Finding himself

By Sergio Ariza

In January 1971 David Bowie had just turned 24, and had behind him three studio albums and a seven-year career (if we count from the release date of his first single) - that did not seem to be taking him anywhere. He had tasted the sweetness of success in 1969 with Space Oddity but, after the failure of The Prettiest Star, he had returned to the starting blocks. To top it off, his friend Marc Bolan, who had started at the same time as him, was becoming the biggest rock star in the country, with T. Rex.  

Bowie knew he had talent but having started with R&B, having been a Mod, a hippie folk singer and a mime cabaret act, he was not sure who he really was. It was the right time to look in the mirror and see what was reflected. It was a revelation, Bowie saw that he was the sum of his changes, he was not an R&B singer, nor folk, nor any other; it was all of them at the same time, as he would say later his true style was an amalgam: "Jacques Brel leading the Velvet Underground " The change was his personality and he would know how to reflect it perfectly: "Still don’t know what I was waiting for, and my time was running wild, a million dead end streets, and every time I thought I had it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet. So I turned mysel to face me but I’ve never caught a glimpse, How the others must see the faker, I'm much too fast to take that test. Changes (turn and face the strange) Changes, I don’t want to be a richer man, Changes (turn and face the strange) Changes, (there’s gonna have to be a different man), time may change me but I can’t trace time."

Hunky Dory
represented the creation of the myth of Bowie as chameleon, of the artist as we know him. It was in these songs where he was definitively confirmed 'cum laude' as an exquisite composer. It helped that he left his comfort zone and began to compose with an instrument that he did not dominate especially well, the piano. Until that moment his instrument of choice when making new melodies was his beloved acoustic 12 string guitars, at the time a Guild and a Hagstrom, but for Hunky Dory he began to play with a piano that was in the flat that he shared with his wife Angie, who was about to give birth to their first child (dedicated to him would be the adorable Kooks). This is how he explored other possibilities and gave the album a more austere and less rock sound than the previous one, The Man Who Sold The World.

Even so, Bowie had been delighted with his new guitarist, Mick Ronson, and decided to call him back for this new recording. Ronson would again become his secret weapon and also bring him a full band, Mick Woodmansey on drums and Trevor Bolder on bass. The Spiders of Mars were ready to record their first album with Bowie, although they still did not know they had that name. Other important factors in the recording would be the addition of Ken Scott as producer, who replaced Tony Visconti, and the contracting of Rick Wakeman at the piano. Bowie knew that he had several gems in his possession, but he was also aware that his rudimentary knowledge of the piano was not the best to draw out all their potential. So he sat down with the future member of Yes and told him that he wanted to make this record from a different angle, build it around the piano. Bowie told Wakeman he had to play these songs as if they were piano concert pieces - playing all the possible notes - and then he would adapt them from the piano arrangement. Wakeman could not believe what he heard, the songs were amazing, pieces like Life On Mars? and Changes, songs destined to remain in the collective memory.

The recording sessions were marathon, with Bowie in charge, always knowing how to get the best out of his musicians. Ronson, despite not having as much presence as in The Man Who Sold The World, returns to shine with his Les Paul Custom 68 in several moments as in Life On Mars?, Eight Line Poem, Song For Bob Dylan and Queen Bitch, the record that would advance the sound of the character with which Bowie would reach the top a year later. But the importance of Ronson on the album goes beyond his guitar because in the previous months he had been studying music theory and arrangements, so with that knowledge and his natural talent he was put in charge of the wonderful string arrangements of songs like Quicksand and Life On Mars?

Another strong influence came from Bowie’s fascination with London's growing underground gay culture, which helped him forge his identity as a bisexual. Bowie also goes a step further and delivers the most bizarre, poetic lyrics of his entire career, with influences such as Nietzsche and Crowley and several other heroes that, in one way or another, are referenced in these songs, such as
Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. The first two and the last he would meet that same year when he made his first visit to the US, a trip that greatly influenced this particular album and his career in general, as he used a combination of Reed and Pop to create his definitive character, Ziggy Stardust.

But before that, Hunky Dory would arrive, the album in which he was finally ready for his close-up
(like the one on the cover). The changes kept coming but this time they were totally controlled and the character was always above them, this is how a record as varied as this sounds so coherent, either through the cabaret piano that opens Changes before breaking into a chorus that seems taken from the Who’s My Generation, or the blast of Queen Bitch guitar, with a nod to Eddie Cochran included, or in the coexistence of the folk singer-songwriter of The Bewley Brothers with the Martian who sings that enormity called Life On Mars? to the 'Homo Superior' before delivering one of the brightest chorus of his career on Oh, You Pretty Things - everything is in its place, and the artist is able to sell it as a whole. 

The world would discover him a year later disguised as Ziggy but Bowie had already found himself in Hunky Dory, his first masterpiece and one of the most beautiful albums in the history of pop music.