis
I don’t believe in Zimmerman
I don’t believe in Beatles
I just believe in me,
Yoko and me, and that’s reality
Bowie, of course, was a big fan of The Beatles, and “Space Oddity” (1969) and The Man Who Sold the World (November 1970, US) preceded the release of Plastic Ono Band (December 1970). Bowie, too, was a sponge before he was a chameleon, and he drew inspiration from dancer/mime Lindsay Kemp, Andy Warhol, and everything deemed avant-garde in London, including the work of Aleister Crowley, Kafka, and Nietzsche.
For The Man, Bowie reflected upon his own fears, and the specter of schizophrenia, in particular, which plagued his mother’s side of the family. In “All the Madmen,” Bowie sings about his alienation from his mates during adolescence, with appropriately adolescent sentimentality:
Cause I’d rather stay here
With all the madmen
Than perish with the sad men roaming free
And I’d rather play here
With all the madmen
For I’m quite content
they’re all as sane as me
The popular description of The Man as a heavy metal album is appropriate, for it is largely bereft of either sweetness or light. The lyrics, the vocals, Mick Ronson’s guitar virtuosity, and the musical mix are heavy. Bowie’s subsequent return to the theme of space travel, along with his remaking of a radically new aesthetic, was not some natural progression. It certainly had antecedent conditions. Plastic Ono Band was among them.
Lennon’s put-on of anti-artifice, and the revisiting of trauma for musical inspiration, scared Bowie straight—straight back to avant-garde theater, and its celebration of characters rather than selves, surfaces rather than depths, and comedie dell’arte, rather than the grim earnestness of the classic rock artist.
Hence the title, Hunky Dory (December 1971). As David Buckley notes in Strange Fascination: David Bowie, the Definitive Story, “Its almost easy-listening status and conventional musical sensibility has detracted from the fact that, lyrically, this record lays down the blueprint for Bowie’s future career.” The influence of Iggy Pop and Velvet Underground, too, registered mostly on Ziggy Stardust, rather than Hunky Dory, with “Queen Bitch” as the exception: a debt that Bowie acknowledges—uncharacteristically, some might say—on the LP’s back cover. Bowie’s annotations of the track list include, alongside “Queen Bitch,” “(Some VU white light returned) thanks,” referring of course to the Velvet’s White Light/White Heat (1968). With Ken Scott, Bowie also takes co-production credits on the album, referring here to himself as “the actor.”
While The Man might have been recorded by either Blue Cheer or Black Sabbath, Hunky Dory is essential, incipient Bowie: the germ cell for his work for the next ten years lay in the songs that bridge the two sides of the album. “Quicksand,” which closes side one, reprises Bowie’s fascination with Nietzsche’s superman archetype and, for Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray, represents “Bowie in his darkest and most metaphysical mood.”
Should I kiss the viper’s fang?
Or herald loud the death of Man
I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain’t got the power anymore
Sure, there’s gravitas in Bowie’s namechecking of Himmler, Crowley, and Winston Churchill, but it’s in the pageantry of the dreamy chorus where Bowie offers the greatest conviction:
Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death’s release
Aah-aah, aah-aah, aah-aah, aah-aah
If Bowie ever held “the power,” he releases it here to the universe—or at least to the responsibility of more earnest rockers. Lennon’s affirmation of “that’s reality” releases Bowie to defer pursuit of reality altogether, delighted to glide along on a jet stream of McCartney-esque nonsense syllables. Within a few years, Lennon’s mode of earnestness had turned into an affliction, according to Greil Marcus. In Mystery Train (1975), his diagnosis indicates that “rock’n’roll is suffering from that old progressive school fallacy that says if what you write about is your own feelings, no one can criticize it ... This is about as liberating as thinking typecast movie stars are ‘really like’ the roles they play.”
Side two of Hunky Dory opens with Bowie’s bouncy rendition of Biff Rose and Paul Williams’s “Fill Your Heart,” which originally appeared as the b-side of Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Could Bowie have picked a better tune to spoof rock’s pretensions? I doubt it. The inclusion of a cover song has particular resonance, too, in terms of Bowie’s ambivalence about the rock artist archetype. (Lennon, for example, on his first four post-Beatles’ LPs, includes original compositions exclusively.) Likewise, there is no mistaking how much fun Bowie, Ronson, and others are having on “Heart.” Along with the jazzy horns and piano, and the refrain of “freeeee, yeah-yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah,” Bowie offers a slight pinch to his vocals to indicate that he’s having a gas and taking the piss. (In terms of vocal prowess, Bowie had few rivals. For producer Ken Scott, Bowie was “the only singer I ever worked with where virtually every take was a master.”) With the songs (and the LP cover, too), Bowie tells his listeners that he’s done with the hippies, and already has turned his sights to the stars—and the sequins.
Godspeed, Starman. And, from all the (once-) young dudes and gals, thank you.
Rolling Stone’s Top-10 Albums, 1967-1987
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)
The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. (1972)
John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (1970)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced (1967)
David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (1968)
Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (1975)
The Beatles’ The Beatles (a.k.a. “The White Album”) (1968)
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971)
Randal Doane works at Oberlin College, and is the author of Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash (PM Press, 2014). He dispatches on punk and rock ‘n’ roll @stealingclash and at stealingalltransmissions.wordpress.com.