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NPR 50: The long tail of David Bowie's explosive 'Hunky Dory'

A detail from the cover of David Bowie's album <em>Hunky Dory</em>, first released in 1971.
Originally released by RCA Records
A detail from the cover of David Bowie's album Hunky Dory, first released in 1971.

First came the Beatles, then the Stones — but by 1971 , the British invasion was already starting to fade and David Bowie was at a crossroads. His first three albums were commercial flops, and he was worried that his 1969 U.K. song "Space Oddity" would turn out to be a one-hit wonder. He tried side projects, collaborations and giving his songs away to other artists, such as Dana Gillespie and Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits.

When Mercury Records sent Bowie to the U.S. to promote his third studio album, The Man Who Sold the World, he was held in customs at Dulles airport owing to his long hair, maxi-coat, and chiffon scarf. He also had the wrong kind of visa, which restricted his ability to perform. But Bowie nevertheless made his way to New York, and then on to California, where he did interviews and took in the sights.

He returned to England with ideas to spare, recalls keyboardist Rick Wakeman. "He called me up and said would I like to go 'round to his house, Haddon Hall, in Beckenham, Kent, and I went up and he had a battered old 12-string guitar and he started playing me these songs, one after the other." Bowie recruited Wakeman, who'd played Mellotron on "Space Oddity," to back him, as well as Woody Woodmansey on drums, Trevor Bolder on bass and Mick Ronson on guitar. The album was co-produced by Ken Scott and Bowie himself.

They recorded the songs in the summer of 1971 at London's famed Trident studios. In addition to several new compositions, Bowie laid down his own versions of "Andy Warhol," which was first recorded by Dana Gillespie, and "Oh! You Pretty Things," which Peter Noone had taken to No. 12 on the U.K. singles chart. "Fill Your Heart" by neo-Vaudevillian musician Biff Rose received a loving cover treatment. Bowie also included tributes to Bob Dylan and Lou Reed.

Unlike Bowie's previous work, many of the songs on Hunky Dory were worked out on piano, which allowed him to bring in elements of classical, cabaret and other genres. The lyrics were rife with diverse imagery, including references to religion, philosophy, science-fiction and fame. The album's impact was huge, recalls Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. "We had a few unique singer-songwriter types like Nick Drake, but when Bowie came out with Hunky Dory, I was in total shock. It was a complete revelation, and every track was completely different from the next track, and it's all on the same album."

Bowie biographer Nicholas Pegg says Hunky Dory inspired many of the future stars of the MTV era from the New Romantics to the post-punks and more, "We know of course that among the fans of Bowie at the time of Hunky Dory, there were so many pop stars of the future, people who came though ten years later, practically every pop star who was in the top 10 in the early '80s."

That echo continued to bounce, says Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator John Cameron Mitchell. "The androgynous trend was owned by Bowie. I mean it was started by others, people that he learned from, Lyndsay Kemp, you know, Marc Bolan was around the same time, but Bowie took it to the next degree. He was the guy who synthesized what he saw through his body and psyche."

Though the album's lead single, "Changes," shows Bowie predicting the end of one chapter of rock history, "Life on Mars?" suggests the opening of another. Bowie first started working on the song in 1968, when he was invited to write English lyrics for French singer Claude Francois' "Comme D'Habitude." His efforts were rejected in favor of Paul Anka's, culminating in Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

Bowie, however, kept at it until it became a new song about a girl who goes to the movies to escape the drabness and disappointment of her life. On Hunky Dory's album cover, he sweeps his long hair back from his face like a Hollywood screen siren, the image tinted like a theater lobby card. Bowie biographer Nicholas Pegg explains that "it has to do with theatricality, the playing of roles, layers of authenticity. These are all ideas that are central to Bowie's writing right up through his career."

Rick Wakeman concurs, noting that Bowie didn't just come up with bold ideas. He lived them. "If David wanted to know what it was like to walk naked down Oxford Street in London, he'd walk naked down Oxford Street in London. He wouldn't think, 'Wow, I wonder what it's like.' "

Only six months after Hunky Dory, Bowie debuted The Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. From there his star rose quickly, but as Bowie explained to Terry Gross of WHYY's Fresh Air, the future wouldn't wait. "We were creating the 21st century in 1971."

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Allyson McCabe