Saturday, February 23, 2008

CD Review No 9- David Bowie - Hunky Dory

Friday nights in my mid teens, I'd regularly go down to my friend Ian's to hang out, drink beer, and listen to what we then thought of as cutting edge music. European rock bands were suddenly emerging onto the British music scene, as if Europe was this newly discovered alien culture from across the channel. Each week we'd assess the merits of the latest group – in this way we explored the experiments of Kraftwerk, Focus, Golden Earring, PFM, Faust, Tangerine Dream, Can, Amun Duul etc . We were both heavily into 'progressive music', though we were never clear quite what made it 'progressive' as opposed to just another form of 'popular' music, which was all it really was. Novelty and pretention paraded itself as ART. We held some unspoken idea of being part of the discerning cognoscente, two of the all knowing elite, this prejudice informing our musical choices. Each week we'd meet and enthusiastically share our new found enthusiasms. It was Ian, if I remember correctly, who first introduced me to David Bowie, who was hardly mainstream at the time. As we listened to Hunky Dory together we would howl out like wolves along with the line ' n'awle the cack-tye found a hoa-me' from- 'Eight Line Poem'.

Since then succeeding generations vocally and visually pay homage, mimic, and rip off Bowie's stylistic influence. Hunky Dory, at that time (1971), received a lot of critical acclaim, but the general public failed to buy it in droves. It was left to the 'boy next door' checkiness of Peter Noone to have a hit with 'Oh, you pretty things', which would have annoyed any self respecting artist. But, it did mark the beginning of the return from the wilderness that Bowie had somehow got lost in, after the unexpected success of 'Space Oddity' in 1969. He had long since been consigned to the musical margins as a one hit wonder. His cross dressing sexual ambiguity seemed attention seeking behaviour, and overshadowed the quality of his musical output. Hunky Dory, arose out of the then prevalent trend for singer/songwriters – lyrical and tuneful inventiveness with an acoustic guitar were all you needed. Carol King's album Tapestry, had, after all, been in the top twenty for an unbearable amount of time. Hunky Dory, contains a high percentage of Bowie's very best songs, - Changes – Life on Mars – Queen Bitch – Kooks – Oh, You Pretty Things. They still demonstrate what a good songwriter he could be when he put his mind to it. It wasn't until the success of' Ziggy Stardust' and bisexuality became fashionable, that this back catalogue started to be plundered for further hit material.

Life after Ziggy was full of changes in musical and visual style, these started increasingly to dominate over song writing and lyrical craft. He became defined, if not imprisoned, by his ability to re-invent himself with every album. These 'changes' becoming more extreme. Eventually unconsciously flirting, in his most alienated, drugged up to the eye balls phase, with neo-fascistic imagery. Yet this was, paradoxically, his most adventurous time musically, moving through soul, funky and electronic experiments. In retrospect this inventiveness looks like it was driven, to some extent, by desperation, to produce something which would eclipse and rid him of the musical ghost of Ziggy. It wasn't until his collaborations with Brian Eno that he finally achieved another peak to match, if not supersede, that glam rock period. 'Low', surprised us all, and finally laid that seventies spectre to rest. Yet by the time of ''Scary Monsters' it was obvious Bowie's changing room was exhausted of new musical persona's to adopt, and he was now consciously recycling his own back catalogue. He attempted disastrously with Tin Machine, to go back to basics. From then on, his once unerring ability to predict, and ride on, the next trend before anyone else, has consistently misfired. These days Bowie may have escaped the 'change monster' and become just himself, but unfortunately,he really isn't all that interesting anymore.

When you hear Hunky Dory, 37 years on, it easily eclipses his most recent work. Bowie lost it somewhere in the late eighties, and has never to return to the greatness he once so gloriously exhibited here.

On Hunky Dory, Bowie's own influences show via his undoubted vocal dexterity – sometimes its Dylan, then Bolan, then Lou Reed, all with a glint of Anthony Newley around the edges. This was his third album, the preceding ones, Man who sold the World, and Space Oddity, were too quirky, led by a vague storyline that made them complex beasts to fully grasp the meaning of. Lyrically they hovered between Science Fiction and Psycho–analysis. Since then, they've been endlessly pawed over for autobiographical subtext, and insights into what ever it was that makes Bowie tick. With Bowie, we have never become any the wiser. As a human being he has simply remained a mystery. He might just as well be the alien he played in 'Man who fell to Earth', or a robotic creation with no feelings. He is the sort of person for whom the word enigmatic was invented for. Hunky Dory, seems to be where his influences and storytelling gift, became integrated into something accessible, that had a voice all its own. Over the decades the vocal expressiveness first explored here, has proceeded to become more and more affected and rigidly mannered. His voice these days sounds like an OTT impersonation, or a ludicrous self -parody like Elvis in his LasVegas years. One wonders how he's got away with such an operatic level of pomposity in his singing style for so long. Out of respect for his undoubted legacy I suspect. Hearing Hunky Dory again, it still is a refreshing, life enhancing and playful recording – it just goes to show if our teenage heroes don't die early, they are in danger of becoming an embarrassing travesty in later life. On the final track - The Bewlay Brothers, he sings - 'He could be dead. He could be not. he could be you. He's Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature.' - Hmm! Indeed.

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