Hunky Dory came out when I was nine years old. I was certainly aware of Bowie – I’d been captivated by Space Oddity as a moon landing obsessive – but this is just before he fully broke into the wider public consciousness. My exposure to music was restricted to the pop charts, the songs I heard on the radio before heading to school in the morning. I imagine we thought of ourselves as pop sophisticates, but what did we really know?
1971 is perhaps the most tumultuous year in the history of popular music, but I wasn’t quite ready for albums; I, and everyone I knew, was singing along to the hit singles of the day without discrimination; we were as likely to be singing Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep Cheep as we were Get It On or Brown Sugar. The seismic shifts in music mostly passed me by; all I knew was that there would be some new song along in a couple of days and it would quickly surpass the last one as my favourite.
I imagine that I had heard Peter Noone’s version of Oh! You Pretty Things during that summer, although it has been completely replaced in my memory by Bowie’s version by now. I certainly hadn’t heard the other two singles – Changes and Life on Mars? as they only came out in the wake of the sudden superstardom which the Ziggy Stardust character brought.
So why pick this album of all the Bowie releases? Two reasons, I think – I loved both the singles, especially Changes, when they did reach my consciousness, and I think it neatly fits the pattern of how I came to absorb all this early seventies music; the singles led me in, but the overall scope and sweep of the album kept me coming back for more. At the risk of becoming repetitive, I’m not entirely sure when I first heard it all the way through, although I remember trying to learn the acoustic guitar riff from Andy Warhol quite early on in my ‘wonder if I can learn to play’ phase – again, as with so much, copies of albums on cassette tape circulated around school and somewhere along the road, I decided this was my favourite Bowie album.
Which, I think, it probably still is. I never quite became a Bowie obsessive the way so many of my contemporaries did; he was always just on the fringes of my interests – the purveyor of reliably brilliant singles, and albums which people whose taste I respected raved about, but not quite – or, to be strictly accurate – not yet albums I wanted to spend time with. Once I did relent and start listening to Low and Lodger and ‘Heroes’ and so on, none of them quite resonated with me the way this did.
Coming back to it now, I’m struck by the way it is front loaded with the hits – by the time I’m singing along with Mickey Mouse’s bovine transformation, I’m wondering if I haven’t accidentally put on a greatest hits compilation. Even Kooks, which some people inexplicably find cloying rather than charming, could find itself on an ‘Early Bowie’ mix tape, so it is with some relief that I remember how powerful Quicksand is, and how getting up to turn it over is like turning a page in a book and being plunged into a whole new chapter.
The second side is mainly Bowie playing tribute to everything around him which he hoped to emulate (it’s sometimes hard to remember that all of this familiar and beloved music was released into a world which had barely heard of David Bowie, and was by no means certain to become the iconic object it now is), from the cover of Fill Your Heart through the trio of songs dedicated to, and wondering about, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, before we get our first view of what is actually driving David, the unsettling and ever-shifting Bewlay Brothers. It may be Queen Bitch which has the most Spotify plays from the second side, but it’s the final track which lives in the memory longer, nagging at you and daring you to understand it.
Incidentally (or perhaps not), listening to this straight after Revolver drives home the way both of them leave in some of the studio chat and background noise, letting us feel like we’re part of the creative process.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Again, you could make a case for all of them (even the Tin Machine ones) but the inevitable answer to this is – everything from here up to and including Scary Monsters is essential; you’ll have favourites among them, but all of them land and sound as fresh and new as they did when they first came out, slightly ahead of the curve as was the Bowie way for ten years.
Well, I’d skip Pin-Ups, but that’s me.
Compilations to consider?
Changesonebowie covers this period, but is out of print, and misses so much out. The later revised version Changesbowie covers more ground and will help you find your way in if you’re coming to Bowie for the first time, and the later The Singles Collection covers even more, but like all of them restricts itself to singles. The best way to go about this is to pick an era and dive into the albums.
David Live was the one everyone owned when I was younger, and I have a treasured copy of the Ziggy Stardust soundtrack. As we grew up with Bowie, Stage was the one to be seen with, but the soundtrack to the Glastonbury 2000 performance tops all of those; it’s a relaxed Bowie and a band he trusts ripping through everything in magnificent style, and the way – I think – he’d hope to be remembered as a live artist.
Both the Ziggy Stardust show and the Glastonbury 2000 film are out there – opposite ends of the career, but you can clearly see what all the fuss was about. I don’t think (but I’d be happy to be proved wrong) that there’s a definitive Bowie biography, and I know I’ve never read one. There are hundreds of Bowie books out there, though, many, if not most, lavishly illustrated – the image was as important as the sound, and there are plenty of examples out there.
There are many Bowie documentaries as well, I vividly remember seeing the BBC Cracked Actor film on one of its many repeats, but I don’t think that’s ever been officially released, and the much later Sound and Vision film is worth seeking out, although it’s not exactly comprehensive in what it covers – but then, what could be?