From listening to David Bowie’s early lyrics, one could tell that he had a unique knack for wordsmithery. The narratives of his songs, if there was one, were usually muddled into a mosaic of obscure artistry thanks to his eye for poetry and his use of avant-garde William Burroughs writing techniques. Some of Bowie’s finest lyrical work came early on in his career and when thinking of Bowie’s songwriting talents, I often direct my mind’s gaze toward 1971’s Hunky Dory.
One of the most criminally underrated early David Bowie songs is Hunky Dory’s ‘Quicksand’. The track seems to have been engulfed by the might of the album’s arsenal of accessible classics, including ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Changes’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. The problem with ‘Quicksand’ is that it was released on one of Bowie’s finest albums, and it was simply chock full of things to get excited about heading into the era of Ziggy Stardust.
‘Quicksand’ is a peculiar concoction of ostensibly nonsensical lyrics. But upon inspection, they give a warped view into Bowie’s early fascination with the occult, Nazi Germany, Buddhism’s teachings of enlightenment, mortality, and the Nietzschean concepts of the Übermensch and eternal return.
The song was written at a time when the Starman was lamenting with doubt over his creativity. He was 24 and had struggled for five years to become the world-renowned star he knew he could be. It seems ironic that a song written in such lamentation should serve to prove his creative strength more than any other written at the time.
The lyrics weren’t the first to touch on Bowie’s aforementioned obsessions, but they were, by far, the most involved and extensive. In the stream-of-consciousness delivery, Bowie namechecks the likes of Aleister Crowley, Heinrich Himmler, Winston Churchill, and wartime spy Juan Pujol (codenamed Garbo). The lyrics jumble together thoughts from a well-read mind and seem to perfectly corroborate Bowie’s proclamation he made in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1972: “Sometimes I don’t feel as if I’m a person at all. I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas.”
‘Quicksand’ was written during Bowie’s first visit to America in early 1971, and it seemed to show the young creative turn a corner in his songwriting style. “America was an incredible adrenaline trip,” he told Beat Instrumental in August 1972. “I got very sharp and very quick. Somehow or other, I became very prolific. I wanted to write things that were more… immediate.”
In 1971, Bowie wrote brief notes on each of the songs on Hunky Dory. For ‘Quicksand’, he wrote: “The chain reaction of moving around throughout the bliss and then the calamity of America produced this epic of confusion – Anyway, with my esoteric problems I could have written it in Plainview – or Dulwich. There is a time and space level just before you go to sleep when all about you are losing theirs and whoosh void gets you with its cacophony of thought – that’s when I like to write my songs”
The obsession with Nazi Germany shown in the song lingered for the rest of Bowie’s life and even inspired the fascist image for his final stage persona, The Thin White Duke. In 1971, Bowie was interviewed by Zygote, and he gave a flavour of the intrigue that sparked the creation of ‘Quicksand’. “England is the strongest mystical force in the Western world,” he said. “We don’t know it, none of us know it now, but it’s being revived gradually. There are so many empires of magical thought in our country that we’ve lost, forgotten through the ages.”
“Do you know who else was very hot on England’s magical force? Hitler. He wanted to possess our country for that reason; he needed that power to develop his Aryan race. Himmler, his right-hand man, sent over 117 million pounds of SS money trying to find the Holy Grail in England. In England, the Druids have access to a lot of the Nazi books. They were turned on to the idea of Homo Superior long before anyone else. They found out that that was what the Nazi thing was about, and they just collected all the books before anybody else got interested in it, or even was aware that there was such a thing as Homo Superior.”
Listen to Bowie’s fabulously skittish and dreamlike ‘Quicksand’ below.