It’s that time of the year when gifts are being given, and the faint dalliance of Christmas music hangs in the air like the smell of mulled wine. I’d wager that, 50 years ago in 1971, as the presence of the Festive period loomed heavily on the horizon, that more than a few parents hastily scrambled themselves down to their local record store to pick up a copy of the Hunky Dory LP from that singer, David Bowie that their kid was raving on about. Luckily for me, one of those parents was my mother-in-law’s father.
A few short decades later, that original David Bowie LP would be handed down to me and my gratefully growing collection. Hidden among a treasure trove of early releases and first pressings, I was handed an original copy of one of my favourite albums of all time, the enigmatic emergence of David Bowie as the chameleonic and charismatic pop star we know him all to be, the wonderful 1971 album Hunky Dory. From the very first moment that I let the needle drop on this piece of family history, I was touched by the chills of pure love.
Aside from any familial connection I have for the album, listening to the record on the comparatively heartless digitalized version can offer the warmest of cockles for its audience. The album remains the breakthrough record for Bowie and saw the then-24-year-old finally make his name in the broadest of senses. While the success of ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 had afforded the singer some fame and acclaim, it was Hunky Dory that set him on his path to becoming a bonafide legend.
In the record, Bowie set out his blueprint for success. He would take the kaleidoscopic influences he fell upon and which fell upon him during the previous decade, tie them up together in a neat bow and deliver them with a charismatic smile. In my mind, if there’s one thing that Hunky Dory is, it’s an introduction to an icon. It should be the first place you send any Bowie virgin, not least of all because of the vast range of songs and styles.
Whether it is the plainly opaque brilliance of ‘Eight Line Poem’ or the undeniable foot-tapping power of ‘Changes’, the record is chock-full of reminders of Bowie’s searing talent. It is the light and dark textures that Bowie adds to the album that truly showcases the career he was soon to have. The artistically driven moments on the album like the harder than granite tune ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ is expertly balanced by the charged charisma of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’.
The album also saw Bowie pay tribute to some of his heroes. As well as the simply bafflingly good ‘Andy Warhol’ — a song not appreciated by the pop artist in question — we hear Bowie pay homage to an icon by declaring war on him. ‘Song for Bob Dylan’, is a track that sees Bowie kick things up a notch. He once recalled: “There’s even a song – ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ – that laid out what I wanted to do in rock. It was at that period that I said, ‘okay (Dylan) if you don’t want to do it, I will.’ I saw that leadership void.”
He added: “Even though the song isn’t one of the most important on the album, it represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it.” This was the moment David Bowie made it clear that he was not just a showman; he was an artist capable of changing society. That’s all without mentioning another track on the record, perhaps his best ever, ‘Life on Mars’. While it’s easy to point to this album as a pop LP in comparison with Bowie’s canon, it’s hard not to see it as a masterpiece.
Most Bowie fans have a polarising relationship with Hunky Dory and it usually depends at what point you really connected with The Starman; if you loved his experimental work, then you’ll likely have a challenging relationship with the album. If like me, you only really started to appreciate David Bowie when it was too late, then Hunky Dory could be the perfect entry point.
For some, the record remains in the doldrums of his pop ascension, much like Please, Please Me is thought of for The Beatles; the work is noted as the artist achieving the mainstream foothold they required before launching into more experimental and artistically pure waters. For others, it is the potent seed from every branch of Bowie’s absorbing career sprung from — it is the germination of a true icon. For me, it’s a piece of scribbled on and pawed over heritage that I will cherish forever.
Truly, that is the beauty of music. Whether it is discovering a brand new artist on your shuffle list, offering a new album out to a friend, being gifted a soon-to-be-cherishable LP or, indeed, meticulously retracing the steps of your familial lineage, exploring every gnarled corner of a seriously loved record — the art of music is in the connection it serves, to the artist, to their audience and to each other. Hunky Dory not only gave me my first in-road to understanding David Bowie but also made me a part of family history. Now, that’s what Christmas is all about.