Changes are taking the pace I'm going through
Much as I admire the experimental and groundbreaking Berlin albums it was the early years that really excited me. Who could forget Bowie's first ever TOTP performance when he and The Spiders took the country by storm? The song was 'Starman' and the year was 1972. I'd never seen anything like it. We all took the piss of course; that weird looking... thing. Was it male or female? The band were classic: Boulder with his big grey sideburns, Ronson looking like a plasterer in a jump suit. And Bowie put his arm around him!
I secretly loved it; not just the song but the whole vibe: Bowie's blue guitar, his flaming hair, the smoldering smirk as he sang the first lines.
They sang live in those days, and what a vocal!
You can tell that he's thinking "Christ, I'm good!"
You can tell that he's thinking "Christ, we've cracked it!"
I'd been beguiled by Bowie when 'Space Oddity' synchronized with Apollo 11's moon landing in 1969. I rushed out and brought that single; my second ever 45 (after Nillson's 'Without You'.) Then I forgot about him until the recognition with 'Starman' on TOTP. He was back. I got the Ziggy Stardust album and loved it. And then the same year Bowie released 'Changes' as a single, closely followed in 1973 by 'Life on Mars'. They weren't on Ziggy so it had me running down to the Arndale centre to talk to that charmless chump who ran the record dept in Woolworth. He got his big red book out and it transpired that both songs came from an album that had been released in 1971. Hunky Dory. It was duly ordered and I started saving my pocket money.
For this list I went for Hunky Dory because it's bereft of the iconic myth making. This one had to stand on its own two feet, on the strength of the songs alone. And it's a songwriting masterclass; augmented by some brilliant piano playing by Rick Wakeman and some very tasteful, understated guitar from Mick Ronson. This came before The Spiders from Mars and the silver suits, but it was the first album to feature that tight format of Boulder/Woodmansey/Ronson. It also confirmed that Bowie's sax playing was almost as bad as Van Morrison's.
It seemed from the Deitrich inspired cover that Bowie was indeed going through some changes. His production co credit (with Ken Scott) was as 'the actor' and this was really the beginning of Bowie the chameleon. Stylistically the album is all over the place; cinematic, ambitious, glam rock, pop, folk. He covered all bases with consummate ease, producing an album of easy listening kitsch. There was a surprisingly engaging coherence to the lyrics that opened up the material to a previously reticent public.
Bowie himself recognized the importance of the album's accessibility:
"Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, 'Good album, good songs.' That hadn't happened to me before. It was like, 'Ah, I'm getting it, I'm finding my feet. I'm starting to communicate what I want to do. Now: what is it I want to do?' There was always a double whammy there."
Who could resist the hooks of 'Oh You Pretty Things', the stutter of 'Changes' and the drama of the album's highlight 'Life on Mars'? That song was apparently inspired musically by Frank Sinatra's 'My Way', although 'My Way's' self referential lyric is replaced by something impenetrable but none the less beguiling. I suspect that it was in part produced by Bowie's process of 'cut up' lyrics, a style borrowed from William Burroughs.
"My workspace was a big empty room with a chaise longue; a bargain-price art nouveau screen; a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon." It's about a sensitive young girl's reaction to the media. I think she finds herself disappointed with reality ... that although she's living in the doldrums of reality, she's being told that there's a far greater life somewhere, and she's bitterly disappointed that she doesn't have access to it."
Apparently Bowie recorded the vocal for 'Life On Mars?' in one gushing take and wept upon completion. For all of its abstract imagery it has an undeniably emotional impact which was bolstered by Ronson's stirring string arrangement. The quality of Bowie's writing and the weight of the song's punch is highlighted by this piano only version taken from a 70s Parkinson show:
Here's the same song in its full glory followed by an Old Grey Whistle Test performance of 'Oh You Pretty Things'. Finally another album highlight, 'Quicksand'.