2. Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory” is David Bowie’s 4th studio album, originally released on 17 December 1971.

In 1971, David Bowie was still a relative unknown, who had that weird one-off hit a couple of years previously about a doomed astronaut called Major Tom. His previous three albums had all been commercial disappointments that had failed to chart. All that was soon to change with some key personnel entering the picture, although sadly not initially with this remarkable album.

The most significant new figure to enter the Bowie universe was Tony Defries, a solicitor who would help Bowie get out of his management contract with Ken Pitt and who would in turn become Bowie’s new manager. Defries provided Bowie with the aggressive management push his career needed, help with some shrewd commercial contracts and ultimately steer Bowie towards superstardom. That Defries would in the process line his own pockets with Bowie’s success via his new MainMan empire and leave Bowie resentful and almost broke was a consequence that wouldn’t become clear for a number of years to come. But Bowie was desperate for success and basically dived in somewhat naively with Defries to make it happen for him.

Defries signed Bowie to a then excellent publishing contract with GEM but more importantly signed him to a new record label in RCA who were desperate for a new “Elvis” to be added to their recording lineup. Defries saw lots of raw potential in his new prodigy and realised that ultimate success only really comes by cracking into the US market. RCA were willing to push Bowie in the US as much as in the UK and so were the perfect recording label. The future was finally looking bright at long long last.

Bowie went into Trident Studios, London in June 1971 to begin work on his first album with RCA.

Tony Visconti had enough of working with Bowie after the troublesome “The Man Who Sold The World” recording sessions and decided to concentrate his efforts with Marc Bolan’s blooming T. Rex. He was replaced by Ken Scott in the co-producer’s chair who would go on to help produce Bowie’s upcoming monster glam albums.

Visconti was replaced on bass guitar duties by the excellent Trevor Bolder, who had worked previously with both guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey in their native Hull in the group The Rats. The future legendary “The Spiders From Mars” were now in place…

However, the musician I think most contributes to the overall vibe on “Hunky Dory” was the legendary Rick Wakeman on piano. Bowie had began writing much of his new material on the piano, but didn’t feel confident enough to play some of the expansive chords sequences he was conjuring together. Wakeman had worked with Bowie previously on “David Bowie” (aka Space Oddity) but his work here on tracks such as “Oh! You Pretty Things” and  “Life On Mars?” are truly inspired. Bowie offered Wakeman a permanent gig as one one the “The Spiders From Mars” but the temptation of joining supergroup Yes finally won out.

Mick Ronson is also worth a very special mention for his contributions, not just with his admirable guitar work both also for his gorgeous arrangements, which help so many of the tracks here to soar.

The resultant sessions produced one of the truly great albums of all time. However, it still seems remarkable to me that this glorious masterpiece was a complete flop upon its initial release.

The album kicks off with Bowie’s second great iconic track “Changes” (behind Bowie’s first classic 1969’s  “Space Oddity“). In so many ways, this song previews Bowie’s career to come, both in terms of the many changes and musical manifestations that would mark Bowie’s catalogue but also in the lyrical content in which he refers to the current youth as a new future race. The song starts with a little piano flourish before Wakeman’s distinctive piano riff kicks in that dominates throughout as Bowie sings “Still don’t know what I was waiting for, And my time was running wild, a million dead-end streets” which rather nicely encapsulates Bowie’s faltering career thus far. The second verse contains the key lines “So I turned myself to face me, But I’ve never caught a glimpse, Of how the others must see the faker, I’m much too fast to take that test” in which he refers to himself in both the first and third person, a technique he used on the previous “The Man Who Sold The World” and would reuse with his many future characters. The band then kick in during the catchy chorus as Bowie takes a big slice out of The Who, a band he’s admired for many years as his multi-track vocals spits out “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” in the same stuttering style used by The Who on their classic “My Generation”. Bowie pleads for us to “Turn and face the strange” on each chorus coupled with a different bitter proclamation to the current generation such as “Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it” and “Where’s your shame, you’ve left us up to our necks in it“.  The track ends beautifully with a final, sombre like sax solo by Bowie himself. Bowie’s clearly “English” vocal expressions, Wakeman’s wonderful piano prowess, Ronson’s sublime arrangements and lyrics referencing a future race are all key components that feature throughout much of the album.

“Changes” was released as the lead-off (and for a long time, only) single, which at the time failed to chart. This would be the last single of Bowie’s to flop in the UK for a long long time, although it did manage to reach No. 66 in the US billboard charts, his first single to make the list. Interestingly, the single finally made the UK charts in January 2016, where the picture disc release made No 49 following Bowie’s death.

The track is very often listed as one of Bowie’s very best, being for example one of four Bowie songs to be inducted into the “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”.

It would also be a track that Bowie would often play live throughout his career and was in fact performed on 9 November 2006 at the Black Ball fundraiser in New York, his last ever live performance (unless you include his performance of “Chubby Little Loser” when he introduced Ricky Gervais at Madison Square Garden in 2007.

There was no official video made at the time, although his performance at his “retirement” concert on 3 July 1973 is often used, Watch it here.

Up next comes the truly fabulous “Oh! You Pretty Things“. Again featuring mainly Wakeman’s wonderful piano part, with the rest of the band only kicking in during the upbeat refrain/chorus, it’s light and catchy musical tones somewhat belies the dark, mystic lyrics. Describing a future when the youth in combination with arriving aliens take over and inherit the earth, it touches on many of the occult themes from his previous “The Man Who Sold The World” album, although here in a far more jolly musical setting. Describing a typical morning, things suddenly change forever “Look out my window, what do I see, A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me, All the nightmares came today, And it looks as though they’re here to stay“. Again, it’s a future in which only the youth survive “They’re the start of the coming race, The earth is a bitch, We’ve finished our news, Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use“. It’s classic Bowie a few years before the rest of the world would realise it.

The track gained some prominence when it was released earlier in the year as a tame single by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits fame, who made it a No. 12 success in the UK charts. Trust me, Bowie’s version is infinitely (homo) superior…

This track would feature in one of Ziggy Stardust’s earliest TV appearances when Bowie performed it on the “The Old Grey Whistle Test” on 8 February 1972 (which also featured “Queen Bitch”). Sadly, the song wasn’t actually broadcast until many years later. Watch it here.

Eight Line Poem” is a curious piece, literally a beautiful little eight line poem sung to a lovely Ronson electric guitar part and Wakeman’s backing piano. At one level, it comes across as simple and off-handed, but it really is all rather gorgeous, with Bowie’s wonderful vocals constantly changing on each obscure line as Bowie describes a lazy day as he stares outside his window. I’ve always loved the closing lines “But the key to the city, Is in the sun that pins, The branches to the sky“. As far as I’m aware, this has only ever been played live once on a BBC broadcast as featured on the excellent “Bowie At The Beeb” album.

 

Life on Mars?” is without doubt, THE highlight. One of the questions I get asked a lot is what is my favourite Bowie song. And although it’s not an easy question to answer, I do feel the answer is this amazing track. I can still remember the first time I discovered this song when I first played the K-Tel “Best of Bowie” album. And it still sends a shiver down my spine with each hearing.

Starting slowly with Wakeman’s wonderful piano part, it describes the sad tale of a lonely girl who goes to the cinema to escape her life for a while, only to see it being played out in all its horror up on the silver screen. Bowie’s vocals are at their very best here as he sets the scene “It’s a God-awful small affair, To the girl with the mousy hair, But her mummy is yelling no, And her daddy has told her to go“. Things pick up pace musically as we enter the stupendous chorus section, where at first we hear the start of Ronson’s truly amazing string arrangement as the girl enters the cinema “But the film is a saddening bore, For she’s lived it ten times or more“, before the band kicks in with the full orchestra in the chorus section as she details the boring movie show on display “Sailors fighting in the dance hall, Oh man, look at those cavemen go, It’s the freakiest show, Take a look at the lawman, Beating up the wrong guy“. It finally reaches its musical climax as Bowie’s vocals so beautifully explodes as he cries out the key question “Is there life on Mars?“. The second verse has a delightful wood-pipe accompaniment throughout as the girl’s imagination starts to take off “See the mice in their million hordes, From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads, Rule Britannia is out of bounds, To my mother, my dog, and clowns” before we repeat the refrain and chorus but this time with the girl in control “But the film is a saddening bore, ‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more, It’s about to be writ again, As I ask you to focus on“. Ronson’s beautifully sedate solo and his string arrangements have a final burst, before it slowly trails off with booming drums. Then just as you think’s it’s over, the piano tinkers back into action before a phone goes off in the background (a studio mishap that drove Ronson crazy with frustration at the time and so was included as an in-joke, a number of such studio playfulness included in the mix).

Seriously, WOW, what an amazing song !!

On the album back cover, Bowie notes he was “Inspired by Frankie“, a nod towards the fact the track has a similar structure to “My Way”, a song for which Bowie had a set of lyrics rejected (his version was called “Even A Fool Learns To Love”). This is the best way possible to get revenge…

Although both album and song could have been criminally ignored by history had Bowie been hit by a bus in late 1971, Bowie’s success on his next album gave the song a rebirth when it was released as a single on 22 June 1973 during the height of the Ziggy Stardust period. The song fitted Bowie’s new interstellar image perfectly and in combination with a fabulous video by Mick Rock, helped the song reached No 3 in the UK charts. Watch Ziggy Stardust perform in the video here.

Bowie would play “Life On Mars?” on and off throughout his career, all the way until 2005 when he performed a beautiful version at his last “public” appearance at the “Fashion Rocks” show at Radio City Music Hall, NY. You can watch this final, emotional performance here. Sigh.

 

 

The album is a wonderful combination of light and dark with regard its themes. “Kooks” is lovely little ditty Bowie wrote for his son Zowie Bowie a few days after he was born on 30 May 1971. With a catchy, almost nursery rhyme arrangement and playful blasts of trumpet courtesy of Trevor Bolder, it’s a song that’s impossible to dislike. Bowie vocals are uniquely tender and loving and with lyrics such as “Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads, ‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads, And if the homework brings you down, Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown“, there’s a humour and playfulness that’s infectious here. It’s a track that Bowie rarely performed live, the most notable performance soon after it was written when he appeared on the John Peel radio show.

If “Kooks” was light, then “Quicksand” is definitely a return to the dark themes. A mainly acoustic arrangement, this is one of Bowie’s most heavy lyrics, touching again upon themes of the occult and Nietzsche’s writings of the coming Superman. With references to the “Golden Dawn“, the secretive occultist, magical order society and its controversial member Aleister Crowley (“I’m closer to the Golden Dawn, Immersed in Crowley’s uniform”), the evilness of Heinrich Himmler and with digs at Garbo and Churchill (“I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes, Living proof of Churchill’s lies, I’m destiny“), Bowie takes us on a dark journey where the “death of Man” is its final destination. During the lovely chorus sequence, Bowie warns us to not “Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief, Knowledge comes with death’s release“. However, Bowie also warns us that he might not be the saviour, “I’m not a prophet or a stone-age man, Just a mortal with the potential of a superman” and that “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought, And I ain’t got the power anymore“.

It’s powerful stuff that is somewhat undermined by the gentle guitar arrangements. It’s a song that would get very little live airplay until the mid-90’s when Bowie rediscovered the track and performed it frequently from then on in.

Side Two is basically devoted to a number of tribute pieces, the first to Biff Rose and Paul Williams as Bowie playfully covers their song “Fill Your Heart“. Almost the exact opposite vibe to the previous “Quicksand”, its lightheartedness, joyful arrangement and hilarious vocal delivery, especially when Bowie sings the final “Love will clean your mind and makes you freeeeeeeeeeeeeee“, it can’t but put a smile on your face. It was a last minute replacement for “Bombers” (discussed later) and the album overall is better for it. It’s a track that Bowie played live a few times at around this period, most noticeably at Aylesbury, but was doomed to disappear forever from the live set once Ziggy Stardust arrived.

Andy Warhol” is an affectionate dig at the famous artist and all-round multi-media odd ball, who Bowie admired for quite some time, especially with his ties to “The Velvet Underground“. Starting with some studio chat where the pronunciation of Bowie’s idol is under some humorous debate, it’s a great track featuring some wonderful acoustic guitar work by Ronson. You can see why Bowie was so enamoured with the whole Warhol scene with killer lines such as “Dress my friends up just for show, See them as they really are, Put a peephole in my brain, Two new Pence to have a go“, which predicts somewhat Bowie’s upcoming years. There’s a lot of humour here, with “He’ll think about paint and he’ll think about glue, What a jolly boring thing to do” as funny a line as Bowie has ever penned. (Warhol was slightly less impressed when Bowie played the song to him later in the year, although Warhol was taken by the shoes Bowie was wearing). The track ends with Ronson’s catchy multi-track flamenco style guitar and a round of studio applause. It really is one of the many treasures found within.

The track was originally written for Bowie’s friend Diana Gillespie and featured on her album “Weren’t Born A Man” and is well worth checking out as it also features Ronson on guitar. Bowie would perform the song live during this period and during an acoustic set within the early Ziggy Stardust shows, as featured on the excellent “Santa Monica ’72” live album. Bowie would resurrect the song again during the “Outside” tour in 1995.

Song for Bob Dylan” is another tribute song for which the man of honour was reported less than thrilled about. Incorporating an intro and style similar to Dylan’s own “Song To Woody” (“Oh, hear this Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you“), the song is actually less a true tribute but more a plea from Bowie for the great Robert Zimmerman to get back to roots and start fighting for social issues again. “Tell him we’ve lost his poems, So we’re writing on the walls, Give us back our unity, Give us back our family” sums up Bowie’s frustrations. Bowie also nails down Dylan perfectly “With a voice like sand and glue” and cleverly “glues” together both Warhol and Dylan. Musically, the track has a Dylan-like vibe, with Ronson’s sublime electric guitar and Wakeman’s piano working perfectly together, although if I had to pick the weakest track on the album, this would get my vote. Bowie would perform this live a few times during this period before dropping it for good.

Queen Bitch” is yet another masterpiece contained within. The inspiration here and nod of affection is for Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, with their wonderful hard edgy soundscapes and sordid tales of New York. The original back sleeve notes refers to the track as “some vu, white light returned with thanks“. Bowie mimics them here perfectly, with a hard rock sound and sexually explicit lyrics that more than any other track encompasses and foreshadows the Ziggy Stardust scene to come. The future Spiders From Mars break free and simply shine as they rock things out. Bowie’s positively annoyed  and distraught as his male sexual partner succumbs to the allure of that Queen Bitch “He’s down on the street and he’s trying hard to pull sister Flo, Oh, my heart’s in the basement, my weekend’s at an all-time low“.  But her allure is too strong “She’s so swishy in her satin and tat, In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat, Oh God, I could do better than that” and Bowie is resigned to a lonely night in his hotel room “Yeah, I lay down a while and I look at my hotel wall, And he’s down on the street, so I throw both his bags down the hall“. It’s nothing short of an early Bowie classic.

“Queen Bitch” was performed during the early Ziggy Stardust tours and on several subsequent tours, but it’s appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in one of Ziggy’s first ever TV appearances that is the most iconic. Watch it here.

The album ends with the legendary epic that is “The Bewlay Brothers“. It carries on the tribute theme of side 2, this one a more obscure and sinister tribute to Bowie’s half-brother Terry that rounds off the album perfectly. Starting with a gentle basic acoustic guitar arrangement (played by Bowie) coupled with Ronson’s subdued electric guitar, Bowie’s lyrics here are beautifully and masterfully cryptic, eerie, serene, dreamy, imaginative and dense, all in a manner that has intrigued and fascinated Bowie fans for decades. Broken up into three verse/refrain sequences, it begins “And so the story goes they wore the clothes, They said the things to make it seem improbable, Whale of a lie like they hope it was“. The references to Terry are many, such as “I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax, Unbelievable, And we frightened the small children away” and “And my brother lays upon the rocks, He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you, He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricatur” but there’s a lot more going on here than Bowie sadly reminiscing about a mentally ill brother he would soon basically abandon. The music expands out beautifully during the refrains where Bowie’s vocals become less dead-pan and become full of anguish and pain, especially in the last section “Oh, and we were gone, Kings of Oblivion, We were so turned on, In the night walk pavilion“. The piece completes with a chilling sequence of schizophrenia induced demonic voices as if a possessed laughing gnome has had enough of this world, where Bowie intones “Lay me place and bake me pie I’m starving for me gravy, Leave my shoes, and door unlocked I might just slip away” as the weird voices slowly fade while pleading “Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay“… The song really is a Bowie tour de force and one of his finest recorded moments.

Although Bowie wouldn’t perform the song live until almost the end of his live career when he debuted it in 2002, it obliviously meant a lot to Bowie as he used the title Bewlay Bros. Music for his music publishing company.

I really do find it remarkable that such an incredible musical experience could have been lost to history if Bowie had been run over by a bus in 1971. The album upon it’s initial release was yet another commercial disappointment and failed to chart, due in some large part to poor marketing and by Bowie himself who quickly lost interest in it and barely promoted it or performed it live at the time.

Thankfully, Bowie managed to dodge said London buses and would go on to make the big time with his next album. Hunky Dory then started to finally get the attention it so very much deserved and entered the UK charts in September 1972 where it peaked at No 3.

History has been very kind to the album and is widely regarded as one of Bowie’s finest achievements. It has reached many a top album ranking, including those of Rolling Stone, Q Magazine, Pitchfork and NME who ranked it the 3rd best album of all time in 2003. Hey, it’s even reached No 2 in Richard Foote’s Bowie list !!

As with most of Bowie’s back catalogue, the album has been re-released a number of times over the years. Most notiably, it was first released on CD by RCA back in 1981 and then again on CD in 1990 as part of the excellent Ryko/EMI series, which included a number of bonus tracks including:

Bombers” was going to be on the album, until it was (thankfully) replaced by “Fill Your Heart” at the last moment. Available for years on bootleg albums, it’s a pretty weak effort that belongs more in the era of Bowie’s first “David Bowie” album than here. Telling the tale of a poor old man who gets blown to bits by unscrupulous military types for  daring to live on a wasteland where they want to conduct a (nuclear) bombing exercise, the mainly piano musical arrangement is all just a little ploddy and unimaginative. Bowie’s high pitched vocals never quite sound right either and it was all a good idea to drop the thing entirely from the album.

Hunky Dory also featured in the excellent “Five Years (1969-1973)” box set released in 2015.

 

 

Finally as part of Record Store Day in 2017, the rather nice David Bowie Bowpromo RSD vinyl LP set was released, which featured a nice reproduction of the original (and highly sort after) promotional 1971 LP that had seven differently mixed tracks from Hunky Dory on one side and tracks from Dana Gillespie on the other (missing sadly here).

 

 

Hopefully next year, there might be a special 50th Anniversary Edition of the album. Fingers crossed.

I simply LOVE this album and can remember when I first bought and listened to it all those many years ago on a cold afternoon in Manchester.

Soon after the release of the album, Bowie had quickly lost interest in the project and was looking forward already to recording a new album. He didn’t think Ken Scott would approve as it was going to be much harder and rocker than this album and was going to be about a weird alien rockstar who was going to take over the world. The hair scissors were already on hand as was the orange hair dye. Bowie was absolutely convinced he had finally found the musical formula (and image and stage persona) that would at long long last bring him the success he had craved but evaded him for so long.

And of course, Bowie was absolutely correct. With Bowie’s next album, he was going to hit the big time and true superstardom. But that’s a story for another day…

 

Best Tracks: “Life On Mars?”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Queen Bitch”, “The Bewlay Brothers”

12. David Bowie (aka Space Oddity)

space oddity album cover

David Bowie” is David Bowie’s 2nd studio album, originally released on 14th November 1969.

In many ways, the David Bowie story almost starts here. Almost.

By 1969, David Bowie had already been in the musical industry for five, very long, long years. But despite releasing numerous singles both with a number a different bands (The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third) and as a solo artist and also releasing his first album “David Bowie” in 1967, all these releases had been commercial flops. He would have had more hot dinners than the number of records Bowie had sold collectively by 1969.

1968 had been the worst year yet, with no official releases at all and with Bowie seriously wondering if a career in music was really for him. Perhaps he would make a more successful Buddhist monk?

His then manager Kenneth Pitt still had enough confidence in his boy to invest in the making of an extended music film/video (released many years later as “Love You Till Tuesday“) that would showcase the musical talents of Bowie and could be used to promote his struggling star to be. Featuring mainly material from his first album “David Bowie“, they decided it needed something new and modern to just spruce it all up a bit.

After watching and being inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, “A Space Odyssey”, Bowie wrote a new song called “Space Oddity” about a doomed astronaut, Major Tom. The strength of this song along with other demos he recorded around this time was enough for Bowie to be offered a new recording contract with Mercury Records.

Bowie was back in business.

Recorded between June-September 1969, his first album with Mercury Records called somewhat unimaginatively “David Bowie” (as was his previous album) was a really interesting affair. Sounding nothing like his previous Mod, come English Musical Hall numbers, the new album was a bizarre collection of songs that included everything from quaint folk numbers, romantic ballads, hippy anthems, hard rockers to futurist sci-fi art pieces. This was both the strength and weakness of the overall album, in that it features so many different styles and influences, but lacks the focus and single artistic direction of many of Bowie’s very best albums.

Bowie clearly wasn’t too sure of his place or destiny within the musical world (a fault that can be attributed somewhat to his then manager Kenneth Pitt who thought any career in “rock music” would be limited), but Bowie at the time liked The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan and so these influences feature heavily in the album.

Recorded by a number of top British session musicians such as Tim Renwick, Rick Wakeman, Terry Cox and Herbie Flowers (and the odd Bowie mate such as Benny Marshall), it was also the first album to be produced by Tony Visconti, his to be long-time collaborator.

The album opens with the iconic “Space Oddity“. This is one of THE Bowie classics and an incredibly important song that features on/off for the rest of Bowie’s entire career. It’s a song that’s worthy of a book on its own, beginning life as mentioned earlier as the centrepiece of the “Love You Till Tuesday” promotional film. Starting with slowly building acoustic guitars and slow military style drum beat, it tells the tale of the doomed flight to the moon by Major Tom, who mysteriously loses contact with Ground Control. The production here is just fantastic, with weird electronic swells and soundscapes thanks to Bowie’s toy Stylophone and Rick Wakeman’s Mellotron, creating a musical atmosphere that still sounds fresh and futurist to this day. The taking off and finale sequences are just amazing, as are Bowie’s vocals as both Major Tom/Ground Control. It’s THE perfect pop song.

Remarkably, Tony Visconti wanted nothing to do with the song, thinking it a piece of commercial/popularist crap that was taking advantage of all the current interest in the upcoming Apollo moon landings. So it was actually Gus Dudgeon who would later make his name producing many of the Elton John classic albums who was drafted in to produce just the “Space Oddity” track. Gus, thank you, you did a superb job, sounding vastly superior to all the others versions and demos that were previously recorded.

“Space Oddity” was initially released as single way before the album on 11 July 1969 and it looked for a while that it would continue the run of commercial flops with minimal initial sales. But then the BBC decided to adopted it as the music for their coverage of the moon landing (clearly not listening too carefully to the lyrics) and it starting its journey up the UK charts, peaking at an impressive No. 5. Bowie, finally at long long last, had his first hit (although it only initially made No. 124 in the US).

Space oddity single cover

The story of “Space Oddity” however was far from over.

In 1970, Bowie won an Ivor Novello “Special Award For Originality” for “Space Oddity”, a notable achievement for the struggling Bowie.

After finally finding true fame and success with Ziggy Stardust, Bowie re-released “Space Oddity” in 1973 especially for the US market and recorded a new video at Trident Studios, directed by the legendary Mick Rock (Bowie’s “official” photographer during this period). “Space Oddity” finally became a US hit, reaching No. 15 on the charts. Watch the official Ziggy Stardust era video here.

space oddity us single cover

In 1975, “Space Oddity” was re-released as a single yet again, this time backed with “Changes” and a superb previously unreleased track from the Ziggy Stardust sessions “Velvet Goldmine“. It reached No. 1 in the UK, giving Bowie his first ever UK No. 1 single and at the time, a record of being the longest period for a single to reached No. 1, some 6 years after it was initially released.

space oddity 1975 single cover

In 1980, a stripped down new version of “Space Oddity” was released as the B-Side of the single “Alabama Song“. Finally, Tony Visconti got to produce a version of “Space Oddity”, some 10 years after rejecting the project. A video of this version was made for the hilarious Kenny Everett Show. Watch it here.

alabama song single cover

The Major Tom character would feature in a number of subsequent recordings by Bowie, most notably the majestic “Space Oddity” follow-up “Ashes To Ashes” in 1980 (which coincidently would become Bowie’s 2nd No. 1 UK single) and the Pet Shop Boys remixed version of “Hallo Spaceboy” in 1995. Major Tom would also finally feature (it is popularly believed) as the skeletal astronaut remains in the “Blackstar” video from 2015. Say goodbye to Major Tom here.

Bowie would perform “Space Oddity” live throughout his career and would rightly always remain a crowd favourite.

Now onto the rest of the album…

Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is an interesting affair. Said by Bowie at the time to be a reflection of his feelings following the death of his father, the song appears to be about a girl who is of a higher class and standing than Bowie and who’s stare reflects this difference in standing. Featuring for Bowie very upfront and some would say distasteful lyrics, “I’m a Phallus in pigtails, And there’s blood on my nose, And my tissue is rotting, Where the rats chew my bones” just isn’t going to help the protagonist get the girl. The music starts with basically an acoustic guitar, before a basic drum beat and electric guitar riff kicks in, followed by more guitars, harmonica and then the full Tony Visconti big production treatment takes over (with Visconti’s bass very high in the mix), then more horns, then the lot really. It ends up being a raunchy, over-the-top rock-based affair and quite unlike anything Bowie had done before (or since really). By far the “rockiest” track on the album.

(Don’t Sit Down)” is a 40 second piece of studio foolery, with Bowie singing to a basic rock track “Yeah, yeah, baby, yeah” a few times, followed by “Don’t sit down” a few times before Bowie bursts out in hysteric laughter. This track was dropped from all the subsequent RCA re-issues of the album. Is it in my Top 100 list of great songs? No.

Letter To Hermione” is the first to two tender love ballads on the album addressed to his ex-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale who had left him just before recording the album. It’s both incredibly beautiful and sad in equal measure and with lyrics such as “And when he’s strong, He’s strong for you, And when you kiss, It’s something new, But did you ever call my name. Just by mistake?“, you can’t but feel Bowie’s pain. This broken relationship had a huge impact on Bowie, later describing love as a “disease” and despite getting married the following year to Angie Barnett, one senses he didn’t find true love again for another 20+ years.

Cygnet Committee” is the centrepiece on the album, a 10 minute epic on the consequences of blind faith in the new, post hippy world. Bowie plays the weary leader of a cult for which he no longer has the belief or inclination to continue and his angry and frustrating annoyance at those who won’t listen to his rejections. It’s the first time that Bowie sings from the position of “outsider” and for which the lyrics appear intentionally obtuse, ambiguous and open to (much) interpretation. It certainly won’t be the last time fans puzzle on precisely Bowie’s meaning within a lyric. Although it’s a great track, it’s not at the same level of much of his future work, especially musically, which is a little ploddy and pedestrian, when it really should have been epic and climatic. It is however a clear sign of some rather special things to come.

Janine” is a fairly standard rock song, although a tad more up-lifting than some of the prior content.  It does however contain the lyric “Janine, Janine, you’d like to crash my walls, But if you take an axe to me, You’ll kill another man, Not me at all” which hints at schizophrenia, a topic Bowie would return to again and again in the future.

An Occasional Dream” returns us back to his woes with Hermione and is another beautiful love song that is more bitter than sweet. “In my madness, I see your face in mine, I keep a photograph, It burns my wall with time“. The 22 year old Bowie never sounded quite as vulnerable as he does at times on this album.

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is one of the real gems off the album and along with “Space Oddity”, a real highlight and dare I say, early Bowie masterpiece. In reality a basic folky ballad (as evidenced by the “Space Oddity” B-side version, recorded earlier and featuring just acoustic guitar and Arco bass), the version on the album gets the full Visconti huge orchestra production treatment. Telling the story of a young, peaceful mystical boy awaiting execution by hanging from village folk who both fear and misunderstand him, he reluctantly gets rescued by the great mountain of Freecloud, who destroys the village before they can harm him. The imagery, the musical atmosphere, the emotion and vocal delivery is all pure vintage Bowie at his absolute best. This track is the only one other than Space Oddity that Bowie would perform live once he entered his Ziggy Stardust period, as a medley with “Oh You Pretty Things” and “All The Young Dudes“. A Bowie classic in every sense.

God Knows I’m Good” is a quaint tale set to chirpy acoustic guitars of a little old lady praying she doesn’t get caught shop-lifting a tin of food, only to then pray for forgiveness once she gets caught. Bowie would often touch on religious themes in future work, this being another sign of things to come.

The album closes with the marvellous “Memory Of A Free Festival“, a truly beautiful, somewhat romanticised account of the free musical festival Bowie helped to organise in his home suburb of Beckenham, South London earlier that year. By all accounts Bowie was stressed as hell and had a miserable time, but this song tells how he had hoped the event would had gone. Starting slowly with a simple organ, Bowie’s wonderful vocals recounts how “The children of the summer’s end, Gathered in the dampened grass, We played Our songs and felt the London sky, Resting on our hands, It was God’s land. It was ragged and naive. It was Heaven.” With beautiful imagery, including meetings with passing Venusians (yes, I suspect there was a lot of bliss passed around that day), the song then breaks out into the second half chant “The Sun Machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.” where the band breaks out and backing vocals spreads out the joy of the free festival. It’s another early Bowie treasure. A reworked version was broken into two parts and released as a single the following year, but as with Bowie’s output at the time and like the sun machine itself, sadly sank without a trace.

memory of a free festival cover

The original album cover featured a permed, “Dylan-esque” image of Bowie on a background designed by Victor Varasely. The brilliant artwork on the back cover was created by Bowie’s friend George Underwood and features different images and characters from the album.

Space Oddity album back cover

In the US, the album was re-titled to the much better “Man of Words/Man of Music” while using the same photo of Bowie but on a plain blue background.

Man of words Man of Music cover

The album really is quite excellent that features many Bowie treasures and gave many glimpses of Bowie treasures to come. Sadly and to Bowie’s frustration, despite the relative success of the “Space Oddity” single, the album did poorly and failed to initially chart. Bowie had to wait a further three long, long years before he finally achieved long lasting success with the “Starman” single and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album.

It’s at this point, that this album was given a new lease on life. Bowie’s record label at the time, RCA, bought the rights to the album (and the follow-up “The Man Who Sold The World“) and repackaged and re-released them in December 1972, just as Bowie’s fame was really taking off. The album was renamed “Space Oddity“, given a new cover featuring a close-up of our hero in early Ziggy Stardust guise, had some ludicrous notes printed on the back cover and finally achieved the success it deserved, reaching No. 17 in the UK charts. This would be the cover and title used for the next 30 odd years and the one I and many others grew up knowing the album by.

space oddity second cover

There have been various re-releases and remasterings of the album over the years. The most notable being in 1990 as part of the truly excellent Ryko CD re-release series that included a number of bonus tracks; the single version of “Memory of a Free Festival” Part I and Part II and:

Conversation Piece“, an absolute gem of a song originally released as the B-side of the single “The Prettiest Star“, the follow-up single to “Space Oddity”. It’s one of my favourite songs from this period, a brooding, quiet piece on the topic of loneliness and isolation. Bowie’s vocals are just exquisite here and you just want to give him a huge hug. Features Marc Bolan on guitar as an added bonus. A re-recorded version of this was done for the abandoned “Toys” project in the early 2000’s which was almost as good.

In 2009, a 40th Anniversary version of the album was released, that featured the original cover, plus a bonus disc that included a bunch of demos and live BBC recordings from this period, as well as “Conversation Piece” and the following notable tracks:

The Prettiest Star” was the follow-up single to “Space Oddity” and sadly, returned Bowie back to the long line of commercial failures. Which is a real petty because it really is a beautiful love song, that featured his good friend and musical adversary Marc Bolan on lead guitar. This single was the only time I believe they played together until right up to the very end when Bowie appeared on the “Marc Bolan Show” a few short weeks before Bolan’s tragic death. A much more widely known version was recorded and included for the “Aladdin Sane” album, with Mick Ronson playing the Bolan guitar part almost note for note. Both are wonderful, it’s just this version is more special.

prettiest star

A version of “London Bye, Ta Ta” was recorded around this time and kinda takes you back to the weirdness of Bowie’s debut album when it was first written. Based on the difficulties of the black community living in London, it’s a song Bowie has recorded a number of times but never to satisfaction of it being officially released.

Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” is an odd affair, the exact backing track to “Space Oddity” but with lyrics changed completely to that a love song and sang entirely in Italian. Strangely, it kinda works but Bowie would sing in a foreign tongue much more effectively on tracks such as “Heroes” and “Seven Years In Tibet” in the years to come. It was first generally available on the 1982 compilation album “Bowie Rare“, his last release with RCA.

At the time of writing, it’s the 50th anniversary of the initial release of the album. To celebrate, a number of exciting new releases are planned (initially in vinyl format) to capture the various demos that were recorded at the time. These are currently:

Spying Through A Keyhole (Demos and Unreleased Songs) 7″ Singles Vinyl Box Set

Spying through a keyhole

David Bowie With John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson Clareville Grove Demos 3X7″ Vinyl Singles Box Set

Clareville Grove Demos

The Mercury Demos Vinyl

Mercury demos

I’ll update with more details on these once they’ve all been released.

A rather impressive remixed version of the album (remixed by Tony Visconti) was also released in 2019 as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, that brings new life to many of these excellent tracks.

The 1969 “David Bowie” album would prove to be a false start for Bowie, with the “Space Oddity” single doing well, but the album itself yet another commercial failure. For 3 more years, it would appear that Bowie might perhaps be destined to be yet another “one-hit” wonder. That would all finally change in 1972 when an orange-haired, rock ‘n’ roll alien would invade the earth and our TV screens.

But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Space Oddity”, “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, “Memory Of A Free Festival”