‘Changes’ by David Bowie is one of the late icon’s most enduring songs. Whether it be the legendary piano riff or the chorus, the 1972 track is one of the most instantly recognisable moments that Bowie ever produced. The ironic element about ‘Changes’ is that as a single, it flopped just like the album it was taken from, Hunky Dory. It only became a classic in the years after its release, when Bowie had hit the big time.
Art-pop to the core, ‘Changes’ was the final single Bowie released before embarking on his true path to stardom with the release of ‘Starman’ later that year. Lyrically, the material is about defying the critics and backing yourself. It was the first time that Bowie had really openly discussed the concept of artistic progression and reinvention, something that would become a hallmark of his as the ’70s wore on. This was inspired by a huge real-life change that Bowie was going through at the time.
His wife, Angie, was pregnant with their first child, Duncan, and Bowie was excited to be entering this new chapter in his life. Defying the stereotype of the age, Bowie got on well with his own father and was excited about the prospect of having the same relationship with Duncan, and this is what bled into the song, giving it its uplifting feel.
It turns out that the song started off as something of a joke. Bowie had just started experimenting with the keyboard as a means of writing songs, and this opened up a whole new world of compositional possibilities, one of which was the base idea for ‘Changes’. Bowie once revealed how the song actually started off as a parody of the sort of music you’d hear in nightclubs at the time, and initially, he saw it as “kind of a throwaway”.
However, it wasn’t to stay this way for long. The track quickly became a fan favourite, and people would constantly chant for it in request during Bowie’s shows. Given that it flopped upon first release, Bowie was surprised to see the song develop such a cult status. Many of the lyrics had a universal appeal, and Bowie was not aware of this at the time of writing. One, in particular, stood out to the younger members of the audience: “These children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through”.
Famously, Bowie played the triumphant sounding saxophone of the track, whilst partner in crime, Mick Ronson, handled the string arrangement. It also featured future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, whose dextrous style was perfect for the plinky melody. The story goes that Wakeman was given free rein with the keyboard part, and his sole instruction was to play it like a piano piece, and boy did he.
Creating that iconic sound was the world-famous, 100-year-old C Bechstein grand piano housed at London’s Trident Studios. Interestingly, this same piano had been used by other greats such as Elton John, The Beatles and Genesis.
A classic Bowie track, with retrospect ‘Changes’, became known as an embodiment of Bowie’s creative phoenix-like ethos, giving it a life far detached from what was at first simply a “throwaway”.
Listen to ‘Changes’ below.