Here’s a very funny clip from British comedian Peter Serafinowicz -
Here’s a rehearsal take of David Bowie and Annie Lennox’s “Under Pressure,” from
the Freddie Mercury tribute concert.
To celebrate the October 13th digital release of our new album Mayfair, we’re playing a special show
at Molly’s house up in New Harmony. Here’s the info:
Where: Church Street Coffee House, 500 Church St. New Harmony, IN
When: Friday, October 16th, 6:30 pm
Come join Molly & Bill, along with Mickey Grimm and Brad Jones, as they perform songs from the new album Mayfair.
There’ll be good music, authentic New York-style hot dogs, sausages and peppers straight from our friend Marty’s cart. And of course, copies of the CD for sale!
And that sensibility was abetted by the album’s secret weapon, guitarist and creative foil Mick Ronson. “What I’m good at is putting riffs to things, and hooklines, making things up so songs sound more memorable,” the late guitarist once said. And the proof abounds. His spare, searing licks on Eight Line Poem. The explosive acoustic on Andy Warhol. The nasally distorted power blast on Queen Bitch. All electrifying moments.
“I would put him up there with the best I’ve ever worked with,” said Scott. “I think Ronno was better than any of the Beatles as a guitarist. His playing was much more from a feel point or melodic point of view.”
Woodmansey adds, “Mick didn’t really know how good he was. He would do a solo, first take, never played before, and it would blow us away. David would always get Ken to push the record button without Mick knowing, and he would do another six solos but it was always the first or second one we kept.”
Ronson’s gifts extended beyond his axework. In the months prior to the sessions, he had been studying music theory and arranging with a teacher back in Hull. That bit of knowledge, combined with his innate musicality, made for the stunning string arrangements on songs like Life On Mars? and Quicksand.
Scott said, “Ronno was great the way he’d go down to just one or two violins, then have the others come slowly but surely. He didn’t quite know what he was supposed to do, so he was much freer. Much like the Beatles. He would do things other arrangers would never do.”
Angie Bowie says of the communication between her ex- and Ronson, “They were two Yorkshiremen chatting away. Very full of respect for each other. They were young and very sweet, well-mannered, trying to be as professional as they could. I know that sounds boring, but it’s the truth. There were no drugs. They were just doing this wonderful album and everyone was thrilled at having a chance to participate instead of having to work horrible jobs.”
Side Two of the album featured a trio of “hero songs” inspired by Bowie’s visit to America.
Queen Bitch was an exhilarating nod to the Velvet Underground (Lou Reed later said, “I dug it”). Bowie says he had been fixated on the Velvets since the first time he heard their single Waiting For The Man.
“It was like ‘This the future of music! This is the new Beatles!’ I was in awe. For me, it was a whole new ball game. It was serious and dangerous and I loved it.”
Bowie taps into Reed’s style of urban poetry for this coded tale of seduction, even tossing in New York-isms like “You betcha” for good measure. As the only electric guitar-dominated track on Hunky Dory, it also previews the shapes of things to come on Ziggy.
Of Song for Bob Dylan, Bowie said in 1976, “That laid out what I wanted to do in rock. It was at that period that I said, ‘Okay, Dylan, if you don’t want to do it, I will.’ I saw that leadership void. Even though the song isn’t one of the most important on the album, it represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it.”
As for Andy Warhol, Bowie wrote what he thought was a tribute. That is until he returned to New York in September 1971 and played it for Warhol.
“He hated it,” Bowie recalls with a chuckle. “Loathed it. He went [imitates Warhol’s blasé manner] ‘Oh, uh-huh . . .’ then just walked away. I was kind of left there. Somebody came over and said, ‘Gee, Andy hated it.’ I said, ‘Sorry, it was meant to be a compliment.’ ‘Yeah, but you said things about him looking weird. Don’t you know that Andy has a thing about how he looks? He’s got a skin disease and he really thinks that people see that.’ It didn’t go down very well, but I got to know him after that. It was my shoes that got him. They were these little yellow things with a strap across them, like girls’ shoes. He absolutely adored them. Then I found out that he used to do a lot of shoe designing when he was younger. He had a bit of a shoe fetishism. That kind of broke the ice.”
The album’s cryptic closer The Bewlay Brothers, with its images of “mind warp pavilions” and “grim faces on cathedral floors,” has been one of the most analyzed of all Bowie’s songs, with interpretations finding everything from a gay manifesto to an account of Bowie’s relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry.
Angie says, “It’s always a good idea to get a two-fer: Write a song and get your therapy. I always teased him about that one, because it was a big, autobiographical confessional song. All folk singers have to write a few of those.”
Scott offered a different take: “That was almost a last-minute song. Just down the street from Trident, there was a tobacconist which apparently gave him the inspiration for the name. He’ll probably deny this to death. As I remember he came in and said, ‘We’ve got to do this song for the American market.’ I said, ‘OK, how do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, the lyrics make absolutely no sense, but the Americans always like to read into things, so let them read into it what they will.”
In 2000, Bowie said of the song, “It’s another vaguely anecdotal piece about my feelings about myself and my brother, or my other doppelganger. I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me.”
From start to finish, the album took two weeks to record and two to mix. Defries shopped the acetate to labels in New York, and got Bowie signed with a $37,500 advance to RCA, who were keen to hip up their roster beyond country music and Elvis.
Released December 17, 1971, Hunky Dory was hailed by Melody Maker as “the most inventive piece of songwriting to have appeared on record in a considerable time.” NME said, “Bowie at his brilliant best,” while the New Yorker dubbed Bowie “the most intelligent person to have chosen rock music as his medium.” With a sleeve image suggesting a George Hurell portrait of Veronica Lake, Bowie seemed ready for his iconic – and ironic – close-up.
Despite glowing reviews, first quarter worldwide sales barely reached 5,000. Not that Bowie noticed. The man who’d sung “I’m much too fast to take that test” was already back in the studio with his Velvets-meets-Iggy-in-outer-space master plan, recording the album that within six months would transform him into a Martian messiah and worldwide glam rock superstar.
Because of Ziggy Stardust’s rise and all-encompassing effect on Bowie, Hunky Dory has remained in its shadow, as the quiet, talented brother. But those close to the album, while acknowledging its vital role in opening the space hatch and clearing the way for Ziggy, secretly prefer it as the stronger work.
Angie Bowie, divorced from David in 1978, now runs an electrical contracting company in Tucson and is working on three books, including Popsex, about the history of sexuality. She says, “David had interesting songs and important subjects to talk about, and Hunky Dory shows that he had the kind of range and versatility as a writer to handle anything.”
Woody Woodmansey, who worked with Bowie through 1973’s Aladdin Sane, and is currently recording a triple-drummer instrumental project called 3-D with his son Danny, says, “Hunky Dory was the album where David’s ability as a songwriter came through. It showed us all what it took to create quality products, how you had to tick all the boxes, from good song ideas, arrangements, rhythmically, soundwise, emotionally and the rest. It was the start of David’s career, really.”
Trevor Bolder stayed with Bowie through 1973’s Pin-Ups. The longtime bassist for Uriah Heep is currently touring in support of their new album Wake The Sleeper. He says, “It’s my favorite Bowie album, hands down. I put it on constantly, and I will play it forever. A lot of musicians in the business that I’ve met who were young kids when that album came out, it’s one of their favorites too. It’s got great songs, his singing is brilliant, and the lyrical content is superb. I don’t think you could’ve wished for a better album.”
Reflecting on its place in his five-decade spanning catalog, Bowie sees the album as the springboard to all his chameleonic changes. “Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. First, with the sense of ‘Wow, you can do anything!’ You can borrow the luggage of the past, you can amalgamate it with things that you’ve conceived could be in the future and you can set it in the now. Then, the record provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, ‘Good album, good songs.’ That hadn’t happened to me before. It was like, ‘Ah, I’m getting it, I’m finding my feet. I’m starting to communicate what I want to do. Now . . . what is it I want to do?’”
Upon his return, rehearsals resumed – by now, Ronson, Woodmansey and Bolder had rented their own flat in nearby Penge – and plans were made to record an album, which Tony Defries would then use to secure a new label deal. But first a producer had to be found.
As engineer on Beatles’ classics from Sgt. Pepper to Abbey Road, as well as on Bowie’s previous two records, Ken Scott seemed a logical choice (Bowie would later call Scott “my George Martin”).
“I was getting fed up with engineering,” Scott told EQ Magazine, “and I happened to say to David, ‘I want to start moving into the production side.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve just got a new manager, and I’m about to start a new album. I was going to do it myself but I don’t know if I can. How about working with me?’ And that was Hunky Dory, which then led to the other three albums.”
Sessions began at Trident Studios in early June 1971.
In the world outside, U.S. president Nixon ended a 21-year-old trade embargo on China. Russia launched the Soyuz 11 craft for the first-ever rendezvous with a space station. Frank Sinatra announced his retirement. And topping the pop chart in Britain was Tony Orlando & Dawn’s “Knock Three Times.”
But inside Trident, none of that registered. Working from 2 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday, with quick breaks for tea, sandwiches and the occasional bottle of wine, the band was swept up in a colorful world of bipperty-bopperty hats, Garbo’s eyes and Homo Superiors (the album’s recurring theme of children ch-ch-changing into enlightened beings was influenced by Bowie’s love of the occult writings of Aleister Crowley and sci-fi novels by Arthur C. Clarke).
Bolder recalls the excitement. “Hunky Dory was the first recording session I ever did in my life, and just to be in a studio was amazing. Our approach was very off the top of our heads. We’d go in, David would play us a song – often one we hadn’t heard – we’d run through it once, and then take it. No time to think about what you’re going to play. You’d have to do it there and then. In some respects, it’s nerve-wracking, but it gives a certain feel. If you play a song too many times in the studio, it can become stale, and I think David wanted to capture the energy of it being on the edge.”
Woodmansey agrees, “There was incredible pressure in getting a track recorded right. Many times we’d go in with a track to record and at the last minute David would change his mind and we’d do one we hadn’t rehearsed! We would be panicking as he didn’t like doing more than three takes to get it. Nearly every track I recorded with David was first, second or third take – usually second. He knew when a take was ‘right.’”
This was a change from the sessions for the previous album, where Bowie was reportedly distracted and undisciplined. Tony Visconti later complained that David spent more time in the lobby cuddling with Angie than worrying about finishing the tracks. But the Bowie on Hunky Dory was a man with a mission.
Scott said, “With David, unlike the Beatles’ sessions, it was very much him knowing what he wanted right from the get-go. I think he knew all along what was going to happen, but he didn’t always tell you. You had to be ready. And with David almost all of the lead vocals are one take. And no need to put them in tune afterward. Even if you could.”
A late addition to the team was keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman, who had played Mellotron on Space Oddity and was now drafted in to dress up Bowie’s piano parts. “He told me to make as many notes as I wanted,” Wakeman once said. “The songs were unbelievable – Changes, Life on Mars? one after another. He said he wanted to come at the album from a different angle, that he wanted them to be based around the piano. So he told me to play them as I would a piano piece, and that he’d then adapt everything else around that.”
If Wakeman was a featured performer, so too was the 100-year old Beckstein piano he played. Scott said, “It was the same piano used on ‘Hey Jude,’ the early Elton John albums, Nilsson, Genesis and Supertramp, amongst many others. That was one of Trident’s claim to fame. The piano sound. It was an amazing instrument.”
Nowhere was that piano better featured than on the kitchen-sink ballad Life On Mars? The song has often been compared to Sinatra’s My Way, (the album liner notes even say, “Inspired by Frankie”) and for good reason. In 1968, Bowie was asked by a publisher to submit English lyrics to a popular French chanson, Comme D’Habitude. His version, titled Even A Fool Learns To Love was rejected in favor of another by former teen idol Paul Anka.
Bowie says, “There was a sense of revenge in that because I was so angry that Paul Anka had done My Way. I thought I’d do my own version. There are clutches of melody in that that were definite parodies.”
A week before the sessions began, on 30 May, Duncan Haywood “Zowie” Jones was born, cracking his mother’s pelvis in the delivery. Bowie greeted his boy with Kooks, a charming ditty meant as both a paternal tribute and a warning. In the 1971 press release for Hunky Dory, he explained, “The baby looked like me and it looked like Angie and the song came out like – if you’re gonna stay with us you’re gonna grow up bananas.”
Actually, Zowie – who now prefers the name Joe – turned out fine, despite a mostly absentee father and being raised by a revolving cast of nannies and grandparents. Bowie confesses, “I might have written a song for my son, but I certainly wasn’t there that much for him. I was ambitious, I wanted to be a real kind of presence. And I had Joe very early, and with that state of affairs, had I known, it would’ve all happened a bit later. Fortunately, everything with us is tremendous. But I would give my eye teeth to have that time back again to have shared it with him as a child.”
Drawing on the “collision of musical styles” idea, Hunky Dory ricochets playfully through its eleven songs. From the lounge-meets-boogaloo gear shifts of Changes and the glam ragtime stride of Oh, You Pretty Things through the Tony Newley-does-the-blues of Eight Line Poem to psyche-Dylan swirl of The Bewlay Brothers, it’s a thrilling hybrid, with Bowie acting as a kind of rock ‘n’ roll Gregor Mendel.
Bowie says, “It was like, ‘Wow, this is no longer rock ‘n’ roll. This is an art form. This is something really exciting!’ I think we were all very aware of George Steiner and the idea of pluralism, and this thing called post-modernism which had just cropped up in the early ‘70s. We kind of thought, ‘Cool, that’s where we want to be at. Fuck rock ‘n’ roll! It’s not about rock ‘n’ roll anymore. It’s about – how do you distance yourself from the thing that you’re within?’ We got off on that. I think certain things had been done that were not dissimilar, but I don’t think with the sensibility that I had.”