Hunky Dory

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Hunky Dory
David Bowie - Hunky Dory.jpg
CD and UK album cover
(The original US album cover bears no title)
Studio album by
Released17 December 1971
Recorded8 June – 6 August 1971
StudioTrident, London
GenreArt pop
David Bowie chronology
The Man Who Sold the World
Hunky Dory
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Singles from Hunky Dory
  1. "Changes" / "Andy Warhol"
    Released: 7 January 1972
  2. "Life on Mars?"
    Released: 22 June 1973

Hunky Dory is the fourth studio album by English singer-songwriter David Bowie. Released on 17 December 1971, it was his first album for RCA Records, which would be his label for the next decade. It was recorded in mid-1971 at Trident Studios in London and featured Rick Wakeman on piano, and the musicians who would later become known as the Spiders from MarsMick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodmansey. The album was co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, who had engineered Bowie's previous two albums. Hunky Dory was Scott's first album as a producer; he went on to co-produce Bowie's next three records.

After his previous album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Bowie took time off due to managerial problems and other conflicts. In February 1971, he was sent on a promotional tour of America, which helped shape the music and lyrics for Hunky Dory. Following the hard rock sound of its predecessor, Hunky Dory shifted Bowie's style towards art pop. The album contains three tribute songs to American icons Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and the Velvet Underground, as well as another to his newborn son Duncan. Unlike his previous records, the songs are primarily piano-led rather than guitar-led. Some of the songs contain lyrics influenced by the works of the occultist Aleister Crowley and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The album cover, photographed by Brian Ward in monochrome and re-coloured by Terry Pastor, was inspired by a Marlene Dietrich photo book that Bowie took to the session. The title, an English slang term meaning that everything is right in the world, was suggested to Bowie by Bob Grace of the music publisher Chrysalis.

Upon release, Hunky Dory received very positive reviews from British and American publications but failed to chart, partly due to poor marketing. After the commercial breakthrough of his follow-up album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Hunky Dory became a commercial success, peaking at number three on the UK Albums Chart. It was supported by the singles "Changes" in 1972 and "Life on Mars?" in 1973. Retrospectively, Hunky Dory has received critical acclaim and is regarded as one of Bowie's best works. It has been placed on lists of the greatest albums of all time by such publications as Time, Rolling Stone, NME and Q. The album has been reissued several times and was remastered in 2015 as part of the Five Years (1969–1973) box set.


After Bowie completed his third studio album The Man Who Sold the World in May 1970, he became less active in both the studio and on stage. This was partly due to challenges that his new manager Tony Defries, whom Bowie hired after firing his old manager Kenneth Pitt and leaving music publisher Essex Music, faced.[1][2] After hearing Bowie's new single "Holy Holy", Defries signed Bowie to a contract with Chrysalis, but thereafter limited his work with Bowie to focus on other projects, including an attempt to become American singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder's manager after Wonder's contract ended with Motown Records. Bowie, who was devoting himself to songwriting, turned to Chrysalis partner Bob Grace, who, according to biographer Nicholas Pegg, had "courted" Bowie on "the strength of 'Holy Holy'", and subsequently booked time at Radio Luxembourg's studios in London for Bowie to record his demos.[1][3] In August 1970, bassist and producer Tony Visconti parted ways with Bowie owing to his dislike of Defries and his frustration with Bowie's lack of enthusiasm during the making of The Man Who Sold the World; it was the last time he would see the artist for three or four years.[4][5] Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey, who played guitar and drums respectively on The Man Who Sold the World, and had never been offered steady pay for their performances, also departed.[4] Visconti went to produce Marc Bolan, while Ronson and Woodmansey went to Haddon Hall in Bakewell, Derbyshire, to form a short-lived group called Ronno with Benny Marshall of the English band the Rats.[5][6]

The whole Hunky Dory album reflected my newfound enthusiasm for this new continent that had been opened up to me. That was the first time a real outside situation affected me so 100 percent that it changed my way of writing and the way I look at things.[7]

– David Bowie discussing how America impacted the album, 1999

In February 1971, Mercury Records sent Bowie on a promotional tour of America,[8] which inspired him to write three tribute songs for three iconic American artists: artist Andy Warhol, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, and the rock band the Velvet Underground, more specifically their singer Lou Reed.[7][9] After the tour, Bowie returned to Haddon and began writing.[10] According to his then-wife Angela, Bowie had spent time composing songs on piano rather than acoustic guitar, which would "infuse the flavour of the new album".[2] Biographer Marc Spitz notes that a piano could not fit into his Plaistow Grove bedroom, nor was it suitable for playing in clubs or bus tours with his previous groups; Haddon Hall was more relaxed and less cluttered.[11] As a result, he composed over three-dozen songs there, many of which would end up on Hunky Dory and its follow-up album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars;[12] among these were "Moonage Daydream" and "Hang On to Yourself", which he recorded with his short-lived band Arnold Corns in February 1971,[13] and subsequently re-recorded for Ziggy Stardust.[10][12] The first song Bowie wrote and demoed for Hunky Dory was "Oh! You Pretty Things" in January 1971. After recording the demo at Radio Luxembourg, Bowie gave the tape to Grace, who showed it to Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits. Noone decided to record "Oh! You Pretty Things" and released it as his debut single later that year.[10][14]

Writing and recording[edit]

After the minimal critical and commercial impact of his Arnold Corns project, and leaving Mercury Records, Bowie resumed studio work in May 1971 to start his next album.[15][16] He was initially joined by Arnold Corns guitarist Mark Pritchett, Space Oddity drummer Terry Cox, and his former Turquoise colleague Tony Hill, but concluded that he could not do the project without Ronson,[15] who was enthusiastic when Bowie contacted him for the first time in nine months. Woodmansey returned with Ronson, who recruited a new bass player to replace Visconti. He initially suggested Rick Kemp, with whom Bowie recorded in the King Bees in the mid-1960s, but Bowie was unimpressed with Kemp's audition at Haddon Hall. Some reports, according to Pegg, say that Defries rejected Kemp because of his "receding hairline"; Kemp would instead join the English folk rock band Steeleye Span.[15] Ronson then suggested his acquaintance Trevor Bolder, a former hairdresser and piano tuner who had previously seen Bowie live in 1970 and met Ronson at Haddon Hall.[15][17] After Bolder was hired, the trio grouped at Haddon to rehearse some of Bowie's new material, which included album track "Andy Warhol".[15]

Ken Scott in 2014
Co-producer Ken Scott in 2014

On 3 June, Bowie and the Spiders from Mars traveled to the BBC's Paris Studios in London to record for John Peel's radio programme In Concert. They were accompanied by Dana Gillespie, Pritchett, Geoffrey MacCormack (better known as Warren Peace), and George Underwood.[18][19] Aside from a cover of Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown" and Ron Davies' "It Ain't Easy", all of the songs they performed were Bowie originals.[18] The BBC performance began with "Queen Bitch" and "Bombers", both of which, according to Peel, would appear on the upcoming album; in the event, "Bombers" was replaced by the cover "Fill Your Heart".[20] They also played "The Supermen" from The Man Who Sold the World, "Looking for a Friend" (sung by Pritchett), "Song for Bob Dylan" (sung by Underwood) and "Andy Warhol" (sung by Gillespie).[18][19] Although Bowie's backing trio were introduced as "members of a group called Ronno", the session was the first performance with the trio who later renamed themselves as the Spiders from Mars and recorded with him for the next three years.[21][17][19]

[Hunky Dory] is very much a duo record. We just added bass and drums but it was just like the things we did as a duo. It was very spontaneous – we hardly did any retakes.[18]

Mick Ronson, 1983

Bowie and the Spiders officially started work on the new album at Trident Studios in London on 8 June 1971.[18] Ken Scott replaced Visconti as a producer, and retaining this role on Bowie's next three albums: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups.[9][21] Hunky Dory was Scott's first album as a producer;[22] he had engineered Bowie's two previous albums, along with the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and the "White Album" (1968) at Abbey Road Studios, and George Harrison's All Things Must Pass (1970), the last of which featured an acoustic sound that Scott borrowed for Hunky Dory.[22][23] Bowie played demos for Scott and the two picked which ones would be recorded for the album.[24] On 8 June, the band recorded "Song for Bob Dylan",[18] although according to Pegg this version was scrapped and the released version was not recorded until 23 June.[15] In 1999 Scott recalled that recording went very quickly: "Almost everything was done in one take."[18] He was surprised when he and the Spiders would think a vocal or guitar part needed re-recording but Bowie would say "No, wait, listen", and when everything was played simultaneously it would sound perfect.[24] Bolder described recording with Bowie for the first time as a "nerve-wracking experience", saying in 1993: "When that red light came on in the studio it was, God, in at the deep end of what!"[18] Bowie took an active role in the album's sound and arrangements, in contrast to his generally dismissive attitude during sessions for The Man Who Sold the World.[4][22]

Keyboardist Rick Wakeman, then of the Strawbs and a noted session musician,[22] plays piano on the album.[25] In 1995 he recalled that he met Bowie in late June 1971 at Haddon Hall, where Bowie played him demos of "Changes" and "Life on Mars?" in "their raw brilliance ... the finest selection of songs I have ever heard in one sitting in my entire life ... I couldn't wait to get into the studio and record them."[26] The piano Wakeman played on the album was the same 1898 Bechstein used by Paul McCartney for the Beatles' 1968 song "Hey Jude" and many of Elton John and Harry Nilsson's early records, and would later be used by the English rock band Queen for their 1975 song "Bohemian Rhapsody".[27] According to Wakeman, the first few sessions started poorly as the band did not learn the songs. He recalled in the Radio 2 documentary Golden Years and his autobiography Say Yes! that Bowie had to halt the sessions, telling the musicians off and to come back when they knew the music. Upon returning after a week, Wakeman thought "the band were hot! They were so good, and the tracks just flowed through."[27] This story has been contested by other band members, including Bolder, who told biographer Kevin Cann: "[That's] rubbish. David would never have told the band off in the studio. Especially as Mick and Woody had already left him once, and everyone was now getting on. The band would not have survived that – it definitely didn't happen." Scott contended: "I definitely don't remember that, and it's not something I would forget. I would definitely dispute that one."[26][27]

Rick Wakeman performing in 2012
Rick Wakeman (pictured in 2012), whose piano playing greatly influenced the songs

With Wakeman in the line-up, Bowie and the Spiders reconvened at Trident Studios on 9 July and recorded two takes of "Bombers" and "It Ain't Easy", the latter featuring backing vocals by Gillespie. Five days later, on 14 July, the group recorded four takes of "Quicksand", the final take appearing on the finished album.[28] According to Cann, on the same day, Defries sent a letter to actor and jazz pianist Dudley Moore asking him to play piano during a session. There is no known evidence that Moore replied and although the specific song Defries was asking him to play on is unknown, Cann deduces that it was most likely "Life on Mars?".[22][26] On 18 July, the group spent the day rehearsing and mixing. During the session, Bowie was introduced to a band known as Chameleon. He gave them his future Ziggy Stardust track "Star", which Chameleon recorded but never released.[29] Mixing sessions were carried out between 21 and 26 July to compile a promotional album for Gem Productions. By this point, the songs "Oh! You Pretty Things", "Eight Line Poem", "Kooks", "Queen Bitch" and "Andy Warhol" had been recorded; the mixes of "Eight Line Poem" and "Kooks" on the promotional album differed from the final mixes on Hunky Dory.[30] Two takes of "The Bewlay Brothers" were recorded on 30 July, the second take appearing on the final album; it was recorded on a tape that contained scrapped versions of "Song for Bob Dylan" and "Fill Your Heart".[31] On 6 August, the band recorded "Life on Mars?" and "Song for Bob Dylan", after which the album recording was considered finished. Cann does not have a recording date for "Changes";[32] music journalist Peter Doggett states that it was recorded sometime between June and July,[33] and biographer Chris O'Leary writes that it was recorded in early to mid-July.[34] Before the sessions ended, Bowie asked Wakeman if he wanted to be a part of the Spiders from Mars. While he was considering the offer, Wakeman received another offer from Chris Squire of the English progressive rock band Yes, and accepted. Wakeman found success as a member of Yes and subsequently as a solo artist.[29]

Music and lyrics[edit]

After the hard rock sound of Bowie's previous album The Man Who Sold the World,[35][36] Hunky Dory represented a stylistic shift towards art pop. Doggett regards Hunky Dory as "a collective of attractively accessible pop songs, through which Bowie tested out his feelings about the nature of stardom and power".[37] Spitz describes it as a piano-driven record that incites a warmer feel compared to its two predecessors.[11] Biographer Christopher Sandford states that "the songs [are] characterised by the lush ambiance established by Bowie's vocal and the piano" and, along with Elton John and Phil Collins, helped create music on the "easy-listening continuum".[38] Robert Dimery, in his book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, calls the album "a toybox of acoustic oddities, tributes to heroes and surrealism".[36] Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic describes the album as "a kaleidoscopic array of pop styles, tied together only by Bowie's sense of vision: a sweeping, cinematic mélange of high and low art, ambiguous sexuality, kitsch, and class".[39] Michael Gallucci of Ultimate Classic Rock notes that it is Bowie's first album to include "a mix of pop, glam, art and folk wrapped in an ambisexual pose that would come to define the artist."[21] Peter Ormerod of The Guardian writes that the music of Hunky Dory celebrates "uncertainty, rootlessness, inner chaos, difference, otherness, doubt and impermanence" and did it with "beauty, style and charisma".[40]

Side one[edit]

The opening track, "Changes", is built around a distinctive piano riff.[33] The lyrics focus on the compulsive nature of artistic reinvention and distancing oneself from the rock mainstream.[42] Biographer David Buckley writes that "strange fascination" is a phrase that "embodies a continued quest for the new and the bizarre".[43] Pegg summarises the lyrics as Bowie "holding a mirror to his face" just as he is about to achieve stardom.[44] The song's chorus, Bowie stuttering the "ch" at the beginning of the word "changes",[45] has been compared to the Who's "My Generation", as well as Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'".[44] Described by Pegg as one of Bowie's seminal recordings and one of the greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone,[46][44] the song is also considered a manifesto for Bowie's entire career.[47][41] The lyrics contributed to his being dubbed the "chameleon of rock" and one of rock's greatest innovators.[48][49][45] Doggett notes that "Changes" is a "statement of purpose": as the opening track, the song provided a stark contrast to the hard rock sound found on its predecessor. The song was also unlike "Space Oddity" and its 1969 parent album, but rather "pure, unashamedly melodic, gleefully commercial, gorgeously mellifluous pop".[41]

"Oh! You Pretty Things" was the first track written for the album.[50] The piano style has been compared to the Beatles' "Martha My Dear".[51][52] O'Leary writes that Bowie played piano on the track alone.[53] Wakeman contended in a BBC interview in 2017 that Bowie played piano in the beginning section before he took over for the rest of the track.[54][55] The lyrics reference the teachings of the English occultist Aleister Crowley and his Golden Dawn and Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly with the lines "the homo superior", "the golden ones" and "homo sapiens have outgrown their use".[52] "Homo Superior" refers to Nietzsche's theory of Übermensch, or "Superman".[50][56] There is also a reference to The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton,[56] a 19th-century novel in which superhumans are found residing in the depths of Earth and subsequently take over as the dominant species.[57] Pegg believes a possible influence is the 1953 Arthur C. Clarke novel Childhood's End, wherein an alien influence causes children to rise up against their parents;[50] Doggett finds a sense of H. G. Wells in Bowie's concern about "the world to come".[56] The music itself provides a contrast to the darker themes; according to Doggett, it features the same diatonic major progression in the chorus as "Changes" and his future track "All the Young Dudes".[56] He further describes Bowie's vocal performance as "quite unadorned, presented so starkly...that it [is] almost unsettling".[58]

Designed to sound like a "continuation" of the previous track,[59] "Eight Line Poem" is described by Pegg as the album's most "overlooked" song.[60] It features Bowie on a gentle, sporadic piano while he sings and a country-influenced guitar line from Ronson.[61][60][62] Featuring exactly eight lines,[59] the lyrics portray a room where a cat just knocked over a spinning mobile and a cactus sits in a window.[60] Doggett believes there is a metaphor between the cactus and a prairie.[62] Around the album's release, Bowie described the song as the city that is "a kind of high-life wart on the backside of the prairie".[60] In a 1973 interview, William Burroughs believed the lyrics to be influenced by T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, though Bowie denied that he read Eliot.[63] Pegg finds this hard to believe, and also considers the cactus to be similar to the one found in Eliot's "The Hollow Men".[60]

"Life on Mars?" is described by Buckley as a "soaring, cinematic ballad".[43] Although Bowie was fixated on becoming Ziggy Stardust as the time of its recording, the song has no connection to Mars itself; the title was a reference to the recent media frenzy of the US and Soviet Union racing to get to the red planet.[64] The song is a parody of Frank Sinatra's "My Way"[43] and uses the same chord sequence for its opening bars.[65][66] Bowie had originally written an English adaptation of "Comme d'habitude", titled "Even a Fool Learns to Love", but the publisher opted for Paul Anka's lyrics instead, which became "My Way".[64][67] In 1993, Bowie recalled: "There was a sense of revenge in that because I was so angry that Paul Anka had done 'My Way' I thought I'd do my own version. There are clutches of melody in that that were definite parodies".[45] The handwritten notes on the back cover say "Inspired by Frankie".[64][65] Like most songs on the album, "Life on Mars?" is mostly piano-led, but features a string arrangement from Ronson – his first[68] – that is described by Doggett as "gargantuan".[66] Bowie's vocals – recorded in one take[66] – are delivered passionately during the chorus and almost nasally in the verses; he hits a high B on the word "Mars" in the chorus, and holds the note for three bars.[45][66] He mentions "the girl with the mousy hair", whose identity commentators have debated,[68] who, according to Greene "goes to the movies as an escape from life".[7] The line "look at those cavemen go" is borrowed from the Hollywood Argyles' 1960 song "Alley Oop".[66][69] Bowie also makes references to John Lennon, Mickey Mouse, Ibiza and the Norfolk Broads.[69]

Duncan Jones in 2015
"Kooks" is a tribute to Bowie's son Duncan Jones (pictured in 2015).

A few days after his son Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones was born on 30 May 1971, Bowie completed "Kooks" and dedicated it to him. Performed by Bowie as early as 3 June, the Hunky Dory version features a string arrangement from Ronson and trumpet played by Bolder.[70] The song is noticeably lighter than the two tracks it is sequenced between but, according to Pegg, ultimately "carries a hint of [the album's] preoccupation with the compulsion to fictionalise life, as Bowie invites his son to 'stay in our lovers' story'".[71] Doggett writes that its inclusion on the album "ensured its enduring appeal among those who were less entranced by his explorations of politics, psychology and occult elsewhere on the album".[72] O'Leary states that the song is a tribute to Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young, as the song's piano and trumpet is reminiscent of Young's "Till the Morning Comes" (1970). In the handwritten liner notes on the LP sleeve, Bowie wrote "For Small Z".[73]

According to Pegg, "Quicksand" was inspired by Bowie's trip to America in February 1971.[74] Doggett states that the song "was written about a lack of inspiration and as a means of accessing it". English writer Colin Wilson wrote in The Occult (1971) that thought was a form of quicksand that allowed consciousness to keep the unconscious beyond reach, from which Doggett concluded that "'Quicksand' was Bowie's plea to search within himself to be shown the way".[75] In the mid-1970s, Bowie described the song as "a mixture of narrative and surrealism" and a "precursor" to the music of his 1977 album Low.[74] Throughout the track, Bowie makes numerous references to Aleister Crowley and his Golden Dawn, Winston Churchill, Heinrich Himmler, and the "supermen" of Friedrich Nietzsche.[76][75] The song also evokes spiritualism through the mention of Buddhist teachings such as bardo.[76] Buckley compares the ideas to George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord".[52] Bowie would later revisit themes presented in "Quicksand" on the title track of Station to Station.[77] The instrumental track features multiple layers of acoustic guitars atop one another,[52] which was done at Scott's insistence.[76]

Side two[edit]

"Fill Your Heart", written by Biff Rose and Paul Williams, is the only song on the album not written by Bowie.[20] It was his first cover song on record since Bobby Bland's "I Pity the Fool" with the Manish Boys in 1965.[78] It replaced "Bombers" as the side two opener late in the album's development.[20] Described by Bowie as "a flower-power Randy Newman", Rose had been a major influence on Bowie since the late 1960s, evident in songs such as "Conversation Piece", "The Prettiest Star", "The Supermen" and "Shadow Man".[20] "Fill Your Heart" is one of the more up-tempo tracks on the album,[20] and according to Doggett is "practically identical" to Rose's original version found on his 1968 album The Thorn in Mrs. Rose's Side, albeit more "bouncy" and less "swung".[79] The piano-driven arrangement differs to Bowie's live performances of the song in 1970, when acoustic guitar dominated.[20] Pegg writes that the track provides a "cogent counterpoint" to the "angst" of "Quicksand" and the "cautionary warnings" of "Changes" and is best remembered for Bowie's saxophone break, Ronson's string arrangement, and Wakeman's piano solo.[20]

A black and white photo of Andy Warhol with a dog
Andy Warhol, between 1966 and 1977

The song "Andy Warhol" is a tribute to American artist, producer, and director Andy Warhol,[80] who had inspired Bowie since the mid-1960s and was described by him as "one of the leaders" of "the media of the streets, street messages".[81] A folk-pop track,[82] it was originally written for Bowie's friend Dana Gillespie, who recorded a studio version that Bowie produced,[81] and which was released on her 1974 album Weren't Born a Man.[83] Bowie's version, described by Pegg as a "cult favorite", is based around a riff played on two acoustic guitars that heavily resembles the intro of Ron Davies' "Silent Song Across the Land".[84] The lyrics emphasise Warhol's belief that life and art blur together.[81] The song's opening features Ken Scott saying "This is 'Andy Warhol', and it's take one", only for Bowie to correct his pronunciation of 'Warhol' (saying "War-holes, as in holes").[84][85] According to Pegg, the ending applause was recorded in the studio bathroom "in pursuit of the desired acoustic".[84] When Bowie met Warhol in September 1971 and played the song for him, Warhol hated it and left the room; Bowie recalled in 1997 that he found the meeting "fascinating" because Warhol had "nothing to say at all, absolutely nothing".[83]

"Song for Bob Dylan" is a tribute song to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.[80] It was described by Bowie at the time as "how some see BD", and its title is a parody of Dylan's 1962 tribute to American folk singer Woody Guthrie, "Song to Woody".[86] Throughout the song, Bowie addresses Dylan by his real name "Robert Zimmerman", as John Lennon did on his song "God" the year prior.[87] Pegg and Doggett believe the song highlights Bowie's struggle with identity, from his real name David Jones, to his stage name David Bowie and, very shortly, to Ziggy Stardust.[86][87] The lyrics specifically present Dylan as no longer being a hero figure for rock music, and demand that he return to his roots and come to the rescue for the unfaithful.[86][43] After Dylan refused to support political protests against the Vietnam War and America during Nixon's presidency, artists such as Country Joe and the Fish (with their song "Hey Bobby") and the Dylan Liberation Front (whose mission was to "Free Bob Dylan from himself") were created.[86][88] According to Doggett, Bowie initially wrote it for his friend George Underwood, who performed it during Bowie's June 1971 BBC session in a Dylanesque voice.[88] In 1976, Bowie told Melody Maker: "[That song] laid out what I wanted to do in rock. It was at that period that I said, OK if you don't want to do it, I will. I saw the leadership void."[43] Doggett argues that this explanation is invalid because there is nothing in the song that supports Bowie's claim.[89] The music contains Dylanesque chord changes and the chorus is derived from the titles of two Velvet Underground songs, "Here She Comes Now" and "There She Goes Again".[86] Buckley writes that the song is "probably the weakest" on the album and Pegg considers it "little-regarded".[86][43]

The final tribute song on the album, "Queen Bitch" is largely inspired by the Velvet Underground, specifically their lead singer Lou Reed.[43] The handwritten sleeve notes on the back cover read: "some V.U. White Light returned with thanks", indicating an influence of Reed's "Waiting for the Man" and "White Light/White Heat". There is also a lyrical reference to Reed's song "Sister Ray".[90] The song is described by Jon Savage of The Guardian as glam rock and by Billboard as proto-punk.[91][92] Unlike the majority of the album's tracks, "Queen Bitch" is primarily driven by guitar rather than piano.[90] Pegg and O'Leary write that the guitar riff was inspired by "Three Steps to Heaven" by Eddie Cochran;[90][93] Doggett cites Reed's "Sweet Jane" as the inspiration.[94] The chorus sings about Bowie mincing his "satin and tat" as a reference to Lindsay Kemp. Pegg states: "Part of the genius of 'Queen Bitch' is that it filters the archness of Marc Bolan and Kemp through the streetwise attitude of Reed: this is a song that succeeds in making the phrase 'bipperty-bopperty hat' sound raunchy and cool."[90] The staff of Far Out Magazine writes that the song's glam rock sound provided the template for Ziggy Stardust.[82]

[It's] another vaguely anecdotal piece about my feelings about myself and my brother, or my other doppelgänger. I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me, and I think 'Bewlay Brothers' was really about that."[95]

– David Bowie describing "The Bewlay Brothers", in the BBC documentary Golden Years

The album closer, "The Bewlay Brothers", was a late addition and the only track that was not demoed.[96] The instrumentation echoes the music of The Man Who Sold the World, featuring "sinister" sound effects and Bowie's vocal accompanied by Ronson's acoustic guitar.[43][96] The song's obscure lyrics have caused confusion among Bowie biographers and fans.[97] Pegg describes it as "probably the most cryptic, mysterious, unfathomable and downright frightening Bowie recording in existence",[96] and Buckley considers it "one of Bowie's most disquieting moments on tape, an encapsulation of some distant, indefinable quality of expressionistic terror."[45] Bowie initially told Scott that he wrote it to confuse American audiences and encourage theorising.[98] He gave other interpretations throughout his life that contradicted what he told Scott. In 1972, he told an American interviewer, "I like 'The Bewlay Brothers' so much, only because it's so personal. I'm sure it doesn't mean a thing to anybody else, and I'm sorry if I inflicted myself upon people with that track."[96] Many reviewers have perceived the track to have homoerotic undertones; others believed it to be about Bowie's relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns. Bowie confirmed in 1977 that it was "very much based on myself and my brother."[96] Buckley is unsure of whether this account is fictionalised or real.[43] Some of the lyrics refer to other tracks on Hunky Dory: "the solid book we wrote cannot be found today" recalls "Song for Bob Dylan", the "books...fouéd by the golden ones" mirror "Oh! You Pretty Things", and the "fakers" takes the album full-circle to "Changes".[96] He also uses the word "chameleon" in the song, which became an oft-used term to describe him.[43][99]

Title and artwork[edit]

The cover artwork was taken by photographer Brian Ward, who was introduced to Bowie by Grace at Ward's studio in Heddon Street.[100] An early idea was for Bowie to dress as an Egyptian pharaoh, partly inspired by the British media's infatuation with the British Museum's new Tutankhamun exhibit.[101] According to Pegg, photos of Bowie posing "as a sphinx and in a lotus position" were taken – one was released as part of the 1990 Space Oddity reissue – but the idea was ultimately abandoned. Bowie recalled: "We didn't run with it, as they say. Probably a good idea."[101] Bowie opted for a more minimalist image reflecting the album's "preoccupation with the silver screen". He later said: "I was into Oxford bags, and there are a pair, indeed, on the back of the album. [I was attempting] what I presumed was kind of an Evelyn Waugh Oxbridge look."[102] The final image is a close-up of Bowie looking past the camera while he pulls back his hair. Pegg writes that his pose was influenced by Lauren Bacall and Greta Garbo.[102] Originally shot in monochrome, the image was re-coloured by illustrator Terry Pastor, a partner at Covent Garden's recently initiated Main Artery design studio with George Underwood; Pastor later designed the cover and sleeve for Ziggy Stardust. Pegg writes: "Bowie's decision to use a re-coloured photo suggests a hand-tinted lobby-card from the days of the silent cinema and, simultaneously, Warhol's famous Marilyn Diptych screen-prints."[102] Dimery writes that Bowie took a photo book that contained multiple Dietrich prints with him to the photoshoot.[36][103]

Although Bowie normally waited to name his albums until the last possible moment, the title "Hunky Dory" was announced at the John Peel session. Grace got the idea from an Esher pub landlord. He told Peter and Leni Gillman, the authors of Alias David Bowie, that the landlord had an unusual vocabulary that was infused with "upper-crust jargon" such as "prang" and "whizzo" and "everything's hunky-dory". Grace told Bowie, who loved it. Pegg notes that there was a song from 1957 by American doo-wop band the Guytones also titled "Hunky Dory" that may also have played a part.[104] Spitz notes that "hunky-dory" is an English slang term that means everything is right in the world.[12] The original UK cover featured Bowie's name and the album title; in the US the title was instead printed on a sticker and placed onto the translucent wrapping. According to Cann, initial UK pressings were laminated, which enhanced the colour to create a "superior finish"; these pressings are now collector's items. The back cover featured Bowie's handwritten notes about each song from the album.[9] It also bore the credit "Produced by Ken Scott (assisted by the actor)" – the "actor" being Bowie himself, whose "pet conceit", in the words of NME critics Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray, was "to think of himself as an actor".[105]


In April 1971, Peter Noone's version of "Oh! You Pretty Things" was released as a single and was a commercial success, peaking at number 12 on the UK Singles Chart.[57] It was the first time most listeners had heard of Bowie since "Space Oddity".[57][106] Noone told NME: "My view is that David Bowie is the best writer in Britain at the moment...certainly the best since Lennon and McCartney."[107] Following the success of the single, Defries sought to extricate Bowie from his contract with Mercury Records, the label that distributed Bowie's previous two albums.[1][2] Although his contract was to expire in June 1971, Mercury had intended to renew it with improved terms. Defries forced Mercury to terminate his contract in May after threatening to deliver a low-quality album.[108] Defries was then able to pay off Bowie's debts to Mercury through Gem Productions; Mercury surrendered their copyright on David Bowie (1969) and The Man Who Sold the World (1970).[15] After terminating the contract with Mercury, Defries presented the album to multiple labels in the US, including New York City's RCA Records. The head of the label, Dennis Katz, had never heard of Bowie but recognised the potential of the piano-based songs that Defries had played for him and signed Bowie to a three-album deal on 9 September 1971; RCA became Bowie's label for the rest of the decade.[109][110]

Hunky Dory was released on 17 December 1971 by RCA.[a][21][80][112][113][114][115] By this time, the sessions for Ziggy Stardust were underway.[116] The album release was supported by the single "Changes" on 7 January 1972.[117] RCA did not promote the album much due to a warning that Bowie would be changing his image for his next album, and Hunky Dory's unusual album cover, described by Pegg as a fait accompli. Pegg writes that there were disagreements over how much money was put into the album and whether Bowie was an "unproven one-hit-wonder".[102] Marketing manager Geoff Hannington recalled in 1986: "We soon knew we were in a situation where the artist was going to change like a chameleon from time to time."[9] Because of this, the album initially sold poorly and failed to break the UK Albums Chart.[118] According to Sandford, the album barely sold 5,000 copies in the first quarter alone.[119] After the commercial breakthrough of Ziggy Stardust in mid-1972, Hunky Dory became a commercial success, climbed to number three in the UK,[120] and remained on the chart for 69 weeks.[121] According to Pegg, the album charted two places higher than Ziggy Stardust.[102] The album also peaked at number 39 on the Kent Music Report in Australia and at number 33 on the Norwegian Albums Chart in 1972.[122][123] Gallucci writes that although the album did not make Bowie a star, it "got him noticed", and the success of Ziggy Stardust helped Hunky Dory garner a larger audience.[21] In 1973, RCA released "Life on Mars?" as a single, which also made number three in the UK.[124] A reissue returned the album to the UK chart in January 1981, where it remained for 51 weeks.[121]

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic5/5 stars[39]
Blender5/5 stars[125]
Chicago Tribune3.5/4 stars[126]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music5/5 stars[127]
Rolling Stone5/5 stars[129]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide5/5 stars[130]
Spin5/5 stars[131]
Spin Alternative Record Guide9/10[132]
The Village VoiceA−[133]

Upon release, the album received very positive reviews from several British and American publications.[102][105] Melody Maker called it "the most inventive piece of song-writing to have appeared on record in a considerable time", while NME described it as Bowie "at his brilliant best".[102] NME added that "[Hunky Dory is] a breath of fresh air compared to the usual mainstream rock LP of [1972]. It's very possible that this will be the most important album from an emerging artist in 1972, because he's not following trends – he's setting them".[134] In the US, John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone called the album Bowie's "most engaging album musically" up to that point and praised his songwriting, particularly his ability to convey ideas without employing "a barrage of seemingly impregnable verbiage".[135] Billboard gave the album an extremely positive review, praising it as "a heavy debut for RCA, loaded with the kind of Top 40 and FM appeal that should break him through big on the charts. Strong material, his own, for programming includes 'Changes', 'Oh! You Pretty Things', and 'Life on Mars?'".[111] Several reviewers praised Bowie as an artist. The New York Times wrote that with Hunky Dory, Bowie became "the most intellectually brilliant man yet to choose the long-playing album as his medium of expression", while Rock magazine called him "the most singularly gifted artist making music today. He has the genius to be to the '70s what Lennon, McCartney, Jagger and Dylan were to the '60s."[102]

Retrospectively, Hunky Dory has received critical acclaim and is regarded as one of Bowie's best works. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic wrote: "On the surface, [having] such a wide range of styles and sounds would make an album incoherent, but Bowie's improved songwriting and determined sense of style instead made Hunky Dory a touchstone for reinterpreting pop's traditions into fresh, postmodern pop music".[39] Michael Gallucci of Ultimate Classic Rock contended that Hunky Dory is "where Bowie starts to become Bowie", featuring lyrical and stylistic themes he would replicate on his future albums. He concludes that all Bowie's future guises begin to find their voices with Hunky Dory.[21] Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune described the album as "the first taste of Bowie's multifaceted genius".[126] Douglas Wolk of Pitchfork reviewed the album's remaster for the 2015 box set Five Years 1969–1973 and gave it a 10-out-of-10 rating, believing the songs to be "scattered but splendid" and finding Bowie's songwriting a "huge leap" from his previous works.[128] Another Pitchfork writer, Ryan Schrieber, stated: "The album is by no means his most cohesive release, but it remains one of his most charming, and unquestionably, one of his best."[136] Following Bowie's death in 2016, Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone listed it as one of Bowie's essential albums, writing, "Hunky Dory was the album where he staked his claim as the most altered ego in rock & roll."[137] Far Out magazine considered that the album featured some of Bowie's "best pop work" and was his blueprint for success.[82]

Influence and legacy[edit]

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.[138]

– David Bowie, 1999

Many biographers and reviewers have agreed that Hunky Dory marked the beginning of Bowie's artistic success. Pegg writes: "Hunky Dory stands at the first great crossroads in Bowie's career. It was his last album until Low to be presented purely as a sonic artefact rather than a vehicle for the dramatic visual element with which he was soon to make his name as a performer".[139] Buckley notes that 1971 was a pivotal year for Bowie, the year in which he became "something of a pop-art agent provocateur".[45] In a time when rock musicians looked to traditions and established standards, Bowie looked to be radically different and challenge tradition, reinventing himself again and again, thereby creating new standards and conventions.[45] Buckley further said: "Its [sic] 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".[140] Spitz writes that many artists have their "it all came together on this one" record, citing Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones, Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, War by U2, and The Bends by Radiohead as examples. "For David Bowie, it's Hunky Dory".[141] Daryl Easlea of BBC Music writes that the album saw Bowie finding his own voice after "scrabbling around stylistically" for almost a decade and "finally demonstrated [his] enormous potential to the listening public."[142] Schrieber states: "Hunky Dory marked the true start of what would be one of the most successful careers in rock music, spawning millions of scarily obsessive fans."[136] The staff of Far Out magazine describes the album as "an introduction to an icon" and classifies it as the first album by Bowie one should listen to, due to its wide range of songs and styles.[82] Emily Barker of NME called it Bowie's "most time-tested album" and writes, "it was [his] incredible song-writing gifts on [the album] that convinced us he was beamed from the stars."[143] English writer Colin Larkin calls it his most "eclectic" album and served as the preparation for Bowie's subsequent changes in musical direction.[144]

Many musicians have acknowledged the album's influence. In 1999, English musician Dave Stewart of Eurythmics said: "Hunky Dory – I love the sound of it. I still kind of use it as a sort of reference-point."[139] Although he recognised other albums by Bowie as influential, Stewart noted that Hunky Dory had the biggest influence on him, recalling a time when he and his Eurythmics partner Annie Lennox, along with a full orchestra, played "Life on Mars?" instead of one of their songs during a world broadcast.[145] In 2002, Boy George of Culture Club cited Hunky Dory as the album that changed his life, saying: "The album as a whole is so unusual, so far removed from anything you heard on the radio. It's so complete, it all fits together."[139] In an interview with Mojo in 2007, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall declared Hunky Dory her favorite album, saying: "It's the only record where I've experienced total jaw-dropping awe for the whole of it because that feeling of being lost and being taken somewhere else is so strong."[139] In an interview with NME the following year, Guy Garvey of the English rock band Elbow recognised Hunky Dory as the album that had influenced him the most.[139]

The album has been reissued multiple times. Following its initial release on compact disc in the mid-1980s, Hunky Dory was re-released by Rykodisc/EMI in CD format with bonus tracks in 1990.[146] In 1999, the original album was reissued by Virgin/EMI with 24-bit digitally remastered sound.[147] This edition was re-pressed in 2014 by Parlophone, having acquired the Virgin-owned Bowie catalogue.[148] In 2015, the album was remastered for the Five Years (1969–1973) box set.[149][150] It was released in CD, vinyl, and digital formats, both as part of this compilation and separately.[151]


Hunky Dory has frequently appeared on several lists of the greatest albums of all time by multiple publications. In 1998, Q magazine readers voted it the 43rd greatest album of all time; in 2000 the same magazine placed it at number 16 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever.[152] The album ranked number 16 and number 23 in the 1998 and 2000 editions of Colin Larkin's book All Time Top 1000 Albums.[144][153] Rolling Stone ranked it number 107 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003,[154] and number 108 in the 2012 revised list.[155] In 2004, Pitchfork ranked the album 80th on their list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1970s, one place above Ziggy Stardust.[136] In the same year, VH1 placed it 47th in their list of the 100 greatest albums.[156] A year later, in a listing of the "coolest" albums by GQ, ranked it 45th. The French retailer FNAC's 2008 list named Hunky Dory the 86th greatest album of all time.[152] In 2010, TIME magazine chose it as one of the 100 best albums of all time, with journalist Josh Tyrangiel praising Bowie's "earthbound ambition to be a boho poet with prodigal style".[157] The same year, Consequence of Sound ranked the album number 18 on their list of the 100 greatest albums of all time.[158] In 2013, NME ranked the album third in their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, behind the Beatles' Revolver and the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead.[143]

Greil Marcus' named Hunky Dory one of his "Treasure Island" albums in his 1979 anthology Stranded, comprising a personal discography of rock music's first 25 years.[159] Robert Dimery included the album in his book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die in 2005.[36] Based on Hunky Dory's appearances in professional rankings and listings, the aggregate website Acclaimed Music lists it as 7th most acclaimed album of 1971, the 23rd most acclaimed album of the 1970s and the 70th most acclaimed album in history.[152]

Track listing[edit]

All tracks written by David Bowie, except where noted.[160]

Side one
  1. "Changes" – 3:37
  2. "Oh! You Pretty Things" – 3:12
  3. "Eight Line Poem" – 2:55
  4. "Life on Mars?" – 3:43
  5. "Kooks" – 2:53
  6. "Quicksand" – 5:08
Side two
  1. "Fill Your Heart" (Biff Rose, Paul Williams) – 3:07
  2. "Andy Warhol" – 3:56
  3. "Song for Bob Dylan" – 4:12
  4. "Queen Bitch" – 3:18
  5. "The Bewlay Brothers" – 5:22
1990 reissue bonus tracks[146]
  1. "Bombers" – 2:38
  2. "The Supermen" (Alternate version) – 2:41
  3. "Quicksand" (Demo version) – 4:43
  4. "The Bewlay Brothers" (Alternate mix) – 5:19


Album credits per the Hunky Dory liner notes and biographer Nicholas Pegg:[2][160]




Region Certification Certified units/sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[165] Platinum 300,000^

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone


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