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David Bowie: Hunky Dory - Album Of The Week Club review

David Bowie found his voice on Hunky Dory, the kaleidoscopic pop collection that truly announced his arrival and began a streak of landmark albums

Hunk Dory cover art
(Image: © Parlophone Records)
David Bowie - Hunky Dory

Hunk Dory cover art

(Image credit: Parlophone Records)

Changes
Oh! You Pretty Things
Eight Line Poem
Life on Mars?
Kooks
Quicksand
Fill Your Heart
Andy Warhol
Song for Bob Dylan
Queen Bitch
The Bewlay Brothers

Hunky Dory is gold. It’s the one floating David Bowie fans reach for, and understandably so. 

Why, after all, would you choose to slog through the atonal nether regions of Tin Machine II when you could bask in the soul-warming sunshine that beams from Changes and Fill Your Heart? Why soldier through Earthling when you could swoon to the grandiloquent Life On Mars

Stick a pin in even Bowie’s superior later records and you’ll find a dud or two. But the songs gathered on Hunky Dory never drop the ball. It’s the one David Bowie album capable of giving Ziggy Stardust a bloody nose, and the only era-defining record that also sounds great at barbecues.

“In the early 70s it really started to all come together for me as to what it was that I liked doing,” Bowie told Classic Rock, “and it was a collision of musical styles. I found that I couldn’t easily adopt brand loyalty, or genre loyalty. 

"I wasn’t an R&B artist, I wasn’t a folk artist, and I didn’t see the point in trying to be that purist about it. My true style was that I loved the idea of putting Little Richard with Jacques Brel, and the Velvet Underground backing them. ‘What would that sound like?’ Nobody was doing that, at least not in the same way.”

This revelation would help create Hunky Dory, the kaleidoscopic pop collection that announced Bowie’s arrival and began a streak of landmark albums through the 1970s.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in December 1971

  • The Electric Light Orchestra - Electric Light Orchestra
  • Islands - King Crimson
  • Wild Life - Wings
  • Straight Up - Badfinger
  • The Concert for Bangladesh - George Harrison and Friends
  • Hot Rocks 1964–1971 - The Rolling Stones
  • America - America
  • Boz Scaggs & Band - Boz Scaggs
  • Guilty! - Eric Burdon & Jimmy Witherspoon
  • Papa John Creach - Papa John Creach
  • Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again - Steeleye Span

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What they said...

"Hunky Dory not only represents Bowie’s most engaging album musically, but also finds him once more writing literally enough to let the listener examine his ideas comfortably, without having to withstand a barrage of seemingly impregnable verbiage before getting at an idea — only in The Bewlay Brothers does he succumb to the temptation to grant his poetic faculties completely free rein, and there with expectedly frustrating results." (Rolling Stone)

"For all its brilliance the album doesn’t keep a terribly tight grip. Tracks like Eight Line Poem and Fill Your Heart feel like scenery. They fit with Hunky Dory’s spirit, but fall well short of its landmark moments. Taken together this all still amounts to a unique, often magical Bowie record, but one which I think was bettered several times after." (Audioxide)

"Hunky Dory contains some of Bowie’s greatest songs. Changes and Life On Mars?, Oh! You Pretty Things are almost too well-known now; but to hear the scale of Bowie’s ambition is incredible. Andy Warhol introduced the pop-artist to many British listeners, while the fairly unrepresentative Queen Bitch (his tribute to Velvet Underground) points the way clearest to what was to lay ahead." (BBC)

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What you said...

John Davidson: An iconic album from an iconic artist.

It's more art pop than classic rock, but with a backing band that includes Trevor Bolder and Rick Wakeman and with Mick Robson as his guitar wielding wingman the debate is nullified.

Bowie's poetry is on full display and with three bonafide classics in Changes, Life on Mars? and Oh You Pretty Things, the rest of the album can seem overshadowed.

Side two of the LP features a trilogy of New York-inspired songs about Dylan, Warhol and Lou Reed (Queen Bitch) it's fair to say Queen Bitch comes out on top.

For those of us who have mostly listened to Bowie through his best of collections its a reminder that his albums were pretty good too.

Better was to follow in Ziggy Stardust but this was the step change in his talents and fortunes. His talents were complemented by the guru of glam guitar (Mick Robson) but we all know the story. 9/10.

Bill Griffin: My previous exposure to Bowie has been exclusively through his singles and the ChangesOneBowie album (the only one I own). I guess my older siblings were not exactly fans. This is good though not compelling enough to make me think I need to include it in my record collection.

Uli Hassinger: Late, but not too late for the show. Seems that I'm the only one not knowing the album. This is remarkable because I love Bowie's 70s stuff and own nearly every album by him from that decade. For some reason this album was always under my radar, so this was my first listen.

It's a surprisingly calm album, dominated by mellow piano and acoustic guitar. The only exception is Queen Bitch, which gives us an impression of the future Ziggy. All the songs are genius but Changes, Oh You Pretty Things and Song for Bob Dylan are the ones which are sticking out. It's a 9/10, mainly because there are even better Bowie albums to come.

Brian Carr: Not only do I love music, but I’m fascinated by its history. In my years of musical study there have been many artists that I’ve respected for their influence far more than I personally like their music. David Bowie is one example. There are certainly Bowie songs that I like, but something about him - probably his voice - has limited my desire to dive into his catalogue. I think I’ve long considered him too “artsy” for my tastes.

Likely my first dive into an entire Bowie album, listening to Hunky Dory proved I wasn’t very far off track. Changes is a great song and I do love Life on Mars?. Song For Bob Dylan was a cool tune with some tasty Ronson guitar work and the moody The Bewlay Brothers was interesting until it fell into What The Hell? territory with about a minute left - the artiness that leaves me flat. Andy Warhol unsurprisingly falls into that territory as well. My Bowie vocal struggles appear in Queen Bitch and the verses of Oh! You Pretty Things.

Hunky Dory isn’t a terrible album to my ears, but neither does it move me to reconsider my personal opinion towards Bowie’s music. He just never moved me the way he does others, but isn’t that the great thing about music? There’s something out there for every mood, taste and personality!

Alex Hayes: There's always one, isn't there?

This week, that's me. I've never been a particularly big David Bowie fan. I respect the hell out of him, but I've always been able to 'take it or leave it' when it comes to his music. In fact, I've only ever availed myself of a handful of his albums.

Hunky Dory is one of those select few, as are its 'sequels', The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane. It may actually have been more interesting if I was coming to this album for the very first time but, hey ho, there we go.

The Berlin trilogy though? Never listened to them in full. Nor Diamond Dogs or Station To Station. Bowie was plainly outstanding in his field, but I've never been intrigued enough to take a serious dive into his body of work.

Is Hunky Dory a good album? Yeah, course it is. I certainly don't think any validation from me is gonna make much difference, one way or another. I do prefer Side one over two though, what with its Changes, Kooks, Quicksands and Life On Mars' (Lives On Mars? Would that be the plural definition?).

I haven't decided on a rating yet. It's not an instantaneous 10, 'I don't even need to listen to this, it's getting full marks' scenario with me though. My enthusiasm for this isn't as high as it plainly, and quite rightfully, is for other members of this esteemed Club.

See, there's always one, isn't there?

Chris Beevor: Promise I’m by no means slating this album but I think it’s slightly become overrated by Bowie fans sometimes. It’s almost cool to say this is better than Ziggy but I wouldn’t agree. Queen Bitch and The Bewlay Brothers are my faves.

Greg Schwepe: Another choice where I don’t even need to listen to it before reviewing. And since it is the 50-year anniversary of its release and there have been a plethora of articles recently about it, I just happened to have listened to it again just the other day. Fresh in my mind.

So many phases of Bowie’s career and when I want to “go early” I usually pick this one, Ziggy and Aladdin Sane. I like the vibe of the albums in this period.

While Changes is the one song that appears on classic rock radio all day long, the rest of the album is filled with incredible songs. Not much more that I can add. Incredible versions of songs from this album on Live from Santa Monica ‘72 as well. Even when they’re stripped down.

The emotion you can feel during Life On Mars? is just…wow. And I really like the last four tracks that finish out the album; Andy Warhol, Song for Bob Dylan, Queen Bitch, and The Bewlay Brothers.

Awesome album from an amazing artist. 9 out of 10 on this one. Feel lucky to actually been able to see him live in concert.

Mike Canoe: My introduction to David Bowie wasn't until the early 80s so his music was a mishmash of classic rock radio (Suffragette City), early MTV (Heroes, Fashion), and the ubiquitous Let's Dance album that was soon all over MTV and radio. I would ponder questions like, "Was Major Tom before or after the Thin White Duke?" Turns out it was both. One thing I knew for sure, a song like Changes, as full of hard-earned wisdom and sophistication as it was, had to be relatively new. Whoops.

But therein lies at least part of Hunky Dory's charm. The music is timeless, the lyrics obtuse yet strangely relevant. And, even if Bowie is playing a character, it's nothing as obvious as Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, so it feels like a stripped down and somehow more pure David Bowie.

On this umpteenth listen, I find myself marvelling at the beautiful yet unadorned piano stylings of Rick Wakeman, which give no inkling that he is about to be become Yes's keyboard wizard in residence. The Spiders from Mars are assembled but really only rock out on the terrific Queen Bitch. Here, Mick Ronson's excellent string arrangements are more pronounced than his relatively subdued (but still excellent) guitar.

Hunk Dory is arguably the album where Bowie literally and figuratively discovered his voice. He may be playing the role of singer songwriter but his singing is less mannered and stagey - or, when it is, it's serving a better song, like unsettling closer The Bewlay Brothers or the oddball namecheck Andy Warhol. Bowie made some other great albums (and several merely good ones), but, thanks to Hunky Dory, I purposely stutter "ch-ch-ch-changes" to this day.

Philip Qvist: If this album isn't a 10 then it is pretty damn close to it. Life on Mars? and Changes are alone worth the price of the album - the rest are bonus tracks, but what a bonus.

A great album, without a single dud on it - and it runs Ziggy Stardust very close. Hunky Dory is definitely one of David Bowie's high points - 10/10 for me

Adam Ranger: Always been my favourite Bowie album. Set the foundations of what was to come. Not a bad song on the album. And in Changes and Life On Mars? a couple of stone cold classics.

But even the lesser known tracks are better than most can aspire to. Surely a solid 10 from me.

Iain Macaulay: Got to say I was quite surprised to see this album come up. For one, it’s probably the best album by Bowie, songwriting-wise. A classic within a list of several classic albums. Yet, this group was set up with the proviso to listen to those nearly ran albums rather than the true classics. Station To Station or Low may have been a better options in my opinion. However, here we are, reviewing a classic.

Like others here I thought, what can you say about this album that hasn’t already been said over the years? What can you say that isn’t preaching to the converted? And my answer…. nothing really. There can’t be many people who haven’t heard it, or at least the appropriate songs that grace the best of albums to make their own opinion of it. Can there? 

Then I realised, unfortunately there are. Kids. Teenagers. So how could I review this new for a kid who may have never heard it, or of Bowie? How could you review this for a 14 or 15 year old kid getting into music by reading Kerrang! or NME? A kid that has only had the opportunity to hear Slipknot or Ed Sheerin ? A kid addicted to Tik Tok videos and has no parent with a massive record collection to trawl though to learn about the music that inspired the bands they listen to. How do you get someone that age to listen to an album released 50 years ago, regardless of how revered and inspired it is?

Wow. There’s a challenge I though.

And where to start?

Do we start with the guitar work? Mick Ronson. Arguably one of the best straight rock guitarists of that era. But how does he compare to Ed or Jim Root? Okay, let’s take Ed out of the equation. But even then there is no comparison against one of modern metals greats. Even against Joe Bonamassa. But then, there is not really a lot of rock guitar on the album compared to Ziggy.

So do we go with Rick Wakeman's Piano? Comparisons to Freddy Mercury? Lady Gaga? Possible. But for modern purposes Gaga is more known to kids as a dance artist than an accomplished piano player.

How about the overall sound? But its sound is almost parochial, twee even. It sounds as if it was released 50 years ago. It doesn’t contain the rock bombast of Queen at their height, or the full modern electronic sound of Gaga. It doesn’t contain the sound modern rock kids would want to hear who listen to Gojira or Spiritbox or even Paramore.

This is tough. I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. An admission which led to a horrible thought. That this classic album is an album that, to all intents and purposes, will probably be lost on a lot of kids who have no interest in the rock stars of the past, which is a real shame. That this album will eventually be destined to be loved by only Bowie fans, of which there will be less and less as time goes on. That this album doesn’t speak to the modern world, discounting the irony of Changes being the opening track, like Back In Black or Zeppelin IV or The Doors.

So, with those thoughts, and with it being Christmas and not wanting to come across like a sad Scrooge, how do I review it for kids? My answer - You can’t. All you can do is play it. Which leads me to say that I think the next couple of holiday weeks are going to be taken up trying to play a small part in keeping the flame alive and drowning my kids in Bowie albums. Once again this group has managed to light a flame around an artist that is probably taken for granted which is not a bad thing at all. Oh! you pretty things indeed.

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Final Score: 8.73 (173 votes cast, with a total score of 1494)

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